Start Up No.1664: Twitter says its algorithm has a rightwing bias, Google cuts Play Store fees, “waning” immunity isn’t, and more


The popularity of *that* programme has led ISPs in various to demand money from Netflix. What, for encouraging people to use their products? CC-licensed photo by Huw Gwilliam 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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

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


Twitter algorithms bias toward right-wing content – Protocol

Anna Kramer:

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Twitter is publicly sharing research findings today that show that the platform’s algorithms amplify tweets from right-wing politicians and content from right-leaning news outlets more than people and content from the political left.

The research did not identify whether or not the algorithms that run Twitter’s Home feed are actually biased toward conservative political content, because the conclusions only show bias in amplification, not what caused it. Rumman Chowdhury, the head of Twitter’s machine learning, ethics, transparency and accountability team, called it “the what, not the why” in an interview with Protocol.

“We can see that it is happening. We are not entirely sure why it is happening. To be clear, some of it could be user-driven, people’s actions on the platform, we are not sure what it is. It’s just important that we share this information,” Chowdhury said. The META team plans to conduct what she called a “root-cause analysis” to try to discover the “why,” and that analysis will likely include creating testable hypotheses about how people use the platform that could help show whether it’s the way users interact with Twitter or the algorithm itself that is causing this uneven amplification.

Twitter didn’t define for itself what news outlets and politicians are “right-leaning” or belong to right-wing political parties, instead using definitions from other researchers outside the company. The study looked at millions of tweets from politicians across seven countries and hundreds of millions of tweets of links from news outlets, not tweets from the outlets themselves.

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At a guess, right-wing outrage content triggers people’s selfish responses more than the left-wing kind, which (sweeping generalisation) tends to be about failure to share. Good to see Twitter acknowledging this, though.
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Google lowers Play Store fees for subscriptions and music streaming apps • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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As regulatory pressure on the Play Store for Android increases, Google is once again making changes to its business structure. It has announced that more categories of apps will be eligible to pay significantly less than the usual 30% fee. The company is announcing that all subscription-based apps will now pay a fee of 15%. It’s also says that “ebooks and on-demand music streaming services” will be “eligible” for a fee “as low as 10%.”

Google’s stated reason for the cheaper prices on ebooks and music streaming apps is that “content costs account for the majority of sales” and that the rates “recognize industry economics of media content verticals.” It’s unstated but also surely true that regulatory pressure and public pressure from companies like Spotify have factored in to Google’s decision. Currently, signing up for a Spotify subscription on Android redirects you to Spotify’s website to enter your payment information.

The lower fee structure for music streaming is still at Google’s discretion, both for which apps are eligible and how low that fee will be. When asked how exactly developers can know if they qualify for the reduced fees, a Google spokesperson said, “Developers can review program guidelines and express interest now and we’ll follow up with more information if they are eligible.”

As for subscriptions, Google’s previous structure was similar to Apple’s: 30% the first year, 15% thereafter. The new change simplifies that by offering 15% right off the bat and is likely a strong incentive for developers to switch over from one-time payments to subscriptions.

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Ball very much in Apple’s court now. How long before Google lowers it again to 5% – five years, perhaps?
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Worldcoin launches a global cryptocurrency that will be given to every person on earth • VentureBeat

Dean Takahashi:

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Worldcoin is unveiling a new global cryptocurrency that will be given to every human on earth. It has raised $25m at a $1bn valuation. [ie it sold 2.5% of its shares for $25m.]

Coming out of stealth today, the company is unveiling hardware device, dubbed an Orb, for the first time, along with testing data that suggests it could onboard its first billion people into crypto within the next two years.

Cofounded by Alex Blania, Sam Altman and Max Novendstern, Worldcoin plans to create a new global digital currency that is fairly distributed and used by as many people as possible. Its investors include Andreesen Horowitz, the big Silicon Valley investment company that has made a  lot of cryptocurrency bets. Altman is president of Y Combinator and CEO of OpenAI.

To rapidly get its new currency into the hands of as many people as possible, the project lets everyone claim a free share of it. While a globally adopted cryptocurrency would open social and economic doors for billions of people, cryptocurrency as a technology is still in the early stages of adoption, so far only reaching about 3% of the world’s overall population. Worldcoin hopes to change this, rapidly, the company said.

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This sounds like the setup for a fairly terrible film, or the McGuffin for one. I can see Tom Cruise or Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie being in a last-minute dash for the Orb, which has been stolen by… (Note: requires iris scanning. To create a hash. In a database. For everyone on earth. OK. Perhaps a Bond movie?)

Anyway, we’ll see quite how that “every person on earth” one goes. Tie it to carbon emissions and you might have something. No word meanwhile on how El Salvador is doing with its bitcoin experiment.
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The good part about “waning” immunity • The Atlantic

Katherine J. Wu:

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Antibodies are supposed to peter out; that’s why they always do. Still, even as our antibodies are dwindling in absolute quantity, these scrappy molecules are enhancing their quality, continuing to replace themselves with new versions that keep improving their ability to bring the virus to heel. Months after vaccination, the average antibody found in the blood simply has higher defensive oomph. “That’s why I hate the word waning,” Jennifer Gommerman, an immunologist at the University of Toronto, told me. “Antibody levels are declining, but something good is happening too: The immune response is evolving.”

The focus on antibody counts alone actually does a disservice to our understanding of immunity, experts told me. Like a block of wood being hewn into a sharper blade, vaccinated immune systems can hone their skills over time. Part of waning certainly does mean fewer. But it can also mean better.

A couple weeks after vaccination, a group of immune defenders called B cells starts to pump out antibodies en masse. But many of these early antibodies are, as Bhattacharya told me, “really crappy” at their jobs. Their raison d’être is to be clingy—the Y-shaped molecules hook their tips onto a specific hunk of SARS-CoV-2’s anatomy, and hang on for dear life. The better they are at glomming on, the better chance they have of waylaying the threat. Sometimes it’s a solo act: Antibodies alone can grab on so firmly that they block the virus from hacking into a cell, a process called neutralization. Or they’ll use the stems of their Ys to flag down other members of the immune system in a destructive assist.

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Worth reading to understand what’s going on, since “waning immunity” is on so any people’s lips. Although: apparently a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine gives you 96% better protection than the first two doses do. And the two doses give 95% better protection than nothing. (Thanks G for the link.)
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ISPs want more money because so many people are streaming Squid Game • Vice

Karl Bode:

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ISPs around the world claim the unprecedented bandwidth demands Netflix’s Squid Game is placing on their broadband networks means they should be getting more money. But experts say that’s not how telecom networks work, suggesting that already cash-flush telecom giants are just positioning themselves for an underserved hand out.

The popular South Korean thriller, a not so thinly-veiled critique of late-stage capitalism, tracks a group of indebted people who compete in deadly children’s games for cash. According to Netflix, Squid Game is the most popular show in company history, the number one program in 94 countries, and has been watched by 142 million households. [Depending on “watched”; see yesterday’s edition – CA]

ISPs around the world also claim the show’s popularity is driving a massive surge in bandwidth consumption, and they want their cut. 

In South Korea, Internet service provider SK Broadband sued Netflix earlier this month, claiming that between May and September the ISP’s network traffic jumped 24 times to 1.2 trillion bits of data processed every second. This surge is Netflix’s fault, the ISP insists, and Netflix should be held financially responsible.

In the UK, British Telecom executives have been making similar complaints, insisting that Netflix should be forced to help pay for the surge in network traffic caused by the show.

But broadband experts say that’s not how broadband networks actually work. “It makes no sense for ISPs to cry victim because they provide a popular service, and are expected to provide it,” John Bergmayer, telecom expert at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard.

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How dare Netflix encourage people to use ISPs’ services!
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China conducted two hypersonic weapons tests this summer • Financial Times

Demetri Sevastopulo:

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On July 27 the Chinese military launched a rocket that used a “fractional orbital bombardment” system to propel a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle” around the earth for the first time, according to four people familiar with US intelligence assessments.

The Financial Times this week reported that the first test was in August, rather than at the end of July. China subsequently conducted a second hypersonic test on August 13, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Three people familiar with the first test in July said it stunned the Pentagon and US intelligence because China managed to demonstrate a brand new weapons capability, although they declined to elaborate on the details.

One person said government scientists were struggling to understand the capability, which the US does not currently possess, adding that China’s achievement appeared “to defy the laws of physics”. 

Space and missile experts have been debating the Chinese test since the FT revealed the event at the weekend. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said China appeared to have developed a new innovation, but stressed the need to maintain a degree of scepticism. “We should be open to the reality that China is also capable of technological innovation,” he said.

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Could search engines be fostering some Dunning-Kruger? • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

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Many of us make jokes about how we’ve outsourced part of our brain to electronic devices. But based on a new paper by the University of Texas at Austin’s Adrian Ward, this is just a variation on something that has been happening throughout human history. No person could ever learn everything they need to know. But that’s OK, according to Ward: “No one person needs to know everything—they simply need to know who knows it.”

Over time, we’ve developed alternatives to finding the person who has the information we need, relying on things like books and other publications. The Internet simply provides electronic equivalents, right?

Not entirely, according to Ward’s latest results. Based on data he generated, it seems that search engines now return information so quickly and seamlessly that we tend to think we remembered information that we actually looked up. And that may be giving us unjustified confidence in our ability to pull facts out of our brain.

Ward’s hypothesis is based on the idea that we probably categorize the recall process based on how easy it is. Wading through all the extraneous information in a book to find the single nugget we require can be arduous, even when the book is right at hand. While it can sometimes be difficult to latch onto a fact in our memory, it’s generally much more convenient. For the easy-to-recall items—like the lyrics to annoying pop songs from our high school years—it’s often instantaneous.

Of the two, Ward argues, Internet searches are more like remembering something, in that they’re generally quick, don’t have a lot of extraneous information, and are displayed via interfaces that are easy to process. “Thinking with Google,” he writes, “which delivers information as unobtrusively as possible, may simply feel more like thinking alone.”

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Needs a graph in the rise of Dunning-Kruger effect alongside number of Google searches carried out.
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Apple’s product design has improved since Jony Ive left • Bloomberg

Alex Webb:

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Take the iPhone. The latest iterations have ditched the curved edges that made the display liable to crack if dropped on its side. Or the Apple TV remote, whose symmetry made it visually appealing, but meant that users often inadvertently pressed the wrong buttons by holding it upside down. The design was revamped in May.

“Since Jony Ive left, there’s not that gravitational force driving aesthetic before function,” Paul Found, a lecturer in industrial design at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, England. “Those who have taken over are now listening to what customers are saying.”

Apple has long maintained an obstinacy when it comes to design, as my colleague Mark Gurman wrote in August. That can be an attribute: the academic Roberto Verganti praised the approach in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article with the headline “Apple’s Secret? It Tells Us What We Should Love.” Indeed, should Apple become too beholden to consumer wishes, it might lose what has helped make it a success: the iconoclasm captured in the “Think Different” advertising slogan. And Apple devices’ appeal, and ability to charge premium prices, lies partly in their design.

But there is merit in sometimes listening to your customers, particularly when the pendulum has swung too far away from function and towards form. After all, you’re liable to lose professional customers – architects, musicians, film-makers – if they can’t plug their laptops into external monitors. And professional users can afford to pay for the top-of-the-range devices that are more profitable to Apple.

Dieter Rams, a significant influence on Ive, compiled 10 principles for “Good Design.” Number three was “good design is aesthetic”. Apple seems to have remembered numbers two and four: “good design makes a product useful” and “good design makes a product understandable”.

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I mean, it’s hard to disagree. The New Yorker profile of Ive in February 2015 seems, in retrospect, to have marked the ebbing of his tide of influence – even interest? – in the company. Takes a long time to correct course, because hardware is slow to design and change.
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Strong evidence for the continued contribution of lead deposited during the 20th century to the atmospheric environment in London of today • PNAS

Resongles, Dietze, Green et al, led from Imperial College London:

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Although leaded gasoline was banned at the end of the last century, lead (Pb) remains significantly enriched in airborne particles in large cities. The remobilization of historical Pb deposited in soils from atmospheric removal has been suggested as an important source providing evidence for the hypothetical long-term persistency of lead, and possibly other pollutants, in the urban environment.

Here, we present data on Pb isotopic composition in airborne particles collected in London (2014 to 2018), which provide strong support that lead deposited via gasoline combustion still contributes significantly to the lead burden in present-day London.

Lead concentration and isotopic signature of airborne particles collected at a heavily trafficked site did not vary significantly over the last decade, suggesting that sources remained unchanged. Lead isotopic composition of airborne particles matches that of road dust and topsoils and can only be explained with a significant contribution (estimate of 32 ± 10 to 43 ± 9% based on a binary mixing model) of Pb from leaded gasoline.

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Possibly ineradicable. Not widely known: the same man invented CFCs (ozone hole creators) as created leaded petrol (engine backfire preventers). Now, if you give you a time machine and tell you to go back in history and kill one person…
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CleanUp.pictures

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Some photobomber ruined your selfie? There’s a ketchup stain on your shirt? You want to replace some text or graphic?

CleanUp.pictures is a free web application that lets you cleanup your photos with a quick & simple interface.

It uses LaMa, an open-source model from Samsung’s AI Lab to automatically and accurately redraw the areas that you delete.

CleanUp.pictures has been built by the engineering team at ClipDrop and it’s open-source under the Apache License 2.0.

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Neat; it’s not Photoshop, but doesn’t come encumbered with a giant costly licence either. Another one for the bookmarks. (Sure that someone can turn it into a little app?)
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Supply challenges dampen growth in the PC market • IDC

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Global shipments of Traditional PCs, inclusive of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, reached 86.7 million units during the third quarter of 2021 (3Q21), up 3.9% from the prior year according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. This marks the sixth consecutive quarter of growth for the PC market as the onset of the pandemic has led to a surge in demand while also contributing to component shortages and other supply challenges.

“The PC industry continues to be hampered by supply and logistical challenges and unfortunately these issues have not seen much improvement in recent months,” said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile and Consumer Device Trackers. “Given the current circumstances, we are seeing some vendors reprioritize shipments amongst various markets, allowing emerging markets to maintain growth momentum while some mature markets begin to slow.”

“Bottlenecked supply chains and ongoing logistic challenges led the U.S. PC market into its first quarter of annual shipment decline since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Neha Mahajan, senior research analyst, Devices and Displays at IDC. “After a year of accelerated buying driven by the shift to remote work and learning, there’s also been a comparative slowdown in PC spending and that has caused some softening of the U.S. PC market today. Yet, supply clearly remains behind demand in key segments with inventory still below normal levels.”

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I’d overlooked this – it’s more than a week old. Gartner puts the growth at 1%, to 84.1m, and has now started including Chromebooks in its figures (it didn’t before, while IDC ..did?, which was sometimes helpful to figure out Chromebook sales). Just as, it says, shipments of them have declined due to lower demand in education. Counterpoint Research also reckons there have been six quarters of growth, and puts the shipments at 84.2m.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1663: what’s really watched on Netflix, peak oil coming in 2025, Facebook’s coming name change, and more


The ingredients for blue paint – and for the cans to hold it – are the latest supply chain victims. CC-licensed photo by Nineta 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. Using precious blue. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


From Friends to Squid Game – why Netflix viewing figures matter • The Guardian

Jim Waterson, the Guardian’s media editor, wrote this week’s edition of its Techscape newsletter, so of course he wrote about something that intersects media and technology:

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if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.

But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.

…What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.

Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.

It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.

Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.

“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.

Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.

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The revelations are amazing. Except: predictably, nobody watches credits, and The Irishman did badly.
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Paintmakers are running out of the colour blue • Bloomberg Quint

Tara Patel:

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Dutch paint maker Akzo Nobel NV is running out of ingredients to make some shades of blue, the latest fallout from the global supply-chain disruptions that are spreading across manufacturers.

“There is one basic color tint that is extremely difficult to get,” chief executive officer Thierry Vanlancker said in an interview Wednesday after publishing third-quarter earnings. “It’s creating complete chaos.”

In addition to the bluish hue, Akzo Nobel is having trouble sourcing the tinplate used to make metal cans, forcing the Amsterdam-based company to ship empty pots from one country to another for filling. It also called a force majeure on deliveries of some exterior wall paints because an additive needed to make them waterproof is unavailable.

The supply-chain snarls that have sown disarray across industries are raising prices and creating shortages of some basic household products. Paint makers, which typically rely on hundreds of additives and chemicals, have warned for months of higher costs and logistical issues.

Akzo Nobel earlier Wednesday said the spiraling costs and materials shortages will last through the middle of next year.

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Yet another one that you might not have had one your supply chain bingo card.
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Oil demand set to peak by 2025. Renewables are vastly underfunded • Fortune

Sophie Mellor:

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Oil demand will peak in 2025, years earlier than previously expected, the International Energy Agency said in its World Energy Outlook on Tuesday.

But while the transition away from oil is arriving sooner than expected, IEA executive director Fatih Birol warned that this year will see the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history, leading to an “unsustainable economic recovery” from COVID-19.

The IEA’s call of peak oil comes as fossil fuel prices spike across the globe. A surge in demand caused by economies leaving COVID-19 lockdowns has coincided with sluggish supply resulting from kinked supply chains and low investment in oil and gas production—the effects of nations’ green pledges and a price crash in recent years. At more than $80 a barrel, oil is near a seven-year high, and gas prices in the U.S. have tripled in the past 18 months.

Looking forward, the issue will be matching rising demand without turning back to fossil fuels, the IEA said. While international pledges to lower investment in oil and gas are aligned with plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the IEA said that investment in renewable energy must be tripled to close the gap between expected supply and demand.

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Notable because the IEA has, for years (decades?) been utterly pessimistic about renewables, optimistic about fossil fuels, for no reason anyone can figure out. (It might be the sponsorship from countries with fossil fuel interests?)
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Facebook plans to change company name to focus on the metaverse • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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Facebook is planning to change its company name next week to reflect its focus on building the metaverse, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

The coming name change, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28th, but could unveil sooner, is meant to signal the tech giant’s ambition to be known for more than social media and all the ills that entail. The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more. A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Facebook already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware like AR glasses that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones. In July, he told The Verge that, over the next several years, “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

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Hell of a scoop. Sounds like it’s going to do an Alphabet, same as Google did – create an umbrella company and perhaps give clues to what’s happening inside the various companies. Or perhaps not. Means the metaverse stuff can happen separately from Facebook, and stand or fall. One suggestion, mentioned in the story (and used to tag the story – by people who know?) is “Horizon”.
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November 2003: Facemash creator survives ad board • The Harvard Crimson

Katharine Kaplan, in November 2003:

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The creator of the short-lived but popular Harvard version of the Am I Hot or Not? website said he will not have to leave school after being called before the Administrative Board yesterday afternoon.

Mark E. Zuckerberg [due to graduage in] ’06 said he was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the website, http://www.facemash.com, about two weeks ago.

The charges were based on a complaint from the computer services department over his unauthorized use of on-line facebook photographs, he said.

Zuckerberg said he will not be forced to withdraw or leave school for any amount of time, but declined to elaborate on whether the board took some lesser action.

He said he was notified on Nov. 3 that his case would appear before the Ad Board, the day after he decided to take the site down, partly due to sharp criticism of the site’s use of ID photos and ranking students according to attractiveness.

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Kaplan, who wrote the piece, has gone on to greater things – a PhD and research in sleep studies. That Zuckerberg guy, on the other hand, never graduated.
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For more about how Facebook started, and the effect it and other social networks have had on all of us for more than a decade, read Social Warming, my latest book.


Pixel 6 and 6 Pro: a first look at Google’s shot at a premium Android phone • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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The other big thing to note [besides a low price] with the Pixels is their new processor, a custom-designed ARM SoC (System on a Chip) that Google is calling Tensor. Google says it’s competitive with the Snapdragon 888 from Qualcomm, which is what you find in basically every other high-end Android phone available right now.

There’s a lot going on with this processor. The most important piece is that there’s a custom TPU (Tensor Processing Unit) for AI built right into the chip and many main processing pipelines. In addition, there are two high-power application cores, two mid-range cores, four low-power cores, a dedicated coprocessor for security, a private compute core, and an image processing core. The Pixel 6 pairs the new chip with 8GB of RAM, while the 6 Pro has 12GB.

…By the way, Google’s rules for reviewers and influencers dictate that today, we can write about hardware impressions and specs but not provide any details on software, performance, or image quality. It’s meant to provide a sort of hands-on experience — rest assured, we will have much more to say in the full review.

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Let’s wait for the full review to hear about its on-device language processing.
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The Myspace Top 8 is destroying society • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick:

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at Myspace’s height, the British press launched a massive campaign against the risks of being emo. The Daily Mail declared that, “no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo.”

None of this is to downplay the very real issues young Myspace users had — predators, revenge pornography, cyberbullying, and being convinced that wearing a children’s extra-large T-shirt with a white belt and purple skinny jeans was a good look. But I want to put this new explosion of TikTok panics in perspective. None of these issues, or even the more outlandish nonsense about Satanic viral trends or compulsive tics, are new.

And what’s even more frustrating is that a lot of this stuff eclipses the new real problems TikTok users are grappling with, like being bombarded nonstop by conspiracy theories, cults actively recruiting on the app, content that promotes body dysmorphia, and that weird increasingly popular fad where some very young users are seemingly pretending to have dissociative identity disorder.

In many ways, these technopanics are the best indication that TikTok is dethroning apps like Facebook or Instagram as America’s main social platform. First, the cool new thing is discovered by teenage girls. Then it’s considered a punchline. Then, when it’s no longer a punchline, it’s a crisis. It happened with Myspace and it’s happening with TikTok and it will happen with whatever comes next. And every time we do this dance, complete with endless hysterical Good Morning America segments about what kids are secretly doing online, it just means we’ve missed another opportunity to actually make the internet better for teenagers. Which, I know, sounds like a revolutionary idea, doesn’t it?

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Insightful, as ever, about the circularity and repetitiveness of these technopanics.
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‘We are losing a national treasure’: desperate Lebanese cut ancient trees for heating • The National News

Sunniva Rose:

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Last month, policeman Abdelhakim Assayed was shocked to discover that a large, centuries-old fir tree on a high plateau near his home in north Lebanon had been cut down and carried away overnight.

“If you had seen it, you would have cried,” he said, as he walked around the small branches scattered around what was left of the tree’s trunk. “It’s like killing your child.”

Mr Assayed, 40, suspects that like hundreds of other trees that have been illegally felled in recent weeks, the fir tree was chopped up and sold locally as firewood, which is openly sold in the streets as winter approaches. With the country’s crisis making heating unaffordable for many, concerns mount that the situation is getting worse.

When The National visited the forest, which lies nearly 2,000 metres above sea level in the region of Fneidek, a dozen freshly chopped tree trunks, as well as still standing trees missing most of their branches, were visible.

…“People are ignorant,” said Mr Assayed. “They don’t know the value of a tree, and they’ll do whatever they can to stay warm this winter.”

The municipality of the town of Fneidek, which owns the forest, is at a loss over how to deal with this new phenomenon, which threatens to deprive the region of its sense of identity and heritage, said Mr Assayed. “If the situation remains like this, the forest will be gone in three or four years. Lebanon without trees is not worth anything. We’re going to become a desert.”

Filing police reports has little impact because of delays in the local judiciary, said the mayor, Samih Abdelaziz Abdelhay. The 56-year-old school director blames the government, not local people.

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As electric car makers ante up billions, software is ace in the hole • IEEE Spectrum

Robert Charette:

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Not only are EV makers chasing the same limited number of customers, they are also pursuing an even more limited supply of software and systems engineers with smart mechatronics and robotics expertise. Software’s complexity in current ICE vehicles is staggering, with many vehicles having 150 million lines or more of code. However, future EVs will likely have triple or more the lines of code as advanced autonomous driving features become available.

Complicating the expertise issue further is that new EVs (and ICE vehicles) are increasingly “cyber-physical systems.” Simply put, cyber-physical systems unify the physical world with the world of information technology. Vehicles as cyber-physical systems are not mere self-contained and isolated entities but are ones that will evolve in capability over a decade or more often in response to other evolving systems such as transportation infrastructure, manufacturer monitoring or dealer management systems, the Internet, and other vehicles.

Today’s connected vehicles create up to 25 gigabytes of data per hour, a small portion of which is being shared outside the vehicle. However, by 2030, when vehicles could be interacting with scores or more external systems over a range of communication channels, that amount may reach four terabytes per hour, all of which will be captured, analyzed and monetized by multiple remote third-party systems.

“Much of that future data, perhaps up to 90%, will be unstructured,” observes Jeff Fochtman, Senior Vice President of Business and Marketing at data storage company Seagate Technology, given it will be originally generated by a vehicle’s camera, lidar, radar and or ultrasonic sensors. The amount, type and usefulness of the data poses unique challenges for automakers in deciding which data to store, how to store it, and where to store it.

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A new kind of driver shortage: software drivers. Brm-tish.
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Exile from Dongletown • Six Colors

Jason Snell:

»

If Mac laptops come in eras, one just ended.

It started in 2016 with the release of MacBook Pro models featuring butterfly keyboards, the Touch Bar, and a minimal selection of USB-C ports. It ended on Monday with the announcement of new MacBook Pro models that roll back most of the major changes introduced in 2016, putting the MacBook Pro in a new state of grace that recalls the middle of the last decade.

If you can, cast your mind back to the 2015 MacBook Pro. It had all of these features, due to be deprecated in 2016:
• MagSafe charging port
• HDMI port
• SD card slot
• 2 Thunderbolt and 2 USB-A ports
• Physical function keys

Now consider the 2021 MacBook Pros, which have:
• MagSafe charging port
• HDMI port
• SD card slot
• Three Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports
• Physical function keys

Although Apple removed the dreadful “butterfly” keyboard in 2019-2020, the rest of the issues with this era of MacBook Pro remained. They’re largely gone now.

«

There really were five years of Apple completely not listening to its customers on the Mac. Interesting that all the doomy predictions of Apple losing its way after Steve Jobs died didn’t really come to pass, except on the Mac, where the design team overrode the common sense that had previously prevailed. The iPhone was too big and important (and simple?) to screw with, but the Mac could be played with.

(Snell had a joke about the Dongletown Port Authority – because you needed dongle for all the ports on the machines because they were undifferentiated USB-C.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1662: account recovery is hard on purpose, the echo chamber misconception, COP26’s empty promise, and more


Hotels and restaurants in the UK are contending with double-digit inflation on goods and services, which could feed through to retail – and households. CC-licensed photo by J Mark Dodds 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Recovering locked Facebook accounts is a nightmare. That’s on purpose • The Washington Post

Tatum Hunter:

»

Hackers target social media accounts because they want to spread scams, phishing links or misinformation, said Jon Clay, vice president of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.

When bad actors get their hands on social media account credentials, it’s often through phishing attacks that trick people into entering their passwords or by buying stolen credentials in shady corners of the Internet, Clay said. But sometimes, they exploit the very tools that help people get back into hacked accounts. That’s why the account recovery process is so complex, according to Facebook head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher.

“Any system that we build to help users get their accounts back, we also have to recognize that it becomes a threat vector for threat actors to exploit,” he said.

Facebook uses a combination of automated systems and actual people to help users when they get locked out, it said. As for its notoriously hard-to-navigate review process, Gleicher said, the company “needs to improve,” and that those improvements are in the works. The company would not share details or a timeline. “This is an industrywide problem,” Gleicher said.

But the difficulty of balancing security and recovery is only part of the story, said Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert and public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

Schneier said that Facebook could solve its account recovery problems with additional security features. For example, if the company required people to set up two-factor authentication, hackers couldn’t take over accounts with just a stolen email-and-password combination. But mandatory security stops would introduce friction into the user experience, and that’s bad for Facebook’s data-harvesting business, Schneier said.

«

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New research shows social media doesn’t turn people into assholes (they already were), and everyone’s wrong about echo chambers • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

[Professor Michael Bang] Petersen makes a really fascinating point regarding echo chambers. I’ve been skeptical about idea of online echo chambers in the past, but Petersen says that people really have it all backwards – and that we’re actually much more likely to live in echo chambers offline than online, and we’re much more likely to come across different viewpoints online.

»

One way to think about social media in this particular regard is to turn all of our notions about social media upside down. And here I’m thinking about the notion of ‘echo chambers.’ So we’ve been talking a lot about echo chambers and how social media creates echo chambers. But, in reality, the biggest echo chamber that we all live in is the one that we live in in our everyday lives.

I’m a university professor. I’m not really exposed to any person who has a radically different world view or radically different life from me in my everyday life. But when I’m online, I can see all sorts of opinions that I may disagree with. And that might trigger me if I’m a hostile person and encourage me to reach out to tell these people that I think they are wrong.

But that’s because social media essentially breaks down the echo chambers. I can see the views of other people — what they are saying behind my back. That’s where a lot of the felt hostility of social media comes from. Not because they make us behave differently, but because they are exposing us to a lot of things that we’re not exposed in our everyday lives.

«

And then this upside down view of echo chambers also explains why people feel like the internet is a more hostile place full of assholes and trolls. It’s more that it’s because we’re now being exposed to these points of view and can respond. As he notes, this kind of hostility actually happens all the time, but it’s usually just not witnessed by more than a couple people at a time. Now, online, it’s witnessed by a much larger audience, and so we overcorrect and think that it’s making people worse.

«

None of this, I’d point out, invalidates what I say in Social Warming. Exposure to more of this stuff bugs us in subtle ways, and makes things worse.
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For more on how social networks affect us (and our politicians and journalists, and the way they do their work), read Social Warming, my latest book.


Flooding could leave billions of US municipal debt under water • Financial Times

Kate Duguid:

»

New York-based climate research firm First Street Foundation last week published data showing that US infrastructure — including roads, hospitals and power stations — is at a greater risk of flooding than has previously been estimated. This has serious implications for state and city coffers, for property values, and for mortgage-backed securities and municipal bonds.

Louisiana, Florida and West Virginia have some of the worst flood prospects in the contiguous US, the First Street Foundation data show. In Louisiana, 45% of all critical infrastructure facilities, a category which includes hospitals, fire stations, airports and power plants, are at risk of being rendered inoperable by flooding this year.

Also at risk of shutdown are 39% of roads and 44% of social infrastructure — schools, government buildings and houses of worship. In some cities in Louisiana, such as Metairie and New Orleans, the risk for all those categories is near 100%.

Municipal debt has long been a haven asset class, popular with long-term investors including pension funds and insurance companies. While the default rate on muni bonds has historically been low, it could rise as cash-strapped cities struggle to keep up with the costs of extreme weather damage.

«

So what becomes a “haven asset class” when everything’s underwater, in both senses?
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Boris Johnson’s secret COP26 weapon may have to be shame • CNN

Luke McGee:

»

For COP26 to be considered a success, Johnson and Alok Sharma, his COP26 President, will need to see delegates commit to limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrialization temperatures, as opposed to the 2C upper limit stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. He’ll also want dozens more pledges for net zero — where countries emit no more greenhouse gases than they remove from the atmosphere — which realistically requires halving emissions globally by 2030. Of particular importance will be commitments from countries who are growing their economies off the back of fossil fuels, such as Saudi Arabia, and China, which is using coal to power its pandemic comeback.

On top of that, he is hoping rich countries will also honor their commitment to transfer $100 billion annually to the Global South to help countries there deal with the crisis they had little hand in creating. Putting an end date on burning coal, boosting plans on electric vehicles and finalizing the Paris Agreement rulebook – which is still not finished six years after the landmark deal was struck – would also mean success.

Given the severity of the climate crisis, one might assume that agreement on these issues would be simple. Unfortunately, politics and science have a complicated relationship with one another and, in 2021, multilateralism relies as much on political self-interest as it does on indisputable facts.

“When it comes to climate policy, politics and physics are having an argument that physics will win,” says Tom Burke, chair of E3G, an independent climate think tank.

«

But politics will think it has won. Unfortunately. Johnson spouts lines that sound exactly like you’d expect from a journalist used to banging out thousand-word columns to a deadline, rather than a subtle politician able to persuade people to agree with him.
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Restaurants and hotels facing ‘terrifying’ 18% inflation, MPs told • The Guardian

Joanna Partridge:

»

Restaurants and hotels are wrestling with “terrifying” inflation running as high as 18%, bosses have warned, as supply chain disruption and labour shortages wreak havoc in the hospitality sector.

Ian Wright, chief executive of industry body the Food and Drink Federation, told MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that the rate bodes ill for the retail industry.

“In hospitality, which is a precursor of retail, inflation is currently running somewhere between 14% and 18%. That is terrifying,” he said.

“Inflation is a bigger scourge than almost anything else because it discriminates against the poor.”

Wright cautioned that the food and drink sector expects current challenges to last for several years.

“Six months ago, almost all our businesses thought it was transitory. Now every business I know is expecting this to last until 2023 and into 2024, every single one,” he said.

During a hearing about the impact of the supply chain crisis on consumers and business, Wright recalled high rates of inflation in the late 1970s, when he saw a supermarket employee change prices twice within an hour. “We really cannot go back to that. It took us 15 years to recover,” Wright said.

«

Always salutary to be reminded that (a) inflation does exist after all (b) it isn’t evenly spread between sectors.
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Apple’s new $19 polishing cloth is sold out until late November • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

»

Alongside the 14in and 16in MacBook Pro models, Apple introduced a $19 “Polishing Cloth” that’s designed to be used with Apple devices.

Made from a “soft, nonabrasive material,” the cloth is suitable for Apple displays, including the nano-texture glass of the Pro Display XDR. It’s also suitable for use with the mini-LED display of the new MacBook Pro models and all manner of iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

Those who were hoping to get a Polishing Cloth with their MacBook Pros and who have not already ordered may be out of luck, as initial supplies have sold out. If ordered today, the Polishing Cloth will not arrive until November 18 to November 24, which is quite a long wait for a piece of cloth.

«

OK, ridiculous in isolation. But if you’re buying a new MacBook Pro with its fancy-schmancy screen (🙋‍♂️), you’re at least $1,999 in the hole, so this is just a single percentage point extra. (I didn’t know there was a cloth and haven’t ordered one.)
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Ex-minister predicts ‘huge battleground’ over UK’s plan to set internet content rules • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»

In an interview with TechCrunch, Ed Vaizey — a former Conservative Party MP, now Lord Vaizey of Didcot, who was head of the culture, comms and creative industries department, as it was then, between 2010 and 2016 — predicted a huge tug-of-war to influence the scope of the Online Safety Bill, warning that parliamentarians everywhere will try to hang their own “hobby horse” on it.

The risk of over regulation or creating a disproportionate burden for startups vs tech giants is also real, Vaizey suggested, setting out several areas that he said would require a cautious approach.

“In theory it’s just going to be the big platforms that will be regulated,” he said of the scope of the Online Safety Bill, which was published in draft form back in May — and which critics are warning will be catastrophic for free speech.

“Some platforms that should be regulated could potentially not be be regulated. But you’re right that people are concerned that, in effect, there’s a paradox — that it could help the Facebooks of this world because the regulatory hurdles that get going might be too big. And if anyone is capable of being regulated it’s Facebook, as opposed to a startup. So I think that’s something we have to be very careful of.

«

I’d overlooked that Vaizey had been peered. This interview was a week ago, before the stabbing to death of David Amess MP at his constituency surgery (a consultation with constituents, individually). Now people, especially MPs, are trying to hang all sorts of things onto the OSB: dubbing it “David’s Law” and suggesting killing anonymity. Kneejerk reactions produce bad laws.
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What does Google think the minimum wage is? • Terence Eden’s Blog

The man himself:

»

Suppose you are worried that you are being under-paid. You go off to Google and search for “minimum wage uk”. Here’s what Google thinks is the appropriate thing to show you.

Let’s count all the ways this is useless:

• The UK doesn’t use the Euro as its currency – it uses the Pound
• Minimum wage is always expressed per hour – not per month
• Comparisons with other countries don’t take into account tax rates
• Historical wages might be of interest – but users often prefer recent information
• The “Explore More” link goes to a page which doesn’t feature the minimum wage.

In short, this is an utterly feeble attempt to surface knowledge. Google have misinterpreted the query, discovered irrelevant but authoritative data, and surfaced that.

But, perhaps we should blame the user. Why can’t they be more precise in their query? Why don’t they ignore Google’s hype about machine learning, big data, rockstar engineers, and knowledge graphs? Yes! The user is to blame! They should be more explicit in what they’re searching for…

«

Inspired by a thread by Matthew Somerville, who reckons all that money spent on machine learning isn’t showing much benefit there. The post made it to Hacker News, where of course there were lots of uncomprehending Americans.
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Lawmakers give Amazon ‘final chance’ to clear up testimony • Associated Press

Matt Ott and Marcy Gordon:

»

House lawmakers are threatening to seek a criminal investigation of Amazon, saying the tech giant has a “final chance” to correct its executives’ previous testimony on its competition practices.

The lawmakers sent a letter Monday to Amazon President and CEO Andy Jassy saying they were giving the company until Nov. 1 to “correct the record” and provide new documents and evidence. The missive marks an escalation in the bipartisan battle against Amazon by the House Judiciary Committee panel that has investigated the market dominance of Big Tech.

The letter says the antitrust subcommittee is considering referring the case to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. It accuses the world’s biggest online retailer of at least misleading Congress and possibly outright lying.

It cites recent media reports detailing Amazon’s alleged practice of undercutting the businesses that sell on its platform by making “knock-offs,” or very similar products, and boosting their presence on the site.

The reports directly contradict the sworn testimony of Amazon executives and other statements to Congress, the letter says. It was signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the antitrust panel.

“We strongly encourage you to make use of this opportunity to correct the record and provide the Committee with sworn, truthful and accurate responses to this request as we consider whether a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate,” the letter said.

«

The Reuters report about Amazon India watching what sells and making its own knockoffs is probably a big part of this. Tricky for Amazon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1661: the ‘dead internet’ conspiracy theory, Apple’s new chips, stop Escobar’s hippos!, Canon’s ink lawsuit, and more


The glowing strip above the standard keys is gone on the new MacBook Pros: sayonara, Touch Bar, you were not loved by professionals. CC-licensed photo by Ryo Igarashi on Flickr.

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


The ‘dead-internet theory’ is wrong but feels true • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

»

Let me explain. Dead-internet theory suggests that the internet has been almost entirely taken over by artificial intelligence. Like lots of other online conspiracy theories, the audience for this one is growing because of discussion led by a mix of true believers, sarcastic trolls, and idly curious lovers of chitchat. One might, for example, point to @_capr1corn, a Twitter account with what looks like a blue orb with a pink spot in the middle as a profile picture. In the spring, the account tweeted “i hate texting come over and cuddle me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna hug you,” and then “i hate texting just come live with me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna kiss u,” which got 1,300 likes but didn’t perform as well as it did for @itspureluv. But unlike lots of other online conspiracy theories, this one has a morsel of truth to it. Person or bot: Does it really matter?

Dead-internet theory. It’s terrifying, but I love it. I read about it on Agora Road’s Macintosh Cafe, an online forum with a pixelated-Margaritaville vibe and the self-awarded honor “Best Kept Secret of the Internet!” Right now, the background is a repeated image of palm trees, a hot-pink sunset, and some kind of liquor pouring into a rocks glass. The site is largely for discussing lo-fi hip-hop, which I don’t listen to, but it is also for discussing conspiracy theories, which I do.

…Peppered with casually offensive language, the post suggests that the internet died in 2016 or early 2017, and that now it is “empty and devoid of people,” as well as “entirely sterile.” Much of the “supposedly human-produced content” you see online was actually created using AI, IlluminatiPirate claims, and was propagated by bots, possibly aided by a group of “influencers” on the payroll of various corporations that are in cahoots with the government. The conspiring group’s intention is, of course, to control our thoughts and get us to purchase stuff.

«

I blame GPT-3. Wait, but what if GPT-3 started all this off? Recuuuuuuursion. (Thanks WendyG for the link.)
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Apple announces M1 Pro & M1 Max: giant new Arm SoCs with all-out performance • Anandtech

Andrei Frumusanu:

»

In terms of performance, Apple is battling it out with the very best available in the market, comparing the performance of the M1 Max to that of a mobile GeForce RTX 3080, at 100W less power (60W vs 160W). Apple also includes a 100W TDP variant of the RTX 3080 for comparison, here, outperforming the NVIDIA discrete GPU, while still using 40% less power.

Today’s reveal of the new generation Apple Silicon has been something we’ve been expecting for over a year now, and I think Apple has managed to not only meet those expectations, but also vastly surpass them. Both the M1 Pro and M1 Max look like incredibly differentiated designs, much different than anything we’ve ever seen in the laptop space. If the M1 was any indication of Apple’s success in their silicon endeavors, then the two new chips should also have no issues in laying incredible foundations for Apple’s Mac products, going far beyond what we’ve seen from any competitor.

«

Of course Apple is only about 5% of the market (though it’s going to see gigantic demand for the new machines: there have been a lot of would-be buyers essentially on strike while they waited for the Intel chips to be supplanted). But Intel is spooked: Intel’s CEO hopes someday to win Apple back. It’s nice to have dreams, Mr Gelsinger.
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The MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is gone after five years. Good riddance • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

»

Five years ago, when Apple debuted the Touch Bar on its new MacBook Pro laptops, I was willing to give the consumer technology giant the benefit of the doubt. The narrow touch-sensitive display along the top of the keyboard certainly offered a surprising new user interface option. And I needed a new computer. This was a chance to try something new.

Alas, after months of daily use, I concluded the Touch Bar is far worse than the function keys it replaced. It’s an overengineered doodad that caused problems I never had with keyboards, and it offered features I never used.

No surprise, then: I’m delighted that Apple ditched the Touch Bar in the new MacBook Pro laptops it announced Monday at its October product event, where it also unveiled the AirPods 3 and a new HomePod Mini [in multiple colours].

When Apple announced it back when, then-design leader Jony Ive told CNET the Touch Bar is “the beginning of a very interesting direction.” Now it’s the merciful end.

I’m a touch typist but, despite its name, you can’t navigate the Touch Bar by touch. Controlling screen brightness and speaker volume is far slower with the Touch Bar than a conventional keyboard, requiring me to look down so I can jab the correct spot.

«

I wonder how much typing Jony Ive did. The Touch Bar never evolved. Apple could have been really brave and tried reprogrammable key caps with LEDs, but no. Too fiddly? So, rip all that up. Pretend it didn’t happen. Totally the Bobby in the shower play.
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Colombia sterilises drug lord Pablo Escobar’s hippos • BBC News

»

A group of hippos – an unwanted legacy following the death of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar – are being sterilised.

Escobar, who was shot dead by police in 1993, illegally imported exotic animals, including a male and a female hippo – dubbed the “cocaine hippos”.

Since then, a growing population has been taking over the countryside near his former ranch, Hacienda Nápoles.

The Colombian government has so far sterilised 24 of more than 80 animals.

They have been treated with a chemical that will make them infertile.

Colombian environmentalists say the hippos, believed to be the biggest herd outside Africa, are an invasive species and have pushed away the native fauna.

Many have campaigned for the animals to be culled or sterilised.

«

“The death of a drug lord has led to an invasive megafauna population boom” really is the most unimaginable unintended consequence.
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Leave no trace: how a teenage hacker lost himself online • The Guardian

Huib Modderkolk:

»

It was while running another scan that Edwin [Robbe] noticed some outdated software at KPN. Holland’s biggest telecoms company was using HP Data Protector and hadn’t installed the update yet. Here was an open window. Did he dare sneak in? Why not take a quick peek inside his own internet provider? After all, KPN was a big fish and would earn him massive credit. Edwin took the gamble. He entered a random KPN IP address, ran his exploit and then, using a detour through the Japanese university, slipped inside KPN’s network.

He found himself in a far corner of the network, which is to say he was in, but still needed to open some doors. For instance, he couldn’t send commands directly from his own computer to KPN. Nor did he have full rights across the whole network. He couldn’t just walk around, because a firewall was blocking his way. But all this was child’s play. By moving a programme from his own PC on to the KPN computer, Edwin could bypass the wall. Now he was free to do as he pleased.

Stupid KPN, he thought to himself. The whole place was riddled with holes. Scanning the rest of the network from the KPN machine he’d accessed, Edwin saw the obsolete software being used in hundreds of places. Almost every computer server in the telecom provider’s vast network had a window open. The kid from Barendrecht strolled around unimpeded, and what he saw astonished him. He could control 514 computer servers. He could even access the core router, the backbone of KPN’s entire network. He could see the data of 2.1 million KPN customers. He could block hundreds of thousands of people from connecting to the national emergency telephone line. He could redirect internet traffic so that people who wanted to visit, say, a news site, would wind up somewhere completely different. Edwin could do whatever he wanted and KPN wouldn’t know a thing.

«

Absorbing; the story is from 2011, and his arrest in 2012, it’s a story that repeats again and again.
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Facebook says AI will clean up the platform. Its own engineers have doubts • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman, Jeff Horwitz and Justin Scheck:

»

Facebook executives have long said that artificial intelligence would address the company’s chronic problems keeping what it deems hate speech and excessive violence as well as underage users off its platforms.

That future is farther away than those executives suggest, according to internal documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s AI can’t consistently identify first-person shooting videos, racist rants and even, in one notable episode that puzzled internal researchers for weeks, the difference between cockfighting and car crashes.

On hate speech, the documents show, Facebook employees have estimated the company removes only a sliver of the posts that violate its rules—a low-single-digit percent, they say. When Facebook’s algorithms aren’t certain enough that content violates the rules to delete it, the platform shows that material to users less often—but the accounts that posted the material go unpunished.

The employees were analysing Facebook’s success at enforcing its own rules on content that it spells out in detail internally and in public documents like its community standards.

The documents reviewed by the Journal also show that Facebook two years ago cut the time human reviewers focused on hate-speech complaints from users and made other tweaks that reduced the overall number of complaints. That made the company more dependent on AI enforcement of its rules and inflated the apparent success of the technology in its public statistics.

According to the documents, those responsible for keeping the platform free from content Facebook deems offensive or dangerous acknowledge that the company is nowhere close to being able to reliably screen it.

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Oh, Facebook. Facebook, Facebook, Facebook. And all the other social network. Understand why they make everyone that little bit more angry: read my book Social Warming.


Ghanaian fisheries at risk of collapse, experts warn • Africa Defense Forum

ADF staff:

»

Ghana’s small pelagic fish populations, such as sardinella, have dropped 80% in the past two decades. One species, sardinella aurita, already is fully collapsed. Without governmental intervention, full collapse of Ghana’s fisheries is likely in less than 10 years, Max Schmid, chief operating officer of EJF, told ADF.

As in other areas of West Africa, Ghanaian artisanal fishing boats are targeted by larger industrial trawlers. About 70% of those interviewed by EJF said industrial trawlers had damaged their fishing gear.

Ghana’s marine fisheries support more than 2.7 million people — almost 10% of the population. More than 100,000 fishermen and 11,000 canoes operate in the country, but average annual income has dropped up to 40% per artisanal canoe in the past 15 years or so, according to the EJF. An additional 500,000 Ghanaians work in fish processing, distribution and marketing.

The foreign trawlers mostly are owned by Chinese companies that illegally use Ghanaian front companies so they can fish. According to EJF, Chinese companies finance about 90% of industrial trawlers in the country.

Ghana has long struggled to properly police its waters.

The European Union in May issued Ghana a “yellow card” after concluding that the country’s level of development and engagement against IUU fishing was inadequate. A yellow card is a warning that sanctions may be imposed if the country does not improve efforts to halt IUU fishing.

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It’s Ghana’s fault when big Chinese trawlers come into its waters? Hardly a great idea to sink them. You’d think the EU might help rather than telling it off.
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Canon sued for $5m for disabling scanner when multi-function printers run out of ink • TechSpot

Zak Islam:

»

Canon, best known for manufacturing camera equipment and printers for business and home users, is being sued for not allowing customers to use the scan or fax functions in multi-function devices if the ink runs out on numerous printer models. David Leacraft filed a class action lawsuit against Canon USA, alleging the company engaged in deceptive marketing and unjust enrichment practices.

Leacraft decided to file the lawsuit upon discovering a Pixma MG2522 printer he purchased, advertised as an “all-in-one” machine, would not function as a scanner when ink cartridges are either low or empty. Moreover, faxing capabilities would not work when certain printers ran out of ink as well.

Of course, ink is not required to perform scanning or faxing documents, so the complaint stresses these features should function regardless of ink levels. As such, the lawsuit, which involves more than 100 class members, seeks at least $5,000,000 in awards.

One of the alleged violations in the complaint includes unjust enrichment; the lawsuit states that Canon has disabled these functions to increase profits by selling replacement ink cartridges.

«

Fabulous overreach. Canon really deserves to lose. Also – only $5m?
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Rediscovering the social graph: Instagram is the new Facebook • Medium

Sameer Singh:

»

Since its acquisition, Instagram helped continue Facebook’s run of success and scaled to more than 1 billion users, with an enviable social graph. Oddly enough, it now appears to be in the same position that Facebook found itself in during the early 2010s. It has added multiple feature sets that were initially pioneered by competitors like Snapchat and TikTok. As a consequence, users need to navigate four different ways to create content — posts, stories, reels, and going live. In addition, a significant and growing share of Instagram engagement is from creators and influencers “broadcasting” to their followers.

In fact, Instagram is mulling key product changes to lean into this behavior and compete with broadcast networks like TikTok. The flip side of these changes is that they will dilute the social graph even further. This leaves a clear opening for a new wave of “unbundlers” to recreate a social graph — one for sharing photos with your real friends.

Unsurprisingly, capital has poured into startups attempting to do exactly this— including Poparazzi (take pictures of your friends) and BeReal (take pictures at the same time every day).
This brings me to Lapse — my latest investment. Lapse allows users to create collaborative photo rolls with friend groups — pictures are only revealed in a rapid-fire GIF (a “lapse”) after the roll is complete.

Unlike Instagram, Lapse aims to get users to take imperfect and authentic pictures — ones that are better suited for consumption among closed groups. This way, it disincentivizes broadcasting behavior in favor of direct connections— a social graph. This isn’t an easy feat to pull off. It requires a deep understanding of product, pop culture, and social dynamics. And that’s exactly what Lapse’s founders, Ben and Dan, bring to the table.

«

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‘Affordable choice’: Government fires up plan to drive down cost of clean heat • BusinessGreen News

James Murray:

»

The much-delayed Heat and Buildings Strategy package includes a new £450m grant scheme to encourage households to switch to heat pumps and other low carbon heating systems, £60m of innovation funding to help drive down the cost of heat pump technologies, and a goal to end the installation of conventional gas boilers by 2035.

However, the plans sparked a mixed response from business groups and environmental campaigners, with some welcoming the clear market signal that gas boilers are to be replaced by cleaner technologies and others warning the current proposed levels of funding are unlikely to deliver on the government’s targets to slash building emissions and deliver 600,000 heat pumps installations a year from 2028.

The much-anticipated document is expected to be formally published tomorrow, and is due to be swiftly followed by the release of the government’s similarly long-awaited Net Zero Strategy, which will set out how the UK intends to deliver on its long term decarbonisation goals. This evening’s announcement also comes just hours after the Treasury published new Sustainability Disclosure Requirements (SDR), which will apply to large companies, as well as pension schemes, investment products, and asset managers and owners.

«

Classic government action: fund it, but not enough that it’s actually going to get there. See also: fusion (though that is more of a stretch).
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Start Up No.1660: facial recognition reaches UK schools, Facebook v hate speech, LinkedIn exits China, the end of cheap British chicken?, and more


The best-known observation from Scotty of Star Trek explains why we’ve made so little progress with carbon capture and storage. CC-licensed photo by Pineapples101 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. Atmospheric. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facial recognition cameras arrive in UK school canteens • Financial Times

Cynthia O’Murchu:

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Facial recognition computers have found an unlikely new niche: scanning the faces of thousands of British pupils in school canteens.

On Monday, nine schools in North Ayrshire will start taking payments for school lunches by scanning the faces of pupils, claiming that the new system speeds up queues and is more Covid-secure than the card payments and fingerprint scanners they used previously.

“It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till — it’s faster than card, it’s faster than fingerprint,” said David Swanston, the managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the company that installed the systems.

“In a secondary school you have around about a 25 minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.” He said the average transaction time was cut to five seconds per pupil.

Many British schools have used other biometric systems, such as fingerprint scanners, to take payments for years, but privacy campaigners said there was little need to normalise facial recognition technology, which has been criticised for often operating without explicit consent.

“It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch,” said Silkie Carlo of the campaign group Big Brother Watch.

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Facial recognition use ebbs and flows, like the tide, except that it inches higher and higher every time it flows in.
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How Facebook hides how terrible it is with hate speech • WIRED

Noah Giansiracusa is an assistant professor of mathematics and data science at Bentley University and the author of “How Algorithms Create and Prevent Fake News: Exploring the Impacts of Social Media, Deepfakes, GPT-3, and More”:

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In testimony to the US Senate in October 2020, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to the company’s transparency reports, which he said show that “we are proactively identifying, I think it’s about 94% of the hate speech we ended up taking down.” In testimony to the House a few months later, Zuckerberg similarly responded to questions about hate speech by citing a transparency report: “We also removed about 12 million pieces of content in Groups for violating our policies on hate speech, 87% of which we found proactively.” In nearly every quarterly transparency report, Facebook proclaims hate speech moderation percentages in the 80s and 90s like these. Yet a leaked a document from March 2021 says, “We may action as little as 3-5% of hate … on Facebook.”

Was Facebook really caught in an egregious lie? Yes and no. Technically, both numbers are correct—they just measure different things. The measure that really matters is the one Facebook has been hiding. The measure Facebook has been reporting publicly is irrelevant. It’s a bit like if every time a police officer pulled you over and asked how fast you were going, you always responded by ignoring the question and instead bragged about your car’s gas mileage.

There are two ways that hate speech can be flagged for review and possible removal. Users can report it manually, or AI algorithms can try to detect it automatically. Algorithmic detection is important not just because it’s more efficient, but also because it can be done proactively, before any users flag the hate speech.

The 94% number that Facebook has publicly touted is the “proactive rate,” the number of hate speech items taken down that Facebook’s AI detected proactively, divided by the total number of hate speech items taken down. Facebook probably wants you to think this number conveys how much hate speech is taken down before it has an opportunity to cause harm—but all it really measures is how big a role algorithms play in hate-speech detection on the platform.

…It’s a bit like if every time a police officer pulled you over and asked how fast you were going, you always responded by ignoring the question and instead bragged about your car’s gas mileage.

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Want to understand social networks, and our interactions with them, better? Read Social Warming, my latest book, for the explanation of how tribalism, outrage and algorithms interact to make us all a bit angrier.


LinkedIn closes down China site • Financial Times

Eleanor Olcott and Demetri Sevastopulo:

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The Microsoft-owned company announced on Thursday it was closing the localised version of its popular networking website after “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China”.

LinkedIn has 53m users in the country, making up about 7% of its total user base. Microsoft does not disclose how much China contributes to LinkedIn’s revenues, which Microsoft recently said had passed an annual level of $10bn.

LinkedIn said it would replace the Chinese version of its website with a new job-board service called “InJobs”, without any of the social media functions of the full LinkedIn site. On this stripped-back version, Chinese users will not be able to share posts or news articles.

LinkedIn was called in by the country’s internet regulator in March and ordered to clean up its online content. In the same month, the company said it was “temporarily pausing new member sign-ups for LinkedIn China” as it tried to become compliant “with local law”.

Several human-rights activists and writers who focus on China have had their profiles blocked in the country in recent months for posting “prohibited content”, according to the company.

The Biden administration welcomed LinkedIn’s move and accused Beijing of forcing companies to be “complicit in its repression and authoritarian practices”.

A senior US official said: “We welcome this news by LinkedIn to not play into the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] hand. The private sector and the international community should oppose PRC’s weaponising of its markets to stifle free expression and support human rights.”

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Looked inevitable once the profile-blocking began.
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Britain’s chicken king says the 20-year binge on cheap food is over • Reuters

Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Macaskill:

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Britain’s 20-year binge on cheap food is coming to an end and food price inflation could hit double digits due to a tidal wave of soaring costs that are crashing through the supply chain, Britain’s biggest chicken producer said.

As it emerges from the twin crises of Brexit and Covid, the world’s fifth largest economy is facing an acute shortage of truckers, butchers and warehouse workers that has exacerbated global supply chain strains.

“The days when you could feed a family of four with a £3 ($4) chicken are coming to an end,” Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of the 2 Sisters Group and known as the “Chicken King” said in a statement.

“In relative terms, a chicken today is cheaper to buy than it was 20 years ago. How can it be right that a whole chicken costs less than a pint of beer? You’re looking at a different world from now on where the shopper pays more.”

Boparan, who produces around a third of all poultry products consumed in the United Kingdom, said he didn’t think the British government could fix all the problems or control inflation. He said the constriction of labour supply would lead to wage inflation and that he would invest in automation.

“Less labour means less choice, core ranges, empty shelves and wage inflation, and this isn’t going to change,” he said. “Right now I need to be honest about what this means for the consumer as inflation could reach double digits.”

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Only 20 years? Feels like we’re heading back to 1973 and the pre-Common Market membership. Blaming it on Covid isn’t going to wash when the country’s being encouraged to think there’s nothing to fret about.
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Cybersecurity experts sound alarm on Apple and EU phone scanning plans • The New York Times

Kellen Browning:

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More than a dozen prominent cybersecurity experts on Thursday criticized plans by Apple and the European Union to monitor people’s phones for illicit material, calling the efforts ineffective and dangerous strategies that would embolden government surveillance.

In a 46-page study, the researchers wrote that the proposal by Apple, aimed at detecting images of child sexual abuse on iPhones, as well as an idea forwarded by members of the European Union to detect similar abuse and terrorist imagery on encrypted devices in Europe, used “dangerous technology.”

“It should be a national-security priority to resist attempts to spy on and influence law-abiding citizens,” the researchers wrote.

The technology, known as client-side scanning, would allow Apple — or, in Europe, potentially law enforcement officials — to detect images of child sexual abuse in someone’s phone by scanning images uploaded to Apple’s iCloud storage service.

When Apple announced the planned tool in August, it said a so-called fingerprint of the image would be compared against a database of known child sexual abuse material to search for potential matches.

But the plan sparked an uproar among privacy advocates and raised fears that the technology could erode digital privacy and eventually be used by authoritarian governments to track down political dissidents and other enemies.

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The list of authors for the paper is like a Who’s Who of cryptographers and security experts – Whitfield Diffie (of Diffie-Hellman), Matt “Clipper killer” Blaze, Bruce Schneier, Cambridge University’s Ross Anderson, Ronald Rivest, and more. One notable comment in the paper: that companies want more end-to-end encryption to avoid the cost of content moderation of content on their messaging servers.
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April 2021: Carbon capture’s litany of failures laid bare in new report • RenewEconomy

Ketan Joshi:

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Carbon capture, an attempt to stop the release of carbon dioxide at the point of generation when fossil fuels are burned, has developed a well-earned reputation of false promise over the past few decades.

As RenewEconomy reported last year, there are a litany of predictions from the past few decades suggesting carbon capture – particularly for burning coal to make electricity – would be ascendant, and that was always just around the corner.

paper focusing on America’s carbon capture and storage industry has just been released that paints roughly the same picture, while carving out some possible future roles for CCS, even among the hype of the previous decades. “While many projects essential to commercializing the technology have been proposed, most (over 80%) end in failure”, the authors wrote in December 2020.

By gathering up data and conducting a systematic and empirical analysis of CCS projects, the largest analysis to date, the paper creates a database of CCS plants that were proposed and never built, along with plants that eventually did get built and are operational:


Figure 1. Global proposed vs. implemented annual CO2 sequestration (main figure), and global implemented annual CO2 sequestration by type (inset). Both are in million tons of CO2 per annum (Mtpa). More than 75% of proposed gas processing projects have been implemented. The corresponding figures for other industrial projects and power plant projects are approximately 60% and 10%, respectively

It’s buried in the caption, but that’s a measly 10% of carbon capture plants completed, for power generation.

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Rather like fusion, CCS is always just around the corner, constantly evasive because of the physics involved: it’s very dispersed in the atmosphere, and lots of energy is needed to tear the carbon from each carbon dioxide molecule.

Even so, the COP26 meeting is probably going to be in denial of one of Scotty’s most famous aphorisms. (Random fact: James Doohan, who played Scotty, lost one finger – the middle right – when he stormed Juno Beach on D-Day.)
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US Treasury said it tied $5.2bn of BTC transactions over ten years to ransomware payments • The Record by Recorded Future

Catalin Cimpanu:

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The financial crimes investigation unit of the US Treasury Department, also known as FinCEN, said today it identified [a total of] approximately $5.2bn in outgoing Bitcoin transactions potentially tied to ransomware payments.

FinCEN officials said the figure was compiled by analyzing 2,184 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by US financial institutions over the last decade, between January 1, 2011, and June 30, 2021.

…FinCEN report included some historical data on past ransomware attacks, most of the organization’s investigation focused on the first half of 2021 and the analysis of recent trends.

According to FinCEN:

• Financial institutions filed 635 SARs in the first half of 2021 related to suspected ransomware activity
• The SARs referenced 458 suspicious transactions amounting to $590m
• The H1 2021 figure exceeds the value reported for the entirety of 2020, which was $416m, showing an uptick in ransomware activity
• The average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3m
• Based on SARs data, FinCEN said it identified 68 different ransomware variants active in H1 2021.

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See? Bitcoin is used for real-world transactions!
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Porsche Taycan EV outsells flagship 911 sports car • CNBC

Lora Kolodny:

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In a sign that drivers are increasingly embracing battery electric models, sales of the Porsche Taycan surpassed those of the company’s influential, high performance 911 series, according to numbers the company released Friday.

The Taycan is Porsche’s first battery electric vehicle, and was introduced in the fall of 2019. The company launched its 911 high-performance sports car in 1964.

…Deliveries of the Taycan hit 28,640, and deliveries of the 911 sports car hit 27,972 during the same period.

The Taycan, a four-door, dual motor sports car, was seen as a high-priced competitor to Tesla’s newer Model S sedans at the time of its debut.

…In its statement on Friday, Porsche (which is part of the Volkswagen Group) also revealed its Cayenne series of mid-size, luxury crossover sport utility vehicles remained best-sellers for the company.

Cayenne deliveries hit 62,451 in the first three quarters of 2021, followed by the Macan which hit deliveries of 61,944 vehicles. Besides the fully electric Taycan, Porsche sells a number of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, but the company did not break out sales numbers for each model.

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So the fuel-driven SUV is still outselling it by a factor of about two. Interesting psychology question: are the buyers set on having a Porsche, but want to be green(er) and get an electric one, even though its charging network (a key factor) is significantly worse than Tesla’s? Or do they decide to go electric, and eventually land on Porsche after examining the options?
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New MacBook Pro features breakdown: everything rumors say we can expect • MacRumors

Hartley Charlton lists what’s expected from Apple’s “not the iPhone or iPad” event (10am Pacific, 6pm UK):

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• 14in and 16in models with the same performance across both machines
• Slimmer bezels and no MacBook Pro logo below the display
• Mini-LED displays with ProMotion and resolutions of 3024 x 1964 and 3456 x 2234, resulting in higher contrast and brightness, as well as smoother on-screen motion. A camera and sensor notch at the top edge of the display is also a possibility
• 1080p webcam for improved video calls, up from 720p on the current models
• Flatter design, more akin to the design of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13
• Six ports, including two Thunderbolt ports and a MagSafe charging port on the left side of the machine, and an HDMI port, a Thunderbolt port, and SD-card reader on the right side of the machine. This means that there are three Thunderbolt ports expected, one less than on current high-end MacBook Pros
• No OLED Touch Bar, with full-size physical function keys instead
• “M1X” chip with a 10-core CPU that features eight high-performance cores and two energy-efficient cores, along with 16-core and 32-core GPU options, and support for up to 64GB of RAM
• Improved thermal design for the 14in model, mirroring the improvements that came to the 16in model in 2019, including a larger heat pipe and heat sink, as well as added thermal pads
• High-Power Mode to optionally boost performance when not connected to power
• 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage as standard with the base configurations
• Larger battery for the 14in model and a slightly smaller battery for the 16in model, relative to the current models
• MagSafe charging like older MacBook Pro models, now featuring faster charging speeds and a redesigned power brick.

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For real Apple enthusiasts, the appearance of new MacBook Pros is a form of Christmas. Which, given how supply chains are behaving just now, might be when the machines start arriving if you order them straight away.
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Left to rot: collapsed Surfside condo born of botched construction and evidence of money laundering • USA Today

Monique O. Madan, Pat Beall, Katie Wedell, Erin Mansfield, Sudiksha Kochi and Dan Keemahill:

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early condo sales exhibit telltale signs of a money laundering scheme. Experts said cutting corners on construction often accompanied money laundering. At Champlain South, engineers noted an incorrectly designed pool deck and improperly constructed support columns. Money laundering might have meant that some early buyers weren’t living in the condo building or concerned with its long-term maintenance.   

“The era we’re talking about is when Miami suddenly came out of the ashes. So how do you rush to fulfill the demand? You cut corners. You attached roofs with paper clips. You bribe the inspectors,” said Jorge Valdes, who was not involved in Champlain South but helped build dozens of homes, apartment complexes and high-rises in the Miami region as a chief money launderer for the Medellin Cartel.

The reporting reveals that troubling evidence of the building’s decay emerged earlier and was ignored longer than previously known. Residents noted flooding in the garage in 1981, the year the tower opened. By 1996, they were making repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling. In 2016, as construction rumbled on a new condo next door, a Champlain South resident was shaken off a treadmill.   

Homeowner association records and interviews with residents show that these problems were addressed in isolation, a series of seemingly small problems that no one connected until 2018, when an engineering report laid out construction errors that investigators are examining to determine if they contributed to the collapse.

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If they have to knock down (or even examine) every Florida condo suspected of being built with drug money, there’s going to be nothing left. Mr Valdes might be able to help pinpoint them?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1659: Congress suggests algorithmic regulation, the unreal TikTokers, into the bat cave!, UK braces for shortages, and more


Waymo cars in San Francisco are taking a puzzling detour to a dead end – again and again – for no reason anyone can work out. CC-licensed photo by zombieite 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. Not a dead end. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Top Democrats unveil bill to rein in tech companies’ ‘malicious algorithms’ • The Washington Post

Cristiano Lima:

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Top Democratic lawmakers unveiled a major proposal Thursday that could hold digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter legally responsible for making personalized recommendations to users that lead to their physical or emotional harm.

The bill comes amid a groundswell of scrutiny of how algorithms can amplify harmful content in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen about Facebook’s risks. Her disclosures to the media and policymakers have shined a spotlight on the way Silicon Valley’s often-opaque systems can surface dangerous material.

The legislation marks one of the most significant threats in years to the tech industry’s liability protections under Section 230, a decades-old law that shields a broad range of digital services — from giants like YouTube and Instagram to smaller sites like Etsy and Nextdoor — from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content.

The bill is set to be introduced Friday by four leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — which holds broad jurisdiction over tech issues including Section 230.

“Designing personalized algorithms that promote extremism, disinformation and harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it,” Pallone said.

The legislation would carve out Section 230 so that a digital service could face liability if they knowingly or recklessly make a personalized recommendation that “materially contributed to a physical or severe emotional injury to any person.” The bill would apply to recommendations that use algorithms to boost certain content over others based on users’ personal information.

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Hmm. Mike Masnick at Techdirt isn’t impressed. It’s like threading a needle in the dark.
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Want a better suggestion for how to fix social networks? There’s one in my book, Social Warming, along with a whole lot more.


Your favourite TikTok accounts may be fictional characters by FourFront • Insider

Palmer Haasch:

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“I have had enough of men keeping me in the dark like I’m an afterthought!” Tia, a TikToker with over 112,000 followers (@thatsthetia), says emphatically while slamming open her closet door and launching into a monologue about her dramatically twisted love life in a September 21 TikTok. 

Tia is a student, PR intern, and future princess — well, only if she gets back together with her royal ex. She’s passionate, smart, and no stranger to sharing her love life with thousands of viewers.

She’s also not a real person — but that doesn’t stop the likes, views, and comments asking for updates on her outlandish story from rolling in.

Tia is one of 22 fictional TikTok personalities conceptualized, scripted, and managed by FourFront, a social media and live event-focused entertainment startup. In eight months, TikTok accounts that the company manages have collectively amassed 1.93 million followers and over 281 million views, according to co-founder Ilan Benjamin.

The startup’s foray into fictional TikTok content — a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque web of interconnected characters, as Benjamin describes it — is finally coming to a head in a live “reveal party” on Thursday, where eight of its characters will compete for a fictional billionaire’s fortune for viewer’s entertainment. It’s intended to expose their scripted connections, while also revealing that this is all just for fun. 

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We saw things like this on Instagram, but TikTok just gets weirder and weirder. (The deep fake Tom Cruise is still going strong there.)

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Dead-end San Francisco street plagued with confused WayMo cars • CBS San Francisco

Wilson Walker:

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“I noticed it while I was sleeping,” says Jennifer King. “I awoke to a strange hum and I thought there was a spacecraft outside my bedroom window .”

The visitors Jennifer King is talking about don’t just come at night. They come all day, right to the end of 15th Avenue, where there’s nothing else to do but make some kind of multi-point turn and head out the way they came in. Not long after that car is gone, there will be another, which will make the same turn and leave, before another car shows up and does the exact same thing. And while there are some pauses, it never really stops.

“There are some days where it can be up to 50,” King says of the WayMo count. “It’s literally every five minutes. And we’re all working from home, so this is what we hear.”

At several points this Tuesday, they showed up on top of each other. The cars, packed with technology, stop in a queue as if they are completely baffled by the dead end. While some neighbors say it is becoming a bit of a nuisance, everyone finds it a little bizarre.

“I don’t really have a preference either way, but it is a little bit odd that they’re over here so much,” said Katie, who lives on the street.

“And especially across a slow street, and into a one-block street,” added Andrea Lewin. “It’s a little peculiar.”

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Looking on a map (it’s the intersection of 15th Avenue and Lake St in SF) doesn’t quite show why. It seems like an escape from the grid of streets, but it’s a dead end. A strange glitch in the machine mind.
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In coronavirus origins search in China, Enshi caves and wildlife farms draw new scrutiny • The Washington Post

Michael Standaert and Eva Dou:

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Hundreds of caves are spread throughout the mountains of Enshi prefecture, an agricultural corner of China’s Hubei province. The most majestic, Tenglong, or “flying dragon,” is one of China’s largest karst cave systems, spanning 37 miles of passages that contain numerous bats.

Nearby are small farms that collectively housed hundreds of thousands of wild mammals such as civets, ferret badgers and raccoon dogs before the pandemic, farm licenses show — animals that scientists say can be intermediate hosts for viruses to cross over from bats to humans. It is areas such as Enshi that the World Health Organization has said may offer key details in the search for the origins of the covonavirus.

…The Washington Post made a rare trip in September to Enshi, six hours’ drive west of Wuhan (where the coronavirus was first detected). A reporter observed human traffic into Enshi caves, including domestic tourism, spelunking and villagers replacing a drinking water pump inside a cave. Defunct wildlife farms sat as close as one mile from the entrances.

Scientists briefed on The Post’s reporting said it documents a plausible pathway for how a coronavirus could have spread from bats to other animals, then to Wuhan’s markets.

In the rolling land near the caves, Enshi officials for years promoted wildlife farming to alleviate poverty. Enshi accounted for 17% of Hubei wildlife farms shut down in the pandemic, official announcements show. Authorities estimated that the 290 shuttered Enshi farms had 450,000 to 780,000 animals.

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One determined proponent of the lab leak hypothesis insisted, on seeing this, that the Chinese government must be certain the caves couldn’t be the source, otherwise they wouldn’t let people in. Quite the convoluted logic.
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Shortage nation: why the UK is braced for a grim Christmas • Financial Times

Tim Harford, with a long essay, from which these are the key paragraphs:

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A decade ago, software engineers at Netflix created Chaos Monkey, a system which randomly disables Netflix servers. The idea behind the crazy-sounding scheme was to push Netflix engineers to build more resilient systems. Servers do fail, after all, so it might be best to get some practice in. Having concluded that these random acts of self-sabotage were delivering the desired response, Netflix followed up with Chaos Kong, which simulates a much broader service failure.

Late in 2019, the British people decided that Chaos Kong would make a good prime minister and elected Boris Johnson by a large margin. Johnson has now decided to make a virtue of his own recklessness. After initially claiming that the shortage of truck drivers in the UK was entirely unconnected to Brexit, the government now boasts that the shortage is indeed Brexit-related and was the plan all along. True to the spirit of Chaos Kong, this tough love for the British economy is the only way to get it to shape up.

…There is one encouraging precedent: US manufacturing in the 1920s. The economic historian Paul David observed that there was a long delay after developing electric motors before they were productively used in manufacturing. Electric motors only fulfilled their potential once production lines were re-engineered, factory buildings redesigned, and workers retrained. This took courage, imagination and about three decades. Electrification caught on in US factories in about 1920 and productivity surged at rates never seen before or since.

What provoked this sudden reorganisation? Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Partly it was enabled by the falling cost and rising availability of power from the electricity grid. But David argued that factory owners rethought their operations once the flow of immigrant workers dried up. More than a million people a year had moved to the US from Europe before the war, but in 1914 this stopped — first because of the war itself, and then because of postwar legislation. Lacking workers, factory owners had to figure out how to get more from less. David concluded that real wages in manufacturing rose sharply along with productivity.

Immigration restrictions alone were not enough; productivity rose because a revolutionary technology lurked in the background.

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“Hacker X”—the American who built a pro-Trump fake news empire—unmasks himself • Ars Technica

Ax Sharma:

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Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And he fooled unwary American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, into regarding fake news sources more highly than the mainstream media.

Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.

“Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”

Previously dubbed “Hacker X,” he’s now ready to reveal who he is—and how he did it.

A note on sourcing: In a rigorous effort to fact-check the claims made here, Ars has seen written correspondence between the hacker and notable entities involved in producing fake news; emails sent to him by prominent personalities publicly known to own (or be associated with) fake news sites; tax forms showing income received by him from fake-news generation companies; receipts for IT asset purchases, such as domain names; emails from him to staff explaining strategy and assigning them tasks on a regular basis; and archived copies of webpages, forums, and tweets produced as a part of this large operation. We have also communicated with sources, both named and unnamed, some of whom are “writers” who worked at the same company and have corroborated the hacker’s claims. Because he requests that the company he worked for not be explicitly named, Ars has referred to the fake news company with… a fake name, Koala Media.

The fake news impresario who has now decided to break his silence is “ethical hacker” Robert Willis.

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Willis has his own Wikipedia page – no age given, and his activities before 2015 mostly unknown. He wasn’t doing it against his will: he’s a Republican.
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Roblox Squid Game: best Roblox experiences • Rock Paper Shotgun

Rebecca Jones:

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Less than a month after the show’s release, there are already dozens if not hundreds of Squid Game inspired experiences on Roblox. Most of these are — as regular visitors to the platform will no doubt have guessed — in a less-than-polished state. Also, nearly all of them are just called “Squid Game” or some minor variation on it, which makes searching for a particular one an absolute nightmare. So here, we’ve provided links to what we think are the really good Squid Game experiences on Roblox.

[Example game description:] While the entry by Trendsetter Games is more active in terms of current player numbers, Fish Game is the highest-rated and most-played Squid Game experience we’ve found. This is a simple affair without any fancy codes or paid power-ups, focussed instead on the core of what Squid Game is all about: getting horribly murdered in a playground. In addition to two challenges based on the TV series, Fish Game includes a semi-original level called Blood Rising that’s being heralded as a surprisingly tough obby [sic] by Roblox veterans.

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There’s a moral panic building, with schools sending out letters with Dire Warnings about children “playing” some version of the hit Korean series Squid Game (ironic, since the “games” in it are children’s games, such as what we’d call Grandmother’s Footsteps”). But as this shows, they don’t even have to watch the program to understand everything about the program. Similar stuff is available in Minecraft, AIUI.
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The carbon footprint of household energy use in the United States • PNAS

Goldstein et al, School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan:

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A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods.

If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement.

However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

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I’m sure we can all foresee a future where the US 1) decarbonises its grid 2) rebuilds American homes so they’re more energy efficient and the new ones are smaller. (This is from August 2020, but still relevant, especially with the inability of Congress to pass meaningful bills.
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The climate disaster is here – this is what the future looks like • The Guardian

Oliver Milman, Andrew Witherspoon, Rita Liu, and Alvin Chang:

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Since 1970, the Earth’s temperature has raced upwards faster than in any comparable period. The oceans have heated up at a rate not seen in at least 11,000 years. “We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet,” said Hayhoe. “The temperature has only moved a few tenths of a degree for us until now, just small wiggles in the road. But now we are hitting a curve we’ve never seen before.”

No one is entirely sure how this horrifying experiment will end but humans like defined goals and so, in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, nearly 200 countries agreed to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2ºC, with an aspirational goal to keep it to 1.5ºC. The latter target was fought for by smaller, poorer nations, aware that an existential threat of unlivable heatwaves, floods and drought hinged upon this ostensibly small increment. “The difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC is a death sentence for the Maldives,” said Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, president of the country, to world leaders at the United Nations in September.

There is no huge chasm after a 1.49ºC rise, we are tumbling down a painful, worsening rocky slope rather than about to suddenly hit a sheer cliff edge – but by most standards the world’s governments are currently failing to avert a grim fate.

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This doesn’t make jolly reading. But it is factual. Sometimes you have to confront it.
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Google modernizes US mobile search results with continuous scrolling • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

»

Google announced today it’s changing the way search works on mobile devices, initially in the US. Now, when you reach the bottom of a set of search results on your phone, you won’t have to tap to go to the next page. Instead, the next set of results will automatically load so you can continuously scroll down to see more information.

The change will roll out on the mobile web and will be supported on the Google mobile app for both iOS and Android in the US for most English-language searches for the time being. Because it’s a staggered release, you may initially encounter some results which scroll and others that do not.

While most people find what they’re looking for in the first few results, says Google, those who are looking for additional information tend to browse through four pages of search results. That’s why the company is making the change, we’re told. Now, those users will be able to more seamlessly move between pages without having to click the “see more” button at the bottom of the page.

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Note this isn’t coming to desktop, where I suspect people are more likely to amend their search if they don’t find what they want on the first page. On mobile, amending your search is a bit more fiddly, and it’s easier to press a “next” button.

And this also lets Google insert any number of ads all through the feed, like Instagram or Facebook.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1658: Amazon faces copying claim, AirPods for health?, the Facebook-using teens, Cpt Kirk opines on space, Big Bang mystery, and more


The air around Everest is so thin that most humans need artificial oxygen when climbing it. But birds can fly over it. How? CC-licensed photo by Ryan 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.


Amazon copied products and rigged search results, documents show • Reuters

Aditya Kalra and Steve Stecklow:

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off products it sells on its website and of exploiting its vast trove of internal data to promote its own merchandise at the expense of other sellers. The company has denied the accusations.

But thousands of pages of internal Amazon documents examined by Reuters – including emails, strategy papers and business plans – show the company ran a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating search results to boost its own product lines in India, one of the company’s largest growth markets.

The documents reveal how Amazon’s private-brands team in India secretly exploited internal data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies, and then offered them on its platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three … search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.

Among the victims of the strategy: a popular shirt brand in India, John Miller, which is owned by a company whose chief executive is Kishore Biyani, known as the country’s “retail king.” Amazon decided to “follow the measurements of” John Miller shirts down to the neck circumference and sleeve length, the document states.

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Benedict Evans repeatedly argues that this is no different from Walmart or Costco which also monitor their customers’ purchases and produce things under their own label to sell in competition. It’s pretty hard to see that shirt sizing has any copyright, for instance. The search results? Same as where you stack things on the shelves – for which, in stores, companies pay thousands.
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Apple studying potential of AirPods as health device • WSJ

Rolfe Winkler:

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Apple is studying ways to make AirPods into a health device, including for enhancing hearing, reading body temperature and monitoring posture, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the plans.

The plans further demonstrate Apple’s ambition to add health and wellness features to devices beyond the Apple Watch, where most of the company’s health functions exist today. Apple is also working on technology that aims to use iPhones to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline, the Journal reported last month.

It isn’t clear if Apple is developing specific new hearing-aid features for AirPods or wants to market the earbuds’ existing hearing-improvement features as hearing aids. AirPods Pro, Apple’s higher-end earbuds, already offer features to improve hearing, including “conversation boost,” launched last week, that increases the volume and clarity of people in front of the wearer.

The proposed AirPods features aren’t expected by next year and might never be rolled out to consumers or the timing could change, cautioned people familiar with the company’s plans.

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Strange how the WSJ has “reviewed documents” and yet there’s no clarity about when this will happen. Those sound like prototype schematics, don’t they?
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The men who failed Britain • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

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I have a distinct memory of watching the first of the pandemic press conferences; the first time Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson stood up behind those podiums in the wood-lined room and told us what was going to happen. It was March 3, 2020. They unveiled the “flatten the curve” plan — to slow rather than stop the virus’s spread, so that we would slowly build up population immunity while preventing the NHS being overwhelmed.

It seemed reassuring. I know this because I messaged something like “It seems like they might know what they’re doing!”  in a science-nerdy chat group that I’m part of. But my optimism was not echoed. “It seems like they’ve just killed all our grannies,” responded someone.

I recall this to make two points. Firstly, I can’t claim any sort of foresight. I didn’t see then, though perhaps I should have done, that the early response of the British government to Covid was disastrous and wrongheaded. Instead, I was falsely reassured by the confidence of the scientific advisers, Whitty and Vallance. 

But secondly, other people did see it. The failings were predicted. And not just by my friend: a large number of smart, numerate generalists outperformed public health experts repeatedly in predicting the course of the pandemic in those early months.

On Monday night, two House of Commons select committees released the findings of their report into England’s Covid response. The headlines yesterday were stark: the “worst public health failure ever”, “big mistakes”, “damning”. 

The individual mistakes — failure to protect care homes; failure to move quickly enough on lockdowns; failure to build testing infrastructure and more — are certainly worthy of criticism. But having read the report, I want to talk about what strikes me as the overarching theme: being too bloody clever by half.

«

Chivers is an absolutely terrific science writer. For my part, I agree: I didn’t see it coming, even while other people utterly did.
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Do teens use Facebook? It depends on their family’s income • Quartz

Hanna Kozlowska:

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When Pew last surveyed teenagers—three years ago—lower-income kids reported that they used Instagram and Snapchat much less than they currently do. It’s easy to speculate why: Instagram was still known as the platform where seemingly rich kids show off their private jets and exotic vacations, and Snapchat used up a lot of data. Both were apps created for smartphones, which were less ubiquitous among low-income kids. But today, as Instagram has grown in popularity and access to smartphones and mobile data has increased, a similar share of teens across all income levels use Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. The only significant difference comes in how they use Facebook. [70% of teens whose household income is under $30k use it, 56% of those in $30k-$75k, just 36% of families with household incomes over $75k.] Why?

There’s no simple answer to this question, but there are several compelling theories. Most of them have to do with resilience, where lower-income kids use technology to help them in various ways, filling gaps when other resources are unavailable. They use Facebook to keep in touch with their networks, to find support, and to get ahead.

Quartz spoke with communications experts who offered some answers, stemming from their work with low-income teenagers from various backgrounds, including immigrant children or those in foster care. The stories of several lower-income teens that Quartz spoke to aligned with the experts’ experiences (the teens were contacted through an organization in Rochester, New York, that helps get young people involved in their community and in social causes). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, as many as 9.4 million US children aged 12-17 live in low-income households. That’s about 39% of all US adolescents.

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For more about the effects on us that Facebook and other social networks have, read Social Warming, my latest book.


Why birds can fly over Mount Everest: Walter Murch’s letter to his granddaughter • Nautilus

Walter Murch:

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I’m going to imitate Rudyard Kipling and tell you a just-so story. Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the world 100 years ago. He wrote The Jungle Book. And also Just So Stories, which began as bedtime stories he told his daughter Josephine. They were about how animals got their famous features, like the camel’s hump and the leopard’s spots. Kipling was a wonderful writer but he made up his animal stories. My story is based on science, which means many people, through many recent experiments, have concluded things might “just so” be the way of this story.

It’s also a story about evolution, which is nature’s research and development department. Like Kipling, I’ve given a human voice to certain things: Bacteria form committees and petition the research and development department for answers to their problems, as do plants and dinosaurs. And the R&D department (which is to say, evolution) tries to come up with solutions. I’m going to call evolution “Mr. R&D.” When he finds a problem, Mr. R&D tests things out in different ways to come up with a solution. But sometimes those solutions have unforeseen consequences. So here we go!

«

This is lovely, explaining along the way how Earth only closely avoided incinerating all life in a lightning strike.
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Did the Big Bang begin from a singularity? Scientists don’t think so any more • Big Think

Ethan Siegel:

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extrapolating beyond the limits of your measurable evidence is a dangerous, albeit tempting, game to play. After all, if we can trace the hot Big Bang back some 13.8 billion years, all the way to when the universe was less than 1 second old, what’s the harm in going all the way back just one additional second: to the singularity predicted to exist when the universe was 0 seconds old?

The answer, surprisingly, is that there’s a tremendous amount of harm — if you’re like me in considering “making unfounded, incorrect assumptions about reality” to be harmful. The reason this is problematic is because beginning at a singularity — at arbitrarily high temperatures, arbitrarily high densities, and arbitrarily small volumes — will have consequences for our universe that aren’t necessarily supported by observations.

For example, if the universe began from a singularity, then it must have sprung into existence with exactly the right balance of “stuff” in it — matter and energy combined — to precisely balance the expansion rate. If there were just a tiny bit more matter, the initially expanding universe would have already recollapsed by now. And if there were a tiny bit less, things would have expanded so quickly that the universe would be much larger than it is today.

And yet, instead, what we’re observing is that the universe’s initial expansion rate and the total amount of matter and energy within it balance as perfectly as we can measure.

Why?

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If you like having your mind expanded, though at a slightly slower rate than the universe in its early moments.
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AI predicts accident hot-spots from satellite imagery and GPS data • Unite.AI

Martin Anderson:

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Researchers from MIT and the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence have developed a machine learning system that analyzes high-resolution satellite imagery, GPS coordinates and historical crash data in order to map potential accident-prone sections in road networks, successfully predicting accident ‘hot spots’ where no other data or previous methods would indicate them.

The system offers bold predictions for areas in a road network that are likely to become accident black-spots, even where those areas have zero history of accidents. Testing the system over data covering four years, the researchers found that their predictions for these ‘no history’ potential accident hazard zones were borne out by events in subsequent years.

The new paper is called “Inferring high-resolution traffic accident risk maps based on satellite imagery and GPS trajectories”. The authors predict uses for the new architecture beyond accident prediction, hypothesizing that it could be applied to 911 emergency risk maps or systems to predict the likelihood for demand for taxis and ride-share providers.

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Gotta say, from the diagram in the paper (and the story) there’s not a whole lot of new predicting going on. Accidents in four specific locations over the past two years leads to a prediction for the coming two years of accidents at.. the same locations. Still, machine learning! 💪
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William Shatner describes his experience in space • Cosmic Perspective

A transcript of Shatner’s words, shortly after he arrived back on terra firma. Here’s an extract:

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“Everybody in the world needs to see… the um… (cries) … it was unbelievable, unbelievable. I mean, you know the little things… weightlessness… to see the blue color just.. go WHIP by!!! and now you’re staring into blackness. THAT’s the thing… the covering of blue… this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us. We think, oh, that’s blue the sky!  

“And then suddenly you shoot up through it all of the sudden… as if you whip off the sheet off you when you are asleep.. And you’re looking into blackness. Into BLACK UGLINESS… And you look down and there’s the blue down there… and the black up there and it’s… it’s just… there is Mother Earth… and comfort… and there is ….is there death?  I don’t know! Is that death? Is that the way death is?? WOOP, and it’s gone! Jesus…

“It was so moving to me… this experience …it’s something unbelievable. You see it… yeah, you know… uh… weightlessness… my stomach went up and I thought, ‘God, this is so weird…’ but not as weird as the covering of blue… this is what I NEVER expected. Oh, it’s one thing to say, “Oh… the sky and the thing and the… gradual th…” It’s all true… but what isn’t true… what is unknown until you do it is… is this pillow.. There’s this soft blue… look at the the beauty of that color! And it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant.. It’s what … how thick is the [atmosphere]? Is it a mile?!” 

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Somehow this reminds me of his 1960s spoken-word album. Though there’s more where that came from.
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Cybersecurity: EU to ban anonymous websites • Patrick Breyer

The MEP doesn’t like this idea:

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The EU is currently drafting legislation to increase cyber security (revised NIS Directive, in short “NIS 2”). According to this directive, the registration of internet domain names will in future require the correct identification of the owner in the Whois database, including name, address and telephone number. So far, registries such as denic do not register telephone numbers of the holders. The leading Industry Committee wants to additionally mandate „verification“ of the registration data. The plans could mean the end of “whois privacy” services for proxy registration of domains, threatening the safety of activists and whistleblowers. The Home Affairs Committee is voting on the issue this week. The lead committee ITRE is expected to take a position at the end of the month.

MEP Patrick Breyer, shadow rapporteur in the opinion-giving LIBE Committee, warns against the proposal:

“This indiscriminate identification policy for domain holders is a big step towards abolishing anonymous publications and leaks on the Internet.

“This policy endangers website operators, because only anonymity effectively protects against data theft and loss, stalking and identity theft, doxxing and ‘death lists’. The right to anonymity online is particularly indispensable for women, children, minorities and vulnerable persons, victims of abuse and stalking, for example. Whistleblowers and press informants, political activists and people in need of counselling, fall silent without the protection of anonymity. Only anonymity prevents the persecution and discrimination of courageous people in need of help and ensures the free exchange of sometimes vital information. If Wikileaks activists, for example, had had to register the platform’s website in their name, they would have been immediately prosecuted in the United States.

“I welcome the aim of increasing network security. But indiscriminate identification has nothing to do with network security. That is why my group and I are calling for the deletion of the identification requirement from the draft Directive.”

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Tricky balance. Anonymous sites enable phishing and fraud, though who’s to say that the details provided by fraudsters and phishers will be valid. Which means this would be a problem for those who need to stay anonymous.
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The creator economy is failing to spread the wealth • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Data revealed as a part of a massive Twitch hack last week found that this year the top 1% of all streamers earn more than half of all revenue on the platform, per the Wall Street Journal.

• Video: While a handful of creators have made substantial money, the vast majority of earners on Twitch have made less than $120 this year so far, per the report.

• Newsletters: The top ten publications on Substack collectively make more than $20 million a year in subscription revenue, while less popular newsletters typically make tens of thousands annually.

• Podcasts: The top 1% of podcast earners make the vast majority of podcast ad revenue, although efforts to broaden podcast revenue through new creator programs at Apple and Spotify will hopefully help more creators get paid.

• Social: A report from TechCrunch last month found that Twitter’s new “Super Followers” feature, which allows people to tip their favourite creators, only brought in $6,000 in its first two weeks.

What’s happening now with the creator economy mirrors all of the previous waves of digital media economies built before it via social media, blogging and websites.

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It’s the power law. Ineluctable when people freely choose within a network.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1657: why TikTok is underestimated, Facebook’s secret blacklist, America’s supply chain trouble, steak as champagne?, and more


Might a revised version of Magsafe make a return in the new MacBook Pros expected to be unveiled next week? After all, the new iMacs got it. CC-licensed photo by gordon mei 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. Mm, tasty. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


One billion TikTok users understand what Congress doesn’t • The Atlantic

Evelyn Douek:

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TikTok is not a passing fad or a tiny start-up in the social-media space. It’s a cultural powerhouse, creating superstars out of unknown artists overnight. It’s a career plan for young influencers and a portable shopping mall full of products and brands. It’s where many young people get their news and discuss politics. And sometimes they get rowdy: In June 2020, TikTok teens allegedly pranked then-President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign by overbooking tickets to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then never showing.

That humiliation seemed to be one reason Trump threatened to ban the app in August 2020. This briefly put TikTok in the spotlight. For a few months, serious debate raged about whether the app was a national-security threat. Its ties to China sparked fears that it might be forced to share data with the Chinese government or that the Communist Party could influence its content-moderation practices. What unfolded was a saga made for prime time, involving twists and turns, distraught teens, threats of retaliation from China, the departure of the company’s chief executive, and, bizarrely, the floating of Microsoft and Walmart as possible buyers for the app at some point. But then the whole thing just … petered out. As a Verge headline quipped in November, “TikTok Says the Trump Administration Has Forgotten About Trying to Ban It, Would Like to Know What’s Up.” When Trump forgot about TikTok, so, it seems, did the rest of us. As lawmakers appear to be preparing to haul Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back before them yet again, TikTok’s CEO has never appeared. Can you even name him?

But TikTok is still the same app it was last year, when people were worked up about the threat it posed to national security. Only bigger.

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In the time to come, people are going to regret underestimating TikTok. Some people aren’t underestimating it, and yet they’re still going to regret tangling with it.
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Exclusive: Facebook’s secret blacklist of “dangerous” groups and people • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

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A range of legal scholars and civil libertarians have called on the company to publish the list so that users know when they are in danger of having a post deleted or their account suspended for praising someone on it. The company has repeatedly refused to do so, claiming it would endanger employees and permit banned entities to circumvent the policy. Facebook did not provide The Intercept with information about any specific threat to its staff.

Despite Facebook’s claims that disclosing the list would endanger its employees, the company’s hand-picked Oversight Board has formally recommended publishing all of it on multiple occasions, as recently as August, because the information is in the public interest.

The Intercept has reviewed a snapshot of the full DIO list and is today publishing a reproduction of the material in its entirety, with only minor redactions and edits to improve clarity. It is also publishing an associated policy document, created to help moderators decide what posts to delete and what users to punish.

“Facebook puts users in a near-impossible position by telling them they can’t post about dangerous groups and individuals, but then refusing to publicly identify who it considers dangerous,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, who reviewed the material.

The list and associated rules appear to be a clear embodiment of American anxieties, political concerns, and foreign policy values since 9/11, experts said, even though the DIO policy is meant to protect all Facebook users and applies to those who reside outside of the United States (the vast majority). Nearly everyone and everything on the list is considered a foe or threat by America or its allies: Over half of it consists of alleged foreign terrorists, free discussion of which is subject to Facebook’s harshest censorship.

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It’s a subtle form of American imperialism – the soft power that envelops entirely.
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America is choking under an ‘everything shortage’ • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:

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I visited CVS last week to pick up some at-home COVID-19 tests. They’d been sold out for a week, an employee told me. So I asked about paper towels. “We’re out of those too,” he said. “Try Walgreens.” I drove to a Walgreens that had paper towels. But when I asked a pharmacist to fill some very common prescriptions, he told me the store had run out. “Try the Target up the road,” he suggested. Target’s pharmacy had the meds, but its front area was alarmingly barren, like the canned-food section of a grocery store one hour before a hurricane makes landfall.

This is the economy now. One-hour errands are now multi-hour odysseys. Next-day deliveries are becoming day-after-next deliveries. That car part you need? It’ll take an extra week, sorry. The book you were looking for? Come back in November. The baby crib you bought? Make it December. Eyeing a new home-improvement job that requires several construction workers? Haha, pray for 2022.

The U.S. economy isn’t yet experiencing a downturn akin to the 1970s period of stagflation. This is something different, and quite strange. Americans are settling into a new phase of the pandemic economy, in which GDP is growing but we’re also suffering from a dearth of a shocking array of things—test kits, car parts, semiconductors, ships, shipping containers, workers. This is the Everything Shortage.

The Everything Shortage is not the result of one big bottleneck in, say, Vietnamese factories or the American trucking industry. We are running low on supplies of all kinds due to a veritable hydra of bottlenecks.

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Partly caused by demand from the stimulus cheques sent to all Americans, and partly by the delta variant in the supply regions.
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Steaks could soon become champagne-like luxury, says meat chief • Bloomberg Quint

Aine Quinn:

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The boss of Europe’s top meat processor said beef will become a luxury like champagne because of the climate impact of producing it.

“Beef is not going to be super climate friendly,” Danish Crown Chief Executive Officer Jais Valeur said in an interview with Danish newspaper Berlingske. “It will be a luxury product that we eat when we want to treat ourselves.”

Valeur said pork would be a more climate-friendly protein. Danish Crown is one of Europe’s largest pork producers, although it is also a player in the beef market.

Meat companies are coming under pressure to curb greenhouse gases, with 57% of all food industry emissions coming from making animal products, according to one study. Tackling methane emissions from livestock is one of the most critical climate challenges for producers.

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Just me, or isn’t steak already something of a treat?
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The state of web scraping in 2021 • Mihai’s Blog

Mihai Avram:

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The area of web scraping has really expanded in the last few years, and it helps to know some of the main frameworks, protocols, and etiquette so that you can build the next awesome Web Scraping tool to revolutionize our world! Or maybe just your local neighborhood, or workgroup – that’s fine too.

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From time to time you need to do this, don’t you? (I do.) Particularly when big organisations have been unhelpful about how they present their information which you want to collate. BeautifulSoup, a Python library, is usually the best option, but as this post shows there are plenty of others. A page for the bookmarks.
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The mysterious case of the Covid-19 lab-leak theory • The New Yorker

Carolyn Kormann:

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close relatives of sars-CoV-2 have been identified in China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan. But the most significant finding supporting a natural origin was announced in September. Scientists in Laos—just south of the border from Yunnan—found a horseshoe-bat coronavirus that is genetically closer to sars-CoV-2 than the virus from the Tongguan mine. It might have split from a common ancestor with sars-CoV-2 sometime in the last decade or so. Alarmingly, their spikes are identical and bind with equal efficiency to human ace2 receptors. The discovery “completely blows away many of the main lab-leak arguments about Yunnan being special,” Andersen said. “These types of viruses are much more widespread than we initially realized.”

Bloom questioned the significance of the discoveries in Laos. “I don’t think it really, again, tells us exactly how these viruses got to Wuhan,” he said. But China’s wildlife trade could have been both an incubator and a transit system for a virus like sars-CoV-2, which has proved not so necessarily adapted to humans but to mammals more generally. Coughing tigers tested positive for covid-19 at the Bronx Zoo, then eight congested gorillas at the San Diego Zoo. White-tailed deer have sars-CoV-2 antibodies. In the Netherlands, the virus devastated mink farms, infecting sixty-eight% of farm workers and hastening a permanent end to the country’s fur trade. China is the world’s largest fur producer. Could mink farms have been the problem? Raccoon dogs, another source of fur and exotic meat in China, are susceptible. “We’ve seen this virus jump into all kinds of animals with no adaptation, no evolution,” Andersen told me. “It’s a generalist. It had to be, otherwise it probably couldn’t cause a pandemic. It’s a unique beast.”

…Proponents of a lab leak rest most of their arguments on the assumption that Chinese officials, the W.I.V., and Shi Zhengli are lying about the viruses they had, and the work they did, in a massive coverup. The natural-origin proponents assume that the W.I.V. has shared everything. “It’s not that the scientists would not have wanted to share,” [Stanford microbiologist David] Relman, who has refrained from taking a position on the question of Sars-CoV-2’s origin, said. “It’s that they wouldn’t have been allowed.”

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Indecisive, inevitably, but thorough.
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This century’s major battles are upon us. Can we act before it’s too late? • openDemocracy

Paul Rogers has written a thousand columns over 20 years for openDemocracy:

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the neoliberal system has not responded remotely fast enough to curbing carbon dioxide emissions sufficiently, and inter-governmental political cooperation remains hopelessly limited. If we had started making changes at the turn of the millennium, we could have reached a tolerable position by now – but that is simply not the case.

Finally, the military security culture remains deeply embedded in the control paradigm, with that war-promoting hydra of the world’s military-industrial complexes holding a powerful position in national cultures, whether in the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, India or any other large economy. The ability of the US, Australia and the UK to move seamlessly from the failures in Afghanistan to locking horns with China in barely a month has indeed been quite a feat for the military-industrial complex.

In contrast to this traditional thinking, the far more important challenges facing us all are not state-based but instead are global – the pandemic and climate breakdown.

Judging by present trends, this decade will involve, firstly, an enduring problem with COVID-19, as vaccine nationalism trumps global cooperation. This vaccine inequality will increase the risk of new variants and add to existing problems of rising poverty and food shortages. Secondly, there will be the progressive onset of climate breakdown, shown primarily by increasingly severe weather events, leading to catastrophic loss of life and endemic hardship.

There will be moves to address both, but they will not create sufficient effect and by the end of the 2020s, global insecurity will have substantially increased, greatly exacerbated by the anger and resentment of the marginalised majority, especially hundreds of millions across the Global South. This will accelerate the desperate need to move, but the migration pressures will reinforce the ‘close the castle gates’ mentality of wealthier societies.

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Alison Parker’s on-air murder was in 2015 and Facebook won’t remove the video • Vice

David Gilbert:

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On the morning of August 26, 2015, television journalist Alison Parker was in Monela, Virginia reporting for a CBS affiliate station.  At 6:46 a.m., she was in the middle of a live interview when a disgruntled and mentally ill former reporter approached her and began shooting.

The gunman shot cameraman Adam Ward, then chased down and murdered Alison as she attempted to escape. The gunman then posted a recording of the horrific incident, shot on a GoPro camera he was wearing. Almost instantly the footage was downloaded, edited, and shared widely online.

Facebook repeatedly promised to remove all copies of the video from its platforms, but more than five years later, Parker’s parents are still reliving the murder of their daughter, because Facebook and Instagram have utterly failed to remove the footage.

Now, Parker’s father is demanding the FTC take action. “The reality is that Facebook and Instagram put the onus on victims and their families to do the policing of graphic content—requiring them to relive their worst moments over and over to curb the proliferation of these videos,” reads a complaint filed by Andy Parker with the regulator on Tuesday, and reviewed by VICE News.

The video was used by conspiracy theorists and hoaxers, who posted copies of the GoPro footage as well as the raw TV feed on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, using it in some cases to claim the entire incident was a fake.

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The other peril of user-generated content: some users are utterly vile. Parker has to use a somewhat contorted complaint: that Facebook and Instagram deceive consumers about the safety of the platform and how difficult it actually is to remove objectionable content. It’s the “deceive consumers” line where the FTC has leverage, if it sticks.
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Want to understand more about social networks? Buy Social Warming, my latest book, which explains why they drive us all a little mad – even if we don’t use them.


‘Unleashed’ Apple event focusing on new Macs to take place on October 18 • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

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When there are a lot of products coming in the fall months, Apple often holds a second October or November event, which is the case in 2021. Rumors have been teasing redesigned 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models for months now, and it’s looking like Apple is finally ready to release them.

Rumors suggest the 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models will have an overhauled design with thinner bezels and larger displays, and we’ve already seen hints of 3024 x 1964 and 3456 x 2234 resolutions, respectively, which would enable 2x Retina for sharper, crisper images and text. The new MacBook Pro will use an M1X chip, which is an faster, more powerful version of the M1, plus it could support up to 32GB RAM.

The new MacBook Pro will mark the return of MagSafe connectivity, a charging feature that will replace USB-C. Apple is also bringing back the HDMI port and SD card slot, and there will be no Touch Bar, with Apple instead re-adopting a standard function row of keys. The 2021 MacBook Pro models will be a throwback to the pre-2016 MacBook Pro designs, with Apple undoing many of the changes that were introduced with the 2016 revamp.

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Very important news, at least in this abode, as the current production MacBook Pro at Overspill Towers is now more than nine years old because the CEO refused to buy any replacement that had the notorious “butterfly” keyboard, and then held off last year when the non-butterfly MBPs came out because they used the last-gasp Intel chips rather than the already-announced ARM chips.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1656: energy prices rocket worldwide, a Facebook ban for reducing Facebook use, what do people *really* search for?, and more


There’s a good reason why the shift from email to Slack has led to more office unrest. CC-licensed photo by Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


And you will know us by the company we keep • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei:

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One of my favorite heuristics for spotting flaws in a system is to look at those trying to break it. Advanced social media users have long tried to hack their away around graph design problems. Users who create finsta’s or alt Twitter accounts are doing so, in part, to create alternative graphs more suited to particular purposes. One can imagine alternative social architectures that wouldn’t require users to create multiple accounts to implement these tactics. But in this world where each social media account can only be associated with one identity, users are locked into a single graph per account.

One clever way an app might help solve the graph design problem is by removing the burden of unfollowing accounts that no longer interest users. Just as our social graphs change throughout our lives, so could our online social graphs. Our set of friends in kindergarten tend not to be the same friends we have in grade school, high school, college, and beyond.

A higher fidelity social product would automatically nip and tuck our social graphs over time as they observed our interaction patterns. Imagine Twitter or Instagram just silently unfollowing accounts you haven’t engaged with in a while, accounts that have gone dormant, and so on.

…It’s no surprise that many tech companies install Slack and then suddenly find themselves, shortly thereafter, dealing with employee uprisings. When you rewire the communications topology of any group, you alter the dynamic among the members. Slack’s public channels act as public squares within companies, exposing more employees to each other’s thoughts. This can lead to an employee finding others who share what they thought were minority opinions, like reservations about specific company policies. We’re only now seeing how many companies operated in relative peace in the past in large part because of the privacy inherent in e-mail as a communications technology.

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Any post by Eugene Wei is a must-link, must read. The inclusion of Bezos’s taxonomy of decisions is a bonus. Plus the point about WeChat not needing as many ads because of its skim on services.
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China’s noisy ‘dancing grannies’ silenced by device that disables speakers • The Guardian

Chi Hui Lin and Helen Davidson:

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Across China’s public parks and squares, in the early hours of the morning or late in the afternoon, the grannies gather.

The gangs, made up mostly of middle-aged and older women who went through the Cultural Revolution, take to a corner of a local park or sporting ground and dance in unison to Chinese music. Loud music.

The tradition has led to alarming standoffs, with the blaring music frequently blamed for disturbing the peace in often high-density residential areas. But many are too scared to confront the women.

The dilemma of the dancing grannies has prompted some to seek out tech solutions. One went viral online this week: a remote stun gun-style device that claims to be able to disable a speaker from 50 metres away.

Reviews of the item were positive. “Downstairs is finally quiet. For two days the grannies thought their speaker is not working!”, said one on Taobao, China’s version of eBay.

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Very reminiscent of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies:
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Petrol prices skyrocket as the global energy crisis worsens • CNN

Matt Egan:

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Natural gas prices have skyrocketed so much, especially in Europe and Asia, that power plants and factories may increasingly turn to a relatively cheaper fuel source for electricity: crude oil.

“It’s a case of just trying to keep the lights on,” said Matt Smith, Kpler’s lead oil analyst for the Americas. “This is essentially creating demand that typically isn’t there,”

Citigroup on Monday ramped up its Brent oil forecast to $85 a barrel for the fourth quarter and said crude will likely hit $90 at times. The Wall Street bank cited “price contagion this winter” and the expected switching of power plants away from sky-high natural gas to oil.

Citi added that a “very cold winter” could see Europe “running out of gas” by February.

Oil has long been there as a potential substitute for natural gas — except until recently, it didn’t make any financial sense. That’s because for much of the past dozen years, natural gas prices have been very low, making switching to oil uneconomical.

But in Europe, natural gas prices have gone from below $2 per million BTU last year to as much as $55 this fall. That is the equivalent of $320 a barrel oil.

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Running out of gas is going to be quite the interesting phenomenon.
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In global energy crisis, anti-nuclear chickens come home to roost • Foreign Policy

Ted Nordhaus:

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as the share of renewable energy grows in places like California and Germany, the technical challenges associated with scaling up renewables become more difficult. Once the share of variable renewable energy (i.e., solar and wind) begins to approach 20% or so, it swamps the electrical grid whenever the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Surges of wind and solar power at particular times of the day not only undermine the economics of other power sources on the grid but also undermine the economics of adding additional wind and solar. This phenomenon, called value deflation, is already eroding the economics of wind and solar in California and elsewhere—even at relatively low shares of grid penetration.

…Unfortunately, California’s electricity follies are hardly exceptional. Germany’s hundreds of billions of euros in renewable energy subsidies have bought it the costliest retail electricity in Europe. The need to fill the hole left by the nation’s shuttered nuclear plants and back up growing wind and solar generation has forced Germany to become even more dependent on domestically produced (and extremely carbon-intensive) lignite coal and Russian natural gas, resulting in largely stagnant—and lately rising—emissions. The former has forced the nation to delay its climate ambitions. The latter has left Germany’s economy and citizenry vulnerable to price gouging and blackmail.

Belgium, bowing to pressure from the country’s Green parties, is moving forward with plans to retire its nuclear power plants by 2025 without so much as a pretense of replacing them with clean generation. Instead, it will subsidize construction of new natural gas plants. Spain, meanwhile, just announced electricity price controls in response to spiraling natural gas and electricity prices, a move that threatens both its renewable energy and nuclear power sectors.

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The subheading of this article is “In virtually every country that has closed nuclear plants, clean electricity has been replaced with dirty power.” Which says a lot about how wrong we got it from about 1980 onwards over nuclear power. Do we blame Three Mile Island or Chernobyl?
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An exhibition that helps us rethink our relationship to Facebook • Hyper Allergic

Filippo Lorenzin:

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Software for Less is an opportunity to learn more about a perspective on digital technology that combines technical expertise with a certain passion for metalanguage. For example, [Ben] Grosser’s “Safebook” (2018) is a Web browser plugin that purifies Facebook pages by filtering out texts and images to leave only the interface elements: gray buttons, blue circles, white squares. These design elements lose their primary function and, once released, become geometric shapes with which we interact in a playful and inconsequential way. In a certain sense, it is a utopia of interaction: Without relying on archaic forms of communication such as texts, images, and reactions, we can move freely between galaxies of round balloons, in a space where it seems impossible to meet friction.

As well as “Safebook”, there are many other works by Grosser in which his interest in cropping and eliminating the content in order to highlight aspects otherwise hidden becomes evident. “Order of Magnitude” (2019) is a supercut of Mark Zuckerberg saying the words “more,” “grow,” and every utterance of a metric such as “two million” or “one billion,” resulting in a hypnotic, albeit alienating experience. The speed with which the words are spoken is reminiscent of the precision of a machine scanning a document for keywords to highlight.

Among Grosser’s most recent works is “Minus” (2021), a finite social network where users get only 100 posts for life. The platform shows how few opportunities they have left instead of how many likes and reshares they have accumulated. The limit imposed on the user presents problems of scarcity in a context — the online world — which has made overabundance a fundamental part of its functioning. By using Minus, our usual interaction with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other traditional platforms must be redefined: What is really worth sharing? What thoughts or events in our life can aspire to be part of the 100 posts we have available on Minus?

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Grosser’s work – such as browser extensions that remove the numbers and red notification signifiers from Twitter and Facebook – and his comments were very helpful to me in considering what social warming really looks like. Those neverending notifications are a subtle anxiety generator.
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If you’d like to know more about Grosser’s work, you could read my latest book, Social Warming.


Facebook banned me for life because i help people use it less • Slate

Louis Barclay:

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I had the idea for Unfollow Everything a few years ago, when I realized you don’t actually need to have a News Feed. If you unfollow everything—all of your friends, groups, and pages—your News Feed ends up empty.

This isn’t the same as unfriending. If you unfollow your friends and groups, you’re still connected to them, and you can look up their profiles if you want. But by unfollowing everything, you eliminate your News Feed. This leaves you free to use Facebook without the feed, or to more actively curate it by refollowing only those friends and groups whose posts you really want to see.

I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.

When I unfollowed everything for the first time, I did it manually. I spent hours using a Facebook-provided feature to click unfollow on each of my friends, groups, and pages. I quickly realized that very few people would go to the same trouble, so I coded a simple tool that would automate the process. In July 2020, I published it to the Chrome Store, where people could download it for free.

Unfollow Everything started taking off. People loved it. Thousands of people got rid of their News Feed using it. Reviews included comments like “I am officially not addicted to Facebook thanks to you!” I received emails from people telling me that using the tool had changed their lives.

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Then academic researchers got interested. Then Facebook noticed.
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Brazil’s central bank built a mobile payment system with 110 million users • Bloomberg on MSN

Maria Eloisa Capurro and Shannon Sims:

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Pix, a system which allows fast money transfers over smartphones, has become ubiquitous in the 11 months since it was launched by Brazil’s central bank. All that’s needed to send cash to someone is a simple key they’ve set up, such as an email address or phone number. Similar to the privately owned Zelle in the U.S., Pix works through multiple apps from banks and other digital wallet services. It’s already been used at least once by 110 million Brazilians and about $89 billion has moved through the network. Brazil now registers more instant transfers than the U.S.

The launch of Pix turned out to be well-timed. With businesses closed during the pandemic, the use of cash at points of sale decreased by 25% in 2020, according to a report from technology consultant FIS. Informal work boomed, accounting for 80% of the new jobs added in Latin America’s largest economy in the first three months of 2021. Pix made paying people digitally almost as easy as using paper money. “We expected considerable acceptance from individuals, and we knew companies would come later on,” says Carlos Eduardo Brandt, the chief of management and operations for Pix. “But in terms of magnitude, it surprised us.”

Fast digital money has some of the risks associated with cash. A notorious crime in Brazil is “express kidnapping,” in which criminals grab victims, take them to an ATM, and force them at knifepoint or gunpoint to withdraw the maximum amount possible. Pix, it seems, is the new ATM: muggers skip the trip to the cash machine and simply make people transfer their savings via an app. Although Pix transactions are traceable, in some cases criminals may be using accounts in others’ names.

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Why have you not heard of it? Because it doesn’t use blockchain.
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We need to talk about how Apple is normalising surveillance • WIRED UK

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI:

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once one starts scratching the surface, Apple’s contribution to the development of invasive technologies and the normalisation of surveillance becomes evident. Apple created the Bluetooth beacons tracking people in shops, gyms, hotels, airports and more by connecting to their phones. Apple’s usage of Face ID as a way to unlock the iPhone has contributed to normalising facial recognition. Its AirTag – a small device that can be stuck to personal items in order to track them – has caused concerns among privacy advocates that they will make it easier to track people.

The Apple Watch, as the most advanced wearable on the market, leads us one step closer to under-the-skin surveillance, which can read our bodies and emotions. Most recently, Apple has developed a tool that can scan photos in people’s devices in search of child abuse material.  While the objective is noble, the tool could be used for less ethical purposes and, according to security expert Bruce Schneier, it effectively breaks end-to-end encryption – the most powerful way we currently have to protect the privacy of our devices. (Apple later decided to pause its plans to roll out the tool.)

…If Apple is serious about privacy, it should offer an iPhone model for the privacy-conscious: one without facial recognition and without encryption-breaking tools, one in which it is easy to cover the camera, and in which the microphone can be mechanically turned off, among other features.

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OK, Apple did create Bluetooth beacons, but facial recognition was already on the rise by the time Face ID was introduced (2017): Samsung and other Android OEMs had already been offering it. AirTags are very late to the game. Véliz is blaming Apple for the widespread use of things that were often already in widespread use. Not even sure what to say about her take on the Watch. Altogether not very persuasive. (Thanks G for the link.)

And the phone she wants is the iPhone SE. Touch ID, no CSAM scan, camera easy to cover. Though you’ll need to stuff the mic.
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Was Facebook’s spin on Frances Haugen ‘bad PR’? • Protocol

Issie Lapowsky:

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For Nu Wexler, a former Facebook policy communications staffer, the anti-Haugen spin was overkill. “The statement they put out about Frances Haugen was beyond the pale,” said Wexler, who also worked in policy communications at Google and Twitter. “As a former employee, I disagreed with what they said, and as a communications professional, I think it was really bad PR.”

The counterattack strategy has differed dramatically from the regretful responses Facebook has offered in past episodes, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In those cases, the company often responded with an apology and a plan.

This time around, from Mark Zuckerberg on down, the company has been decidedly less apologetic, with Haugen as a case study for the new approach. For some former Facebook employees watching from home, the experiment in public aggression is backfiring.

From Wexler’s point of view, Haugen demonstrated clear facility of the facts and familiarity with the industry. “They’re going to have a hard time convincing people that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said.

Katie Harbath, a public policy director at Facebook for 10 years who left the company in March, said, “All these folks, whether they had direct reports or not, they all have perspective and expertise that should be heard. [Though] It shouldn’t be the only one that’s heard,” she added.

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A follow-on from the examination of the somewhat mad Twitter tactics of Andy Stone, Facebook PR.
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Magic Leap is back with $500m in funding and a new AR headset • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

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Magic Leap has raised $500m in funding and is preparing to release a new AR headset, the Magic Leap 2, next year, the company announced Monday. The headset will be generally available next year, the company said, and “select customers” are using it as part of an early access program.

CEO Peggy Johnson said in a statement that with the new funding “Magic Leap will have greater financial flexibility and the resources needed to continue our growth trajectory as we expand on our industry-leading AR technology.” She revealed the new device in an Monday appearance on CNBC.

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“Built for enterprise” this time. That’s with $3bn in venture funding down the drain.. except maybe not? That $500m must be pretty diluted in terms of what shares it buys by now. Seems like everyone’s put money into Magic Leap except the milkman.
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AnswerThePublic: the “search listening” tool for market, customer and content research

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There are three billion Google searches every day, and 20% of those have never been seen before. They’re like a direct line to your customers’ thoughts…

Sometimes that’s ‘How do I remove paper jam’. Other times it’s the wrenching fears and secret hankerings they’d only ever dare share with Google.

AnswerThePublic listens into autocomplete data from search engines like Google then quickly cranks out every useful phrase and question people are asking around your keyword.

It’s a goldmine of consumer insight you can use to create fresh, ultra-useful content, products and services. The kind your customers really want.

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Experimentally, I put in “dogs” as a search. The results are amazing. (Apparently lots of people really want to know if dogs will ever evolve to talk. Your lack of faith in the general population’s intelligence is not misplaced.) You can see how this would be a treasure trove to someone trying to think of new uses for, say, a warehouse full of surplus waterproof shorts or fur-lined sinks.

But it’s also an insight into the id of the world; writing our own psychohistory (Asimov reference).. You could imagine some meta-version of this which would track how our anxieties and hopes are changing; Google Flu Trends tried (and failed) to be that but for flu.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1655: TikTok’s inevitable spiral, Uncomfortability, NFT vandalism!, the odd Jobs-Dell deal, Ozy’s newsletter scam, and more


You may not have heard of the term ‘global stilling’, but it’s a key reason why wind power is down – and electricity prices are up. CC-licensed photo by Justin Smiley 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. Not picked by migrant workers. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


I’m being gaslit by the TikTok Lamborghini • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick details how TikTokers have become bizarrely fascinated by a daft accident (maybe not an accident) involving a rented Lamborghini:

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What’s happening on TikTok right now seems to be a confluence of three things. First, I think a lot of this is connected to what I’ll call the traffic light livestream phenomenon. There have been several moments over the last few years where Twitch users have become obsessed with a static camera pointed at traffic, most recently it was a stop sign in Massachusetts where no one actually stopped. I’m from Massachusetts, stop signs don’t mean “stop,” they mean, “slowly roll through while sipping your gargantuan iced coffee.” But, basically, people on the internet will kind of obsess over whatever is put in front of them.

The next dimension to all of this is the fact that TikTok’s algorithm is extremely powerful and also very sticky. Trends and challenges go very viral, but also macro user behavior tends to stick around. Right now, everyone on the platform thinks every piece of media shared to the app is worth analyzing forensically. This, I believe, started with the gamified doxing of antivaxxers done by users like Sparks and @tizzyent earlier this year, but really kicked into high gear around the Gabby Petito case.

And, lastly, TikTok is, as we speak, supplanting Facebook as the main app of America. As more and more Americans begin to use TikTok, I suspect TikTok content will start to resemble Facebook content. The ugly American weirdness of Facebook — the casual racism, the petty small town drama, the nameless grifters, the weird old people, the Minion memes, the public meltdowns at fast food restaurants, the goths, the bored nurses, the men in their trucks talking on their phones, the extremely basic backyard viral challenges — it will all come to TikTok. It will hit the app’s sophisticated video production tools and aggressive algorithm and turn into endless content cycles, where it will probably spin out in weirder and darker directions than anything we’ve ever seen from Facebook.

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[Emphasis added.]
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TikTok’s algorithm leads users from transphobic videos to far-right rabbit holes • Media Matters for America

Olivia Little and Abbie Richards:

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TikTok’s “For You” page (FYP) recommendation algorithm appears to be leading users down far-right rabbit holes. By analyzing and coding over 400 recommended videos after interacting solely with transphobic content, Media Matters traced how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm quickly began populating our research account’s FYP with hateful and far-right content.

TikTok has long been scrutinized for its dangerous algorithm, viral misinformation, and hateful video recommendations, yet this new research demonstrates how the company’s recommendation algorithm can quickly radicalize a user’s FYP. 

Transphobia is deeply intertwined with other kinds of far-right extremism, and TikTok’s algorithm only reinforces this connection. Our research suggests that transphobia can be a gateway prejudice, leading to further far-right radicalization. 

To assess this phenomenon, Media Matters created a new TikTok account and engaged only with content we identified as transphobic. This included accounts that had posted multiple videos which degrade trans people, insist that there are “only two genders,” or mock the trans experience.

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Never heard of a “gateway prejudice” before. See also: “Revealed: anti-vaccine TikTok videos being viewed by children as young as nine“. We’ve heard this story with YouTube. What is it about video?
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Sounds a lot like Social Warming, my latest book, which explains how any social network will create similar effects once it uses algorithms for attention.


The Uncomfortable – a collection of deliberately inconvenient objects

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The Uncomfortable is a collection of deliberately inconvenient everyday objects by Athens-based architect Katerina Kamprani

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Which makes you think about what makes other things comfortable, and what makes things that should be comfortable less comfortable. Recommended to put a shiver down your spine.
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Europe’s electricity generation from wind blown off course • Financial Times

Steven Bernard:

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The strength of the wind blowing across northern Europe has fallen by as much as 15% on average in places this year, according to data compiled by Vortex, an independent weather modelling group.

The cause of the decrease is uncertain, say scientists, but one possible explanation is a phenomenon called global stilling. This is a decrease in average surface wind speed owing to climate change.

“Near-surface wind speed trends across the globe found that winds have generally weakened over land over the past few decades,” said Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading. “This suggests that the phenomenon is part of a genuine long-term trend, rather than cyclic variability.”

One explanation for this could be that “human-related climate change is warming the poles faster than the tropics in the lower atmosphere,” Williams noted. “This would have the effect of weakening the mid-latitude north-south temperature difference and consequently reducing the thermal wind at low altitudes.”

Projections from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change support this trend. Wind speeds over western, central and northern Europe are predicted to drop by as much as 10% in the summer months by 2100, based on 1.5ºC warming above pre-industrial levels.

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Next you’ll be telling us that global warming also makes it cloudier so solar panels work less well.
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How the government’s ‘fake news’ rebuttal operation targets journalists on Twitter • Folded

Adam Bienkov is an editor and reporter who covers UK politics:

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Back in May this year I attended a lobby briefing in which the prime minister’s official spokesman was repeatedly asked to rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia.

Their refusal to do so struck both myself and other journalists who attended the briefing as curious, so I tweeted out their response.

Adam Bienkov: “Boris Johnson’s spokesman refuses to explicitly rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia.” (May 21st 2021, 740 Retweets, 1,160 Likes)

My tweet was an entirely accurate account of the briefing, which was later reported in print by other outlets who attended the briefing.

However, a few hours later I suddenly noticed that I was getting a lot of replies which linked in the Department for International Trade’s Twitter account.

I then realised that the department had targeted me with a tweet, including a gif about hormone-treated beef.

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Bienkov then FOI’s the Department for International Trade to find out quite who was in charge of this rather cackhanded “rebuttal”. It’s quite the odyssey which also shows you that watching tweets being written by committee is one of the most painful things you can witness.
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Priceless NFT artwork vandalized with spray paint tool • The Onion

Perfection.
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The Steve Jobs deal with Michael Dell that could have changed Apple and tech history • CNET

Connie Guglielmo:

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Jobs offered to license the Mac OS to Dell, telling him he could give PC buyers a choice of Apple’s software or Microsoft’s Windows OS installed on their machine. 

“He said, look at this – we’ve got this Dell desktop and it’s running Mac OS,” Dell tells me. “Why don’t you license the Mac OS?”

Dell thought it was a great idea and told Jobs he’d pay a licensing fee for every PC sold with the Mac OS. But Jobs had a counteroffer: He was worried that licensing scheme might undermine Apple’s own Mac computer sales because Dell computers were less costly. Instead, Dell says, Jobs suggested he just load the Mac OS alongside Windows on every Dell PC and let customers decide which software to use – and then pay Apple for every Dell PC sold.

Dell smiles when he tells the story. “The royalty he was talking about would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, and the math just didn’t work, because most of our customers, especially larger business customers, didn’t really want the Mac operating system,” he writes. “Steve’s proposal would have been interesting if it was just us saying, “OK, we’ll pay you every time we use the Mac OS” – but to pay him for every time we didn’t use it … well, nice try, Steve!”

Another problem: Jobs wouldn’t guarantee access to the Mac OS three, four or five years later “even on the same bad terms.” That could leave customers who were using Mac OS out of luck as the software evolved, leaving Dell Inc. no way to ensure it could support those users.

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I think this did happen, but people are misreading the dates. They’re thinking Jobs spoke to Dell in 1997. Not at all. There was OSX in 2000-1-2, and Apple was losing money at that time (it propped its results up by selling ARM shares), and had OSX that ran on Intel. Dell was selling a truckload of PCs. It would have been an amazing deal for Apple, with no downside. Which is why I believe Jobs tried it. (Apple tried the same around the same time with Sony. Even more evidence.)
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How El Salvador is testing bitcoin’s promise of financial liberty • The New York Times

Anatoly Kurmanaev, Bryan Avelar and Ephrat Livni:

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Nearly a month after the introduction of bitcoin, it remains unclear where the dollar funds and the bitcoin held by the government, or reflected in Chivo Wallets, are, or what they are worth.

Although all bitcoin transactions carry a code to ensure transparency, Mr. Bukele has treated the bitcoin policy as a state secret. He has classified all information related to Chivo Wallet, which was created with taxpayer funds, but is run as a private enterprise by undisclosed individuals.

“He is playing Russian roulette with public money,” said Ruth López, a Salvadoran lawyer at the nonprofit organization Cristosal, which sued the government over the Chivo Wallet’s financing irregularities.

Mr. Bukele, his ministers of economy and finance, the trade secretary, the attorney general, the head of the congressional economic committee, the financial regulator, the central bank and the state bank financing the bitcoin fund all declined to comment.

On the streets, the policy’s impact has been mixed. Mr. Bukele says three million Salvadorans, or more than half of all adults, have installed Chivo Wallet, but in reality, the use of bitcoin remains limited. Most fear the cryptocurrency’s extreme price volatility, say they lack technological skills or distrust the government’s intentions.

…The adoption of bitcoin has also deepened Mr. Bukele’s impasse with international lenders. His talks with the International Monetary Fund over a crucial $1bn loan have stalled, as the lender became increasingly concerned about the deterioration of the rule of law and bitcoin’s threat to financial stability.

Lack of IMF funding has in turn blocked other traditional sources of funding, complicating Mr. Bukele’s populist spending programs. El Salvador’s bonds fell sharply after the adoption of bitcoin as Wall Street became concerned over Mr. Bukele’s ability to pay existing debts.

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A victory for free knowledge: Florida judge rules Section 230 bars defamation claim against the Wikimedia Foundation • Diff

Jacob Rogers:

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On September 15th, in a victory for the Wikimedia movement and for all user-driven projects online, a Florida judge dismissed claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress against the Wikimedia Foundation. The judge found that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes the Wikimedia Foundation from liability for third-party content republished on Wikipedia. In other words, Section 230 helps Wikimedia safely host the work of Wikipedia’s contributors and enables the effective volunteer-led moderation of content on the projects.

The case began when plaintiff Nathaniel White sued the Wikimedia Foundation in January 2021, claiming that the Foundation was liable for the publication of photos that incorrectly identified him as a New York serial killer of the same name. Because of its open nature, sometimes inaccurate information is uploaded to Wikipedia and its companion projects, but the many members of our volunteer community are very effective at identifying and removing these inaccuracies when they do occur. Notably, this lawsuit was filed months after Wikipedia editors proactively corrected the error at issue in September 2020. Wikimedia moved to dismiss the amended complaint in June, arguing that plaintiff’s claims were barred by Section 230.

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Ex-Ozy Media employees say company used dubious tactics to build newsletter following, raising legal questions • Forbes

Jemima McEvoy:

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Three ex-employees with knowledge of Ozy’s newsletter operations, who asked to remain anonymous because of non-disclosure agreements they signed, said the company on multiple occasions obtained large numbers of email addresses through marketing partnerships it formed with other companies and news outlets.

Ozy would offer to send an email for the other company as part of the partnership, and some companies would then share a list of addresses for a supposed one-time message. Instead, the former employees allege, those email addresses would then be permanently added to Ozy’s newsletter subscriber list.

Among the companies they say Ozy collectively accumulated millions of email addresses from were the McClatchy newspaper chain and the technology magazine Wired, according to two of the former employees (McClatchy and Conde Nast, the parent company of Wired, did not respond to requests for comment from Forbes). [A Wired staffer suggests in the story that this wouldn’t happen.]

Ozy would also buy in bulk email addresses from third-party websites like U.S. Data Corporation and Exact Data, ramping up the size of its newsletter following in order to fulfill advertising deals with its clients.

After Ozy added batches of new addresses to its mailing lists, many recipients would attempt to unsubscribe from the newsletters only to be kept on the distribution lists and even re-subscribed under the direction of Ozy management, a potential violation of commercial email laws.

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At this rate we’re going to find out in a week or so that the company wasn’t properly set up, nobody was really employed, and that it wasn’t called Ozy Media at all. Strongly suspect there are many charlatan companies like this; they just aren’t as high-profile.
unique link to this extract


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