Start Up No.1671: the climate change doomsters, Apple plans autodial after crashes, jail threat for trolling?, how Street View sees us, and more


Asteroid Bennu is essentially a junk pile of rocks – which means that trying to divert it from an Earth-crossing orbit might be particularly difficult. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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


Stop telling kids they’ll die from climate change • WIRED UK

Hannah Ritchie:

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One of the most recent and alarming examples of this doomsday mindset came from a group of young activists before the German elections. The group, who call themselves the Last Generation, went on hunger strike for almost a month. Several ended up in hospital. One told his parents and friends that they might never see him again. Another told a journalist that the hunger was “nothing compared to what we can expect when the climate crisis unleashes a famine here in Europe in 20 years.”

I couldn’t work out where this claim was coming from. Not from scientists. No credible ones have made this claim. Climate change will affect agriculture. In some regions—particularly across some of the world’s poorest countries—this is a major cause for concern. It’s why I spend so much of my time working on it. But famine across temperate Europe? Within 20 years?

There are a couple of ways I think this doomsday scenario has become commonplace. First, you don’t need to look far to find people with large platforms promoting these messages. Take Roger Hallam, the founder of Extinction Rebellion. In one of his most recent videos—titled “Advice to Young People as They Face Annihilation”—he claims we must get emissions to zero within months, otherwise humanity will be wiped out. He claims that this annihilation is now locked in.

The worst thing about this message is that, rather than inspiring action, it resigns us to the falsehood that we are already too late. There is now nothing we can do. It’s easy to dismiss Hallam as an extreme outlier, but he is also the founder of one of the world’s largest environmental movements. A movement whose name is hinged on this premise that we’re heading for a total wipeout. This is out of line with the science, and scientists should call this out more prominently.

Second is a miscommunication of targets and thresholds. The 1.5º Celsius target was written into the Paris Agreement in acknowledgement that 2ºC of warming would risk the livelihoods of some communities—particularly low-lying island states. It was a call for greater ambition. But the likelihood that we would meet this 1.5ºC target was as slim then as it is now. Feasible in the models, but in reality it’s gone. The problem is that many now view 1.5ºC as a tipping point threshold. Once we hit it, the game is up. It’s therefore not surprising—given that we will most likely pass 1.5ºC in the next few decades—that many people believe we’re too late.

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Boris Johnson’s teeth-grindingly terrible speech – suggesting that COP26 is the world’s James-Bond-disarming-the-bomb moment, where it must be done or that’s it, sayonara – was a classic of the “misrepresenting reality” fare that we’ve had for decades. There was plenty of time. Until there absolutely wasn’t. But that moment passed at least a decade ago.
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Managing climate change • Financial Times

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COP26 is a moment of truth to see if world leaders can ‘keep 1.5 alive’. In this report: Biden’s fight to save the US green agenda; why net zero is difficult; investor pressure; action on the ground; the power of small changes. Plus: water and oceans

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No paywall on all the articles.
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Apple wants iPhones to detect car crashes, auto-dial 911 • WSJ

Rolfe Winkler:

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Beginning next year, iPhone users who are in a car accident could have their phone dial 911 automatically.

Apple plans next year to roll out a product feature called “crash detection” for iPhones and Apple Watches, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the feature.

Crash detection uses data from sensors built into Apple devices including the accelerometer to detect car accidents as they occur, for instance by measuring a sudden spike in gravity, or “g,” forces on impact.

The feature would mark the latest move by Apple and its competitors to use motion-sensor technology to build safety functions into their devices. Apple introduced a fall-detection feature in its smartwatch several years ago that senses when wearers have taken a hard fall and dials 911 if they don’t respond to a notification asking if they are OK. The company this year added a feature to the newest version of its iPhone operating system that assesses the walking steadiness of users.

…Apple has been testing the crash-detection feature in the past year by collecting data shared anonymously from iPhone and Apple Watch users, the documents show. Apple products have already detected more than 10 million suspected vehicle impacts, of which more than 50,000 included a call to 911.

Apple has been using the 911 call data to improve the accuracy of its crash-detection algorithm, since an emergency call associated with a suspected impact gives Apple more confidence that it is indeed a car crash, according to the documents.

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Not the first (Google Pixel has it, some apps offer it) but building it in means yet more passive utility.
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Trolls will be jailed for ‘psychological harm’ • The Times

Matt Dathan:

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A new offence of “threatening communications” will target messages and social media posts that contain threats of serious harm. It would be an offence where somebody intends a victim to fear the threat will be carried out.

A “knowingly false communication” offence will be created that will criminalise those who send or post a message they know to be false with the intention to cause “emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience”. Government sources gave the example of antivaxers spreading false information that they know to be untrue.

The new offences will include sol-called “pile-ons” where a number of individuals join others in sending harassing messages to a victim on social media.

The Times was told that the plans had been sent to cabinet for approval. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, is intending to add them to the bill when it is introduced to parliament next month, government sources said.

The move is likely to be met with resistance from freedom of speech campaigners and civil libertarians.

David Davis, a former cabinet minister, said assessing based on the impact it has on the receiver was too subjective and urged the government to rethink the proposals, especially given it has hailed the legislation as “world-leading”. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said the new harm-based offences were too broad.

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This just sounds wild and unhinged. Of course Dorries, who has instituted various pile-ons, would be doing this now. No shame, no vision, no sense.
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Asteroid Bennu’s surface lacks dust due to rock porosity • SYFY WIRE

Phil Plait:

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scientists predict that solid stony asteroids will tend to have more regolith than crumbly ones like Bennu (and Ryugu, another small asteroid recently visited by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2), which are high in carbon and therefore called carbonaceous asteroids.

…Besides the cool science of all this there’s also a streak of self-interest here. If an asteroid is on an impact trajectory with Earth, the best thing we can do is push it out of the way by, for example, slamming a spaceprobe into it. That small change in velocity can move the asteroid onto a path that misses Earth.

But if the asteroid is porous that method doesn’t work as well. A lot of the momentum of the spacecraft is used up in compacting the rocks instead of moving the asteroid as a whole, and the efficiency of the hit is lowered. Instead, we might have detonate a nuke very close to the surface, using the huge flash of heat to vaporize rocks there; the suddenly expanding gas will push on the asteroid like a rocket and move it onto a new path. But we need to know if an asteroid is porous or solid before we launch such a mission to save the world. This new study may help inform such an endeavor.

OSIRIS-REx stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer”. The “regolith explorer” part has turned out to be pretty important to the “security” part. Bennu itself is a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, one that’s bigger than 140 meters wide and gets within 7.5 million kilometers of Earth; in fact it gets close enough to Earth that there’s a 1-in-2,700 chance of an impact in September of 2182.

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Just spitballing here, but couldn’t we drive the rocket with the nuke directly at the asteroid to explode on the surface? Two birds one stone (so to speak) and doesn’t require two missions, which would be really hard to organise when everyone was running around like headless chickens. (Also, it’s very Armageddon, isn’t it?)
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Nigeria’s eNaira digital currency had an embarrassing first week • Quartz

Alexander Onukwue:

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The eNaira is supposed to live within a mobile wallet (pdf), have the same value and be interchangeable with the physical naira for everyday transactions. Nigerians believe the eNaira, which is governed by a centralized blockchain, is part of the central bank’s drive to discourage cryptocurrencies’ popularity among Nigeria’s youth, just like China’s effort with the digital yuan.

And so this week, Nigeria’s central bank made two types of eNaira wallets available on Google and Apple stores: one for individuals, and another for merchants. But some users say parts of the wallet for individuals have not worked properly.

Fisayo Fosudo, a Nigerian YouTuber who reviews gadgets and apps, said he and three friends initially got error messages that the eNaira app could not match their emails to their bank verification numbers. He would later register successfully but found broken links that did not lead to helpful support pages on the central bank’s website. “Was really looking forward to reviewing the eNaira app but it’s been hard to get it to work seamlessly. We wait,” Fosudo said.

After many users left poor reviews for the Android version of the eNaira app for individuals, it was taken down. It had been downloaded 100,000 times before that. The Apple Store version remained available at press time.

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Still waiting for more news on how things are going in El Salvador with its bitcoin experiment. Mostly it seems like the government is buying them when prices drop – essentially putting its foreign reserves into crypto. Of course it had to block a feature that allowed arbitrage in transactions.
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Ex-Googler Gill Whitehead appointed to lead UK’s Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum • VideoWeek

Tim Cross:

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The UK’s Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF) has today announced Gill Whitehead has been appointed as its new chief executive. The DRCF was formally announced last summer as a way of coordinating the regulatory work of Ofcom, the Competitions and Markets Authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Whitehead’s appointment marks a major milestone for the forum, and she will be tasked with creating a plan of action for the DRCF’s work in streamlining regulation and providing practical assistance for the government’s work.

Gill Whitehead herself is an interesting choice given her previous work in the industry. She most recently worked for Google’s UK Management Group, where she led specialist teams in analytics, measurement, data science, and user experience. She’s also worked for UK broadcasters Channel 4 and the BBC – giving her experience both within one of the tech giants, and within the broadcasters who likely want to see those tech giants more tightly regulated.

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“Interesting” is a, well, interesting choice of word there. Is Whitehead the perfect person to know what sort of things go on inside Google, and thus make the DCRF a force to be reckoned with? Or will she be compromised by her past? You know any decision she makes or weighs in on will be a Rorschach test for those analysing it.
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Memory lanes: Google’s map of our lives • The Guardian

Sirin Kale:

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I am leaning against a wall outside my secondary school in my home town of Canterbury, waiting for my mother to pick me up. She is late, as usual. I rest my head on the stone wall, which is obsidian smooth with the occasional sharp edge. I can feel a flinty knuckle of rock pressing into the base of my skull. I shift uncomfortably in my non-regulation high heels and watch the other parents come and go. I am irritated and worried I won’t have enough time to finish my GCSE coursework that evening. And then she arrives, and I slam the car door shut with more force than is needed.

Only I am no longer a sullen teenager and I am not in Canterbury. I am on my sofa in south London, walking the streets of my former home town on Google Street View. I drag and drop Pegman, the Street View icon, outside my old school. He flails for a moment before freefalling feet-first, and then I am a teenager, walking the passageways of my youth. I can feel the cold stones under my hand as I trace my palm along the wall. I spent so many afternoons waiting for my mother in this spot that it feels as if there is an imprint of me forever leaning there, a ghostlike presence for today’s students to bustle past.

I am not the only person to connect with Google Street View on an emotional level. In June, the poet Sherri Turner went viral after posting a Twitter thread about her experience revisiting her mother’s old house on Street View. “There is a light on in her bedroom,” Turner wrote. “It is her house, she is still alive, I am still visiting every few months on the train to Bodmin Parkway.”

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This is a strangely lovely piece, about how people have discovered slices of their lives in Google’s indifferent capture – including the theft of a caravan, happening on camera.

I recall the first day it went live: at The Guardian (and everywhere else, I think) everybody’s first reaction was to look up their home address and see if it was there. Of course it was. Their next reaction was to go and look up either their workplace or their favourite childhood home. You could probably know all you need to know about someone by their first 10 GSV lookups.
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EU investigating leak of private key used to forge Covid passes • Bleeping Computer

Ax Sharma:

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The private key used to sign EU Digital Covid certificates has been reportedly leaked and is being circulated on messaging apps and online data breach marketplaces.

The key has also been misused to generate forged certificates, such as those for Adolf Hitler, Mickey Mouse, Sponge Bob—all of which are being recognized as valid by the official government apps.

The Digital Covid certificate, or the “Green Pass” helps European Union residents travel across borders seamlessly by proving that they have either been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result, or successfully recovered from COVID-19.

This week, users reported seeing the private key for EU Digital Covid certificates circulating on messaging apps, like Telegram.

The private key is used to sign “Green Pass,” European Union’s equivalent of a vaccine passport, and/or proof of negative COVID-19 status that can help travelers cross borders seamlessly.

“On various groups (Telegram mainly) are circulating several forged Green Pass with valid signature… There is the possibility that a database of private keys is compromised and this may [end] up in a break of the chain of trust in the Green Pass architecture,” stated GitHub user Emanuele Laface.

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The hackers have generated a certificate for “Hitler, Adolf” which is valid in Italy, and which gives his birth date – wrongly – as January 1 1900. Since we’re talking about medical matters, you might enjoy this Roald Dahl story, which is “based on true events” – only the dialogue is invented.
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Covid death toll overtakes that of HIV/AIDS in the US • Boing Boing

Rob Beschizza:

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The data are imprecise, but October likely saw the death toll from Covid-19 surpass that of HIV/AIDS in the United States. According to Johns Hopkins University, 746,000 people in America have died in the U.S. with Covid-19. The Kaiser Foundation reports that “More than 700,000 people in the U.S. have died from HIV-related illness,” but does not specifically cite the source for that total.

Though Covid took only two years to kill as many people in America as AIDS has in 40, both are ongoing pandemics.

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Amazing to contemplate the difference between the two diseases. One has a vaccine, one doesn’t; one is a retrovirus (that really *does* change your DNA, at least of infected cells), the other very much isn’t. Though of course HIV is much more of a slow burning fuse compared to the, relative, firecracker of Covid.
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No Facebook links today! But even so, you should buy my book Social Warming, to find out more about how social networks are affecting us.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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