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:

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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.

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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!

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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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

[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:

»

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.

«

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

»

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

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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.

«

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.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1654: a deep dive on Facebook’s Instagram research, the reply guy PR guy, what Twitch pays its streamers, Ozy lies!, and more


Feast your eyes on photos of Intel wafers, because it’s not going to make any in the UK after Brexit wrecked the export market. CC-licensed photo by Intel in Deutschland 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. Forty down, eleven to go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook’s own internal documents offer a blueprint for making social media safer for teens • The Conversation

Jean Twenge:

»

One internal Facebook study of more than 50,000 people from 10 countries found that half of teen girls compare their appearance to others’ on Instagram. Those appearance-based comparisons, the study found, peaked when users were 13 to 18 and were much less common among adult women.

This is key, as body image issues seem to be one of the biggest reasons why social media use is linked to depression among teen girls. It also dovetails with research I reported in my book, “iGen,” finding that social media use is more strongly linked to unhappiness among younger teens than older ones.

This suggests another avenue for regulation: age minimums. A 1998 law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule already sets the age minimum for social media accounts at 13. That limit is problematic for two reasons. First, 13 is a developmentally challenging time, right as boys and girls are going through puberty and bullying is at its peak.

Second, the age minimum is not regularly enforced. Kids 12 and under can simply lie about their age to sign up for an account, and they’re rarely kicked off the platform for being underage.

«

Twenge is a professor who has written a number of articles and books very critical of American teens’ social media use. She’s really got her teeth into this; it’s probably the worst possible news for Facebook that these documents have leaked in this way.
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Still a good time to understand what’s going on by buying Social Warming, my book on how and why social networks polarise and infuriate us.


We need to talk about Facebook PR guy Andy Stone • Input Mag

Chris Stokel-Walker:

»

Stone’s communications style: brash and bitchy. He appears to love bringing the fight to reporters and whistleblowers who dare criticize the company’s actions. A former political communications staffer, he’s been with Facebook since 2014, and has been directly rebutting claims from reporters — to their increasing anger — for at least a year.

As with most of Stone’s tweets, the replies and quote tweets tell their own story.

If Facebook is the evil corporation trying to end the world in the comic book movie telling of our reckoning with big tech, Stone is the hired henchman with a black heart.

In the last 24 hours alone, Stone has gone after the New York Times’ Cecilia Kang, Engadget’s Karissa Bell, Forbes’ Marty Swant, and Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky. However, Stone’s abrasive behavior on social media seems to serve little purpose. It all raises the question: Why?

“I don’t understand what the strategy there could possibly be,” says one experienced public relations professional, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t understand what you gain from taking that kind of attitude with anybody publicly.” A good communications strategy requires building, cultivating, and maintaining relationships with reporters. Turning into a reply guy and calling them out repeatedly, and in the most obnoxious way possible, doesn’t help build those relationships.

“Facebook’s crisis comms on this issue are embarrassingly bad,” says Bob Pickard, principal of Signal Leadership Communication, a C-suite communications consultancy with experience handling public relations for some of the world’s biggest companies, including AstraZeneca, Huawei, Microsoft, and Samsung. “Everyone is talking about Facebook’s poor PR, which is often a proxy for other issues, but I think the comms themselves are indeed crap.”

Pickard points out that the company is already a lightning rod for controversy, and instead of focusing on tackling the criticisms head-on, it’s sinking to discrediting a whistleblower and arguing with reporters. “It’s a breathtakingly bizarre lack of self-knowledge and glaring lack of professional judgment that is making fools of their spokespersons,” says Pickard.

«

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Why Facebook may be the true “Bad Art Friend” • Vanity Fair

Erin Vanderhoof:

»

To delve into this week’s viral piece of long form, Robert Kolker’s New York Times Magazine feature “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” beyond the broad strokes—the woman who donated a kidney, the acquaintance who wrote a short story about the act, and the complicated legal battle that ensued—may deny readers the opportunity to use it as a mirror to examine their own sense of morality. But in a single day, it became omnipresent enough as a cautionary tale, fodder for jokes, and a procrastination tool; anyone who has made it this far has probably already come up with a schema for understanding its very real characters and their somewhat baffling motivations.

My own adjudication of the tale was shaped by the many moments of conflict that functioned as on- and off-ramps for sympathy. Are you the type of person who would join a group, any kind of group, called the Chunky Monkeys? (I would not.) Are you the type of person who would donate a kidney to a stranger? (I might, but not, like, randomly.) But there’s one interaction early on that stands out as the biggest Rorschach test for everything that follows: Are you the type of person who would ever confront someone for not reacting to your Facebook posts? I shuddered when the thought of doing so crossed my mind, though I do understand that plenty of people might not see the problem. Regardless, that detail in particular sets the narrative into motion, making it clear that though it might look like a story about community or making art, it’s really a story about Facebook.

«

This was my first reaction too. If you haven’t read the Bad Art Friend piece (you haven’t?), it’s a vicious treat like popping bubblewrap where random ones pinch you hard. And note Vanderhoof’s advice: “It’s fine to gossip, but assiduously hide the receipts.”

Also:

»

Essentially, Zuckerberg invented a machine that will continually serve you things that you hate from people you feel an obligation to be polite to, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it hasn’t turned out well.

«

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The founder of Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool is leaving • The Verge

Alex Heath:

»

Brandon Silverman, the founder and CEO of the Facebook-owned analytics tool CrowdTangle, is leaving the company, according to an internal farewell post to colleagues posted Wednesday that was seen by The Verge.

His departure comes as Facebook is under pressure to publicly share more data about the content that spreads on its service. CrowdTangle, a free tool that lets anyone track popular posts across Facebook and Instagram, is at the center of that debate. In recent years, it has been used to show that far-right personalities are regularly the most engaged-with accounts on Facebook. That irritated some Facebook executives who felt that the data being shared by CrowdTangle was incomplete, and earlier this year, the CrowdTangle team was disbanded as a standalone team.

«

CrowdTangle was a fantastically useful tool for journalists and researchers outside Facebook. This sounds like a clampdown – though he may have been planning this for a very long time.
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The Twitch List: The highest paid streamers on Twitch

»

The following list shows how much people are being paid to play video games.

«

Top payment: $9.6m. There are 10,000 listed here (probably not exhaustive) with a couple of probably erroneous data points (of payouts of $36m or more).

I checked whether the payouts follow Zipf’s Law – the power law found all over the internet – and yes, they absolutely do: the correlation of log value and log ranking is a straight line – correlation 0.9916.
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One month on, El Salvador’s bitcoin use grows but headaches persist • Reuters

:

»

A growing number of El Salvadorans have experimented with bitcoin since the country became the first to adopt it as legal tender last month, with a couple of million dollars sent daily by migrants using the cryptocurrency.

But only a fraction of the Central American nation’s businesses have taken a bitcoin payment and technical problems have plagued the government’s cryptocurrency app, frustrating even committed users of the technology.

Construction worker Adalberto Galvez, 32, said he had lost $220 when trying to withdraw cash from the Chivo digital wallet.

Like Galvez, dozens of Salvadorans told Reuters they had at least one problem with Chivo, named after the local word for “good”, and few had used it on a daily basis.

“It took my money but gave me nothing,” said Galvez, who had already been using bitcoin successfully for months with another application at an experimental small-scale bitcoin economy project dubbed Bitcoin Beach in the coastal town of El Zonte.

…Others have also reported irregularities with transactions and attempts of stolen identity. President Nayib Bukele has blamed high demand for the issues Galvez and others have faced.

«

I don’t think stolen identity is a “high demand” issue. Related, sorta: Investors spent millions on ‘Evolved Apes’ NFTs. Then they got scammed.
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Ozy Media employees didn’t get $5.7m in PPP loans: ex-staffers • CNBC

Brian Schwartz and Alex Sherman:

»

While it wasn’t uncommon for media companies to participate in the PPP, Ozy specifically earmarked its loans for payroll. Full-time employees who worked for Ozy told CNBC that they had no idea where the money went and that it didn’t go to restoring their salaries after they took pay cuts.

“No one to my knowledge, and I’m talking to at least 10 people. No one had anything returned to them by way of salary post them receiving these PPP loans,” according to a former employee who left Ozy earlier this year.

“I must’ve followed up with [CFO] Samir [Rao] four to six times,” said another with respect to reinstating salary. “It was disheartening. You work so hard and give your life to this company, to be dismissed and disrespected.”

«

Rao is the guy who, you’ll recall, pretended to be a YouTube executive on a call that Watson was also on. Watson didn’t say a thing on the call, nor anything until YouTube’s own investigation figured out the fakery. Sometimes though people are able to nail him:

»

In an interview broadcast Monday on CNBC, Watson also disputed that he called Sharon Osbourne a friend.

“I didn’t say she was a friend. You know what? Play the tape, then. Please go ahead and play the tape. You know what, cue up the tape,” Watson said Monday.

The tape reveals that Watson did indeed describe the Osbournes as friends during the 2019 interview: “Fun fact: our friend Ozzy and Sharon sued us briefly, and then we decided to be friends and now they’re investors in Ozy.”

«

I think the film Memento had a phrase for Watson.
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After Epic v. Apple, a small developer is challenging Apple’s in-app payment system • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

»

The ambiguous finish to the Epic v. Apple trial opened a tiny crack in Apple’s control over in-app payments on the iPhone — and now, a small developer is trying to crawl through it.

A company called Paddle has announced its own in-app payment system that will take a smaller cut than Apple’s system — 5 to 10 percent, instead of the 15 to 30% cut claimed by Apple. It’s a way around the commission fees that started the fight with Epic in the first place and likely to be the beginning of a new fight for developers.

Paddle’s system is designed to take advantage of the Epic v. Apple verdict, which required Apple to allow external payment links. Prior to the verdict, an App Store rule had banned “external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms” — but the judge found that rule violated anti-steering laws. Paddle’s system offers just such an external link, kicking users off to an outside page where they can pay before returning to the app. It definitely adds friction to the process, but it’s a far cry from the workarounds you’d have to go through if you wanted to skirt Apple’s IAP system today.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment as to whether apps using the system would be allowed on the App Store.

«

So now the fun starts, especially for popcorn vendors.
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New “Report a Problem” link on product pages • Apple Developer

»

Since its introduction, the App Store has supported a way for users to report problems with their apps and purchases, and to request refunds. Now App Store product pages on iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey display a “Report a Problem“ link, so users can more easily report concerns with content they’ve purchased or downloaded. This feature is currently available for users in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, and will expand to other regions over time.

In addition, users worldwide can now choose from “Report a scam or fraud” and “Report offensive, abusive, or illegal content” options at reportaproblem.apple.com, and report issues with their apps, including free apps that do not offer in-app purchases.

«

I wonder quite how busy the “scam or fraud” button is going to be, and how quickly reports to it will be acted on. Kosta Eleftheriou, who has made a lot of noise over this problem, wonders why it’s only available in a few countries. No obvious answer.
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Snapchat says it will ramp up efforts to detect fentanyl sales on its platform • Boing Boing

Mark Fraunfelder:

»

In acknowledging that its platform is being used to sell counterfeit drugs laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentatnyl, Snap, the parent company of Snapchat said it’s intensifying measures to detect in-app drug deals.

It said in a statement issued today:

»

We have significantly improved our proactive detection capabilities to remove drug dealers from our platform before they are able to harm our community. Our enforcement rates have increased by 112% during the first half of 2021, and we have increased proactive detection rates by 260%. Nearly two-thirds of drug-related content is detected proactively by our artificial intelligence systems, with the balance reported by our community and enforced by our team.

«

«

Or, in other words, we’re not as rubbish at stopping this as we used to be!
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Intel not considering UK chip factory after Brexit • BBC News

Daniel Thomas:

»

The boss of Intel says the US chipmaker is no longer considering building a factory in the UK because of Brexit.

Pat Gelsinger told the BBC that before the UK left the EU, the country “would have been a site that we would have considered”.

But he added: “Post-Brexit… we’re looking at EU countries and getting support from the EU”.
Intel wants to boost its output amid a global chip shortage that has hit the supply of cars and other goods.

The firm – which is one of the world’s largest makers of semiconductors – says the crisis has shown that the US and Europe are too reliant on Asia for its chip-making needs.

Intel is investing up to $95bn (£70bn) on opening and upgrading semiconductor plants in Europe over the next 10 years, as well as boosting its US output.

But while Mr Gelsinger said the firm “absolutely would have been seeking sites for consideration” in the UK, he said Brexit had changed this.

«

No chips, and no fish either following the rubbish Brexit negotiations. (Didn’t honestly have Intel on the Brexit bingo card, but there you go.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

Start Up No.1653: how to regulate Facebook (and the rest), can fusion ever do it?, Twitter preps pre-tweet warning, a malaria vaccine!, and more


By next year all the new cars bought in Norway will be electric, on current trends – but petrol and diesel vehicles have a long way to go before they disappear there. CC-licensed photo by @abrunvoll 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. Fissioned, not fused. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


I designed algorithms at Facebook. Here’s how to regulate them • The New York Times

Roddy Lindsay worked on the News Feed algorithm at Facebook from 2007:

»

Facebook has had more than 15 years to demonstrate that algorithmic personal feeds can be built responsibly; if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.

…The solution is straightforward: Companies that deploy personalized algorithmic amplification should be liable for the content these algorithms promote. This can be done through a narrow change to Section 230, the 1996 law that lets social media companies host user-generated content without fear of lawsuits for libelous speech and illegal content posted by those users.

As Ms. Haugen testified, “If we reformed 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.” As a former Facebook data scientist and current executive at a technology company, I agree with her assessment. There is no AI system that could identify every possible instance of illegal content. Faced with potential liability for every amplified post, these companies would most likely be forced to scrap algorithmic feeds altogether.

Social media companies can be successful and profitable under such a regime. Twitter adopted an algorithmic feed only in 2015. Facebook grew significantly in its first two years, when it hosted user profiles without a personalized News Feed. Both platforms already offer nonalgorithmic, chronological versions of their content feeds.

This solution would also address concerns over political bias and free speech. Social media feeds would be free of the unavoidable biases that A.I.-based systems often introduce. Any algorithmic ranking of user-generated content could be limited to nonpersonalized features like “most popular” lists or simply be customized for particular geographies or languages. Fringe content would again be banished to the fringe, leading to fewer user complaints and putting less pressure on platforms to call balls and strikes on the speech of their users.

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Still a good day to buy
Social Warming, my book about how algorithmic amplification leads to bad effects on social networks because of our human instincts.


Can nuclear fusion put the brakes on climate change? • The New Yorker

Rivka Galchen:

»

In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around nine billion a year in today’s dollars—described as the “Maximum Effective Effort”—it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to “Fusion Never.” “And that’s about what’s been spent,” the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. “Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there.”

«

Which pretty much sums it up. This article also obeys Betteridge’s Law, unless something wonderful happens in the next few years.
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Norway to hit 100% electric vehicle sales early next year • Drive

Rob Margeit:

»

According to monthly new car sales data released by Norway’s Road Traffic Information Council (OVF), the last internal combustion engine vehicle is set to leave the dealership next April, almost three years ahead of the Norwegian government’s 2025 stated target for the phasing out completely of sales of new petrol and diesel cars.

…[However] seven out of every eight cars bought and sold in Norway a used car. The NAF’s [Norwegian Automobile Federation] numbers show that of the 357,176 ownership registration changes so far in 2021, electric vehicles only accounted for 12%.

“Most people still own a used petrol or diesel car,” said Braadland. “Around 85% of cars on Norwegian roads still have a petrol or diesel engine. But new car sales show that we see the beginning of the end for the fossil-powered car.”

Norway’s numbers are in stark contrast to the Australian market, where electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles account for less than 1% (0.73%) of new car sales while petrol vehicles alone make up 55.5% of the new car market.

Diesel vehicles enjoy 33% market chare while conventional hybrid vehicles are outgunned by their Norwegian counterparts with 6.7% market share.

«

Norway shows how much inertia there is in the installed base: how long will it take for even a small country to switch over completely, even with all the incentives? We’d better hope hard for net zero to be a feasible solution to “only” leaving emissions as bad as they already are.
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Twitter’s latest pre-tweet prompts let you know when you’re about to jump into a Twitter fight • The Verge

Jay Peters:

»

The prompts are the company’s latest attempt to reduce the persistent harassment and abuse on the platform. One other prompt, for example, warns you before you tweet something that might be offensive. Twitter also might show a prompt if you try to retweet an article it thinks you haven’t read, which could help decrease the spread of misinformation. While they might help prevent some bad tweets from being shared, the growing list of potential warnings to wade through before you tweet is a worrying indicator of the entire experience.

As always, if you’re not sure if you should post something, the best pre-tweet prompt is the one that Twitter won’t show you: never tweet.

«

I’m fairly sure I’ve pre-deleted three times more tweets than I’ve actually pressed “Tweet” on. Even so, it’s the ones you write that cause the trouble. Would be good to know whether the scheme to warn people before they tweet articles without reading them has worked to any appreciable degree.
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Africa internet riches plundered, contested by China broker • SF Gate

Alan Suderman, Frank Bajak and Rodney Muhumuza:

»

Millions of internet addresses assigned to Africa have been waylaid, some fraudulently, including through insider machinations linked to a former top employee of the nonprofit that assigns the continent’s addresses. Instead of serving Africa’s internet development, many have benefited spammers and scammers, while others satiate Chinese appetites for pornography and gambling.

New leadership at the nonprofit, AFRINIC, is working to reclaim the lost addresses. But a legal challenge by a deep-pocketed Chinese businessman is threatening the body’s very existence.

The businessman is Lu Heng, a Hong Kong-based arbitrage specialist. Under contested circumstances, he obtained 6.2 million African addresses from 2013 to 2016. That’s about 5% of the continent’s total — more than Kenya has.

The internet service providers and others to whom AFRINIC assigns IP address blocks aren’t purchasing them. They pay membership fees to cover administrative costs that are intentionally kept low. That left lots of room, though, for graft.

When AFRINIC revoked Lu’s addresses, now worth about $150m, he fought back. His lawyers in late July persuaded a judge in Mauritius, where AFRICNIC is based, to freeze its bank accounts. His company also filed a $80m defamation claim against AFRINIC and its new CEO.

«

All reminds me of the shenanigans over the ownership of sex.com, as detailed by Kieren McCarthy.
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First malaria vaccine approved by WHO • The New York Times

Apoorva Mandavilli:

»

The vaccine, called Mosquirix, is not just a first for malaria — it is the first developed for any parasitic disease. Parasites are much more complex than viruses or bacteria, and the quest for a malaria vaccine has been underway for a hundred years.

“It’s a huge jump from the science perspective to have a first-generation vaccine against a human parasite,” Dr. Alonso said.

In clinical trials, the vaccine had an efficacy of about 50% against severe malaria in the first year, but the figure dropped close to zero by the fourth year. And the trials did not directly measure the vaccine’s impact on deaths, which has led some experts to question whether it is a worthwhile investment in countries with countless other intractable problems.

But severe malaria accounts for up to half of malaria deaths and is considered “a reliable proximal indicator of mortality,” said Dr. Mary Hamel, who leads the W.H.O.’s malaria vaccine implementation program. “I do expect we will see that impact.”

A modeling study last year estimated that if the vaccine were rolled out to countries with the highest incidence of malaria, it could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths in children younger than 5 each year.

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This isn’t the mRNA version, though; that’s still in development and testing.
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Two new studies suggest the coronavirus did not originate in China • Medical News Today

Hannah Flynn:

»

As the pandemic was thought to originate in Wuhan, many efforts have focused on China, with the assumption that, as the virus was first detected there, it probably started there.

Now, two papers under review by the journal Nature and published as preprints are casting some doubt on these assumptions and indicate that in order to discover the origins of the virus, researchers may have to look farther afield.

One of the reasons SARS-CoV-2 is so infectious is a region on its spike protein that gives it its ability to bind to a receptor present on the surface of many human cells called ACE2.

In a paper submitted to Nature, researchers from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France, and from Laos have now reported finding viruses with receptor binding domains very similar to those found on SARS-CoV-2 in cave bats in North Laos.

The researchers took blood, saliva, anal feces, and urine samples from 645 bats from 46 different species found in limestone caves in North Laos, which is close to the Southwest China border.

They discovered three separate virus strains in three different species of Rhinolophus bat, commonly known as horseshoe bat. RNA sequencing revealed that these viruses were over 95% identical to SARS-CoV-2, and one, the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 found so far, was 96.8% similar.

Further experiments showed that the receptor binding domain of the viruses had a high affinity for human ACE2 receptors.

«

That 96.8% figure is significant because the previous closest match was in a cave of bats in China, at 96.1%. Doesn’t mean either is the direct precursor of SARS-Cov-2.
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Ten years after Steve Jobs’s death: what Apple lost and gained • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

»

For one thing, even Jobs didn’t change history with anything like the frequency that people thought he did. For another, Cook deserved more than two years to prove how much vision Apple would have under his leadership.

Enough time has passed that it’s now fair to compare Cook’s biggest products to Jobs landmarks such as the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Apples biggest all-new product since 2011 has unquestionably been the Apple Watch, which is now worn by 100 million people, including a third of iPhone users in the U.S. Judged purely as a revenue generator, the smartwatch deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs’s signature products: It’s a bigger business than the iPod was at its height.

The other obvious megahit of the Cook years are AirPods, which defined the modern wireless-earbud category and still lead it; they’re as iconic as wired iPod earbuds once were—and vastly more profitable for Apple.

Any Apple rival would salivate at the prospect of creating a business as successful as the Apple Watch and AirPods have been. Still, neither is culturally transformative in the way that Jobs’s biggest successes were.

«

In hardware, Apple is absolutely fine: after some wobbles five years ago (unspecced laptops particularly) it’s righted ship. But the software is running into the sand: trying to coordinate five software platforms (iPhone, iPad, Mac, TV, Watch) is beginning to create problems in the user interface. Consistency is rotting. The designer is prized over the user. it’s bad.
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How Steve Jobs once chucked an iPhone prototype to impress a room full of journalists • CNET

Roger Cheng:

»

This was months before the iPhone actually went on sale, a little after Jobs unveiled the groundbreaking smartphone in January 2007. Jobs had paid a visit to The Wall Street Journal’s headquarters, then in Manhattan’s World Financial Center area, to offer more than two dozen editors and reporters a peek at the device. It was there that he fielded questions about the gadget, with someone asking about its durability.

Jobs’ response: tossing the prerelease model he held into the air toward the center of the room, eliciting a small gasp and then hushed silence as it hit the (carpeted) floor.

The memory underscores the lengths Jobs went to in order to make an impression. On the 10-year anniversary of Jobs’ death, those in the tech industry have begun to pay their respects by sharing stories and memories of the tech luminary, a visionary who shook up multiple industries and changed the way we interact with our mobile devices. This was mine.

As a telecom reporter based in New York, I rarely got the chance to attend Apple events, including the MacWorld at which Jobs unveiled the iPhone. But my beat meant I was invited to attend this private session with other editors and reporters at the Journal.

Jobs spent a good portion of the session answering general questions about Apple. I won’t share what was discussed at the meeting – it was off the record and Jobs insisted everyone not only turn off and put away their recorders, but also stow away their notebooks and pens. Everyone complied, eager to see the device.

It wasn’t until after he took out the iPhone that he was asked about its durability, prompting the throw. While the phone in his hand was more polished than the original, buggy prototype he showed off at MacWorld, knowing now just how prone to issues those early units were makes his nonchalant toss even more impressive. Imagine how disastrous it would’ve been if that iPhone had broken or shut down in front of so many journalists.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1652: Facebook whistleblower urges regulation, the cult of Ozy, carmakers v chipmakers, Salesforce’s bad dataviz, and more


Air source heat pumps will have to replace gas boilers – but they’ll jack up electricity demand substantially. Can the grid cope? CC-licensed photo by Krzysztof Lis 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. Unregulated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook whistleblower urges lawmakers to regulate the company • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

»

In more than three hours of testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Frances Haugen, who worked on Facebook’s civic misinformation team for nearly two years until May, spoke candidly and with a level of insight that the company’s executives have rarely provided. She said Facebook had purposely hidden disturbing research about how teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products and how it was willing to use hateful content on its site to keep users coming back.

Ms. Haugen also gave lawmakers information on what other data they should ask Facebook for, which could then lead to proposals to regulate the Silicon Valley giant as it increasingly faces questions about its global reach and power.

“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Ms. Haugen, 37, said during her testimony. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.”

…Facebook has repeatedly pushed back on the criticism, saying its research was taken out of context and misunderstood. On Tuesday after the hearing, the company defended itself by questioning Ms. Haugen’s credibility. Lena Pietsch, a Facebook spokeswoman, said Ms. Haugen had never attended a decision-making meeting with high-ranking executives.

«

Facebook’s PR team are completely stuffed over this. Attending a decision-making meeting doesn’t mean you don’t understand research discussed in it. (Haugen’s site doesn’t have much yet.) No clarity on what form the regulation should take, though.
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Still a good time to buy my book,
Social Warming, which explains how algorithmic amplication and our natural instincts create mayhem on social networks.


Understanding how Facebook disappeared from the internet • Cloudflare

Celso Martinho and Tom Strickx:

»

“Facebook can’t be down, can it?”, we thought, for a second.

Today at 15:51 UTC, we opened an internal incident entitled “Facebook DNS lookup returning SERVFAIL” because we were worried that something was wrong with our DNS resolver 1.1.1.1.  But as we were about to post on our public status page we realized something else more serious was going on.

Social media quickly burst into flames, reporting what our engineers rapidly confirmed too. Facebook and its affiliated services WhatsApp and Instagram were, in fact, all down. Their DNS names stopped resolving, and their infrastructure IPs were unreachable. It was as if someone had “pulled the cables” from their data centers all at once and disconnected them from the Internet.

This wasn’t a DNS issue itself, but failing DNS was the first symptom we’d seen of a larger Facebook outage.

How’s that even possible?

«

This is a technical but clear description of what happened, at least as far as outsiders are able to tell. Facebook has published a couple of blog posts about the events, but they’re incredibly bland, with essentially zero detail – and certainly nothing admitting to staff being unable to get into server rooms because the card passes require the Facebook domain to be reachable.
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48-hour internet outage plunges nation into productivity • The Onion

»

An Internet worm that disabled networks across the US Monday and Tuesday temporarily thrust the nation into its most severe maelstrom of productivity since 1992.

“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Price Stern Sloan system administrator Andrew Walton, whose effort to restore web service to his company’s network was repeatedly hampered by employees busily working at their computers. “The local-access network is functioning, so people can transfer work projects to one another, but there’s no e-mail, no eBay, no flaminglips.com. It’s pretty much every office worker’s worst nightmare.”

«

As ever, the most consistently accurate depictor of events, past, present and future. (This first appeared in October 2003.)
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Carlos Watson’s mismanagement of Ozy: ‘it was culty’ • NY Mag

Jeff Wise:

»

“Carlos didn’t like that people slept,” Crane says. “There was one meeting where he stood up and he said, ‘I’m sick of hearing about how people need to sleep! This is a start-up! This is not for the weak!’”

The way Watson and [COO Samir] Rao defined the editorial mission of the site created an ongoing challenge for the staff. It was hard enough to find topics that no major outlets had covered; to do that at a fast pace, with a freelance budget that might amount to no more than $150 per story, at times felt unworkable, former employees said. The story mix that resulted leaned toward obscure topics in remote places.

“The reason those stories weren’t reported by the big outfits is that they weren’t that significant,” says the former Ozy editor. “You have to be a real social-justice trooper to read article after article about, you know, the fight for women’s rights in some province in Nigeria. It’s great that Carlos wanted to cover stuff like that, but it turns out there’s no audience for it.”

Even as Watson was running around telling advertisers and investors that Ozy had tens of millions of readers, staffers knew the truth. Each story had a counter at the bottom showing how many people had read it. “You work your ass off on a thing, and then it gets like 60 readers, you know?” says the former editor. “There was just no one there. It’s crickets.”

Ozy removed the counters.

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Apple told a showbiz union it had less than 20 million North American TV+ subscribers • CNBC

Kif Leswing:

»

Apple claimed its TV+ service had less than 20 million subscribers in the US and Canada as of July, allowing it to pay behind-the-scenes production crew lower rates than streamers with more subscriptions, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a union that represents TV and movie workers who perform jobs like operating cameras and building sets.

Apple has never revealed subscriber numbers for its Apple TV+ streaming service, which launched in the fall of 2019. Analysts are reluctant to offer estimates, but many say that its scale pales in comparison to services like Netflix, which claimed 209 million subscribers as of Q2, and Disney+, which claimed 116 million.

The fact that Apple can pay a discounted rate despite being the most valuable publicly traded company in the world highlights some of the issues facing Hollywood workers as streaming supplants linear TV and movies, and is raising ire among union members who are deciding whether to strike for better pay and working conditions.

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Company that routes billions of text messages quietly says it was hacked • Vice

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

»

A company that is a critical part of the global telecommunications infrastructure used by AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and several others around the world such as Vodafone and China Mobile, quietly disclosed that hackers were inside its systems for years, impacting more than 200 of its clients and potentially millions of cellphone users worldwide. 

The company, Syniverse, revealed in a filing dated September 27 with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that an unknown “individual or organization gained unauthorized access to databases within its network on several occasions, and that login information allowing access to or from its Electronic Data Transfer (EDT) environment was compromised for approximately 235 of its customers.”

A former Syniverse employee who worked on the EDT systems told Motherboard that those systems have information on all types of call records. 

Syniverse repeatedly declined to answer specific questions from Motherboard about the scale of the breach and what specific data was affected, but according to a person who works at a telephone carrier, whoever hacked Syniverse could have had access to metadata such as length and cost, caller and receiver’s numbers, the location of the parties in the call, as well as the content of SMS text messages.

«

So, basically, they’ve known absolutely everything about perhaps every text almost every American has been sending for years. Wonder who’s been using that data? Police? Spies? Private detectives?
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“It is truly bonkers”: Greg Jackson, Octopus CEO, on the UK’s broken energy system • New Statesman

Will Dunn:

»

Jackson accuses the management of the UK energy grid as being stuck in the past, describing the National Grid as a “monopoly” and its control room as “like a minicab office. There’s some blokes with phones, and what they’ve always done is phoned up coal and gas power stations and told them to turn on and off. What we have to do now is… a million times more complicated.”

The result of this simplified central planning could be seen the previous week, when “electricity prices were colossally high, we were having to use lots of back-up supplies… [and] we were literally paying wind generators in Scotland to turn off, because there weren’t enough cables connecting Scotland, where the electricity was being generated, to England, where we needed it.”

The solution, he says, is for the energy grid to become more like the internet. “It is truly bonkers,” he says, that the UK persists with a system in which “central planners decide what cables are going to go where… you can centrally plan a system that’s got 100 power stations. You can’t centrally plan a system that’s got 20 million electric cars, two million houses with solar panels, a million houses with batteries, and 5,000 large-scale wind and solar farms.”

Jackson applauds Boris Johnson’s aspiration to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind”, and believes such a project could transform our economy: “If we build enough wind generation to meet our winter needs, nine months of the year we’re going to have unbelievably cheap electricity. You’ll be able to fuel your car for free, make steel for free, do indoor farming with virtually zero energy costs.” But the current reality is that in government, too, the pace of change is frustratingly slow: a wind farm can be built in 12 months, and an undersea cable between the UK and France can be laid in ten days, but approval and grid connections can take years.

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If – when – the UK installs heat pumps to replace gas boilers, electricity demand will spike • The Conversation

Ali Ehsan:

»

In its bid to massively reduce household use of greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, the UK government aims to encourage the installation of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028.

Heat pumps are a relatively new technology that take heat from the air outside, or the ground, to be circulated around a central heating and hot water system, using electricity. They are far more clean and energy efficient than gas.

The increased electricity demand caused by heat pumps if millions more people switch to this form of heating could place an “unmanageable burden” on the electrical grid, increasing the risk of power cuts, according to recent research using data from 6,600 gas-heated homes and 600 homes with heat pumps.

Without additional investments in electricity networks and additional innovations, such power cuts will be more likely.

«

What’s the betting the government will put off doing this until it’s much too late?
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Why carmakers can’t just transition to the newest chips • Jalopnik

Adam Ismail:

»

Car companies use a varied selection of chips that tend to be many times larger than what’s employed in most consumer electronics — perhaps as big as 45 or 90 nanometers. [For comparison, this year’s phones use 5nm processes.] These are often used for simple tasks like raising and lowering windows and climate control.

The dilemma is that if those chips are tiny rather than huge, a given size wafer will yield many more of them. Miniaturization thus makes supply easier to maintain, and allows chip manufacturers to reap a more lucrative return on their investments.

“So, chip fabrication for older (bigger) lithographic features tends to be retired or at least new fabs using these older technologies won’t be built to meet an increase in demand,” [Fellow at the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers, Thomas] Coughlin sums up. “Overall, the chip companies do have a valid point.”

However, to suggest as Gelsinger did that the burden to adapt should fall squarely on automakers simplifies the issue. General purpose chipmakers don’t seem to grasp the unique challenges of the automotive sector — something that became clear to me after chatting with Jon M. Quigley, Society of Automotive Engineers member and columnist at Automotive Industries.

“Qualifying a product, specifically testing activities, are costly and requires time, talent, and equipment,” Quigley said. “Some of the test equipment requirements are expensive and often not on hand at the OEM but will require an external lab, and booking time at this lab can be a long lead time activity, and is necessary for certain product certifications. Depending upon the vehicle system commonality, this testing might have to be performed on multiple vehicle platforms.”

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So the chips aren’t in plentiful supply, and the fabs can’t really be turned on and off like light switches.
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Salesforce accidentally teaches us about visual weight • The Good Data Project

Nate Elliott, on a truly egregious bit of data misrepresentation from Salesforce’s site:

»

1. The bubble chart overweights the largest responses. The chart above says about twice as many companies involve IT in app development as involve marketing (81% vs 42%). But the bubble representing IT is 3.7x bigger than the bubble representing marketing — almost double the size it should be.

The problem: Salesforce used diameter rather than area to scale the bubbles. The “marketing” bubble is about half as wide as the “IT” bubble, which at first sounds correct. But as we learned in school, the area of a circle is πr². If you want to make one circle half the size of another, reduce the diameter by about 29%, not by 50%.

Nearly every bubble chart I see contains this error. If you’re going to represent data with bubbles, scale them based on their area.

2. Salesforce’s pyramid charts are even worse. Think this report can’t do worse than the bubble chart? Think again. Salesforce’s triangles are much more deceptive than their circles.

«

Then they have a pie chart that’s even worse. Just when you thought you couldn’t screw up a pie chart.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1651: Facebook whistleblower speaks out, Clearview adds AI to face-finding tools, why you don’t need a VPN, and more


A speech had been prepared for Richard Nixon in case Apollo 11 crashed on the Moon in 1969. Now you can hear him read it – sort of. CC-licensed photo by GPA Photo Archive 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. Not surly at all. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


With all that’s going on, you’d be making a mistake not to buy Social Warming, my book about the inevitably deleterious effects of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.


The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, says she wants to fix the company, not harm it • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

Ms. Haugen resigned from Google at the beginning of 2014. Two months later, a blood clot in her thigh landed her in the intensive care unit.

A family acquaintance hired to assist her with errands became her main companion during a year she spent largely homebound. The young man bought groceries, took her to doctors’ appointments, and helped her regain the capacity to walk.

“It was a really important friendship, and then I lost him,” she said.

The friend, who had once held liberal political views, was spending increasing amounts of time reading online forums about how dark forces were manipulating politics. In an interview, the man recalled Ms. Haugen as having unsuccessfully tried to intervene as he gravitated toward a mix of the occult and white nationalism. He severed their friendship and left San Francisco before later abandoning such beliefs, he said.

Ms. Haugen’s health improved, and she went back to work. But the loss of her friendship changed the way she thought about social media, she said.

“It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she said. “A lot of people who work on these products only see the positive side of things.”

When a Facebook recruiter got in touch at the end of 2018, Ms. Haugen said, she replied that she might be interested if the job touched on democracy and the spread of false information. During interviews, she said, she told managers about her friend and how she wanted to help Facebook prevent its own users from going down similar paths.

She started in June 2019, part of the roughly 200-person Civic Integrity team, which focused on issues around elections world-wide. While it was a small piece of Facebook’s overall policing efforts, the team became a central player in investigating how the platform could spread political falsehoods, stoke violence and be abused by malicious governments.

«

More coverage at the NY Times; plus a transcript of her 60 Minutes interview.

Every week is Facebook week, isn’t it?
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It’s time to stand up to Facebook • The Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin:

»

Haugen’s claims follow similar warnings from others. In a viral TED talk last year, Yaël Eisenstat, who worked on elections integrity at Facebook and is currently a fellow at Berggruen Institute, said “social media companies like Facebook profit off of segmenting us and feeding us personalized content that both validates and exploits our biases.” She explained, “Their bottom line depends on provoking a strong emotion to keep us engaged, often incentivizing the most inflammatory and polarizing voices, to the point where finding common ground no longer feels possible. And despite a growing chorus of people crying out for the platforms to change, it’s clear they will not do enough on their own.”

«

Eisenstat was hired by Facebook in autumn 2018 – she thought, as a former CIA officer, that she’d be working on election integrity. Instead she got sidelined and found herself doing something around ads. She left within months, frustrated and angry. So it’s not only using Facebook that creates those emotions.
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Facebook is weaker than we knew • NY Times

Kevin Roose:

»

there’s another way to read the series [of leaked documents printed in the WSJ], and it’s the interpretation that has reverberated louder inside my brain as each new installment has landed.

Which is: Facebook is in trouble.

Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize. It’s a cloud of existential dread that hangs over an organization whose best days are behind it, influencing every managerial priority and product decision and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out. This kind of decline is not necessarily visible from the outside, but insiders see a hundred small, disquieting signs of it every day — user-hostile growth hacks, frenetic pivots, executive paranoia, the gradual attrition of talented colleagues.

…if these leaked documents proved anything, it is how un-Godzilla-like Facebook feels. Internally, the company worries that it is losing power and influence, not gaining it, and its own research shows that many of its products aren’t thriving organically. Instead, it is going to increasingly extreme lengths to improve its toxic image, and to stop users from abandoning its apps in favor of more compelling alternatives.

«

There has certainly been a sort of desperation about how Facebook keeps trying new things which reminds me rather of how Google kept trying more things after its big hit of search. Google isn’t going away, but its presence in the rest of our lives feels more residual than expected, say, ten years ago.
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Clearview AI has new tools to identify you in photos • WIRED

Will Knight:

»

The company’s cofounder and CEO, Hoan Ton-That, tells WIRED that Clearview has now collected more than 10 billion images from across the web—more than three times as many as has been previously reported.

Ton-That says the larger pool of photos means users, most often law enforcement, are more likely to find a match when searching for someone. He also claims the larger data set makes the company’s tool more accurate.

Clearview combined web-crawling techniques, advances in machine learning that have improved facial recognition, and a disregard for personal privacy to create a surprisingly powerful tool.

Ton-That demonstrated the technology through a smartphone app by taking a photo of the reporter. The app produced dozens of images from numerous US and international websites, each showing the correct person in images captured over more than a decade. The allure of such a tool is obvious, but so is the potential for it to be misused.

Clearview’s actions sparked public outrage and a broader debate over expectations of privacy in an era of smartphones, social media, and AI. Critics say the company is eroding personal privacy. The ACLU sued Clearview in Illinois under a law that restricts the collection of biometric information; the company also faces class action lawsuits in New York and California. Facebook and Twitter have demanded that Clearview stop scraping their sites.

The pushback has not deterred Ton-That. He says he believes most people accept or support the idea of using facial recognition to solve crimes. “The people who are worried about it, they are very vocal, and that’s a good thing, because I think over time we can address more and more of their concerns,” he says.

«

Taking a picture of a reporter is, generally, an easy win – journalists are terribly vain. Though I wonder if there will be more support if Clearview is used to solve a really awful crime; CCTV is hard to argue against after it was used to detect the killer of Sarah Everard.
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How Ozy Fest was about to become the next Fyre Festival — until a heat wave (and insurance claim) bailed them out • Forbes

Jemima McEvoy:

»

One day before the July 2019 kickoff to “Ozy Fest,” a strange amalgam of speeches, panels and entertainment scheduled to be held on arguably the biggest stage in America, Central Park’s Great Lawn, Ozy Media founder Carlos Watson was all smiles: “I’ve heard people describe it as TED meets Coachella,” Watson told the audience on CNBC’s Squawk Box, as he sat across from one of his board members, hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry, and baseball superstar turned Shark Tank mogul Alex Rodriguez, who had been positioned as co-host. More than 100,000 people had already been billed to attend — Watson boasted that a brunch event alone with chef Marcus Samuelsson would draw 10,000 people — putting it into the rarified air of South-by-Southwest and Art Basel, except that rather than just tech, music or art, Ozy Fest would feature, well, a bit of everything.

Or, in reality, nothing. Hours later, the event had been cancelled, with a sudden heat wave as the ostensible culprit. That masked something far more fundamental. “Things were not ready in every aspect,” says one employee involved with the festival. “It was going to be Fyre Fest.”

…What follows is an account of an event that devolved into a financial and logistics nightmare, from wildly-inflated ticket sales to exaggerated celebrity appearances, with a twist ending: the last-minute cancelation that turned what would have publicly exposed Ozy’s untruths into a large insurance windfall.

«

It’s possible you can overdose on schadenfreude, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
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Britain seeks views on plugging back into European power market • Reuters

Nora Buli:

»

Britain began a consultation on Thursday on how to realign its electricity market more closely to Europe and improve cross-border trading after Brexit decoupled it from a common system, leading to discrepancies in market prices.

Interconnecting cables increase the ability of Britain’s electricity market to trade with others, enhance energy system flexibility and aid decarbonisation, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said.

“We’re seeking views on the current arrangements for trading electricity on power exchanges in the GB wholesale electricity market and our proposals to support efficient cross-border trading,” BEIS added in a statement.

The British electricity market previously operated a uniform day-ahead price which was settled through shared order books on exchanges Nord Pool and Epex Spot.

But when Britain’s EU exit was completed on Jan. 1, it left the bloc’s internal energy market and its market-coupling system, leading the exchanges to run fully separated auctions, settling and clearing at different and independent prices.

«

Oh, suddenly realised there might be some effects, did we? (The consultation is here.)
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In Event of Moon Disaster

Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund:

»

In July 1969, much of the world celebrated “one giant leap for mankind.” Fifty years later, nothing is quite so straightforward.

In Event of Moon Disaster illustrates the possibilities of deepfake technologies by reimagining this seminal event. What if the Apollo 11 mission had gone wrong and the astronauts had not been able to return home? A contingency speech for this possibility was prepared for, but never delivered by, President Nixon – until now.

In Event of Moon Disaster is an immersive art project inviting you into an alternative history, asking us all to consider how new technologies can bend, redirect and obfuscate the truth around us.

To construct the story a variety of techniques of misinformation were used – from simple deceptive editing to more complex deepfakes technologies.

«

Utterly stunning. A brilliant choice of material – because it’s about an old event, you’re not surprised by the audio quality. Completely worth six minutes of your time. And if you’ve got an extra four and a half, compare Ronald Reagan’s real address after the loss of seven Challenger astronauts, with its famous “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” phrase. For my money, the Nixon speech soars above it. (Via John Naughton.)
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Google is scrapping its plan to offer bank accounts to users • WSJ

Peter Rudegeair, David Benoit and Andrew Ackerman:

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Google is abandoning plans to pitch bank accounts to its users, marking a retreat from an effort to make the tech giant a bigger name in finance.

The Alphabet unit announced almost two years ago that users of its Google Pay digital wallet would be able to sign up for enhanced checking accounts and debit cards at a handful of financial institutions large and small, including Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

The new offerings, called Plex accounts, would sync with Google Pay, carry both Google and bank branding and provide a digital dashboard of where and how users spent and saved. Plex was billed as a new way to bank, with an emphasis on simplicity and financial wellness and without monthly or overdraft fees.

The project was initially expected to debut in 2020. A series of missed deadlines, along with the April departure of the Google Pay executive who championed the project, prompted Google to pull the plug on Plex, people familiar with the matter said.

A Google spokeswoman said the company would now focus primarily on “delivering digital enablement for banks and other financial services providers rather than us serving as the provider of these services.”

«

Apparently there were about 10,000 people per week joining the waiting list, which had reached 400,000. The attraction of a Google-operated bank account to American users is obvious to anyone who has ever had the misfortune of tangling with the American banking system. To anyone outside the US, the idea that you’d hand over your finances to a search company seems weird, of course. (Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica says the root problem is upheaval at the Google Pay division.)
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Do Americans know what a massive ripoff American life really is? • Eudaimonia and Co

umair haque:

»

I’ve recently moved to the States — shudder — for a year or two. And I’m shocked at how expensive just life is. For no good reason at all.

When I put my economist hat on, a fact becomes clear to me. American life is a gigantic rip-off, one of the world’s biggest, and that’s why America is now effectively a country of poor people, and that makes it a nation of angry, cruel, and selfish ones, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start over. American life is the biggest ripoff in the world. Or at least one of the biggest, in the top five, certainly. Just…existing. It costs way, way more than it should. So much so that America cannot ever move forward as a society. So, trapped in a cycle, which economists call a “poverty trap,” Americans now stay poor.

Americans don’t quite get this, though. Why would they? They’ve never lived anywhere else. So let me give you a few examples which, especially if you’re American, might be illuminating. We’ll begin with basic bills, and then zoom out from there.

«

Poverty traps are hardly unique to America. But this piece includes the shocking (and novel, to me) statistic that the average American dies $60,000 in debt. It also makes you realise where the impetus for globalisation came from: if prices couldn’t be brought down, the country would collapse under its own prices.
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You probably don’t need a VPN • Vice

Joseph Cox:

»

You probably don’t need a VPN. Despite all the marketing from VPN companies that you should pay them for a virtual private network to use from your home internet and, especially, from public wifi, most Americans may be better off not paying for a commercial VPN, according to multiple security experts.

The underlying reason: The internet is a very different landscape in 2021 than it was 10 or even five years ago. Although of course some people will still benefit from a VPN, and particularly those with a higher degree of threat against them, most Americans can probably save that $5 or so a month.

“It’s time we retire the stock advice to get a personal VPN,” Bob Lord, former chief security officer at the Democratic National Committee, told Motherboard in an email. “Most people do not need personal VPNs today because the internet is much safer than it was in 2010. Personal VPNs create additional risks. Giving everyone advice that only pertains to some people misdirects them from the steps that will actually help them secure their digital lives.”

…Security researcher Kenn White added that “for the vast majority of consumers, commercial VPN services add very little value and frankly most incur more security risk for the user.”

One risk is some VPN providers use self-signed root CAs [certificate authorities], which allow the creator to read encrypted traffic coming from a computer. White said this is done in the pursuit of malware prevention, but that “is just a different way of saying ‘intercepting your (otherwise) encrypted web and mail traffic.'”

«

So the service to prevent people reading your web traffic is… reading your web traffic? I’ve been saying this for absolutely ages: VPNs are useful only for a tiny number of jobs (usually, pretending to be in another country).
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What investors saw in Ozy Media • The New York Times

Ben Smith has the body on the slab:

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nobody I spoke with over the last week was more piqued than Roland Martin and Todd Brown, two members of a group led by the mogul Byron Allen that shook the advertising industry this year, with a campaign meant to persuade marketers to spend more money with Black-owned media companies. The effort led to a wave of meetings and the hope that serious ad dollars would start flowing to companies like Mr. Martin’s Black Star Network, a streaming channel.

Instead, the giant ad agencies that steer much of the digital ad business “had found a safe Black space, a comfortable medium — and we were shocked that it was Ozy,” said Mr. Brown, a former head of ad sales of Ebony and Jet magazines whose company, Urban Edge Networks, owns a streaming service for sporting events at historically Black colleges and universities. “It was a story and not a business — but the story is what people wanted to buy,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

Mr. Martin said the campaign he had helped start didn’t wind up driving more advertising dollars to his channel. Particularly galling, he said, in light of the revelations that Ozy had exaggerated the size of its audience, was the reason the advertising agencies gave him when they turned him down: They were not confident that he was measuring his audience rigorously enough.

“I look at the demands they made on me — my metrics, numbers,” he said of the advertising agencies. “Now I’m sitting there going, ‘Y’all made me jump through all these hoops? It was that easy just to lie and make up this stuff?’”

«

Yup. They prefer the lie than the reality. Maybe, after WeWork and Theranos and now this, there will be a realisation that diligence is required. Also: if you read the story, Carlos Watson is still lying and lying and lying.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1650: internal dissent grows at Facebook, Ozy Media’s Ozymandias moment, Britain’s nightmarish winter, the methane problem, and more


You too can stay on the International Space Station – though the charge for using the toilet is a bit more than a penny. CC-licensed photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center 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. What, don’t you like queueing? It’s still fashionable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook struggles to quell uproar over Instagram’s effect on teens • The New York Times

Mike Isaac, Sheera Frenkel and Ryan Mac:

»

some of Facebook’s containment has at times backfired with its own workers. This week, the company downplayed the internal research that The Journal had partly based its articles on, suggesting that the findings were limited and imprecise. That angered some employees who had worked on the research, three people said. They have congregated on group chats to decry the characterizations as unfair, and some have privately threatened to quit.

In one group text message chain shared with The New York Times, Facebook data scientists and researchers discussed how they were being “embarrassed” by their own employer. On a company message board, one employee wrote in a post this week: “They are making a mockery of the research.”

“Facebook’s UX research team is one of the best in the industry,” said Sahar Massachi, a Facebook engineer who worked on election integrity and left the company in 2019. “Instead of attacking their employees, Facebook should be giving integrity researchers the authority to more fully do their jobs.”

The furor is unlikely to die down. On Sunday, the whistle-blower who leaked the internal research and is a former Facebook employee is set to reveal her identity and discuss the documents on “60 Minutes.” She will then appear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday to testify about what she discovered while conducting research at Facebook.

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Look like I chose the wrong week to stop linking to stories about Facebook getting in hot water over its effects on users.
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• Learn more about the deleterious effects of Facebook (and other social networks) in Social Warming, my latest book.


Ozy Media, once a darling of investors, shuts down in a swift unraveling • The New York Times

Ben Smith and Katie Robertson:

»

Advertisers including Chevrolet, Walmart, Facebook, Target and Goldman Sachs itself — many of which had been paying for placement on “The Carlos Watson Show” — hit the brakes on their spending with Ozy.

By Friday afternoon, Mr. Watson and the other remaining board member, Michael Moe (another high-profile investment figure, who had published a book called “Finding the Next Starbucks”), concluded that the company could not recover and issued the farewell statement through a spokeswoman. Mr. Watson did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

CNN, Insider and other publications reported this week that working conditions at Ozy were difficult, and The Times, along with other publications, raised questions about the company’s claims of audience size for its online videos and website.

The Ozy staff received the news that the company was no more on Friday afternoon. “It’s heartbreaking for all the people who poured their hearts and souls into this company and produced journalism often under grueling, sometimes hostile, conditions that deserved a much wider audience,” Pooja Bhatia, a writer who worked at Ozy from 2013 until 2017, said in an interview shortly after she got word.

Nick Fouriezos, an Ozy reporter who left in June, said, “We were all devastated by the amount of deception that was going on by leadership, but I would stand 100% by the journalism that was done there, and the people that were working there were some of the most passionate hardworking journalists anywhere.”

«

Gave up the ghost on the day I forecast it might last four weeks. I think the journalists there were deceiving themselves. They were producing utter internet chum: stuff you spread in the water to attract attention, nothing more. And I think it would be worth asking the investors how much they really put into it.

Other reading: Axios (which previously wrote articles lauding Ozy to the sky, based on numbers provided by Ozy) and, better, Ryan Broderick goes into the analytics.
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The media business has a bigger Ozy problem • The Rebooting

Brian Morrissey:

»

Back in 2003, Viacom’s Mel Karmazin visited Google, where founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin showed how the search engine could tell advertisers exactly what was working. Mel wasn’t impressed: “You’re fucking with the magic, boys.” Digital media, with its trackability and openness, would be where artifices crumble. The entire promise of internet publishing was that lazy gatekeepers would be overtaken by an army of newcomers that used the cheap reach of the internet to build solid businesses on the back of high quality content. Didn’t turn out that way.

In fact, more than being a source of truth, digital media has provided more opportunities to create what I think of as synthetic media. You can create Potemkin villages of media properties that appear like the real thing. Need numbers? Buy followers and email subscribers so you can boast about them in press releases. Pay ComScore to not report your internet traffic – and really, should we trust a company that’s admitted to accounting fraud to count audiences? Nobody takes sales kits as gospel, so why not redefine the metrics to make the numbers even bigger. Back in 2018, Vice claimed an audience of 288 million. Brit + Co still claims an audience of 175 million people. By the way, if you want high time on site, bots behave more reliably than humans. As Max Read memorably wrote in 2018, much of the internet is fake. Underpinning all of this is the fuel of digital media: the expectation to show hockey-stick growth. But publishing doesn’t work like that. Building sustainable brands, built on trust and habit, takes a long time.

This is a business culture problem. We tend to gloss over dishonesty as hustle and treat fake-it-till-you-make-it as a virtue when it’s just not being straight. I always felt naive and even moralistic because I have found this kind of dishonesty deplorable.

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NASA will allow private astronauts on the ISS for $11,250-$22,500 a day • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

»

the space agency issued a new directive that allows commercial manufacturing and production to occur on the ISS, as well as marketing activities. It’s not quite “anything goes,” though—approved activities have to have a link to NASA’s mission, stimulate the development of a LEO [low earth orbit] economy, or actually require a zero-G environment. NASA has published a price list for the ISS, and it’s setting aside 5% of the station’s annual resources (including astronaut time and cargo mass) for commercial use.

Be prepared to pay to reach LEO. The cheapest cargo option is $3,000/kg to get it there, then an additional $3,000/kg to dispose of it in the trash. If you want it back again, that’ll be a $6,000/kg return fee, although round trip prices per kg are more expensive if you need power or life support on the way home.

In addition to manufacturing and production, NASA set pricing for space tourists—it’s calling them private astronaut missions—aboard the ISS, too. Regenerative life support and toilet access? That’s a snip at $11,250 per crew day. The more expensive “Crew Supplies” option—$22,500—sounds more hospitable, including as it does “food, air, crew provisions, supplies, medical kit, [and] exercise equipment.” NASA says it will support up to two short-duration private missions to the ISS each year, and those missions will travel on a US launch vehicle developed under the Commercial Crew program.

«

Somehow that “$3,000/kg to dispose of it” reminds me of the planet Bethselamin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where

»

the net balance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete while on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave; so every time you go to the lavatory there, it is vitally important to get a receipt.

«

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Hundreds of scam apps hit over 10 million Android devices • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

»

Researchers from the mobile security firm Zimperium say the massive scamming campaign has plagued Android since November 2020. As is often the case, the attackers were able to sneak benign-looking apps like “Handy Translator Pro,” “Heart Rate and Pulse Tracker,” and “Bus – Metrolis 2021” into Google Play as fronts for something more sinister. After downloading one of the malicious apps, a victim would receive a flood of notifications, five an hour, that prompted them to “confirm” their phone number to claim a prize. The “prize” claim page loaded through an in-app browser, a common technique for keeping malicious indicators out of the code of the app itself. Once a user entered their digits, the attackers signed them up for a monthly recurring charge of about $42 through the premium SMS services feature of wireless bills. It’s a mechanism that normally lets you pay for digital services or, say, send money to a charity via text message. In this case, it went directly to crooks.

The techniques are common in malicious Play Store apps, and premium SMS fraud in particular is a notorious issue. But the researchers say it’s significant that attackers were able to string these known approaches together in a way that was still extremely effective—and in staggering numbers—even as Google has continuously improved its Android security and Play Store defenses.

«

My point here is to focus on the use of premium SMS scams. Years ago, hackers would take over the programs that dialled in to the internet (this used to be a thing, younger readers) so that rather than calling a local (cheap or free) number it would call a premium number. (British Telecom did nothing about this for ages, allowing people to unknowingly run up gigantic bills for their internet use. Under standard terms, BT got a slice of the revenue.)

Now it’s about premium text scams. But maybe you can see the connection: premium rate numbers. Always there to be abused.
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Low oxygen levels along Pacific Northwest coast a ‘silent’ climate change crisis • The Seattle Times

Michala Garrison:

»

Nearly two decades ago, fishers discovered an odd occurrence off the coast of Oregon. They were pulling up pots of dead or lethargic crabs.

At first they suspected a chemical spill or a red tide. But instead, they learned, dangerously low levels of dissolved oxygen in the ocean water were to blame.

The crabs had suffocated.

These swaths of hypoxic areas have surfaced every summer on Pacific Northwest shores since it was first recorded in 2002. They are spurred by naturally occurring coastal upwellings and algae blooms, exacerbated by climate change, said Francis Chan, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies at Oregon State University.

Akin to fire season, hypoxia season arrived earlier this year — the earliest start in 20 years, according to Chan. But unlike wildfire, or other visible climate emergencies, it’s gone largely unrecognized.

“It’s kind of a silent problem happening out there,” said Chan. “This year, I can look out and see trees with one side burnt because of the heat wave. As I’m driving on McKenzie highway, I can see Mount Jefferson has no snow on it. But when you drive out to the ocean, it looks exactly the same as last summer.”

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Pulling methane out of the atmosphere could slow global warming—if we can figure out how to do it • MIT Technology Review

Casey Crownhart:

»

Reducing methane in the atmosphere by 40% could reduce warming 0.4ºC by 2050, according to a new paper. Researchers also published a plan today outlining potential approaches and calling for more research into methane removal technology, which has so far been mostly confined to the lab.

Sucking methane from the air might deliver a bigger bang for the buck than just removing carbon dioxide.
“There’s probably nothing we could do that has a bigger effect on shaving peak temperatures over the next few decades than removing methane,” says Rob Jackson, a researcher at Stanford and a coauthor of both studies.

Methane is relatively scarce: carbon dioxide is about 200 times more concentrated in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it has contributed around 30% of total global warming to date, or about 0.5ºC, according to a recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though its lifetime in the atmosphere is only about ten years, over short time frames it is about 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

…Because of its short lifetime, if methane emissions were cut today, atmospheric levels would drop off quickly. In a recent UN Environment Programme report on methane that Naik coauthored, researchers estimated that cutting methane emissions 45% today could reduce warming 0.28ºC by midcentury—keeping the world under the target of less than 1.5ºC of warming over preindustrial levels, as defined by the Paris agreement.

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It’s always about controlling emissions. We’re just not going to drag this stuff out of the air. CO2 is 0.04% of the air. So methane is an infinitesimal part of it. We have to rely on the decay, and control emissions.
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October 2011: the crypto-currency • The New Yorker

Joshua Davis, writing in October 2011:

»

When bitcoin launched, my laptop would have had a reasonable chance of winning from time to time. Now, however, the computing power dedicated to playing the bitcoin lottery exceeds that of the world’s most powerful supercomputer. So I set up an account with Mt. Gox, the leading bitcoin exchange, and transferred a hundred and twenty dollars. A few days later, I bought 10.305 bitcoins with the press of a button and just as easily sent them to the Howard Johnson [hotel].

It was a simple transaction that masked a complex calculus. In 1971, Richard Nixon announced that US dollars could no longer be redeemed for gold. Ever since, the value of the dollar has been based on our faith in it. We trust that dollars will be valuable tomorrow, so we accept payment in dollars today. Bitcoin is similar: you have to trust that the system won’t get hacked, and that Nakamoto won’t suddenly emerge to somehow plunder it all. Once you believe in it, the actual cost of a bitcoin—five dollars or thirty?—depends on factors such as how many merchants are using it, how many might use it in the future, and whether or not governments ban it.

My daughter and I arrived at the Howard Johnson on a hot Friday afternoon and were met in the lobby by Jefferson Kim, the hotel’s cherubic twenty-eight-year-old general manager. “You’re the first person who’s ever paid in bitcoin,” he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically.

Kim explained that he had started mining bitcoins two months earlier. He liked that the currency was governed by a set of logical rules, rather than the mysterious machinations of the Federal Reserve. A dollar today, he pointed out, buys you what a nickel bought a century ago, largely because so much money has been printed. And, he asked, why trust a currency backed by a government that is 14 trillion dollars in debt?

«

It’s fascinating to read this, almost exactly ten years later. Those hotel payment bitcoins are now equivalent to half a million dollars (but the hotel owner sold them at once). Mt Gox was hacked into oblivion. And bitcoin is hardly used to *buy* things any more – unless the Great Experiment in El Salvador is regaining that ground. I suspect not.
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Britain is heading into a nightmarish winter • The New York Times

Samuel Earle:

»

The signs of breakdown are everywhere: empty shelves in supermarkets, food going to waste in fields, more and more vacancy posters tacked to the windows of shops and restaurants. Meat producers have even called on the government to let them hire prisoners to plug the gap.

One of the main causes of this predicament is Brexit, or at least the government’s handling of Brexit. Britain’s protracted departure from the bloc, undertaken without any real effort by Mr. Johnson to ensure a smooth transition, led to an exodus of European workers — a process then compounded by the pandemic. As many as 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.

Yet as it became clear that Britain faced substantial shortages in labor, the Conservatives refused to respond. They bloviated, calling it a “manufactured situation.” They prevaricated, assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. And, seeing the chance to recast their negligence as benevolence, they claimed their failure to act was because they wanted companies to pay British workers more instead of rely on cheap foreign labor.

This alibi for inaction is unconvincing. In the Netherlands, for example, new legislation has improved the pay and working conditions for truck drivers. In Britain, conditions remain among the worst in Europe.

«

Nice use of “bloviated”.
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Fuel supplies: mortar tanker tailed by drivers looking for petrol • BBC News

»

A tanker driver has told how he was tailed by about 20 drivers who were dismayed to discover he was not transporting petrol.

Johnny Anderson, who drives for Weaver Haulage, was transporting 44 tonnes of mortar from Bilston, Wolverhampton, to a building site in Northamptonshire.

When he reached his destination, he saw a line of traffic backed up behind him.

“The man at the front… actually said ‘You could have stopped and told us you weren’t a petrol tanker,” he said.

The incident came as lengthy queues formed at forecourts amid petrol and diesel supply problems.
Mr Anderson, from Harworth, Nottinghamshire, said he was delivering cement to the David Wilson Homes development at Overstone on Thursday.

He was on the A43 when he first realised he was being followed. “I didn’t notice initially but then on the dual carriageway, I noticed nobody was overtaking me and saw a string of about 20 cars behind me,” he said.

«

It’s basically a sort of imprinting, except with humans rather than ducklings.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Apologies for Friday, when those who subscribe by email received a 10-edition version, followed on Saturday by the email that should have gone out on Friday.

Why did this happen? Mailchimp is set up to poll the RSS feed for a new post that it hasn’t seen before at 0800 British time (BST or GMT). If I’ve failed to get the day’s post published by then, it won’t be in the RSS feed, so no email. In that situation, I can publish a little later and run an “urgent” (substitute) Mailchimp run – but that looks at the RSS feed and takes in the most recent 10, because it usually hasn’t been run in the previous 10 days.

But why was the post late? I usually do it the night before. In fact, I usually automate almost all the process (apart from writing the headlines and choosing the picture): I have a script that clicks the buttons on the web pages.

Except WordPress keeps changing the underlying HTML names of the buttons. This completely confuses the script, which then falls over, so I have to press the buttons myself. This I can usually manage, but on Thursday night WordPress (like many sites) had an SSL certificate failure (according to my install of MacOS, which is quite old), which meant I had to tweak some of the scripts so the curl command would work with the failed certificate.

In all the commotion, I forgot to press the key button to schedule the post. So you didn’t get an email on time. Until you did, and then got more.

This could be fixed if WordPress would stop monkeying around with the HTML, which seems to change almost from month to month. It was stable for years – and then in October 2020, they changed it all. Sometimes, not changing is the best change.