Start Up No.1638: Facebook’s infuriating algorithm, Apple’s CPU gains hit a wall, Microsoft’s no-password path, Congress to quiz Instagram, and more


An employee at OpenSea, one of the biggest NFT sellers, has been front-running sales to make insider profits. CC-licensed photo by id-iom on Flickr. No idea if the one you’re looking at is *the* NFT, I’m afraid.

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. Outrageous! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook tried to make its platform a healthier place. It got angrier instead • WSJ

Keach Hagey and Jeff Horwitz:

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Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said the aim of the algorithm change [in autumn 2018] was to strengthen bonds between users and to improve their well-being. Facebook would encourage people to interact more with friends and family and spend less time passively consuming professionally produced content, which research suggested was harmful to their mental health.

Within the company, though, staffers warned the change was having the opposite effect, the documents show. It was making Facebook’s platform an angrier place.

Company researchers discovered that publishers and political parties were reorienting their posts toward outrage and sensationalism. That tactic produced high levels of comments and reactions that translated into success on Facebook.

“Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content, such as politics and news,” wrote a team of data scientists, flagging Mr. Peretti’s complaints, in a memo reviewed by the Journal. “This is an increasing liability,” one of them wrote in a later memo.

They concluded that the new algorithm’s heavy weighting of reshared material in its News Feed made the angry voices louder. “Misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares,” researchers noted in internal memos.

Some political parties in Europe told Facebook the algorithm had made them shift their policy positions so they resonated more on the platform, according to the documents.

“Many parties, including those that have shifted to the negative, worry about the long term effects on democracy,” read one internal Facebook report, which didn’t name specific parties.

Facebook employees also discussed the company’s other, less publicized motive for making the change: Users had begun to interact less with the platform, a worrisome trend, the documents show.

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As I describe in Social Warming: our inherent tribalism makes outrage powerful, and so we highlight it; the algorithm amplifies it; the lack of moderation lets the feedback increase. To the extent, as it says here, that politics is affected.
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Apple CPU gains grind to a halt and the future looks dim as impact from CPU engineer exodus to Nuvia and Rivos starts to bleed in • SemiAnalysis

Dylan Patel on the minimal performance improvements between this year’s A15 and last year’s A14 A-series chip powering the iPhone and the rest:

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The most important thing to note is that the CPU gains are identical from the [2018] A12 to [2020’s] A14 as they are from A12 to A15. The GPU gains are quite impressive with a calculated 38.5% improvement. This is larger than the [2019] A13 and A14 improvements combined.

These are performance gains are generally paltry despite a huge increase from 11.8bn transistors to 15bn. Furthermore, with next year’s A16 on the N4 process rather than N3, gains look to continue to slow.  The slowing of process technology, and especially SRAM is going to be a hammer for the industry. Apple is clearly investing their transistor budget in the non-CPU aspects of the SOC. Fixed function and heterogenous compute reign supreme.

It appears Apple has not changed the CPU much this generation. SemiAnalysis believes that the next generation core was delayed out of 2021 into 2022 due to CPU engineer resource problems. In 2019, Nuvia was founded and later acquired by Qualcomm for $1.4bn. Apple’s chief CPU Architect, Gerard Williams, as well as more than 100 other Apple engineers left to join this firm. More recently, SemiAnalysis broke the news about Rivos Inc, a new high performance RISC V startup which includes many senior Apple engineers. The brain drain continues and impacts will be more apparent as time moves on. As Apple once drained resources out of Intel and others through the industry, the reverse seems to be happening now.

We believe Apple had to delay the next generation CPU core due to all the personnel turnover Apple has been experiencing. Instead of a new CPU core, they are using a modified version of last year’s core. One of these modifications is related to the CPU core’s MMU. This work was being done for the upcoming colloquially named “M1X” generation of Mac chips. Part of the reason for this change is related to larger memory sizes and virtualization features/support.

…Regardless of the paltry CPU gains and potential core architecture delays, Apple is still the leader in performance per watt.

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A decade of the Tim Cook machine • Benedict Evans

The tech analyst on ten years of Tim Cook (and new iPhones):

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sure, AirPods are cool. But where’s the next Jesusphone? 

One answer is that Apple now has two very big projects — glasses and cars. A pair of glasses that become a display, and add things to the world that look real, seems worth trying — it might be the next universal device after smartphones, and Apple’s skills should put it at the forefront. But people have been trying for a long time: there are basic, unsolved optics problems, and we don’t know if Apple has the answer, or when it might. Apple Glasses might launch next week, or next summer, or never. Cars are a puzzle as well. Apple might design a better Tesla (and build one, with its $207bn of cash), but what problem would that solve? The iPhone wasn’t a better BlackBerry. Autonomous driving is a big problem, but is it an Apple kind of problem? Why would Apple solve a primary machine learning problem when Alphabet can’t?

Maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe Apple can find and solve another huge problem (or fail to solve it, as happened with TV and a few other things). But meanwhile it will carry on making a certain kind of product for a certain kind of customer. That’s been the plan ever since the original Macintosh, and in some ways all that’s changed is how many more of those customers there are. The original Mac sold a few hundred thousand units in 1984, but Apple now sells half a million iPhones every day. Apple and the market grew into each other.

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Microsoft accounts can now go fully passwordless • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft now lets you remove passwords from Microsoft accounts to embrace a passwordless future. Starting today, the software giant will let consumers sign into Microsoft accounts with its Microsoft Authenticator app, Windows Hello, a security key, or an SMS / email verification code instead of a password.

The new option arrives just months after Microsoft started rolling out passwordless authentication for commercial users in March to help people adjust to the realities of remote work. “When I think of security, I think you’ve got to protect your whole life,” says Vasu Jakkal, corporate vice president of Microsoft security, compliance and identity, in an interview with The Verge. “It’s no longer enough just to think about work or home and anything in between.”

Microsoft has been working toward a passwordless future for years, and the pandemic has only accelerated things. “When you have digital transformation and businesses having to go remote overnight … the number of digital surfaces has increased exponentially,” explains Jakkal. “The number of attack surfaces has increased exponentially, so that was a big driving factor for us in accelerating a lot of our security initiatives.”

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How would you pick up the email verification code to log in, since presumably that would be on your locked computer? It all assumes another device to hand, which shows how the expectation of interaction has changed: the PC has become secondary to the phone.
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Largest NFT marketplace admits the fix was in, surprising no one • Mashable

Jack Morse:

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OpenSea, the self-described “largest” non-fungible token marketplace, admitted Wednesday that an employee had been secretly buying NFTs in advance of their listing on the site’s front page. Using this non-public information, the employee was able to swoop up NFTs before their prices skyrocketed, and presumably make a hefty profit flipping them at a later date.

Think of it as investor front-running, but for the digital pixel-art age.

“We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take,” read an OpenSea blog post.

Notably, OpeSea suggests that it was only after this incident was discovered that the company implemented internal policies to ban this kind of behavior.

“OpenSea team members are prohibited from using confidential information to purchase or sell any NFTs, whether available on the OpenSea platform or not,” the company explained.

We reached out to OpenSea in an attempt to determine which employee used confidential information to game its system, and whether or not they are still employed at OpenSea. We also asked how many NFTs the employee flipped in this manner and how much profit they made doing so. We received no immediate response.

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Subsequently reckoned to be Nate Chastain, the company’s product officer, based on some odd little trades he made. The people are no more or less honest than the many operating on Wall Street, but now it’s a little easier to track them down. (Also: an obvious reason not to get involved in NFTs.)
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Congress will investigate claims that Instagram harms teens • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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Senators. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) announced their investigation into Facebook in a statement released Tuesday. The senators said that they were in touch with “a Facebook whistleblower” and would seek new documents and witness testimony from the company related to the reporting.

“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens,” the lawmakers said. “When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram’s impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm.”

House lawmakers also criticized Facebook over the Journal’s new reporting, and Republicans even issued a new amendment to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation seeking to address tech’s effects on teens. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced the measure that would direct the Federal Trade Commission to go after “unfair and deceptive acts or practices targeting our children’s mental health and privacy by social media.” The amendment failed.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, said in a tweet, “Big Tech has become the new Big Tobacco. Facebook is lying about how their product harms teens.”

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Notable that you have a Democrat and a Republican pushing this. Aisle-crossing actions are very, very rare in the US these days.
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Using research to improve your experience • Instagram blog

Karina Newton is head of public policy at Instagram, and authored a post to try (perhaps?) to downplay the WSJ’s story about its internal studies on Instagram’s effects:

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The internet has drastically increased how many people we all connect to, and how much information we consume. As a society, we’re working out how to process these changes, and what’s right for each of us individually. At Instagram, we hire the best researchers and scientists we can to look at these changes, and to help us understand how they impact people. We also consult with leading experts and researchers around the world to help us see beyond our own work.

External research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving, and social media itself is changing rapidly. Some researchers argue that we need more evidence to understand social media’s impact on people. Each study has limitations and caveats, so no single study is going to be conclusive. We need to rely on an ever-growing body of multi-method research and expert input.

The research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.

A mixed methods study from Harvard described the “see-saw” of positive and negative experiences that US teens have on social media. The same person may have an important conversation with their friend on one day, and fall out with them the next day. According to research by Pew Internet on teens in the US, 81% of teens said that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while 26% reported social media makes them feel worse about their lives.

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Naturally it’s self-serving, but you have to wonder about the response when you find that your product leaves a quarter of its users less happy about themselves.

Facebook also unable to stop itself from giving every other publication in the world the chance to have another bite by essentially confirming the WSJ’s excellent piece from Tuesday. It’s as if the tobacco industry were to take out adverts saying “Sure, cigarettes have a strong link with lung cancer, but they taste great!”
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So why not buy Social Warming, my latest book?


Illinois lawmakers approve subsidies to keep Exelon nukes online • S&P Global Market Intelligence

Darren Sweeney:

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On the day Exelon Corp. prepared to permanently shut down its two-unit, 2,346-megawatt (MW) Byron Generating Station, Illinois lawmakers approved legislation that will keep the nuclear plant online for several more years.

The Illinois Senate voted 37-17 on Sept. 13 to approve an amended version of Senate Bill 2408, a massive energy bill that includes nearly $700m in subsidies for Exelon’s Byron, 1,805-MW Dresden and 2,384-MW Braidwood nuclear plants.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has signaled he will sign the legislation passed late Sept. 9 by the Illinois House of Representatives.

“After years of debate and discussion, science has prevailed, and we are charting a new future that works to mitigate the impacts of climate change here in Illinois,” Pritzker said in a Sept. 13 written statement. “I look forward to signing this historic measure into law as soon as possible, because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer.”

Exelon subsidiary Exelon Generation Co. LLC, which owns and operates the plants, said in a Sept. 13 news release that it is now preparing to refuel the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants as it anticipates the bill being signed by the governor.

The bill provides support for the state’s carbon-free nuclear generation through a competitive “carbon mitigation credit procurement plan” administered by the Illinois Power Agency. The contracts for winning bidders would begin June 1, 2022, and end May 31, 2027. The carbon mitigation credit is defined as a “tradable credit that represents the carbon emission reduction attributes of one megawatt-hour of energy produced from a carbon-free energy resource.”

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…Good?
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Pandemics initially spread among people of higher (not lower) social status: evidence from COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu • Social Psychological and Personality Science

Berkessel et al:

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According to a staple in the social sciences, pandemics particularly spread among people of lower social status. Challenging this staple, we hypothesize that it holds true in later phases of pandemics only. In the initial phases, by contrast, people of higher social status should be at the center of the spread. We tested our phase-sensitive hypothesis in two studies.

In Study 1, we analyzed region-level COVID-19 infection data from 3,132 U.S. regions, 299 English regions, and 400 German regions.

In Study 2, we analyzed historical data from 1,159,920 U.S. residents who witnessed the 1918/1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

For both pandemics, we found that the virus initially spread more rapidly among people of higher social status. In later phases, that effect reversed; people of lower social status were most exposed. Our results provide novel insights into the center of the spread during the critical initial phases of pandemics.

…people of higher social status—among other things—show higher spatial mobility (Xu et al., 2018), higher relational mobility (Thomson et al., 2018), and have more heterogenous social networks (Carey & Markus, 2017). Stated otherwise, people of higher social status usually meet more diverse (novel and varying) persons than people of lower social status

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I guess this means we can blame airlines for spreading Covid?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1637: Facebook knew of Instagram’s downsides, European energy prices rocket, the trouble with preprints, an App Store future, and more


It wouldn’t quite be Jurassic Park, but a private company has millions of dollars in venture funding to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. CC-licensed photo by Brett Burton 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. Nicki Minaj, Viz reader? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show • WSJ

Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman:

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About a year ago, teenager Anastasia Vlasova started seeing a therapist. She had developed an eating disorder, and had a clear idea of what led to it: her time on Instagram.

She joined the platform at 13, and eventually was spending three hours a day entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app.

“When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,” said Ms. Vlasova, now 18, who lives in Reston, Va.

Around that time, researchers inside Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc., were studying this kind of experience and asking whether it was part of a broader phenomenon. Their findings confirmed some serious problems.

“Thirty-two% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

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This is colossal. In public, Zuckerberg has said, under oath, that using social media can have positive mental health benefits. But he knew it often doesn’t. I wrote a chapter in Social Warming – left out of the final draft – about social media and children. I might see if there’s a way to publish it separately.

Meanwhile, one of the most vocal critics of children’s use of social media, Professor Jonathan Haidt, wrote a Twitter thread in which he said he sees “no way to fix Instagram for minors… I wish I could raise my daughter in a world that had no such platforms.”
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When the wind stops blowing, an energy storm brews • The Sunday Times

Jon Yeomans:

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Gas made up the largest share of the UK’s energy mix in 2020, at 34%; followed by wind on a quarter; nuclear at 17%; biomass at 6.5% and solar at 4.4%. Despite the progress of renewables, detractors note the problems arise when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Until reliable battery storage for renewable energy is developed, these sources can only ever be intermittent, critics argue, and some infrastructure will continue to use oil for back-up generation. It is a case made by the nuclear industry, which says that it is uniquely placed to provide the zero-emissions baseload the grid requires.

Runaway gas prices are already sparking concern across the energy sector, with fears that consumers are facing a “bill shock” this winter. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis warned his readers last week: “This autumn’s signature noise will be a deep thud… the sound of jaws hitting the floor as people finally see the practical evidence of the energy bill catastrophe laid bare.”

UK gas prices reached 130p per therm last week, compared to 30p a year ago. In an unusual inversion, gas prices are trading above the equivalent price of Brent, the benchmark for crude oil.

Both supply and demand factors are at play. The reopening of economies after Covid lockdowns has pushed up demand for gas. Countries are also trying to cut their use of coal, and switching to less polluting gas as a result. Europe is thus competing with Asia for shipments of liquid natural gas (LNG), a more mobile form of gas that is increasingly popular.

Supply is also tight: a particularly cold winter meant Europe used up more reserves than usual and these have not been replenished. A spate of outages at gas production plants in different parts of the world have compounded the problem.

To make matters worse, the UK has relatively low levels of gas storage. The country has eight gas storage sites that can hold an estimated 12 days of supply. Storage capacity was drastically reduced when the Rough site under the North Sea was closed in 2017 for safety and economic reasons. Rough, a disused oil field, could hold around 70% of UK gas reserves.

“The market hasn’t been able to fill up storage as we move into this winter. And hence we are very exposed, especially if it is another cold winter like last year,” said James Huckstepp, analyst at S&P Platts. “Consumers are starting to recognise that their energy bills are going to be much higher this winter.”

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Most plans for new coal plants scrapped since Paris agreement • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

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The global pipeline of new coal power plants has collapsed since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, according to research that suggests the end of the polluting energy source is in sight.

The report found that more than three-quarters of the world’s planned plants have been scrapped since the climate deal was signed, meaning 44 countries no longer have any future coal power plans.

The climate groups behind the report – E3G, Global Energy Monitor and Ember – said those countries now have the opportunity to join the 40 countries that have already signed up to a “no new coal” commitment to help tackle global carbon emissions.

“Only five years ago, there were so many new coal power plants planned to be built, but most of these have now been either officially halted, or are paused and unlikely to ever be built,” said Dave Jones, from Ember.

“Multiple countries can add their voices to a snowball of public commitments to ‘no new coal’, collectively delivering a key milestone to sealing coal’s fate.”

The remaining coal power plants in the pipeline are spread across 31 countries, half of which have only one planned for the future.

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Preprint advocates must also fight for research integrity • Nature

Gowri Gopalakrishna:

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Preprint sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequence and data on clinical management helped the world to respond quickly in the early days of the pandemic. However, there were also questionable preprints. Much confusion was caused by misguided speculation that SARS-CoV-2 had been manufactured, assumptions about the efficacy of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and doubtful reports about the fatality rate of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of face coverings.

Dozens to hundreds of preprints on COVID-19 appear every week on the medRxiv server alone. Their importance for how we researchers share our work with one another and with the public is clear. But how can we minimize the transfer of low-quality information to the public sphere? Here are half a dozen suggestions.

The first is to gauge how well the research community and the public understand the limitations of preprints. To do this, we need to openly discuss their potential downsides and the amount of sloppy science that exists in our research communities. However, my NSRI experience makes me worry that those in positions to make real change within research institutions are reluctant to examine or discuss the less-rosy side of research quality. Two-thirds of universities in the Netherlands declined to support the NSRI, vaguely questioning its methodology, or arguing that it focused too much on bad practices. Many of us think this reluctance is the most important finding of our survey.

The second suggestion is to increase accountability and transparency. Who is currently responsible for the quality of the research reported in preprints? Certainly, individual researchers and their institutions. But what about those who operate the preprint servers? Most servers screen superficially for preposterous claims or conspiracy theories, and advise readers that findings should be considered preliminary. MedRxiv takes further screening steps for specific topics that might have an adverse public-health impact. Many journals require that papers adhere to reporting guidelines, according to study type. But what sorts of guidelines and retraction mechanisms exist to safeguard against poor-quality research in preprints?

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One of the best suggestions I’ve seen is that if a preprint hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal within a year of appearance, it should be deleted (or otherwise removed from search). Might lead to gaming the system by resubmission, but would quickly become obvious.
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Climate change: Young people very worried – survey • BBC News

Roger Harrabin:

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A new global survey illustrates the depth of anxiety many young people are feeling about climate change.

Nearly 60% of young people approached said they felt very worried or extremely worried. More than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives. Three-quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening. Over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed. Two-thirds reported feeling sad, afraid and anxious. Many felt fear, anger, despair, grief and shame – as well as hope.

One 16-year-old said: “It’s different for young people – for us, the destruction of the planet is personal.”

The survey across 10 countries was led by Bath University in collaboration with five universities. It’s funded by the campaign and research group Avaaz. It claims to be the biggest of its kind, with responses from 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25.

Many of those questioned perceive that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, and that governments are failing to respond adequately. Many feel betrayed, ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults.

The authors say the young are confused by governments’ failure to act. They say environmental fears are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of young people”. Chronic stress over climate change, they maintain, is increasing the risk of mental and physical problems. And if severe weather events worsen, mental health impacts will follow.

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The paper is here. One exception (pointed out by the BBC’s China correspondent): China isn’t among the countries quizzed, though Kantar, the country which provided the panel for the survey, does operate there. It’s a strange omission, and it would potentially be very telling if they could get data from there.
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• What’s the role of outrage in social media?
• Why do some phrases split people into two camps?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?

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


Norway heads to the polls in pivotal election for the environment • Morning Brew

Neal Freyman:

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When it comes to climate change, Norway’s like a vegan with a beef farm. It’s one of the most environmentally forward-thinking countries in the world; thanks to generous government subsidies, roughly 70% of all new cars sold are electric. 

But oil and gas is its most important industry. The sector employs more than 5% of Norway’s workforce and accounts for more than 40% of its exports. Norway’s also built up a $1.4 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, thanks to its fossil fuel exploits. 

Polls show that the Labor party will unseat the Conservative-led government after eight years of control. Both of those parties support a slow transition away from oil and gas production. 

But unlike in the US, smaller political parties in Norway hold major sway. And how those groups, which advocate for a more immediate break from fossil fuels, fare in the election will ultimately decide how quickly Norway severs ties to an industry that made it so rich. 

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Just on the cars thing: 2.81m cars, plus another 2.1m trailers and vans. Total electric vehicles: 464,000 in 2020. Even when you’re very electric, you’re not that electric. It’s going to be a long road.
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Brits open doors for tech-enabled fraudsters because they ‘don’t want to seem rude’ • The Register

Tim Richardson:

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Brits are too polite to tell phone scammers to “get stuffed”, “take a hike” or “sling yer ‘ook” when they impersonate so-called “trusted organisations” such as banks.

That’s according to the trade association UK Finance, which found that the number of “impersonation scam cases” more than doubled in the first half of 2021 to 33,115 – up from 14,947 during the same period last year.

The industry body reckons these particular frauds – whether by text, email, or voice calls – have duped “even the savviest” punters out of almost £200m over the last year or so and all because people “don’t want to seem rude.”

Its “Take Five” national campaign is designed to raise awareness amid warnings that fraudsters target people’s emotional weaknesses to trick them.

The call for Brits to toughen up comes as consumer champion Which? warned its own research found that SMS phishing (smishing) attacks in the UK grew by nearly 700% in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous six months.

It found that fake parcel delivery scams trump banking-related smishing frauds by a ratio of three to one. But it also reports that voicemail smishing – where scammers send an SMS pretending to have a link to a voicemail – is also on the rise.

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Fraud always booms in times of economic stress, but more particularly when new channels of communication for money open up. That’s what all the parcel-delivery scams are about: many more people who had never received parcels before getting them, creating new marks to be targeted.
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The future of the App Store • Marco.org

Marco Arment is a developer for iOS (though not, I think, the Mac):

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I don’t expect side-loading or alternative app stores to become possible, and I’m relieved, because that is not a future I want for iOS.

When evaluating such ideas, I merely ask myself: “What would Facebook do?”

Facebook owns four of the top ten apps in the world. If side-loading became possible, Facebook could remove Instagram, WhatsApp, the Facebook app, and Messenger from Apple’s App Store, requiring customers to install these extremely popular apps directly from Facebook via side-loading. And everyone would.

Most people use a Facebook-owned app not because it’s a good app, but because it’s a means to an important end in their life. Social pressure, family pressure, and network lock-in prevent most users from seeking meaningful alternatives. People would jump through a few hoops if they had to.

Facebook would soon have apps that bypassed App Review installed on the majority of iPhones in the world.

Technical limitations of the OS would prevent the most egregious abuses, but there’s a lot they could still do. We don’t need to do much imagining — they already have attempted multiple hacks, workarounds, privacy invasions, and other unscrupulous and technically invasive behavior with their apps over time to surveil user behavior outside of their app and stay running longer in the background than users intend or expect.

The OS could evolve over time to reduce some of these vulnerabilities, but technical measures alone cannot address all of them. Without the threat of App Review to keep them in check, Facebook’s apps would become even more monstrous than they already are. As a user and a fan of iOS, I don’t want any part of that.

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Arment is generally quite a shrewd evaluator of these situations, I think. His “bad scenario” makes a lot of sense, if it were allowed.
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TikTok overtakes YouTube for average watch time in US and UK • BBC News

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App users in the UK and US are spending more time on TikTok than on YouTube, a new report suggests.

Data from app monitoring firm App Annie indicates that average time per user spent on the apps is higher for TikTok, indicating high levels of engagement.

App Annie characterised TikTok as having “upended the streaming and social landscape”. However, YouTube retains the top spot for overall time spent – not per user – as it has many more users overall.

The Google-owned video giant has an estimated two billion monthly users, while TikTok’s most recent public figures suggested it had about 700 million in mid-2020. App Annie specialises in analysis of the apps market.

The “time spent” metric in its report only accounts for Android phones – but also does not include China, where TikTok – known locally as Douyin – is a major app. [YouTube has no official presence in China – Ed.]

“YouTube still leads TikTok in overall time spent, including in the UK,” explained Jamie MacEwan, from Enders Analysis. “YouTube’s mass audience means it’s getting more demographics that are comparatively light internet users… it’s just reaching everyone who’s online.”

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Nobody comes close to TikTok when it comes to the mixture of content and algorithm to put that content in front of people who will watch it. Five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that the majority of what people watched would be video. He thought it would be on Facebook, but instead it turns out to be on TikTok.
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A new company with a wild mission: bring back the woolly mammoth • NY Times

Carl Zimmer:

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A former researcher in Dr. Church’s lab, Eriona Hysolli, will oversee the new company’s efforts to edit elephant DNA, adding genes for mammoth traits like dense hair and thick fat for withstanding cold. The researchers hope to produce embryos of these mammoth-like elephants in a few years, and ultimately produce entire populations of the animals.

Other researchers are deeply skeptical that Colossal will pull off such a feat. And if Colossal does manage to produce baby mammoth-like elephants, the company will face serious ethical questions. Is it humane to produce an animal whose biology we know so little about? Who gets to decide whether they can be set loose, potentially to change the ecosystems of tundras in profound ways?

“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of “How to Clone a Mammoth.”

The idea behind Colossal first emerged into public view in 2013, when Dr. Church sketched it out in a talk at the National Geographic Society.

At the time, researchers were learning how to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species based on fragments of DNA retrieved from fossils. It became possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that set ancient species apart from their modern cousins, and to begin to figure out how those differences in DNA produced differences in their bodies.

Dr. Church, who is best known for inventing ways of reading and editing DNA, wondered if he could effectively revive an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative. Because Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Dr. Church thought it might be possible to modify the genome of an elephant to produce something that would look and act like a mammoth.

Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, revived woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the animals once grazed is rapidly warming and releasing carbon dioxide. “Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this,” Dr. Church argued in his talk.

«

They’re really, really not a solution. And will they be able to get elephants to act as surrogate mothers? Still, should be fun to watch this not-quite-Jurassic Park story play out for real.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1636: Facebook’s VIP content exemption, fake Walmart crypto PR makes someone rich, new NSO iPhone exploit, your home on Pangaea!, and more


A village in Germany has discovered a data delivery system that’s faster than its local internet. CC-licensed photo by jerome delaunay on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Is there a vaccine passport in there, Mr Schrödinger? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


It’s the link to promote Social Warming, my latest book. You found it.


Facebook says its rules apply to all. Company documents reveal a secret elite that’s exempt • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

«

Presently covers 5.8 million people. Facebook’s PR said it was for “content that could require more understanding.” Facebook’s content moderation is already lax. This amplifies the harmful effects.

Honestly, I began the week intending not to link to stories about Facebook, but this is too big to ignore.
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Walmart says crypto payments announcement is fake: Litecoin tumbles after spike • CNBC

Tanaya Macheel:

»

Cryptocurrency litecoin gave up a 20% gain and tumbled back to earth following a fake press release sent out by GlobeNewswire that referenced a partnership with Walmart.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove confirmed the press release is not authentic. He also said the retailer has been in touch with the newswire company to investigate how the false press release got posted.

GlobeNewswire is owned by telecommunications company Intrado. It issued a “notice to disregard” the original release at 11:18 a.m. EST.

A number of media organizations, including CNBC, sent headlines on the announcement. Shares of Walmart had little movement on it. Litecoin was last about 2.2% down, according to Coin Metrics.

GlobeNewswire said that a fraudulent user account was used to issue the release.

“This has never happened before and we have already put in place enhanced authentication steps to prevent this isolated incident from occurring in the future,” said a spokesperson.

«

Except putting out fake news releases to spike or depress stocks has happened quite a few times. It might not have happened to GlobeNewswire, but that just made it more likely that it would. (Intrado is very solemn in a May 2019 blogpost about how what you really need for your PR strategy is “a credible newswire”. *crosses Intrado off list*) Anyhow, someone’s going to get their collar felt over this.
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FORCEDENTRY: NSO Group iMessage zero-click exploit captured in the wild • The Citizen Lab

:

»

While analyzing the phone of a Saudi activist infected with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, we discovered a zero-day zero-click exploit against iMessage. The exploit, which we call FORCEDENTRY, targets Apple’s image rendering library, and was effective against Apple iOS, MacOS and WatchOS devices.

We determined that the mercenary spyware company NSO Group used the vulnerability to remotely exploit and infect the latest Apple devices with the Pegasus spyware. We believe that FORCEDENTRY has been in use since at least February 2021.

The Citizen Lab disclosed the vulnerability and code to Apple, which has assigned the FORCEDENTRY vulnerability CVE-2021-30860 and describes the vulnerability as “processing a maliciously crafted PDF may lead to arbitrary code execution.”

Today, September 13th, Apple is releasing an update that patches CVE-2021-30860. We urge readers to immediately update all Apple devices.

«

Do take note and update: even if you’re not a Saudi activist, the exploit might reach script kiddies in time.
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Revolt of the NYC delivery workers • NY Mag and The Verge

Josh Dzieza:

»

The Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,000-foot stretch of asphalt and beige-painted steel connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, is the perfect place for an ambush. The narrow bike path along its west side is poorly lit; darkened trash-strewn alcoves on either end are useful for lying in wait. All summer, food-delivery workers returning home after their shifts have been violently attacked there for their bikes: by gunmen pulling up on motorcycles, by knife-wielding thieves leaping from the recesses, by muggers blocking the path with Citi Bikes and brandishing broken bottles.

“Once you go onto that bridge, it’s another world,” one frequent crosser said. “You ever see wildlife with the wildebeest trying to cross with the crocodiles? That’s the crocodiles over there. We’re the wildebeests just trying to get by.”

Lately, delivery workers have found safety in numbers. On a humid July night, his last dinner orders complete, Cesar Solano, a lanky and serious 19-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico, rode his heavy electric bike onto the sidewalk at 125th Street and First Avenue and dismounted beneath an overpass. Across the street, through a lattice of on-ramps and off-ramps, was the entrance to the Willis, which threads under the exit of the RFK Bridge and over the Harlem River Drive before shooting out across the Harlem River. Whatever happens on the bridge is blocked from view by the highway.

Several other workers had already arrived. The headlights of their parked bikes provided the only illumination. Cesar watched, his arms crossed, as his older cousin Sergio Solano and another worker strung a banner between the traffic light and a signpost on the corner. It read WE ARE ON GUARD TO PROTECT OUR DELIVERY WORKERS.

…Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the fluctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave — all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact. Cesar recently biked from 77th on the Upper East Side 18 blocks south and over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, then up through Long Island City and over another bridge to Roosevelt Island, all to deliver a single slice of cake for no tip at all. And now he had to worry about losing his bike, purchased with savings on his birthday.

«

An amazing read about the reality of the gig economy in New York.
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Uber drivers are employees, not contractors, says Dutch court • Reuters

Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling:

»

Uber drivers are employees, not contractors, and so entitled to greater workers’ rights under local labour laws, a Dutch court ruled on Monday, handing a setback to the U.S. company’s European business model.

It was another court victory for unions fighting for better pay and benefits for those employed in the gig economy and followed a similar decision this year about Uber in Britain.

The Amsterdam District Court sided with the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), which had argued that Uber’s roughly 4,000 drivers in the capital are employees of a taxi company and should be granted benefits in line with the taxi sector.

Uber said it would appeal against the decision and “has no plans to employ drivers in the Netherlands”.

“We are disappointed with this decision because we know that the overwhelming majority of drivers wish to remain independent,” said Maurits Schönfeld, Uber’s general manager for northern Europe. “Drivers don’t want to give up their freedom to choose if, when and where to work.”

«

Seems like the “gig economy” is being chipped away piece by piece. Not sure what Uber means about having no plans to employ drivers – if it operates there, then by default it will be doing, according to the court.
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Ireland fails to enforce EU law against Big Tech • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia and Javier Espinoza:

»

Ireland is failing to apply the EU’s privacy laws to US Big Tech companies, with 98% of 164 significant complaints about privacy abuses still unresolved by its regulator.

Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter all have their European headquarters in Dublin, making Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner the lead EU regulator responsible for holding them to the law.

But the Irish DPC has been repeatedly criticised, both by privacy campaigners and by other EU regulators, for failing to take action.

An analysis by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found that the vast majority of cases were still unresolved, and that Spain, which has a smaller budget than Ireland for data protection, produces 10 times more draft decisions.

Johnny Ryan, senior fellow at ICCL, said Ireland was the “worst bottleneck” for enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“GDPR enforcement against Big Tech is paralysed by Ireland’s failure to deliver draft decisions on cross-border cases,” he added, noting that the rest of the EU has to wait for Irish draft decisions before they are able to take their own action against the companies.

«

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Find the location of your home… on Pangaea • Open Culture

»

Software engineer Ian Webster has created a website that lets you see how the land masses on planet Earth have changed over the course of 750 million years. And it has the added bonus of letting you plot modern addresses on these ancient land formations. Ergo, you can see where your home was located on the Big Blue Marble some 20, 100, 500, or 750 million years ago.

«

I recommend the 240 MYA period, when everywhere had really great land connections to, well, everywhere else. Presumably this pushed up house prices during the Pangaean era, and they’ve been rising ever since.
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Italy data authority asks Facebook for clarifications on smart glasses • Reuters

Elvira Pollina:

»

The Italian authority said it wanted to be informed on measures Facebook has put in place to protect people occasionally filmed, in particular children, as well as on systems adopted to make data collected anonymous and features of the voice assistant connected to the glasses.

“We know people have questions about new technologies, so before the launch of Ray-Ban Stories we engaged with the Irish DPC to share how we’ve built privacy into the product design and functionality of the glasses to give both device owners and people around them peace of mind,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

«

Didn’t take long to attract regulators’ interest, naturally.
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Apple fires senior engineering program manager Ashley Gjøvik for allegedly leaking information • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:

»

Apple has fired senior engineering program manager Ashley Gjøvik for allegedly violating the company’s rules against leaking confidential information. For months, Gjøvik has been tweeting openly about allegations of harassment, surveillance, and workplace safety.

“When I began raising workplace safety concerns in March, and nearly immediately faced retaliation and intimidation, I started preparing myself for something exactly like this to happen,” she says. “I’m disappointed that a company I have loved since I was a little girl would treat their employees this way.”

Gjøvik has raised concerns that her office is in an Apple building located on a superfund site, meaning it requires special oversight due to historical waste contamination. She also says that she faced harassment and bullying from her manager and members of her team. More recently, she’s begun raising privacy concerns related to Apple’s policies on how it can search and surveil employees’ work phones.

«

Quite a lot of people mistake the “What’s happening?” box on Twitter’s interface for Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility, and think it will make them immune from retribution (especially from any corporation that employs them). This turns out not to be the case.
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Apple loses $85bn in value after App Store ruling • Bloomberg (via Yahoo)

Ryan Vlastelica:

»

Apple shares suffered their steepest selloff in months on Friday after a federal judge ordered the company to change the way it operates its App Store, which would hurt the profitability of that business unit.

The stock fell 3.3%, its biggest decline since May 4, erasing about $85bn from the iPhone maker’s market capitalisation. The size of the loss is bigger than all but 98 components of the S&P 500 Index.

A federal judge granted an injunction sought by Epic Games Inc. which would allow developers to steer consumers outside payment methods for mobile apps. It also ordered the game maker to pay damages to Apple for breach of contract.

Friday’s slump handed Apple its first weekly decline in three weeks. The stock remains up more than 12% so far this year.

«

So let’s see how well the market weighted that selloff. Yesterday I pointed to Mark Gurman (also of Bloomberg) suggesting that the judge’s ruling might wipe out about 1% of Apple’s annual revenues, ie $3.6bn for the most recent year; which I think would be about the same in profits. Can’t be that expensive to run the store.

Market capitalisation is (in theory) the net present value of all future earnings of the company. If Apple’s going to lose, say, $3.5bn per year, then a selloff of $85bn would encompass about 24 years’ lost earnings. Given that Apple is 45 years old, that suggests the market can see it going for at least another two decades. By then perhaps we’ll be talking about app stores in cars driven via AR goggles. Perhaps.
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Daten von A nach B: wer ist schneller – pferd oder Internet? • WDR

»

In Schmallenberg-Oberkirchen hat das “WOLL-Magazin” ein ungewöhnliches Wettrennen gestartet: Wer bringt die Dateien schneller ans Ziel: ein Pferd oder das Internet?

Es geht um 4,5 Gigabyte Fotos, die Fotograf Klaus-Peter Kappest zu einer Druckerei schicken möchte. Bei sich zu Hause in Schmallenberg-Oberkirchen startet er einen Datentransfer über das Internet.

«

Just in case your school German (I learned most of mine from British war films, I think) isn’t up to it, “pferd” is “horse”. That’s right – they’re doing a tortoise-and-hare contest to see whether it’s quicker to send 4.5GB of photos on DVD by horse, or over the creaky internet in Schmallenberg-Oberkirchen.

Here’s the Google Translate page.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1635: the Apple-Epic decision in detail, correcting slanted Nazi histories on Wikipedia, how DeepMind plotted to break from Google, and more


What if – and bear with us here – a fully-funded Kickstarter could discern whether we live in a Matrix-style simulation? Well, they have the funds. CC-licensed photo by Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas @ University of Texas at Austin on Flickr.

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

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


What does it all mean?: a look at Judge Gonzalez Rogers’ decision in the Epic versus Apple trial • MacStories

John Voorhees:

»

even though Epic sought a different remedy that the Court ruled was unavailable under federal law, the Judge went out of her way to punish Apple under state law for what she concluded was anti-competitive behavior. To top it off, Judge Gonzalez Rogers issued a nationwide injunction for a violation of a single state’s law. It’s a ruling that’s as aggressive an application of state law as the ruling on federal antitrust is careful to avoid being overturned on appeal.

The behavior that led the Court to conclude that Apple has violated California state law is what it refers to as anti-steering provisions codified in Section 3.1.1 of the App Review Guidelines, which says:

»

If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.

«

This is the same behavior that was at the center of an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission, which was settled when Apple said it would allow developers of ‘reader’ apps to ‘share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account.’ Instead of a single link in a narrow category of apps, Judge Gonzalez Rogers’ decision goes further. She concluded that the:

»

…evidence shows Apple’s anti-steering restrictions artificially increase Apple’s market power by preventing developers from communicating about lower prices on other platforms.

«

«

Which is going to be very consequential, of course. How soon? And yet Mark Gurman at Bloomberg reckons that it will only affect about 1% of its annual revenues, which are around $360bn. So, $3.6bn! Most (all?) of which is profit. (Epic, which perhaps doesn’t know when it’s well off, is appealing the decision.)
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Apple won a battle to lose the war • 500ish

M.G. Siegler:

»

I’m really not sure Apple sees this. They’re failing to read the room and more importantly, the courtroom. They’re going to interpret this court order [from the Epic trial] in the way that best serves Apple, obviously. But others are going to challenge that, obviously. Regardless of who wins, it just continues the bad vibes yielding bad blood within Apple’s own developer community. And it’s going to keep the pressure on them, politically.

I mean, someone inside Apple must see all of this. It’s obvious. But hubris is blinding those in the position to do something about it, clearly. Apple should just take a look around, see which way the wind is blowing, and make some major changes to appease the courts and to please their developers. End this.

They should open things up to win these arguments on the product side of the equation — something which they’re uniquely situated to do thanks to about two dozen aspects of the iPhone. They should compete on the playing field in which they already have home field advantage.

And that’s the craziest part of all of this. They would undoubtedly still win far more often than not. Both because of those inherent iPhone advantages, but also because their product offerings on the in-app and Apple Pay side are very good! Let them stand on their merits! That, in turn would also likely help Apple in a number of ways!
But they don’t see it that way. And the bigger fear is that they don’t see it at all. Instead, we’re about to battle about what the definition of a link is. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll get into the weeds of MFNs. Appeal after appeal. Delay after delay. Buy time for other revenue to fill in the inevitable gaps. Meanwhile, all of this will just continue the appearance that a $2.5 trillion company is nickel-and-diming their developers to death. Not a great look.

«

MG is among many longtime Apple observers and analysts who think that its 30% slice and banning of in-app content purchases of “reader” content” will either be taken down by Apple, or by regulation, and that Apple ought to prefer its own way. I do too. It could probably muddle by on 5%. It will disappoint the markets, but will strengthen it in the long term.
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One woman’s mission to rewrite Nazi history on Wikipedia • WIRED

Noam Cohen:

»

When Ksenia Coffman started editing Wikipedia, she was like a tourist in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. She came to learn the tango, admire the architecture, sip maté. She didn’t know there was a Nazi problem. But Coffman, who was born in Soviet-era Russia and lives in Silicon Valley, is an intensely observant traveler. As she link-hopped through articles about the Second World War, one of her favorite subjects, she saw what seemed like a concerted effort to look the other way about Germany’s wartime atrocities.

Coffman can’t recall exactly when her concern set in. Maybe it was when she read the article about the SS, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary, which included images that felt to her like glamour shots—action-man officers admiring maps, going on parade, all sorts of “very visually disturbing” stuff. Or maybe it was when she clicked through some of the pages about German tank gunners, flying aces, and medal winners. There were hundreds of them, and the men’s impressive kill counts and youthful derring-do always seemed to exist outside the genocidal Nazi cause. What was going on here? Wikipedia was supposed to be all about consensus. Wasn’t there consensus on, you know, Hitler?

A typical person might have thought, Something is wrong on the internet again. What a bummer. Next tab. But Coffman is the person who finishes the thousand-page Holocaust novel. Whatever she chooses to spend her time on—powerlifting, fragrance collecting, denazification—she approaches the assignment like a straight-A student.

«

There’s tons of wonderful detail in this. For journalists, it’s also an example of a fabulous story hiding in plain sight: Cohen probably found it when someone noticed that Nazi entries were being corrected (a better word than the headline’s “rewrite”) on Wikipedia. Then you follow the dots.
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Inside DeepMind’s secret plot to break away from Google • Business Insider

Hugh Langley and Martin Coulter:

»

From the start, DeepMind was thinking about potential ethical dilemmas from its deal with Google. Before the 2014 acquisition closed, both companies signed an “Ethics and Safety Review Agreement” that would prevent Google from taking control of DeepMind’s technology, The Economist reported in 2019.

…In 2017, at a company retreat at the Macdonald Aviemore Resort in Scotland, DeepMind’s leadership disclosed to employees its plan to separate from Google, two people who were present said.

At the time, leadership said internally that the company planned to become a “global interest company,” three people familiar with the matter said. The title, not an official legal status, was meant to reflect the worldwide ramifications DeepMind believed its technology would have.

Later, in negotiations with Google, DeepMind pursued a status as a company limited by guarantee, a corporate structure without shareholders that is sometimes used by nonprofits. The agreement was that Alphabet would continue to bankroll the firm and would get an exclusive license to its technology, two people involved in the discussions said. There was a condition: Alphabet could not cross certain ethical redlines, such as using DeepMind technology for military weapons or surveillance.

In 2019, DeepMind registered a new company called DeepMind Labs Limited, as well as a new holding company, filings with the UK’s Companies House showed. This was done in anticipation of a separation from Google, two former employees involved in those registrations said.

Negotiations with Google went through peaks and valleys over the years but gained new momentum in 2020, one person said. A senior team inside DeepMind started to hold meetings with outside lawyers and Google to hash out details of what this theoretical new formation might mean for the two companies’ relationship, including specifics such as whether they would share a codebase, internal performance metrics, and software expenses, two people said.

«

Never came to anything, but shows there’s some trouble in AI paradise.
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Do we live in a virtual reality? by Tom Campbell • Kickstarter

»

Using the video game analogy, we propose an investigation based on the assumptions: 

1. The system performing the simulation (in either physical reality or virtual reality) is finite (i.e., has limited information processing resources no matter how great those resources may be). All video games have finite resources and currently accepted Quantum Theory supports the finite nature of physical reality;
2. To achieve low computational complexity (due to finite resources) such a system would, as in a video game system, render the content only when (at that moment) the required information becomes available to the player;
3. In a video game, the (game box) processor cannot be part of the virtual reality it is creating. It follows that if physical reality is a simulation, the computations required to create the physical reality cannot be determined by mechanisms that are part of the physical reality created. 

Guided by these assumptions, the proposed experiments describe variations of the universally accepted wave/particle duality experiment—which when successfully performed—will test whether our currently accepted concept of physical reality will respond as if it were a simulation (Virtual Reality). 

«

This is a real Kickstarter; “1,127 backers pledged $236,590 to help bring this project to life.” Apparently they’re going to run the double slit experiment a lot? And the games box will struggle to decide if it should be a wave or a particle this time? (If anyone has a better analysis of what’s going on here, please share.)
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Revealed: Google illegally underpaid thousands of workers across dozens of countries • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

»

Google executives have been aware since at least May 2019 that the company was failing to comply with local laws in the UK, Europe and Asia that mandate temporary workers be paid equal rates to full-time employees performing similar work, internal Google documents and emails reviewed by the Guardian show.

But rather than immediately correct the errors, the company dragged its feet for more than two years, the documents show, citing concern about the increased cost to departments that rely heavily on temporary workers, potential exposure to legal claims, and fear of negative press attention.

Google executives and attorneys at one point pursued a plan to come into compliance slowly and at the least possible cost to itself, despite acknowledging that such a move was not “the correct outcome from a compliance perspective” and could place the staffing companies it contracts with “in a difficult position, legally and ethically”.

Google admitted the failures and said it would conduct an investigation after being contacted by the Guardian.

“While the team hasn’t increased the comparator rate benchmarks for some years, actual pay rates for temporary staff have increased numerous times in that period,” said Spyro Karetsos, Google’s chief compliance officer, in a statement. “Most temporary staff are paid significantly more than the comparator rates.”

…Globally, Google spends about $800m annually on temporary workers.

«

Could cost up to $100m, shared among about 100,000 people.
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“Congratulations Emma Raducanu for winning…” • Twitter

»

Congratulations Emma Raducanu for winning the Winter National Tour 10&U event at Cambridge! #Bromleytennisacademy

«

February 11 2013. Eight years and seven months later… (Plus what a great advert for Twitter, where link rot is totally down to the owner of the account, and whether they choose to delete their tweets.)
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Where’s our Singapore-on-Thames? Brexit backers feel let down by high-tax PM • The Sunday Times

Oliver Shah:

»

Libertarian Conservative donors who backed Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election, hoping he would deliver a low-tax, lightly regulated version of Britain after Brexit, are bitterly disappointed by the Tories’ lurch to the left on fiscal issues. Last week’s confirmation of a new £12bn annual levy on earnings to fund health and social care came on top of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement in March that corporation tax would rise from 19% to 25% by 2023.

Defending the manifesto-breaking increase in national insurance contributions, Johnson said that “a global pandemic wasn’t in our manifesto either”. While most backers are sympathetic to the demands placed on the Treasury by the £400bn cost of battling Covid, Thatcherite traditionalists are adamant that raising taxes is not the way to tackle them. They believe in growing the economy by incentivising entrepreneurs through low taxes. Yet their vision of a freewheeling Singapore-on-Thames, unshackled from Europe, is being replaced by something looking ominously more like Sweden.

“One thinks back with nostalgia to Tony Blair’s days, which were pro-business,” said Robin Birley, founder of the 5 Hertford Street private members’ club favoured by the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Symonds.

«

No, I never expected to hear Tories thinking dreamily back to (left-wing Labour) Tony Blair’s days either. It is true that the Johnson tax rise on the working young, if added to their university fees, will see them on marginal tax rates of 50%. It’s certainly “more like Sweden”, but the ominous part is that the older and richer (such as Mr Birley) aren’t also being taxed equitably.
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The Onion understands social measurement better than marketers do • Nineteen Insights

Nate Elliott, in March 2018:

»

We knew comedian Judah Friedlander understood corporate social strategy better than most brands. Now we also know The Onion understands social measurement better than most brands.

Their article “Report: We Don’t Make Any Money If You Don’t Click The F*cking Link” contains more truth than most social marketing performance reports. It explains that “liking or commenting on a post contributes jackshit to our bottom line” and that “unless you actually visit the website, there eventually won’t be one, you ungrateful pricks.” Despite these truths, 57% of social marketers say engagement is their top metric.

«

I wonder if this has changed at all in the intervening couple of years. Doesn’t feel that way.
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About Automated account labels • Twitter blog

Twitter is running a test on some new labelling for automated accounts:

»

Examples of automated accounts you might see on Twitter include bots that help you find vaccine appointments and disaster early warning systems. When these accounts let you know they’re automated, you get a better understanding of their purpose when you’re interacting with them.

When accounts send automated Tweets to share relevant information about content on another account, automated labels help you identify good bots from spammy ones and are all about transparency. 

Right now, a limited number of people are participating in an invitation-only test which allows them to identify their automated accounts with this label. We hope this added context helps you trust the content you see.

«

There’s a couple of examples of what this looks like at Terence Eden’s blog.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified


• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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


Start Up No.1634: Facebook launches ‘smart’ glasses, Apple’s bug bounty questioned, Kenya and Brazil’s social media distortion, and more


Ever wondered what sort of jokes the Romans found funny? Never fear – a few of their tropes have been excavated. CC-licensed photo by sheila_blige on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Monitored for customer quality purposes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Ray-Ban Stories: hands-on with Facebook’s first smart glasses • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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Starting [next] Thursday, the first pair of smart glasses made by Facebook and Ray-Ban are going on sale for $299. They’re called Ray-Ban Stories, and you’ll be able to find them pretty much anywhere Ray-Bans are sold, including LensCrafters and Sunglasses Hut stores.

The frames feature two-front facing cameras for capturing video and photos. They sync with a companion camera roll app called Facebook View, where clips can be edited and shared to other apps on your phone (not just Facebook’s own). There’s a physical button on the glasses for recording, or you can say “Hey Facebook, take a video” to control them hands-free.

And, perhaps most importantly, they look and feel like regular glasses.

With their core ability of taking photos and videos, Ray-Ban Stories are essentially a sleeker version of Snapchat’s Spectacles, which first debuted in 2016 to a lot of hype that quickly fizzled. These Ray-Bans don’t have displays in the lenses, like the latest Spectacles that were unveiled earlier this year. However, speakers on both sides of the frame can play sound from your phone over Bluetooth, allowing you to take a call or listen to a podcast without pulling your phone out. A touchpad built into the side of the frame lets you change the volume or play and pause what you’re hearing.

Ray-Ban Stories are the first product in a multiyear partnership between Facebook and the European eyewear conglomerate EssilorLuxottica, Ray-Ban’s parent company. While they’re limited in what they can do, Ray-Ban Stories are the most normal-looking, accessible pair of smart glasses to hit the market so far.

Both companies also see them as a step toward more advanced augmented reality glasses that overlay graphics onto the real world.

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They basically do a bit of filming and can play your music. They’re not even as capable as Google Glass, which if Google were to have a go now could probably make a little more sense. In technology, timing is everything.
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Apple’s bug bounty program prompts frustration in security community • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Hoping to discover hidden weaknesses, Apple for five years now has invited hackers to break into its services and its iconic phones and laptops, offering up to $1 million to learn of its most serious security flaws.

Across the tech industry, similar “bug bounty” programs have become a prized tool in maintaining security — a way to find vulnerabilities and encourage hackers to report them rather than abuse them.

But many who are familiar with the program say Apple is slow to fix reported bugs and does not always pay hackers what they believe they’re owed. Ultimately, they say, Apple’s insular culture has hurt the program and created a blind spot on security.

“It’s a bug bounty program where the house always wins,” said Katie Moussouris, CEO and founder of Luta Security, which worked with the Defense Department to set up its first bug bounty program. She said Apple’s bad reputation in the security industry will lead to “less secure products for their customers and more cost down the line.”

Apple said its program, launched in 2016, is a work in progress. Until 2019, the program was not officially opened to the public, although researchers say the program was never exclusive.

“The Apple Security Bounty program has been a runaway success,” Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture, said in an emailed statement. Apple has nearly doubled the amount it has paid in bug bounties this year compared to last, and it leads the industry in the average amount paid per bounty, he said.

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The topic of bug bounties was discussed on the Accidental Tech Podcast a few weeks ago, where everyoe ragged on Apple (rather like this story does), but the next week there was some followup. One tweet pointed out that “unfortunately Apple can’t just pay insane bug bounties, because if they did, all the internal bug hunters would quit and make more doing the same job from the outside. It’s a delicate balance and bug hunters have to want to do the right thing for it to work.”

The other point made in the program is that paying bug bounties relies heavily on trust. What if they tell you about it, and also sell it to someone else, to be exploited before it gets fixed? What if you don’t agree on the value? This is true, of course, for bounties with any company.

Apple, though, has a huge backlog of bugs needing to be fixed. That’s its real problem. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Inside the shadowy world of disinformation-for-hire in Kenya • Mozilla Foundation

Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo:

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Highlights of the investigation include:

Disinformation campaigns are a lucrative business. One interviewee revealed that disinformation influencers are paid roughly between $10 and $15 USD to participate in three campaigns per day. Payments are made directly to the influencers through the mobile money platform MPESA.

Twitter’s trending algorithm is amplifying these campaigns, and Twitter is placing ads amid all this misinformation. Eight of the 11 campaigns examined reached the trending section of Twitter. The campaigners we spoke to told us that this is their number one target, as it affords them the amplification they seek.

These campaigns run like a well-oiled machine. One of the influencers who researchers spoke to explained a complex system of using Whatsapp groups to coordinate and synchronize tweets and messaging. Anonymous organizers use these groups to send influencers cash, content, and detailed instructions.

These campaigns are increasingly targeting individuals. No longer focusing on just broad issues and events, disinformation campaigns are increasingly identifying and targeting individuals, like members of the Linda Katiba movement and the Kenyan judiciary. This work is also beginning to border on incitement and advocacy of hatred, which is against Kenyan Law.

Verified accounts are complicit. One influencer we spoke to claimed that the people who own coveted “blue check” accounts will often rent them out for disinformation campaigns. These verified accounts can improve the campaign’s chances of trending. Says one interviewee: “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot.”

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As I explain in Social Warming, campaigns like this are influential even if almost all of the population isn’t online or using social media because it affects those who make the high-level decisions.
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Brazil’s Bolsonaro bans social networks from removing some posts • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:

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President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is temporarily banning social media companies from removing certain content, including his claims that the only way he’ll lose next year’s elections is if the vote is rigged — one of the most significant steps by a democratically elected leader to control what can be said on the internet.

The new social media rules, issued this week and effective immediately, appear to be the first time a national government has stopped internet companies from taking down content that violates their rules, according to internet law experts and officials at tech companies. And they come at a precarious moment for Brazil.

Mr. Bolsonaro has used social media as a megaphone to build his political movement and make it to the president’s office. Now, with polls showing he would lose the presidential elections if they were held today, he is using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to try to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, following the playbook of his close ally, former President Donald J. Trump. On Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro repeated his claims about the election to thousands of supporters in two cities as part of nationwide demonstrations on Brazil’s Independence Day.

Under the new policy, tech companies can remove posts only if they involve certain topics outlined in the measure, such as nudity, drugs and violence, or if they encourage crime or violate copyrights; to take down others, they must get a court order. That suggests that, in Brazil, tech companies could easily remove a nude photo, but not lies about the coronavirus. The pandemic has been a major topic of disinformation under Mr. Bolsonaro, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all having removed videos from him that pushed unproven drugs as coronavirus cures.

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That’s going to create quite the conundrum for the networks. Shut down in Brazil? Disobey, and remove posts anyway? Bolsonaro exploited social media last time. And he’s not relinquishing that.
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New Safety Tech Fund challenge • Home Office

Home Secretary Priti Patel:

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I am calling on our international partners and allies to continue to back the UK’s approach of holding technology companies to account and asking social media companies to put public safety before profits. They must not let harmful content continue to be posted on their platforms or neglect public safety when designing their products. We believe there are alternative solutions, and I know our concerns are shared by law enforcement colleagues and the most respected child protection organisations in the UK and around the world.

This is also a technical issue, so we are seeking technical solutions. Recently Apple have taken the first step, announcing that they are seeking new ways to prevent horrific abuse on their service. Apple state their child sexual abuse filtering technology has a false positive rate of 1 in a trillion, meaning the privacy of legitimate users is protected whilst those building huge collections of extreme child sexual abuse material are caught out. They need to see though that project. [Probably should read “They need to see through that project.” – CA]

But that is just one solution, by one company, and won’t solve everything. Big Tech firms collectively need to take responsibility for public safety and greater investment is essential. Today I am launching a new Safety Tech Challenge Fund. We will award five organisations from around the world up to £85,000 each to develop innovative technology to keep children safe in environments such as online messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption.

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Patel is fairly relentless in her backing of bad ideas – on the same day she said this, she backed a scheme to break international maritime law by “turning back” boats of refugees trying to cross the Channel from France. Which of course calls into question whether maybe the CSAM scanning is actually a bad idea after all.

Also, WhatsApp offered much the same in India in 2018 – $50,000 grants to those who could stop the spread of fake news on its platform. Didn’t succeed.
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Since there are mentions of
Social Warming, my latest book, you could buy it and find out more.


El Salvador bitcoin move could cost Western Union $400m a year • CNBC

MacKenzie Sigalos:

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Many in the 2.5 million Salvadoran diaspora send money to friends and family still living in El Salvador. Last year, they collectively transferred nearly $6bn, or roughly 23% of the country’s gross domestic product, and a chunk of that went to the middlemen facilitating these international transfers.

“Remittances are one area where the status quo in our legacy financial system is terrible, with extraordinarily high fees leveled at populations that can ill afford them,” said Matt Hougan, chief investment officer of Bitwise Asset Management.

“It’s a worn-out Twitter saying, but bitcoin really does fix this,” said Hougan.

The hassle around remittances is one chief reason El Salvador President Nayib Bukele cited for declaring bitcoin legal tender. As part of the rollout, the government has launched its own national virtual wallet — called “Chivo,” or Salvadoran slang for “cool” — which offers no-fee transactions and allows for quick cross-border payments. 

“It won’t be overnight; 100% of remittances aren’t going to move to the Chivo app tomorrow. These things take time, and people naturally worry about trying new things with money. But the current fee levels of charge for remittances are going to prove unsustainable,” Hougan said.

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That $400m on $6bn is 6.7% of the value of each transaction. Here’s one of the ways to see whether bitcoin does indeed fix this: see what the cost of transactions is for bitcoin transfers. (It’s not quite free, and it’s not quite instant.)
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No laughing matter? What the Romans found funny • Antigone

Orland Gibbs goes into some detail, though it was this bit that caught my eye:

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Roman comedy frequently makes use of a ‘game’ structure, and its frequency suggests its popularity. ‘Game’ structure is a key principle of many schools of improvised comedy today.  The Free Association in London, for example, one of the capital’s main improvisation schools, defines game as “a comedic pattern that repeats”. Actors play out a ‘grounded’ (=normal) scenario until the ‘shiny thing’ emerges: someone says something a bit weird that the audience respond to, most commonly with a laugh or a perceptible apprehension in the room. The other actor(s) might verbalise this apprehension by simply saying, “Sorry, what?” This ‘shiny thing’ is then developed into a point of view for the character, which either annoys / baffles other people on stage or is used to annoy the person with the point of view. A perfect example of this would be Keegan Key’s and Jordan Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch, where a proud and hard-as-nails substitute teacher, Mr Garvey, cannot pronounce any names on the register correctly, but is increasingly incensed when the bearers of those names gently correct him.

We find Plautus using ‘game’ structure most famously in the “okay-yep” passage in Rudens (“The Rope,” lines 1212–27). The master of the house, Daemones, comes out to find Trachalio, the slave of the young romantic Plesidippus. Daemones gives Trachalio a list of instructions and, after every instruction, Trachalio says licet (“okay”). The schtick is then reversed as Trachalio gives Daemones a list of instructions, and every instruction is answered with licet. We can see how much this repetition has irritated Daemones, because after Trachalio leaves he calls upon Hercules to curse Trachalio (infelicet, a nonsense word that could be taken along the lines “Let him be damned!”, line 1225) for saying licet so much. In this instance, the game isn’t the repetitions, but rather what the repetitions are doing to Daemones: making him increasingly angry.

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Gibbs also points out that there was plenty of sexism in the humour, denigrating women and so on. This, of course, only began fading out in the late 1970s.
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Houseparty shut down to work on Epic Games vision of metaverse • The Washington Post

Gene Park:

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Houseparty, the social video app that launched in 2016 and soared in popularity during the pandemic, will be shutting down in October, the company announced Thursday. In a release, Houseparty said it will be absorbed into Epic Games to work on “creating new ways to have meaningful and authentic social interactions at metaverse scale across the Epic Games family.” The “Fortnite” developer acquired Houseparty in 2019 for a reported $35m, according to Business Insider.

“Since joining Epic, the Houseparty team’s social vision and core technology have already contributed to new features used by hundreds of millions of people in ‘Fortnite’ and by developers around the world,” Houseparty stated. “As a result, we can’t give the app or our community the attention that it deserves.”

The app will continue to function until October, when it will be removed from app stores. Users will be notified of the shutdown via in-app notifications.

Last year, Houseparty was integrated into the gameplay experience of Epic’s flagship battle royale title, “Fortnite,” by allowing users to engage in video chats while playing. Earlier this year, Epic Games raised $1bn in a round of funding to support its vision of building the metaverse, largely defined as the next iteration of the Internet that would focus on social interaction and interconnecting online properties and the real world.

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So I guess October marks Epic’s view of the end of the pandemic?

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Why eastern European truckers are not planning to return to the UK • Financial Times

Marton Dunai, Agata Majos and Peter Foster:

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Europe as a whole is short of truckers. “It is a global driver shortage across Europe, not an isolated problem of one country,” said Zsolt Barna, chief executive of Waberer’s, one of eastern Europe’s largest hauliers based in Budapest.

Some EU member states are proportionately worse off than the UK, Barna pointed out, including Romania, an important source of truckers for the UK over the years, which out of a population of 20m is 20,000 drivers short.

For the EU drivers that have left but still have the right to return and live in the UK, the prospects of higher pay that some UK companies are now offering was not enough. Many said they had already found work elsewhere on higher wages and in a better working environment.

Peter Kovecs, another Hungarian, lasted two years in England. After inheriting his family’s farm he came to the UK to earn money to reinvest in the business and had planned to stay for longer. But after his experience he said nothing would tempt him back.

“They bullied us while the drivers kept coming,” Kovecs said. “Now they are begging us.” Once he had saved £60,000 he decided to go home even though that was below the target he had set himself. “I will never go back. I like England, it’s a great country, I will take the family there one day, but to work, the way they treat people? Never again.”

Krzysztof, who declined to give his surname, worked for four years in the UK before returning to Poland in 2020. His wife became pregnant and they decided they wanted the child to be raised in their homeland.

He drives trucks in Poland and Germany and has no plans to return to the UK permanently, even if the pay was better. He said IR35 [preventing people setting up companies to hire themselves out as “contractors”] was the final straw for him and many Polish drivers he knew.

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The UK’s HGV driver shortage was 50,000 in 2015 – pre-Brexit. Now it’s 100,000. HGVs are essential to the supply chain. Now the links are starting to break.
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Introducing the Good Data Project • The Good Data Project

Nate Elliott:

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I can’t think of any business tool more important than data.

Good data tells stories that illuminate the world around us. It convinces cardiologists to prescribe meditation rather than medication. It tells farmers in Iowa how they can save crawfish in Louisiana. It even explains why Steph Curry is worth $215 million to the Golden State Warriors.

Bad data confuses and obscures. It hides the true urgency of climate change, makes politicians misunderstand the economy, and ruins your chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes, it costs lives.

Unfortunately there’s a lot more bad data in the world than good. Anyone armed with SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn Polls, and PowerPoint can create and display data. But most people never learned how.

My name is Nate Elliott and I plan to change that. For 12 years as a Forrester Research analyst I collected, analyzed, and explained data. For the past six years I’ve helped clients create surveys, uncover stories in their data, and tell those stories to the world. I don’t have an advanced degree in statistics, but for two decades I’ve made real-world data work in real-world marketing content, sales pitches, and business plans. I know that most polls and graphs would be a lot better if their creators knew a few simple rules.

For the next six months I’ll share what I know — and try to learn a lot more — about:
Creating and collecting data. How to create reliable surveys and polls, and how to find good data when you can’t collect it yourself.
• Depicting data with figures. How to choose the right chart type and highlight the data that matters, without deceiving the reader.
• Explaining data with words. How to discuss data accurately and in context, and present insights rather than just statistics.

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Microsoft indefinitely postpones return to US offices • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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Microsoft said Thursday it will indefinitely delay the reopening of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and its other US offices as the coronavirus continues to proliferate in the country. The software and hardware maker did not provide a new date to replace the Oct. 4 target it had announced in early August.

The decision, which will affect more than 103,000 Microsoft employees in the US, reflects the cautious approach large technology companies are taking to bringing employees back to facilities following a rise in hospitalizations and deaths tied to Covid.

In August, with cases of the virus’ delta variant mounting, Amazon said corporate workers in the US and some other countries will start returning to offices in January 2022. Around that time Microsoft said it had pushed back its reopening plan from Sept. 7 to Oct. 4. Now Microsoft is being less specific.

“Given the uncertainty of Covid-19, we’ve decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our US work sites in favor of opening US work sites as soon as we’re able to do so safely based on public health guidance,” Jared Spataro, a Microsoft corporate vice president, wrote in a blog post.

Once the company is ready to welcome employees back, it will announce a monthlong transition period so workers can get ready, Spataro wrote.

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There’s going to be a lot of this; people I’ve spoken to, while obviously not in any way a statistical study, indicate that “hybrid” (or in IT companies “agile”) working is seen as the obvious expectation now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1633: El Salvador’s rocky start, why science struggles with airborne disease, another fusion startup, TikTok in trouble?, and more


Business seats on planes might be sitting very empty for the next few months – and maybe longer. CC-licensed photo by dtrzolek 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. Savoury. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment is a warning to other countries • CNN

Charles Riley, CNN Business:

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What went wrong [on the first day of bitcoin being legal tender in El Salvador]?

• “Chivo Wallet,” a storage app created by the government, wasn’t immediately available on major app stores. By the end of the day, it had appeared on Apple and Huawei platforms.
• Hundreds of people marched against bitcoin in various protests across the capital city, the Financial Times reported.
• The price of bitcoin started the day around $53,000 before plunging by as much as 19%, according to data from Coinbase. The digital currency has since recovered some losses to trade near $46,270.

President Nayib Bukele, a right-wing populist who is the driving force behind the bitcoin initiative, took the dramatic price drop in his stride. “Buying the dip,” he quipped on Twitter. He also joined online crypto supporters in praising major companies such as McDonald’s (MCD) for accepting bitcoin as payment.

Supporters have argued that adopting bitcoin as legal tender will help Salvadorans avoid costly fees on remittances from abroad, which totalled nearly $6bn last year — around a quarter of GDP.

Bukele may succeed in ironing out the initial technical glitches, but the biggest risks from bitcoin will persist long into the future.

El Salvador does not have a currency of its own, instead relying on the US dollar. Adding another currency to the mix that’s prone to wild changes in value will further complicate the government’s budget and tax planning.

It’s also a nightmare for households and businesses, who now have to devote time and resources to deciding whether to hold their funds in dollars or bitcoin. With crypto prices prone to wild swings, the stakes are high.
Another risk: Adopting bitcoin as legal tender may also encourage crime to flourish, according to the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to provide $389m in emergency funding to El Salvador in April 2020.

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One techbro proudly proclaimed how he had paid for his $5 meal with bitcoin, which prompted this rejoinder:

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At the time of posting this meal cost ~$5.00. Two hours later it would’ve cost $4.11. And right now it would cost ~$4.71. All the while a protest has started in the city over the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador.

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That last illustrates a lot of the problem. It’s inflationary! It’s deflationary! It’s bloody unstable.
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Fusion startup builds 10-foot-high, 20-tesla superconducting magnet • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

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On Tuesday, Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced that it hit a key milestone on its roadmap to bringing a demonstration fusion plant online in 2025. The company used commercial high-temperature superconductors to build a three-meter-tall magnet that could operate stably at a 20-tesla magnetic field strength. The magnet is identical in design to the ones that will contain the plasma at the core of the company’s planned reactor.

Giving yourself less than 10 years to solve a problem that an entire research field has been struggling with for decades is ambitious, but it reflects how relevant fusion could be to the climate crisis we’re facing. Several of the company’s leaders mentioned climate change as an inspiration for their work.

“The vision is simple: Can fusion energy be in time to make a difference to climate change?” said Dennis Whyte of MIT. “That’s what everybody on this team was dedicated to going toward. Fusion is the energy source that the world needs, and it needs [it] kind of fast. And we’re on the brink of harnessing that for humankind.”

Waiting for decades to get to fusion will allow renewable power to expand its current cost advantage over all other forms of energy generation. And the time will give engineers the opportunity to learn how to manage the challenges of the intermittency of wind and solar power. So fusion risks being irrelevant by the time it’s a solved problem.

That’s why by 2025, Commonwealth Fusion Systems wants to have a reactor that will break even—i.e., a system in which fusion reactions release as much energy as is needed to start them. That milestone will be followed by what the company hopes will be a commercially viable fusion plant in the early 2030s.

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Huge, expensive precision equipment? Yup. Not quite generating as much power as goes in? Yup. Going to be usable Real Soon Now Well Maybe Not That Soon? Yup. More of the classic elements of a fusion story.
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How TikTok serves up sex and drug videos to minors • WSJ

Rob Barry, Georgia Wells, John West, Joanna Stern and Jason French:

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TikTok served one account registered as a 13-year-old at least 569 videos about drug use, references to cocaine and meth addiction, and promotional videos for online sales of drug products and paraphernalia. Hundreds of similar videos appeared in the feeds of the Journal’s other minor accounts.

TikTok also showed the Journal’s teenage users more than 100 videos from accounts recommending paid pornography sites and sex shops. Thousands of others were from creators who labeled their content as for adults only.

Still others encouraged eating disorders and glorified alcohol, including depictions of drinking and driving and of drinking games.

The Journal shared with TikTok a sample of 974 videos about drugs, pornography and other adult content that were served to the minor accounts—including hundreds shown to single accounts in quick succession.

Of those, 169 were removed from the platform before the Journal shared them—whether by their creators or TikTok couldn’t be determined. Another 255 were removed after being shared with the company, among them more than a dozen portraying adults as “caregivers” entering relationships with people pretending to be children, called “littles.”

The woman in the role-playing video said she wished TikTok did a better job of keeping adult content out of minors’ feeds.

“I do have in my bio that is 18+ but I have no real way to police this,” she wrote in a message. “I do not agree with TikTok showing my content to someone so young.”

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Give it a few days and there will be furious Republicans pointing out that TikTok is based in China and has a secret algorithm and is debasing America’s youth.
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Climeworks is opening the world’s biggest carbon removal machine • Quartz

Tim McDonnell:

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The fossil fuel economy must be run in reverse, effectively. The simplest and lowest-cost way to do that—planting trees—requires a lot of land relative to the scale of intervention that’s needed. So a handful of companies have been tinkering with “direct air capture” (DAC)—essentially, big CO2-sucking machines.

The largest DAC plant in the world will open Sept. 8 in Iceland. Operated by the Swiss engineering startup Climeworks, the plant, known as Orca, will annually draw down a volume of emissions equivalent to about 870 cars. Orca will boost total global DAC capacity by about 50%, adding to the dozen or so smaller plants that are already operational in Europe, Canada, and the US.

The plant is composed of eight boxes about the size of shipping containers, each fitted with a dozen fans that pull in air. CO2 is filtered out, mixed with water, and pumped into deep underground wells, where over the course of a few years it turns to stone, effectively removing it from circulation in the atmosphere.

The Orca launch follows on the heels of a $10m contract Climeworks inked last week with reinsurance giant Swiss Re. The insurance company was essentially buying an undisclosed volume of carbon offset credits to count against its own carbon footprint. Climeworks hasn’t publicly disclosed its price per ton, but a Swiss Re press release described it as “several hundred dollars.”

This business model—the sale of offsets—is how Climeworks is approaching a key problem for the nascent DAC industry: How to make money. The alternative is to sell the captured CO2 to manufacturers who can use it as a raw material for cement and other products, or to oil companies that, ironically, use it to help dredge up more oil. But those customers are more accustomed to prices around $100 per ton.

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Sorry, eight hundred and seventy cars? And that gives DAC capacity a 50% boost, so up from about 1,700 cars? (Unfortunately this seems to be correct.) We also aren’t told quite how this is powered. It’s geothermal energy, right? Right??
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Why is email still so terrible? • Vox

Sara Morrison:

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Think of how many emails you get and what they say. Think of all the services that use your email address to grant you access to your account and reset your password for it. Think of all the information about you that those accounts contain. Now think of what could happen if those emails went to someone else.

Mat Honan doesn’t have to imagine that, because a version of it happened to him in 2012. A hacker tricked Apple into giving him access to Honan’s iCloud account, which was the recovery email for his Gmail account, which was the recovery email for his Twitter account. Honan’s Apple and Google accounts were erased, his Twitter was taken over, and his MacBook and iPhone were remotely wiped. Unsurprisingly, Honan has some thoughts on this topic.

“Having email be your unique identifier has been such a bad idea for such a long time,” said Honan, whose relatively common name and email domain means he, too, gets “weird, misdirected stuff all the time,” including many emails related to a social networking site for doctors he believes his address was erroneously signed up for several years ago.

“It’s just completely preposterous to me that it is still used in that way,” he added. “It’s obviously so fraught and so easy to send the wrong stuff to the wrong people.”

Despite decades of pronouncements that email is dead, it is very much alive. Technology research firm Radicati Group estimates that 4.1 billion users worldwide send 319 billion emails every day.

“For all of its flaws, email is still, by most measures, the most effective communication tool ever devised in human history,” Andy Yen, CEO of ProtonMail, told me. “It’s one thing that everybody has.”

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Well, yes. If you were to suggest that instead of email we use some sort of biometric authentication, there would be howls from privacy and rights groups pointing out that that carries all sorts of risks if compromised. Nor would it allow you to create different personae for different elements of your online life. Email is like democracy – the worst way to do things apart from all the others.
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Why admitting Covid is airborne is so hard • The Air Letter

Jeremy Chrysler argues that the centuries of “miasma” theory (that diseases were spread by breathing in bad-smelling air) only yielded very reluctantly to germ theory – but that brought its own inertia:

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It took decades to complete, but once germ theory finally took hold it wouldn’t just be added to the idea that air carried disease, it would create a new foundation of understanding for all scientists who came after.

The foundational belief that the air carried disease was effectively abandoned and replaced by the understanding that germs did. 

In 1910, Charles Chapin helped finalize this replacement when he published The Sources and Modes of Infection, a seminal work in which he systematically argues that infections are spread by close contact, when one person spreads germs – bacteria, parasites, and the like – to another through direct contact. 

Unlike the superstitious miasma theory of old, contact transmission was supported by real evidence – organisms that could be observed and cultured from surfaces. Chapin even cites [cholera documenter John] Snow’s work – he was effectively describing contact transmission before it had a name – among many documented examples of historical contact transmission that weren’t then recognised as such. And Chapin saw little reason to consider airborne transmission at all given what we now knew. 

Thus, belief in airborne transmission was discarded in favor of germ theory.

Chapin writes of airborne spread, “…without denying the possibility of such infection, it may be fairly affirmed that there is no evidence that it is an appreciable factor in…our common contagious diseases. We are warranted, then, in discarding it…and devoting our chief attention to the prevention of contact infection. It will be a great relief to most persons to be freed from the specter of infected air, a specter which has pursued the race from the time of Hippocrates…” 

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Having bounced away from the idea of air as a carrier of disease, science has been very, very, very reluctant to let it back. Which is why you see people superstitiously (there’s no other word for it) squirting hand sanitiser as they go into shops.
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‘Forever changed’: CEOs are dooming business travel — maybe for good • BNN Bloomberg

Alexander Michael Pearson, Tara Patel and William Wilkes:

»

From Pfizer Inc., Michelin and LG Electronics to HSBC Holdings, Hershey, Invesco and Deutsche Bank AG, businesses around the world are signaling that innovative new communications tools are making many pre- pandemic-era trips history.

Take Akzo Nobel NV, Europe’s biggest paint maker, for instance. At its Amsterdam headquarters, Chief Executive Officer Thierry Vanlancker has spent the past year watching his manufacturing head, David Prinselaar, flap his arms, madly gesticulate and seemingly talk to himself while “visiting” 124 plants by directing staff with high-definition augmented-reality headgear on factory floors. A task that meant crisscrossing the globe in a plane before is now done in a fraction of the time — and with no jet lag. For Vanlancker, there’s no going back.

“Trips to drum up business could drop by a third, and internal meetings by even more,” he said in an interview. “It’s a good thing for our wallets and helps our sustainability targets. Our customers have had a year of training, so it’s not a social no-no anymore to just reach out by video… There’s an enormous efficiency element.”

A Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses in the U.S., Europe and Asia shows that 84% plan to spend less on travel post-pandemic. A majority of the respondents cutting travel budgets see reductions of between 20% and 40%, with about two in three slashing both internal and external in-person meetings. 

The ease and efficiency of virtual software, cost savings and lower carbon emissions were the primary reasons cited for the cutbacks. According to the Global Business Travel Association, spending on corporate trips could slide to as low as US$1.24 trillion by 2024 from a pre-pandemic peak in 2019 of US$1.43
trillion. 

Business travel has “forever changed,” Greg Hayes, CEO of jet-engine maker Raytheon Technologies Corp., said in a Bloomberg Radio interview in July. About 30% of normal commercial air traffic is corporate-related but only half of that is likely mandatory, he said. While the market may eventually recover, sophisticated communication technologies have “really changed our thinking in terms of productivity,” Hayes said.

…“We don’t think business travel will ever return to 2019 levels,” said Will Hawkley, the global head of travel and leisure at KPMG LLP. “Corporates are looking at their bottom-line, their environmental commitments, the demand from employees for more flexible working and thinking: Why do I have to bring that back?”

«

Your planet thanks you. (As you might expect, the makers of jet engines think this is all foofarah.)
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LG Chem develops foldable display material using new material technologies • LG

»

LG Chem announced that it had developed the cover window for foldable IT devices called ‘Real Folding Window’ that applied specially developed coating materials to make the surface as hard as glass, while the folding parts as flexible as plastic.

Cover windows are core materials located on the outermost part of IT devices to protect the display from impact, while also delivering clear images.

It is featured by not only its durability and transmittance, but also the curved characteristics that can be folded flexibly.

A speaker from LG Chem said, “Unlike existing polyimide films and tempered glass-type materials, the cover window that applied LG Chem’s new coating technologies will maximize flexibility, while also providing optimized solutions for foldable phones such as making improvements to chronic issues like fold impressions on the connecting part of the screen.”

The ‘Real Folding Window’ that LG Chem developed coated a new material at a thickness of a few dozen micrometers on both sides of PET film, which is a type of thin plastic, to enhance heat-resistance and mechanical properties of plastic materials.

It is thinner compared to existing tempered glass and has the same hardness, but no cracking on the screen. The price competitiveness is superior compared to existing polyimide film and due to its outstanding flexibility, durability is maintained completely even when folding more than 200,000 times. LG Chem also made significant improvements to the fold lines that occur on the folding parts
of the screen.

«

Probably some distance off, but you can see that LG is eyeing foldable screens here. The thought is always that they have to be for phones (because volume pushes the price down) but I wonder if that’s not too limiting; that there are actually many consumer uses around the home or in retail that wouldn’t have to break an existing paradigm which people generally seem pretty happy with.
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Confirmation of COVID-19 in deer in Ohio • US Department of Agriculture

»

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) today announced confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in wild white-tailed deer in Ohio. These are the first deer confirmed with the SARS-CoV-2 virus worldwide, although earlier studies have shown both that deer can be experimentally infected with the virus and that some wild deer had antibodies to the virus.

Samples from the deer were collected between January and March 2021 by The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine as part of ongoing deer damage management activities. There were no reports of any deer showing clinical signs of infection.

Samples from the deer tested presumptive positive at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the cases were confirmed at NVSL. NVSL serves as an international reference laboratory and provides expertise and guidance on diagnostic techniques, as well as confirmatory testing for foreign and emerging animal diseases.

…We are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 in animals. Based on the information available, the risk of animals spreading the virus to people is considered to be low.

«

Yes but first of all, we’re pretty confident that this virus, or its progenitor, was spread from animals to people. Secondly, this means there’s now a proven “animal reservoir” for Covid, which in turn means that it’s definitely endemic. (Also already shown to transmit from humans to mink, and back again.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Two, both relating to yesterday’s post: the forthcoming version of iOS is 15, not 14 (thanks, James and Stuart); the cost to GDP of each flight is per passenger (not per plane or per seat. Doesn’t that mean it’s better to fly empty? Surely it should be per seat…). Thanks, Cam.

Start Up No.1632: the cryptocruise cockup, El Salvador gets laser eyes, driver shortage hits drugs, new Apple MagSafe?, and more


The Japanese knotweed in the UK is almost all derived from a single female plant that doesn’t reproduce. It’s done pretty well, hasn’t it. CC-licensed photo by ☼☼Jo Zimny Photos☼☼ on Flickr.

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

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


The disastrous voyage of Satoshi, the world’s first cryptocurrency cruise ship • The Guardian

Sophie Elmhirst:

»

he announced the venture on Reddit: “So, I am buying a cruise ship and naming it MS Satoshi … AMA.” The responses were quick (“Need an apprentice aviation mechanic?” “I know how to use a yo-yo! Any room for me??”) and included the inevitable sceptics. (“Anyone remember the good old days of the Fyre festival?”) But plenty took the proposition seriously and wanted to go over the small print. (“Where is power coming from? Gas? Internet? Food? Water? Toiletries? What taxes will she be subject to?”)

Elwartowski answered every question with grave attention to detail. There would be generators at first, followed quickly by solar power. This would be an eco-friendly crypto-ship. High-speed wireless internet would come from land; utilities would be included in the fees at first, but would be metered when the systems were upgraded: “You don’t want to have pay for someone else’s mining rig in their cabin,” he wrote, referring to the resource-intensive computational process that introduces new crypto “coins” into the system. As for tax, you would not pay any on earnings made from ventures based in territory beyond Panama. You would be free to make, or mine, as much money as you liked. It would be a remote worker’s regulatory paradise.

But as the Reddit Q&A continued, Elwartowski’s meticulous responses revealed some of the more knotty practicalities of life on board. It turned out that the only cooking facilities would be in the restaurant. For safety reasons, no one was allowed to have a microwave in their rooms – though some cabins had mini-fridges, noted Elwartowski, determinedly sidestepping the point. He offered residents a 20% discount at the restaurant and mentioned that some interested cruisers had already talked about renting part of the restaurant kitchen so they could make their own food.

«

Of course you guessed that this libertarian dream went wonky. In its way, this reminds me of the (true) story about the libertarians who tried to take over a New Hampshire town that also had a resident population of bears.
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El Salvador’s bitcoin gamble is off to a rocky start • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:

»

Crucial details regarding how the adoption of bitcoin will play out in practice are still unclear, or have only been disclosed in recent days. A government regulation issued on August 27 established that Salvadoran banks will have to offer the exchange of bitcoin for dollars and vice versa – when carried out through a government-backed wallet – without charging commissions; the regulation also requires that all companies providing bitcoin-related services register with a government body, and adopt anti-money laundering measures (it is not clear what the penalties would be for failing to do so.)

“This was done a week and a half before September 7,” says Mario Aguiluz, chief sales officer of IBEX Mercado, a Guatemalan firm that sells bitcoin exchange and payment solutions, which also operates in El Salvador. “You really have to ask whether the government is ready. It’s a mixed bag.”

There is also a dearth of information about the government’s own bitcoin wallet, called Chivo. It’s known that it will work in concert with 200 Chivo ATM machines where users would be able to exchange their bitcoin for cash, free of commissions (a recent Economist story reports a five% fee being charged when converting dollars into bitcoins, although the publication must have used a third-party wallet), and that each Chivo wallet will come complete with $30 worth of bitcoin as a government freebie. What we do not know is who exactly has developed the wallet or the ATM machines, and what technology will underpin it.

According to Chris Hunter, co-founder of bitcoin firm Galoy, such plans are changing “almost hour-by-hour”. Hunter, whose bitcoin payment service in the Salvadoran coastal village of El Zonte reportedly inspired the nationwide project, says that the situation was still “very fluid” as of early September. As recently as last week, he was convinced that Chivo would not be able to use the lightning network, a system that dramatically speeds up bitcoin transactions, which would otherwise take several minutes to be confirmed. “Now, it seems pretty clear to me – if you asked me to make a wager – that it will be enabled as of Tuesday,” Hunter says. El Salvador’s government did not reply to a request for comment.

«

Here’s what I don’t understand. If El Salvador wanted to make it easier for people to transfer money from other countries, why not set up its own cryptocoin and exchange, fix a rate with the dollar, and let El Salvadorans buy them in other countries to be exchanged in-country? And to be used in-country? Why use bitcoin, which is complex and liable to currency swings? (It fell by 10% on the day El Salvador made it legal.) Again, I still want to know what the PKIs for adopting bitcoin are.
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Exclusive: London hit with MDMA ‘drought’ because of shortage of lorry drivers • Metro News

Harrison Jones:

»

London is experiencing an MDMA ‘drought’ due to Covid and Brexit disrupting supply lines, experts say.

The wider drugs trade is thought to have been hit hard by the two issues for a number of months, but a recent reduction in Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) transporting items across the UK is affecting supplies of some illegal substances.

The cocaine market has been particularly impacted over the last 18 months, while other areas outside the UK capital have also seen drugs shortages.

Numerous factors are involved and some experts are downplaying the impact of Covid and Brexit – adding that they may not be behind a record number of drugs deaths or any changes in purity levels.

But Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drugs charity Release, told Metro.co.uk: ‘The availability of MDMA has been severely reduced in some parts of the UK, with people in London describing it as a drought.

‘This could certainly be a result of the reduction of HGVs carrying goods in from Europe, where illegal goods would usually be concealed amongst legal products, and where suppliers have prioritised getting in more lucrative drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.’

She explained: ‘Like many other goods that are imported into the UK, we are seeing the supply chain for some illicit substances affected, although as this is an unregulated market it is hard to pin it down… and it is likely the result of a number of different factors.’

«

Wow. I thought raspberries was bad. But this is serious. (I like how this is “Exclusive”. I wonder – you know, just wondering aloud – how Jones came upon the story, if it’s exclusive, since a press release from Release would go to lots of outlets.)
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Climate impact of a transatlantic flight could cost global economy $3,000 • The Guardian

»

A return flight from the UK to New York could cost the global economy more than $3,000 (£2,170) in the long run, owing to the effects of the climate crisis, according to a report.

Researchers examined the economic cost of the climate crisis and found it would cut about 37% from global GDP this century, more than twice the drop experienced in the Great Depression.

For every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, the global economy would be $3,000 worse off by the end of the century, they estimated.

The research was conducted by experts from Cambridge University, University College London and Imperial College London, as well as international partners from Switzerland, Germany, the US and Austria.

Most estimates had assumed fires, floods, droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis did not affect economic growth, the authors said, but there was “mounting evidence to the contrary”.

“Climate change makes detrimental events like the recent heatwave in North America and the floods in Europe much more likely,” said Dr Chris Brierley from University College London. “If we stop assuming that economies recover from such events within months, the costs of warming look much higher than usually stated.”

«

There’s more to come on topics like this: scientists are not sitting around now. Not clear here whether it’s a per-passenger or per-seat or per-plane.
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Need another book? Try Social Warming, my latest, about how social media sows and amplifies division.


New Apple MagSafe charger spotted in FCC alongside four new phones • The Verge

Jon Porter:

»

Apple could have a new version of its iPhone MagSafe charging puck on the way. A new FCC listing for a “Magnetic Charger” first spotted by blogger Dave Zatz shows an accessory with a new model name (A2548) that looks otherwise identical to Apple’s existing charger (A2140). The new charger has been tested with a variety of devices including four marked as “New Phone,” which almost certainly correspond to Apple’s anticipated iPhone 13 models.

There aren’t too many hints about what’s new in the official FCC documents. 9to5Mac notes that it’s been tested with all four existing iPhone 12 models (marked as “Legacy Phone”) as well as the four unannounced devices, which suggests this new MagSafe charger should be compatible with both generations. And there’s also a diagram showing the puck being used to charge a pair of AirPods. That’s something the existing MagSafe charger can technically already do, although it won’t magnetically attach to the AirPods case like it will with the latest iPhones.

«

Bit by bit, everything about Apple’s announcement next week (apart really from names and prices) is leaking out, as happens every year. The formal video (no physical press show – wait another year?) is Tuesday next week. One expects that’s when iOS 14 will be released too.
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Could in-person conversations tone down the culture wars? • FT

Jemima Kelly:

»

While I can think of countless instances on social media in which anyone who dares to even question these ideas [about wokeness] is attacked viciously by online mobs, I can’t recall a single recent IRL (in real life) conversation in which I have come across the same lack of nuance and censorious moral grandstanding.

Perhaps some of the “consensus” that seems to have become so entrenched over the course of the pandemic might not be quite as widely shared as it appears to be. Maybe — though this might be a little optimistic — as we gradually return to face-to-face conversations, the culture wars that have raged online in recent months, often with real-world repercussions, might start to ebb.

One of the reasons the online discourse seems so polarised is the way that social media algorithms and 280-character limits favour simplistic and uncompromising points of view that play to a certain “side”. Also, those people who hold the most extreme views tend to share them more often. According to a poll by NGO More in Common, just 13% of the British population falls into the “progressive activist” category but they are about six times more likely than the other seven groups identified to share their political opinions on social media. The category of “loyal nationals”, who feel the most threated by immigration, are the second most likely to post their opinions online.

“We think we’re divided but the proportion that says we’re divided is lower than a few years ago,” says Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos-MORI, a polling group. “A lot of it is shouty media and shouty social media, and smallish numbers of people shouting at each other.”

It’s true that some of the blame must be taken by my profession. We, like the rest of the world, have been trapped online since early 2020 and have probably too often relied on social media as a gauge for how the general public thinks. “Journalism has always had the taxi driver bias — a journalist arrives in a new country and the people they speak to the most and first are taxi drivers,” says Martin Walker, a director at the Center for Evidence-Based Management. “Twitter is the new taxi driver.”

A further problem is that those of us who spend our time on the English-speaking internet falsely imagine that we are all living in the same society, when we are not. America is far more polarised than we are in Britain, and to a certain extent we have imported its culture wars (we even have a new Fox-News-alike channel dedicated to fighting them).

«

It’s as if social media amplifies extreme opinions, which are then taken up by other media and amplified too. I could recommend a book on the topic.
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The rise and fall of ‘ZuckTalk’ • The New York Times

John Herrman:

»

So, in spoken language, there are these things that just sort of show up over time, and then it seems like they’re everywhere, and so we call them trends, right? So in a world where there is more recorded speech than ever, and, um, more access to all of this speech, these changes can happen very fast, but they can also be harder to isolate, right? So there’s actually a whole field about this, and it’s actually called linguistics, and it’s a really good tool for understanding the world around us.

Right?

Maybe you know someone who talks like this. It’s a disorienting speaking style, one that marries supreme confidence with nervous filler words and a fear of pauses. Maybe you overhear this voice talking to a date about meme stocks.

Maybe you hear it pitching a counterintuitive regulatory proposal on TV, or on a podcast, explaining which complicated things are actually simple and which simple things are actually complicated. Maybe it’s an executive on an earnings call, in an interview or pacing around a stage, delivering a Jobsian message in a Gatesian tone.

Maybe you hear Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook. The style didn’t originate with him, nor is he responsible for its spread. He may, however, be its most visible and successful practitioner.

«

The tic of “So…” at the beginning of a sentence was apparently noticed by Michael Lewis (yes, him) back in 2005 among Microsoft programmers. Now you hear it on every Today radio interview. This is a fascinating piece though about the vocal tics that you’ll recognise in all the passive-aggressive and defensive interviews of techbros (and gals) you’ll hear. (Via John Naughton.)
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Exclusive: Amazon considers more proactive approach to determining what belongs on its cloud service • Reuters

Sheila Dang:

»

Amazon.com Inc plans to take a more proactive approach to determine what types of content violate its cloud service policies, such as rules against promoting violence, and enforce its removal, according to two sources, a move likely to renew debate about how much power tech companies should have to restrict free speech.

Over the coming months, Amazon will expand the Trust & Safety team at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) division and hire a small group of people to develop expertise and work with outside researchers to monitor for future threats, one of the sources familiar with the matter said.

It could turn Amazon, the leading cloud service provider worldwide with 40% market share according to research firm Gartner, into one of the world’s most powerful arbiters of content allowed on the internet, experts say.

AWS does not plan to sift through the vast amounts of content that companies host on the cloud, but will aim to get ahead of future threats, such as emerging extremist groups whose content could make it onto the AWS cloud, the source added.

«

So something of a step on from when it banned Wikileaks in December 2010 (which Amazon says wasn’t at the behest of the US State Department).
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How Facebook undermines privacy protections for its two billion WhatsApp users • ProPublica

Peter Elkind, Jack Gillum and Craig Silverman:

»

WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp emphasizes this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”

Those assurances are not true. WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore, where they examine millions of pieces of users’ content. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems. These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.

Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp. A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasizes the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative.” It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala ​​Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters.” The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.

WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.” The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments.

…This article is the first to reveal the details and extent of the company’s ability to scrutinize messages and user data — and to examine what the company does with that information.

…WhatsApp reviewers gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service. This forwards five messages — the allegedly offending one along with the four previous ones in the exchange, including any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to former WhatsApp engineers and moderators.

«

This is essentially how WhatsApp moderators identify child abuse imagery and “terrorists”. So, dependent on user reports. As many have said, this doesn’t show that WhatsApp E2E is compromised.
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The Day of the Knotweed • Harper’s Magazine

Sam Knight:

»

In 1847, the Japanese knotweed won a gold medal from the Society of Agriculture and Horticulture in Utrecht for being the most interesting new ornamental plant of the year. It was another century before biologists began to realize that a systemic collision was taking place: humanity’s project to connect the world was overriding the earth’s natural barriers of water, mountain, and desert. During World War II, globalized supply chains introduced 140 alien species of grass into the forests of Finland. In the early Fifties, the brown tree snake, a native of Australia, arrived in Guam, where it has wiped out twelve bird species and reached a population density of 13,000 snakes per square mile.

Biologists sometimes use the term “enemy-release hypothesis” to describe the ability of foreign creatures to overwhelm a new habitat. If there is a food supply and nothing trying to eat you, then even humble beings can become monsters. In the case of itadori, her roots found new vigor in the tarmacked towns and polluted waterways of industrial Europe. The two hundred or so insects that plagued her in Japan and the stronger rivals that stole her light were nowhere to be seen.

In the 1970s, a plant biologist named Ann Conolly published the first maps showing the spread of the knotweed across the U.K. In 1981, itadori became one of the first plants named under Britain’s Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it a criminal offense to release the weed into the wild. But like many other well-meaning pieces of paper intended to stop invasions, the law against the knotweed didn’t change a damned thing.

«

A gentle, fascinating tour around how this invasive species has taken over chunks of Wales, having been tested in volcanic outlets and finding the slag heaps of mines much to its taste. The bad news: if it were ever to breed, we’d really be in trouble.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1631: Biden laptop repairman gets Twitter court bill, the supply chain lashes its tail, where crypto is really catching on, and more


Millions of people aren’t getting even as far as job interviews because automated software is wrongly rejecting them for consideration. CC-licensed photo by Andy Dayton 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. Honestly, it’s not prime. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Automated resume-scanning software is contributing to a “broken” hiring system in the US, says a new report from Harvard Business School. Such software is used by employers to filter job applicants, but is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable candidates, say the study’s authors. It’s contributing to the problem of “hidden workers” — individuals who are able and willing to work, but remain locked out of jobs by structural problems in the labor market.

The study’s authors identify a number of factors blocking people from employment, but say automated hiring software is one of the biggest. These programs are used by 75% of US employers (rising to 99% of Fortune 500 companies), and were adopted in response to a rise in digital job applications from the ‘90s onwards. Technology has made it easier for people to apply for jobs, but also easier for companies to reject them.

The exact mechanics of how automated software mistakenly reject candidates are varied, but generally stem from the use of overly-simplistic criteria to divide “good” and “bad” applicants.

For example, some systems automatically reject candidates with gaps of longer than six months in their employment history, without ever asking the cause of this absence. It might be due to a pregnancy, because they were caring for an ill family member, or simply because of difficulty finding a job in a recession. More specific examples cited by one of the study’s author, Joseph Miller, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal include hospitals who only accepted candidates with experience in “computer programming” on their CV, when all they needed were workers to enter patient data into a computer. Or, a company that rejected applicants for a retail clerk position if they didn’t list “floor-buffing” as one of their skills, even when candidates’ resumes matched every other desired criteria.

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Does it scale? Yes, badly.
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Hunter Biden laptop guy owes Twitter money after failed lawsuit • Vice

Matthew Gault:

»

The guy who gave Hunter Biden’s laptop to Rudy Giuliani owes Twitter money thanks to a failed lawsuit. 

John Paul Mac Isaac, the owner of the Delaware repair store where Biden allegedly left a MacBook Pro, attempted to sue Twitter for defamation in federal court. The judge tossed out the case with prejudice, meaning Mac Isaac can’t sue again, and ordered Mac Isaac to pay Twitter’s attorney’s fees.

According to copies of the lawsuit obtained by Law & Crime, Mac Isaac claimed Twitter defamed him when it locked The New York Post’s account following its publication of a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. The reason Twitter gave for locking the account was that The New York Post had acquired the material published in the story via hacking. According to Mac Isaac, calling The New York Post a hacker implied that he was also a hacker. The New York Post never mentioned Mac Isaac’s name in its initial story.

“Defendant Twitter’s actions and statements had the specific intent to communicate to its users….that Plaintiff is a hacker and/ or hacked the published materials,” the lawsuit said. “According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘hacker’ is a ‘person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system.’ The term ‘hacker’ is not only widely disparaging, particularly when said about someone who owns a computer repair business but is also a criminal act. Plaintiff is not a hacker.”

The court said Mac Isaac’s theory was “flawed for several reasons.”

The biggest was that Mac Isaac’s lawsuit conceded that The New York Post never identified him or his store by name and that this information came to light only after journalists at other outlets had figured it out.

«

Not having been named in the alleged acts does indeed seem to my not-a-lawyer mind like a bit of an obstacle in a defamation lawsuit.
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Chip shortage curtails heavy-duty truck production • WSJ

Jennifer Smith:

»

The semiconductor shortage is short-circuiting heavy-duty truck production as supply-chain disruptions hamper efforts to meet robust demand for new big rigs.

North American production of Class 8 trucks, the big vehicles that haul most domestic freight, sank this summer to its lowest level since May 2020, when the coronavirus had shut down much of the U.S. economy. Equipment makers built 14,920 units in July, the most recent month for which figures were available, while the backlog of trucks ordered but not built nearly tripled from the same month a year ago, to 262,100, according to transportation data provider ACT Research.

The production problems began earlier this year and have persisted for months, driving up the cost of used heavy-duty trucks and straining supply lines ahead of the fall, when fleets typically place big orders for new equipment.

North American trucking companies, pushing to expand capacity to meet strong freight demand, ordered 36,900 heavy-duty trucks in August, the highest level in five months and up 90% from the prior-year period, according to preliminary figures from ACT.

“Everything you want to see for Class 8 demand is there in spades,” said ACT President and Senior Analyst Kenny Vieth. “What’s missing are parts.”

«

The chip shortage harms the delivery vehicles harms the chip supply harms the…
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One stuck box of fertilizer shows the global supply chain crisis • SupplyChainBrain

Ann Koh:

»

While the fertilizer has been stranded there since May, the port is just one stop on the long journey from central China to the US Midwest. Delays have stretched a delivery that ordinarily would take weeks to more than half a year. And that time frame will keep expanding, as the goods have barely started the roughly 15,000 kilometer (9,300 mile) trek.

This is the tale of one humble shipment and its arduous journey across the world. While some of the barriers keeping it from its final destination may be specific to this particular case, the journey is emblematic of the inertia that has gripped global trade during the pandemic.

From the US to Sudan to China, container boxes have been lying at ports, railyards and in warehouses as the pandemic rages on. In an industry with 25 million containers and some 6,000 ships hauling them, it’s easy to see disruptions as one big headache confined to the shipping world. But each container that’s delayed is economic activity that’s restrained, heaping costs one box at a time on consumers and making it more challenging to put corn on consumers’ tables or deliver presents for the holidays.

It’s also a lesson in the ripple effects across global supply chains, showing the limits of diversification as all networks are still closely connected with China. 

“All roads lead back to China, and that has a major effect across the entire supply chain,” said Dawn Tiura, head of US-based Sourcing Industry Group. “Congestion at one port or factory has far-reaching implications for neighboring facilities, which trickles out across the world.”

«

There’s an SF book called Infinite Detail by the British writer Tim Maughan set in a world where the internet is destroyed (he’s got an explanation), and with it every supply chain. He got the idea from riding on a container ship. Our supply chains are under a lot of strain at present. The SupplyChainBrain (and what looks like a sibling, Haulage News) give a peek into the scary problems there.
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Why many scientists say it’s unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a ‘lab leak’ • Science

Jon Cohen, with a thorough examination of everything we know (and don’t):

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on 23 May, The Wall Street Journal reported the existence of an “undisclosed U.S. Intelligence report” that said three WIV researchers “sought hospital care” in November 2019. The story had no details about their illnesses, and some have noted that Chinese hospitals provide care for all ailments, including minor ones.

Virologist Robert Garry of Tulane University finds it improbable that a Wuhan lab worker picked up SARS-CoV-2 from a bat and then brought it back to the city, sparking the pandemic. As the WIV study of people living near bat caves shows, transmission of related bat coronaviruses occurs routinely. “Why would the virus first have infected a few dozen lab researchers?” he asks. The virus may also have moved from bats into other species before jumping to humans, as happened with SARS. But again, why would it have infected a lab worker first? “There are hundreds of millions of people who come in contact with wildlife.”

Another data point argues against infected researchers playing a role, Garry says. As the WHO joint mission report spells out, clusters of early COVID-19 cases had links to multiple Wuhan markets around the same time, which Garry says supports the idea of infected animals or animal traders bringing the virus to the city. A lab worker with COVID-19 would have had to make “a beeline not just to one market, but to several different markets,” he says. “You can’t rule it out, but then why the markets? Why not a soccer game or a concert or 100 other different scenarios?”

But David Relman, a Stanford University microbiome researcher who also co-signed the Science letter, questions the “hopelessly impoverished” data on the earliest COVID-19 cases. “I just don’t think we have enough right now to say anything with great confidence,” Relman says.

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First US Covid deaths earlier – and in different places – than previously thought • Mercury News

Harriet Blair Rowan:

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In a significant twist that could reshape our understanding of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, death records now indicate the first COVID-related deaths in California and across the country occurred in January 2020, weeks earlier than originally thought and before officials knew the virus was circulating here.

A half dozen death certificates from that month in six different states — California, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — have been quietly amended to list COVID-19 as a contributing factor, suggesting the virus’s deadly path quickly reached far beyond coastal regions that were the country’s early known hotspots.

Up until now, the Feb. 6, 2020, death of San Jose’s Patricia Dowd had been considered the country’s first coronavirus fatality, although where and how she was infected remains unknown.

Even less is known about what are now believed to be the country’s earliest victims of the pandemic. The Bay Area News Group discovered evidence of them in provisional coronavirus death counts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) — widely considered the definitive source for death data in the United States — and confirmed the information through interviews with state and federal public health officials.

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Dowd’s death would be odd enough (though someone has to be first). But the revision puts the first death between Jan 4 and 11 of 2020, which given the typical three-week delay between infection and death suggests first infection in mid-December. Someone who visited China? Wuhan? Somewhere else? The earlier the first US death is confirmed to be (and this pulls it back from the 6 February, nearly a whole month) the earlier the original cases in China must have been.
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It’s called Social Warming because it’s all around us, the effects are tough to reverse, and we almost all contribute to it. But it’s an effect on society.


Pumpers, dumpers, and shills: the Skycoin saga • The New Yorker

Morgan Peck:

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In the spring of 2018, Skycoin climbed into the list of the top hundred coins, and appeared on a Nasdaq Web cast. That May, Binance announced that it would list Skycoin on its trading platform. Around the time of the listing, the price jumped thirty-eight%. Then, suddenly, it came crashing down. According to several people involved, Skycoin privately sold to investors at a steep discount—in at least one case, coins worth millions of dollars—inadvertently giving them an incentive to dump it on the market as soon as they could. (Smietana denied being involved in such sales.) Smietana had claimed on Telegram that the investors were restricted from selling. But, as soon as Binance listed Skycoin, the market flooded with sell orders. Freeman, from the C2CX exchange, had been acting as the project’s primary “market maker,” using a pool of reserves to provide market liquidity and stabilize prices. “I tried to hold at about twenty,” he told me. But the sell-off was too much to contain. Coinholders shared their misery on Telegram. “Its been fun guys, i’m gonns hang myself in 2 hours,” a user named Willy Jr. wrote. “Bought 20K at 20 dollars.” A user named Dante wrote, “synth told me this shit would moon,” adding, “i took a mortage on my house.”

A few weeks into the sell-off, a voice message from Smietana emerged on Telegram that seemed to imply that the biggest Skycoin investors were coördinating their moves in a secret chat room. Smietana said in the message, of the investors, “Everyone was basically doing the exact opposite of whatever the public was doing.” (Smietana acknowledged being in the chat room at one point but claimed that he was barely involved.) Rumor spread that the S.E.C. would investigate Skycoin as a result, and that Binance was considering delisting it. In the public chat, coinholders prepared for a death spiral. A user called Opaque wrote, “I want to say calm down guys, but its really doesnt look good.”

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That’s the western version. To set against that…
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Cryptocurrencies: developing countries provide fertile ground • Financial Times

Jonathan Wheatley and Adrienne Klasa:

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In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, a software coder bills her client in London and is paid in bitcoin, sidestepping a costly banking system and the naira currency’s miserly official exchange rate. In São Paulo, Brazil, a dentist puts his monthly savings into an exchange traded fund investing in a basket of cryptocurrencies that is the second most popular ETF on the local bourse. Individuals and businesses in Vietnam invest, trade and transact so much in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that the south-east Asian nation has the world’s highest rate of crypto adoption.

In advanced economies, cryptocurrencies are viewed by many in the financial world with suspicion — the domain of zealous “crypto bros” and a speculative and highly volatile fad that can only end badly. Regulators in Europe and the US have issued stark warnings about the dangers of trading crypto.

But in the developing world, there are signs that crypto is quietly building deeper roots. Especially in countries which have a history of financial instability or where the barriers to accessing traditional financial products such as bank accounts are high, cryptocurrency use is fast becoming a fact of daily life.

…Chainalysis ranks Vietnam first for crypto adoption worldwide — one of 19 emerging and frontier markets in its top 20, with only the US among advanced economies making an appearance at number eight in 2021. “It’s very striking this year, [adoption] is a story of emerging and frontier markets,” adds Grauer.

Separate data from UsefulTulips.org, tracking bitcoin transactions on the world’s two biggest peer-to-peer crypto trading platforms, show that in the past few weeks, sub-Saharan Africa has overtaken North America to become the geographical region with the highest volume of this kind of crypto activity.

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Rather like mobile banking (huge in Africa, completely mystifying to most Americans until recently) perhaps crypto is going to be big elsewhere, and more effectively. It will also be a struggle between the westerners wanting to use it for speculation – and so wanting its value to rise – and those using it as currency, who need stability.
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YouTube’s plan to showcase credible health information is flawed, experts warn • Scientific American

Grant Currin:

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These changes [in which searches on topics like ‘Covid-19’ turn up a sidebar of sanctioned videos] mark a “massive development in how the company envisions itself,” Donovan says. They suggest YouTube is seeking to become “an important source of information” rather than the digital equivalent to “the free bin at a record store.” Some experts, however, worry that identifying and elevating health care organizations and government agencies will not have the intended effect of encouraging people to view more accurate information.

“I’m just not sure that people are tuning in to YouTube to see more scientists or people who have been determined to be credible or authoritative,” says Corey Basch, a public health researcher at William Paterson University. Her studies of YouTube and TikTok reveal that videos produced by official organizations tend to be viewed far less often than content from creators who have earned the trust of communities on the platform. The move also does little to address “not unfounded” mistrust in many of the institutions that have been elevated by the change, she says. Basch thinks the problems run far deeper than access to facts. “Sometimes we miss the point that human emotion and behavior is often rooted in social and emotional factors versus cognitive ones,” she says. Graham acknowledges that “people trust sources for different reasons” and that information that does not originate from a “culturally relevant” source is unlikely to lead to a change in behavior. He says YouTube has plans to work with independent creators who make medical content that is engaging and reliable, but he would not discuss the plan in any detail.

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Basch has it exactly. People won’t trust “institutions”. If they could get Pewdiepie or Logan Paul to make a video telling them that ivermectin isn’t proven and that Covid is real, they’d be sorted.
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TrickBot gang member arrested after getting stuck in South Korea due to COVID-19 pandemic • The Record

Catalin Cimpanu:

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A Russian man was arrested last week at the Seoul international airport on accusations of developing code for the TrickBot malware gang.

The man, identified in local media reports only as Mr. A, was arrested trying to leave South Korea for his native home in Russia after he’d been stuck in the Asian country for more than a year and a half.

The suspect, who arrived in February 2020, was initially prevented from leaving after Seoul officials canceled international travel at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When air travel restrictions were lifted, the suspect’s passport had expired, forcing Mr. A to live in a Seoul studio apartment until this summer while the local Russian embassy issued a replacement.

However, while the suspect was awaiting a passport replacement, US officials started an official investigation against TrickBot, a Russian-based malware gang that had used its botnet to facilitate ransomware attacks across the US throughout 2020.

While a takedown operation spearheaded by several security firms failed in October 2020, US officials had more success on a legal front, announcing the arrest of a 55-year-old Latvian woman named Alla Witte, who US prosecutors said worked as one of TrickBot’s programmers.

Similar to Witte’s indictment, a South Korean judge said Mr. A was charged for working with the TrickBot gang and developing a web browser-related component for the group after answering a job ad in 2016 — the same way Witte was recruited.

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Right up there in “unluckiest criminals”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1630: Apple delays CSAM rollout, the flaws in the collapsed Florida condo, Banksy was warned of NFT hack, and more


Polluters in the US have been able to count on a six-day cycle when their emissions won’t be monitored – because the regulators tell them when they’ll be off. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster 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. Zero primes this week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple delays CSAM scanning rollout • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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While catching people who traffic images of exploited children is a noble cause, the idea of giving Apple customers no choice but to have software on their phones that would look for illegal activity was a step too far for many privacy advocates and security experts.

“It’s encouraging that the backlash has forced Apple to delay this reckless and dangerous surveillance plan, but the reality is that there is no safe way to do what they are proposing,” said Evan Greer, director of Internet advocacy group Fight for the Future, in a statement. “Apple’s current proposal will make vulnerable children less safe, not more safe. They should shelve it permanently,” she wrote.

John Tanagho, executive director of the International Justice Mission’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, disagreed with Apple’s decision to delay the software rollout.
“Apple’s changes are a positive step forward and must not be delayed,” he wrote in a statement. “The world should not elevate the hypothetical and unlikely corruption of child safety solutions over the known and rampant misuse of existing technology to harm children.” [Emphasis in original – CA]

Apple has similarly stepped back or delayed on other privacy changes following an outcry. For instance, after a backlash from the advertising industry, Apple delayed changes to the rollout of its new software that forces app developers to ask users if they want to be tracked. It also delayed and ultimately changed rules that would have prohibited kids apps from using analytics software after the owners of many kids apps said the move would put them out of business.

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Notably only the Washington Post and The Guardian had quotes from organisations which thought Apple should press ahead. And the WaPo made the good point about the long delay before the ad-tracking introduction. It’s been quite the mess for Apple PR – though the number of people who don’t understand the principles has been amazing.

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Why the industry should heed China’s crackdown on video game players • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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I know some western parents found themselves looking at the new [Chinese] rules wistfully. Imposing limits on surly children is hard and being able to – truthfully – tell a kid to stop playing video games on a weekday night because it’s against the law can sometimes feel like it would be a parenting superpower versus simply cajoling, pleading or threatening.

Ultimately, the Chinese state and British parents are tackling the same beast: a gaming industry that has, over the past 40 years, honed its product to such fine ends that it is sometimes plausible to talk about the output using the language of addiction and compulsion. I’m a huge gaming fan, but even I get uncomfortable when I look at the business models – and revenue – of some of the industry’s largest players.

From collectible card game Hearthstone to Zelda-esque hit Genshin Impact, a Chinese-made blockbuster on both sides of the Great Firewall, it’s all too common for games to be free to play, attracting huge audiences, and then funded by what is effectively a casino. Even games without that fundamentally exploitative underpinning can be all too manipulative. Daily and weekly use-it-or-lose-it quests, login rewards for continuous streaks of play, season passes that ask a player to grind out enough playtime over a couple of months to unlock everything: all are habit-forming practices that are explicitly designed to override a player’s sense of what a normal amount of play actually is.

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It’s always an open question when we’ll get a generation in charge who grew up with videogames and who will thus treat them appropriately. David Cameron, after all, loved playing stupid iPad games. But he didn’t understand the role they played in people’s lives. Possibly nobody who really gets into politics does because their respective time demands make them mutually exclusive. Result, mutual lack of understanding.
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Miami’s Surfside condo was flawed and failing. here’s a look inside • The New York Times

Anjali Singhvi, Mike Baker, Weiyi Cai, Mika Gröndahl and Karthik Patanjali:

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The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo left 98 people dead and triggered investigations that could last years. Such a catastrophic failure would almost certainly have many contributing factors, engineers said.

The New York Times created a 3-D model of the tower based on the original design drawings. That model, combined with a review of documents and interviews with structural experts, reveals how design errors, last-minute changes, dubious construction practices and years of worsening deterioration could have all contributed to the collapse.

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This is one of the NYT’s amazing graphic depictions of what happened in the collapse of the condo. A lot seems to rest on one particular pile in the car park – but equally, if it hadn’t been that one, it would have been another, in time. The other question is : how many more.
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PM’s former aide blames Whitehall for Covid ‘mixed messages’ • The Guardian

Heather Stewart:

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Boris Johnson’s former director of communications has blamed a lack of expertise in Whitehall for the government’s struggle to get its message across in the early days of the Covid crisis.

Lee Cain was a key adviser to Johnson, who boasted about shaking hands on a hospital visit, claimed the government could “turn the tide” within 12 weeks, and said it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas, days before ordering millions of people to spend the festive season at home.

But in a paper for the Institute for Government (IfG), the former Vote Leave staffer pointed to shortcomings in the government machine that he said led to “mixed messages”. He called for an overhaul, including a drastic reduction in staff numbers.

Cain claimed data visualisation skills were so lacking that there was “nobody with the ability” to create the slides for the daily Covid press conferences, fronted by the prime minister and watched by millions of people.

“Even when a system was designed, people struggled with the skills required and slides were often sent only moments before press conferences were due to begin,” he said.

Despite more than 4,000 communications staff being employed across the government, many departmental press offices are “unable to conduct the most basic functions”, Cain said.

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Cain’s paper is here, and there’s also a response to it which says “Cain overlooks the damage of a lack of honesty and transparency, especially by letting ministers off the hook, and gives too little time to underlying problems with the way policy is made.” (Emphasis added.) The quote about the lack of ability to make slides is quite scary for what it says about the skills – and age? – of the staff.
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Minus • Ben Grosser

Grosser has a fascinating take on social networks:

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what if social media wasn’t engineered to serve capitalism’s need for growth? How might online collective communication be different if our time and attention were treated as the limited and precious resources that they are? Minus is an experiment to ask these questions, a finite social network where users get only 100 posts—for life.

Rather than the algorithmic feeds, visible “like” counts, noisy notifications, and infinite scrolls employed by the platforms to induce endless user engagement, Minus limits how much one posts to the feed, and foregrounds—as its only visible and dwindling metric—how few opportunities they have left. Instead of preying on our needs for communication and connection in order to transform them into desires for speed and accumulation, Minus offers an opportunity to reimagine what it means to be connected in the contemporary age.

The work facilitates conversation within a subtractive frame that eschews the noise and frenzy for a quieter and slower setting that foregrounds human voices, words, and temporalities. Though it may be disorienting at first to navigate an online social space devoid of the signals and patterns Silicon Valley uses to always push for more, Minus invites us to see what digital interaction feels like when a social media platform is designed for less.

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If you only had 100 posts, would you use them interacting with other people? What is a social network if you don’t want to be social? (I spoke to Grosser and quoted him in Social Warming: his pointers to how social networks manipulate us to spend more time on them are very illuminating.)
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Banksy was warned about website flaw before NFT hack scam • BBC News

Joe Tidy:

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Artist Banksy’s team was warned his website had a security weakness seven days before a hacker scammed a fan out of $336,000 (£242,000).

On Tuesday a piece of art was advertised on Banksy’s official website as the world-renowned graffiti artist’s first NFT (non-fungible token).

A British collector won the auction to buy it, before realising it was a fake.

A cyber-security expert warned Banksy that the website could be hacked, but was ignored.

With NFTs, artwork can be “tokenised” to create a digital certificate of ownership that can be bought and sold. They do not generally give the buyer the actual artwork or its copyright.

Sam Curry, a professional ethical hacker from the US and founder of security consultancy Palisade, said he first heard that the site could have a weakness on the social network Discord, last month. “I was in a security forum and multiple people were posting links to the site. I’d clicked one and immediately saw it was vulnerable, so I reached out to Banksy’s team via email as I wasn’t sure if anyone else had.

“They didn’t respond over email, so I tried a few other ways to contact them including their Instagram, but never received a response.”

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Doctor says gunshot victims wait, ivermectin patients overwhelm hospitals • Rolling Stone

Peter Wade wrote a story and then there was a teensy bit of an update to his story about a doctor telling him that gunshot victims had been forced to wait while ivermectin idiots stuffed the ICU:

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UPDATE: Northeastern Hospital System Sequoyah issued a statement: Although Dr. Jason McElyea is not an employee of NHS Sequoyah, he is affiliated with a medical staffing group that provides coverage for our emergency room.

With that said, Dr. McElyea has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months. NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin. This includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose. All patients who have visited our emergency room have received medical attention as appropriate. Our hospital has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care.

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The original version of the story pinged all over Twitter, with many people commenting “tell me a more American headline if you possibly can”. At least one agency picked the story up and repeated it, and it went around the world.

McElyea’s comment was, as journalists say in the trade, too good to check for details such as whether he actually worked there.
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Poorly devised regulation lets firms pollute with abandon • The Economist

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Athletes don’t get advance warning of drug tests. Police don’t share schedules of planned raids. Yet America’s Environmental Protection Agency (epa) does not seem convinced of the value of surprise in deterring bad behaviour. Every year it publishes a list of dates, spaced at six-day intervals, on which it will require state and local agencies to provide data on concentrations of harmful fine particulate matter (pm2.5), such as soot or cement dust.

In theory, such a policy should enable polluters to spew as much filth into the air as they like 83% of the time, and clean up their act every sixth day. However, this ill-advised approach does offer one silver lining: it lets economists measure how much businesses change their behaviour when the proverbial parents are out of town.

A new paper by Eric Zou of the University of Oregon makes use of satellite images to spy on polluters at times when they think no one is watching. Nasa, America’s space agency, publishes data on the concentration of aerosol particles—ranging from natural dust to man-made toxins—all around the world, as seen from space. For every day in 2001-13, Mr Zou compiled these readings in the vicinity of each of America’s 1,200 air-monitoring sites.

Although some stations provided data continuously, 30-50% of them sent reports only once every six days. For these sites, Mr Zou studied how aerosol levels varied based on whether data would be reported.

Sure enough, the air was consistently cleaner in these areas on monitoring days than it was the rest of the time, by a margin of 1.6%. Reporting schedules were almost certainly the cause: in areas where stations were retired, average pollution levels on monitoring days promptly rose to match the readings on non-monitoring days.

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Strange thing: this paper has been kicking around since 2017. But it’s just been formally published, so I guess now it shows us how to do regulation badly. Zou has some interesting work around the topic of environment.
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Order Social Warming, my book about how social media inflames and outrages, polarises and undermines our social relationships.


How to properly load a dishwasher: ‘If you pre-rinse it might actually come out dirtier’ • The Guardian

Aleksandra Bliszczyk:

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A full dishwasher dries better than a half-full dishwasher. “The dishwasher dries by using the final rinse cycle to build up a heat load in your plates, and then it just sits there for a while and … the moisture will evaporate,” Iredale explains. Plastics have a much lower thermal mass than ceramics, so if you’re doing a load of plastic containers, you may want to crank the temperature to help them dry.

Without the force of mechanical scrubbing, or the abrasion of dish brushes, dishwashers need to be savage and inhospitable to get the job done. “It’s heat, water and chemicals,” Iredale says. “Dishwashing liquid’s pH is 10.5 to 12.5 [very alkaline] … water is pH7, and oven cleaner is pH12.5 to 13.5, so it’s pretty nasty stuff. You really don’t want to get it on your hands.”

Unlike dishwashing liquid for your sink, dishwasher detergents are abrasive – like toothpaste – to chip away at food particles. The cloudy film on your glassware is actually a lot of tiny, permanent scratches.

Many materials won’t withstand a high-pH hurricane every night. “A good rule of thumb is anything that predates the dishwasher shouldn’t go in one,” Iredale says.

Anything fragile, handmade or hand-painted should be left out. The same goes for wood, bone, copper, pewter, cast-iron, and non-stick coated pans and trays. Anything laminate can warp; anything glued can come unstuck; chefs’ knives will rust and dull; and lead can activate and leach out of lead crystal glasses.

Despite all the caveats, dishwashers are not only the convenient answer to our modernist woes, they’re actually more energy- and water-efficient than hand washing. A full dishwasher can clean 144 items with roughly 13 litres of water, or anything between eight and 20. According to a study by the University of Bonn, hand washing the same load uses, on average, 100 litres of water.

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Provided as a service for those who might still have discussions about it. (The article is from the day before Christmas 2020.) Also: do NOT rinse the plates. No guidance however on precisely how to stack, nor whether forks and knives should face up or down (or just be left out).
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Fossil fuels are dead (and here’s why) • Charlie’s Diary

Charlie Stross:

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[Elon] Musk owns Tesla Energy. And I think he’s going to turn a profit on Starship by using it to launch space-based solar power satellites (SBSP). By my back of the envelope calculation, a Starship can put roughly 5-10MW of space-rate photovoltaic cells into orbit in one shot. ROSA — Roll Out Solar Arrays — now installed on the ISS are ridiculously light by historic standards, and flexible: they can be rolled up for launch, then unrolled on orbit. Current ROSA panels have a mass of 325kg, and three pairs provide 120kW of power to the ISS: 2 tonnes for 120KW suggests that a 100 tonne Starship payload could produce 6MW using current generation panels, and I suspect a lot of that weight is structural overhead.

The PV material used in ROSA reportedly weighs a mere 50g per square metre, comparable to lightweight laser printer paper, so a payload of pure PV material could have an area of up to 20 million square metres. At 100 watts of usable sunlight per square metre at Earth’s orbit, that translates to 2GW. So Starship is definitely getting into the payload ball-park we’d need to make orbital SBSP stations practical. 1970s proposals foundered on the costs of the Space Shuttle, which was billed as offering $300/lb launch costs (a sad and pathetic joke), but Musk is selling Starship as a $2m/launch system, which works out at $20/kg.

So: disruptive launch system meets disruptive power technology, and if Tesla Energy isn’t currently brainstorming how to build lightweight space-rated PV sheeting in gigawatt-up quantities I’ll eat my hat.

Musk isn’t the only person in this business. China is planning a 1 megawatt pilot orbital power station for 2030, increasing capacity to 1GW by 2049. Entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the giant Long March 9 heavy launcher is due for test flights in 2030: ostensibly to support a Chinese crewed Lunar expedition, but I’m sure if you’re going to build SBSP stations in bulk and the USA refuses to cooperate with you in space, having your own Starship clone would be handy.

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Stross is a science fiction writer, but the future he describes here is a feasible technological solution for getting plentiful power from space (even at 70% loss). Over to you, Elon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1629: Apple’s slow train to zero commission, Virgin Galactic grounded, Twitter seeks “social privacy”, and more


Looks like an ordinary USB-to-Lightning cable, but a hacker has made one with a built in Wi-Fi hotspot and keylogging software. CC-licensed photo by Richard Unten 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. Nope, not prime. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple concedes to let apps like Netflix, Spotify, and Kindle link to the web to sign up • The Verge

Sean Hollister and Sam Byford:

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Currently, the Netflix and Spotify apps on iOS are useless if you don’t already have a subscription: both of them only offer a sign-in page, with no link out to their website, and a cheeky apology. “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle,” reads the Netflix app’s splash page. The Amazon Kindle app, by contrast, offers a basic “Create a new Amazon account” page inside the app itself, but doesn’t let you buy books there, or even in the standard Amazon app. You have to go to a mobile browser to purchase.

The rule change has an extremely limited scope, as Apple claims it only agreed to let developers of so-called reader apps to “share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account.” Apple also says it will “help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases,” which suggests it will have specific guidelines for how these links appear. It’s not clear whether developers will be able to mention pricing at all.

It’s also worth noting that when Apple rejected the Hey email app, and even after it later modified that controversial decision, the company was very clear that email apps do not count as “reader” apps, even if you similarly subscribe outside of the app and the only thing you can do without an account is sign in. Apple is the one that decides which apps qualify as reader apps to begin with.

It also seems like Apple may be slightly redefining what a “reader” app means: While the company’s App Review Guidelines suggest that a reader app “may” allow users to access previously purchased content (presumably alongside in-app purchases, like Netflix offered for years), Apple’s new press release specifies that “developers of reader apps do not offer in-app digital goods and services for purchase” (bolding ours).

That would mean that Apple’s only offering this exception to companies that aren’t contributing any in-app purchase commissions to Apple anyways. Which, admittedly, include some of Apple’s sternest critics like Spotify.

However, Spotify isn’t impressed: CEO Daniel Ek tweeted on Thursday that Apple’s move is merely “a step in the right direction,” and signaled that the company will keep pushing for new laws like the Open App Markets Act…

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Tim Sweeney of Epic isn’t pleased either, but he rarely is. Apple is very gradually opening the floodgates, trying to appear to concede the 30% while hanging on to it as long as it can (particularly in games). Ironically, the person overseeing this is Phil Schiller, who was one of those who originally called inside Apple for it not to hang on to the 30% cut once revenue (or maybe profit) passed a billion dollars.
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The red warning light on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flight • The New Yorker

Nicholas Schmidle:

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On July 11th, nearly a minute into the rocket trip carrying Richard Branson, the British billionaire, to space, a yellow caution light appeared on the ship’s console. The craft was about twenty miles in the air above the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, and climbing, travelling more than twice the speed of sound. But it was veering off course, and the light was a warning to the pilots that their flight path was too shallow and the nose of the ship was insufficiently vertical. If they didn’t fix it, they risked a perilous emergency landing in the desert on their descent.

Riding rockets is dangerous stuff. Around 1.4% of Russian, Soviet, and American crewed spaceflight missions have resulted in fatalities. The foremost commercial space companies—Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin—must, over the coming years, bring that number down. Their profits depend on making frequent and safe human spaceflight a reality. “A private program can’t afford to lose anybody,” Branson has said.

…The rocket motor on Virgin Galactic’s ship is programmed to burn for a minute. On July 11th, it had a few more seconds to go when a red light also appeared on the console: an entry glide-cone warning. This was a big deal.

…I once sat in on a meeting, in 2015, during which the pilots on the July 11th mission—Dave Mackay, a former Virgin Atlantic pilot and veteran of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, and Mike Masucci, a retired Air Force pilot—and others discussed procedures for responding to an entry glide-cone warning. C. J. Sturckow, a former marine and nasa astronaut, said that a yellow light should “scare the shit out of you,” because “when it turns red it’s gonna be too late”; Masucci was less concerned about the yellow light but said, “Red should scare the crap out of you.” Based on pilot procedures, Mackay and Masucci had basically two options: implement immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor. According to multiple sources in the company, the safest way to respond to the warning would have been to abort. (A Virgin Galactic spokesperson disputed this contention.)

Aborting at that moment, however, would have dashed Branson’s hopes of beating his rival Bezos, whose flight was scheduled for later in the month, into space. Mackay and Masucci did not abort. Whether or not their decision was motivated by programmatic pressures and the hopes of their billionaire bankroller sitting in the back remains unclear.

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Roughly 18 hours after this article appeared, the US FAA grounded Virgin Galactic “until further notice”. (Near-)space travel: much harder than it looks.
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Twitter plans new privacy tools to get more people tweeting • Bloomberg (via Yahoo)

Kurt Wagner:

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Twitter is planning to test new privacy-related features aimed at giving users greater control over their follower lists and who can see their posts and likes, an effort to make people more comfortable interacting and sharing on the social network.

The tools are related to what Twitter executives call “social privacy,” or how users manage their reputations and identities on the service. This includes information like a person’s list of followers, the tweets they like, and whether their accounts are public or private.

Among features being considered is the ability to edit follower lists, and a tool to archive old tweets so that they’re no longer visible to others after a specific amount of time designated by the user. Hiding past tweets could be a popular feature with people who don’t want their posts to exist online forever, offering an easier solution than manually deleting posts or combing through years-old messages to find those you wish you hadn’t sent.

Internal research found that many of Twitter’s users don’t understand the privacy basics, like whether their account is publicly visible, said Svetlana Pimkina, a staff researcher at the San Francisco-based company. Those users engage less on Twitter because they don’t know what other people will be able to see about them.

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All good ideas (if a little tedious: are you really going to plough through your old tweets to hide them, or your follower list to eject them – and what point to the latter?). But the idea that people don’t understand their tweets are public really is a surprise.
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The rollable OLED revolution is here • LG Display Newsroom

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the 65-inch Rollable OLED has been gathering glittering reviews wherever it goes. Having won numerous “best” awards from a range of publications at CES 2018, it then continued to win accolades at the same Las Vegas tech show in 2019 and 2020. More recently at SID’s Display Week this past May, it received the highest honor of Display of the Year.

So, how does it work? You have a base that acts as both a sound system and houses the rollable display, which unfurls with the option of multiple aspect ratios at the touch of a button “like a window shade,” according to CNET, which added back in 2018 that “you have to see it in action to believe it.” Well, if that is the case, then you can enjoy this impressive scene featuring a whole row of Rollable OLEDs – and then take a deeper dive here.

OLED enables a rollable TV to exist because its self-emissive nature requires no backlight unit and therefore the screen can be extremely thin and flexible – the OLED R’s screen is just 3mm deep. The brilliance of the innovation behind the display is that it can be rolled up and down repeatedly without breaking or losing the crisp sharpness and vivid colors of any other OLED TV. Apparently the OLED R’s good for 100,000 unfurls, which would allow it to be rolled up and down 20 times a day for 20 years.

And apart from the benefit of owning an example of awesome technology, consumers who are able to choose this very high-end TV also have the aesthetic and practical advantage of losing space constraints by making their screen disappear at will.

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Well, “disappear at will” into a honking enormous base. It’s a nice idea in some ways, but really you’d want it to vanish into the ceiling. At the price this must go for (none is given; hence if you’ve got to ask you can’t afford), buyers can probably afford that.
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Last chance this week to click this link to order
Social Warming, my latest book about how social networks incite tribalism and fake outrage. And what is a scissor statement?


timefind: Search a website’s history • GitHub

Cykelero:

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timefind lets you find the exact moment that something was added to a website.

It quickly flips through Web Archive snapshots using binary search, pinpointing the date of the modification.

For example, you can search for the first mention of the iPhone on Apple’s homepage:

$ timefind apple.com iphone

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Requires Node.js, but then seems quite a simple interface. Give it a little while and I’d imagine there’ll be a GUI.
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This seemingly normal Lightning cable will leak everything you type • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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This is the new version of a series of penetration testing tools made by the security researcher known as MG. MG previously demoed an earlier version of the cables for Motherboard at the DEF CON hacking conference in 2019. Shortly after that, MG said he had successfully moved the cables into mass production, and cybersecurity vendor Hak5 started selling the cables.

But the more recent cables come in new physical variations, including Lightning to USB-C, and include more capabilities for hackers to play with.

“There were people who said that Type C cables were safe from this type of implant because there isn’t enough space. So, clearly, I had to prove that wrong. :),” MG told Motherboard in an online chat.

The OMG Cables, as they’re called, work by creating a Wi-Fi hotspot itself that a hacker can connect to from their own device. From here, an interface in an ordinary web browser lets the hacker start recording keystrokes. The malicious implant itself takes up around half the length of the plastic shell, MG said.

MG said that the new cables now have geofencing features, where a user can trigger or block the device’s payloads based on the physical location of the cable.

“It pairs well with the self-destruct feature if an OMG Cable leaves the scope of your engagement and you do not want your payloads leaking or being accidentally run against random computers,” he said.

Motherboard only tested the cables in relatively close proximity, but MG said they’ve improved the range of the cables. “We tested this out in downtown Oakland and were able to trigger payloads at over one mile,” he added.

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I don’t honestly believe the “one mile” claim, and Cox is a bit vague about how proximate “relatively close” is. Same building? Same desk? (Apple keyboards have Lightning connectors to charge.)
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Why William Gibson is a literary genius • The Walrus

Jason Guriel:

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FOR ALL ITS obsession with the future, science fiction ages quickly. Still, some of the prognostications of “Johnny Mnemonic” have held up. “We’re an information economy,” narrates Johnny at one point:

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They teach you that in school. What they don’t tell you is that it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified.

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Gibson didn’t quite predict cookies and social media, but “Johnny Mnemonic” nails our hermit-proofed paradigm. Even the story’s premise—that the most precious commodity is data—rhymes neatly with twenty-first-century anxieties about privacy and cryptocurrency.

And yet, the most radical thing about Gibson’s story is its realism. At the very beginning, Johnny delivers some tough-guy talk:

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I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.

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That Adidas bag was as stunning, in its day, as a phaser; sci-fi rarely deigned to mention such base details as brands. A year after the publication of “Johnny Mnemonic,” the movie Blade Runner posited a similarly radical (and radically banal) point in one of its most iconic scenes: the hover cars of the far-flung future, when they finally get aloft, will fling themselves past sky-high ads for Coca-Cola.

“Johnny Mnemonic” also reflects Gibson’s fascination with the cadged-together, a fixation, really, that runs through his work—from the artistic AI that remixes rubbish into dioramas in Count Zero to the squatter-occupied bridge in Virtual Light: a “patchwork carnival of scavenged surfaces.”

…When I tweeted once about the debris that fills his fiction, Gibson responded: “The mostly American sf I started with as a reader seldom got it that futures are built of pasts.”

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FTC bans SpyFone and its CEO from continuing to sell stalkerware • Malwarebytes Labs

David Ruiz:

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Nearly two years after the US Federal Trade Commission first took aim against mobile apps that can non-consensually track people’s locations and pry into their emails, photos, and videos, the government agency placed restrictions Wednesday on the developers of SpyFone—which the FTC called a “stalkerware app company”—preventing the company and its CEO Scott Zuckerman from ever again “offering, promoting, selling, or advertising any surveillance app, service, or business.”

Wednesday’s enforcement action represents a much firmer stance from the FTC compared to the settlement it reached in 2019, when the government agency refrained from even using the term “stalkerware” and it focused more on lacking cybersecurity protections within the apps it investigated, not on the privacy invasions that were allowed.

FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who made a separate statement on Wednesday, said much of the same.

“This is a significant change from the agency’s past approach,” Chopra said. “For example, in a 2019 stalkerware settlement, the Commission allowed the violators to continue developing and marketing monitoring products.”

That settlement prevented the company Retina-X Studios LLC and its owner, James N. Johns Jr., from selling their three Android apps unless significant security rehauls were made. At the time, critics of the settlement argued that the FTC was not preventing Retina-X from selling stalkerware-type apps, but that the FTC was preventing Retina-X from selling insecure stalkerware-type apps.

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Spyfone also has to tell everyone whose devices were surveilled using it. That’s going to open them up to lawsuits, of course.
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Texas’s social media law and abortion law mean must keep up AND take down info on abortion • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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[The Texas “abortion” law] is bizarre on multiple levels. First, it’s allowing anyone to sue anyone else, claiming that they “aided and abetted” an illegal abortion if they merely “induced” someone to get an abortion.

So… let’s say that someone posted to a Facebook group, telling people how to get an abortion. Under Texas’s social media law – remember “each person in this state has a fundamental interest in the free exchange of ideas and information” – Facebook is expected to keep that information up. However, under Texas’ anti-choice law (remember, anyone can sue anyone for “inducing” an abortion) Facebook theoretically faces liability for leaving that information up.

So who wins out? Well, it should be that both bills are found to be unconstitutional, so it doesn’t matter. But we’ll see whether or not the courts recognize that. Section 230 should also protect Facebook here, since it pre-empts any state law that tries to make the company liable for user posts, which in theory the abortion law does. The 1st Amendment should also backstop both of these, noting that (1) Texas’ social media law clearly violates Facebook’s 1st Amendment rights, and (2) the broad language saying anyone can file civil suit against anyone for somehow convincing someone to get an abortion also pretty clearly violates the 1st Amendment.

But, until the courts actually rule on this, we don’t just have a mess, we have a contradictory mess thanks to a Texas legislature (and governor) that is so focused on waging a pointless culture war against “the libs” that they don’t even realize how their own bills conflict with one another.

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I say to anyone who’ll listen (and some who don’t) that America is utterly broken, and I no longer expect anything good to come from its politicians.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified