Start Up No.1673: NSO blocked by US, what the Apple Cloth tells us about ourselves, jellyfish v nuclear power, 3ºC hotter, and more


The appearance of Facebook (Meta’s) Chris Cox via weblink at the Web Summit in Lisbon wasn’t very persuasive about the state of the metaverse. CC-licensed photo by Web Summit on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not an entity on a list. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Israeli spyware company NSO Group placed on US blacklist • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

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The commerce department said it included NSO – as well as three other companies – on the so-called “entity list” because it had “reasonable cause to believe, based on specific and articulated facts, that the entity has been involved, or is involved, or poses a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”.

In effect, it means that NSO will be barred from buying parts and components from US companies without a special licence. It also puts a cloud over the sale of the company’s software globally, including in the US.

The commerce department said that “investigative information” had shown NSO and another Israeli surveillance company called Candiru had developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to “maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers”.

NSO has said that its spyware is used by foreign government clients to target serious criminals. It has denied that any of its clients ever targeted Macron or any French government officials.

But in the weeks that followed the publication of the Pegasus project, Israeli officials met with counterparts in the US and France to discuss allegations of abuse of the technology.

Israel has long claimed it maintains robust oversight over any weapon sales to foreign governments. But following the publication of the Pegasus Project this summer and its diplomatic fallout, Israeli officials – both in public and private – have appeared to distance the government from private weapons companies.

Yair Lapid, the country’s foreign minister, said in September that the government had only limited control on how defence exports are used. He added: “We are going to look at this again.”

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Not sure what “parts and components” NSO needs – it’s not like Huawei (still underwater from being on the blacklist). But as it says, being on the entity list might be a problem. Or companies and people who want to hack dissidents and political opponents and troublesome journalists will just carry on as before.
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The internet is leaking • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick is at Web Summit in Lisbon (that’s Portugal, for American readers):

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About an hour before this newsletter hit your inbox today, Facebo— sorry, I mean, Meta’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, presented on a panel called “Welcome To The Metaverse”. After [Facebook/Meta chief flack Nick] Clegg’s tribute to the days of trying to watch a video mid-Kazaa download earlier in the week, I wondered if Cox would show in person and, if he did stream in, would the lag be as bad as it was with Clegg.

Cox’s buffering was so bad and lag time was so awkward that interviewer Nicholas Carlson, the global editor-in-chief of Insider, actually had to address it, quipping that even if his picture froze, as long as the audio still worked, he’d try to keep going. It’s also important to point out this seemed to be a Facebook problem. Other remote presentations at the Web Summit have been fine. I mean, any Twitch streamer or South Korean Starcraft player could have told them about the issues with trying to stream 4k video internationally. But while Cox was freezing up while trying to talk about integrity or whatever, something else happened.

The upper rows of the auditorium during Cox’s panel were full of students. After Cox’s second completely canned response — he was trying to explain that standup comedy is a perfect fit for Facebook’s Horizons (lol sorry but can you imagine anything more grim than performing standup for a Facebook executive in VR?) — the students clearly ran out of patience. They all took out their phone lights and started flashing them at Cox on the screen while talking loudly enough that I saw reporters in the press section struggle to hear what was going on on stage.

Cox would have been able to notice this and, maybe at the very least, stopped painfully describing how fun his weird Club Penguin conference call app is, but he didn’t know it was happening. Because he was remote, he couldn’t actually see the crowd.

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Broderick has been absolutely killing it with his metaverse posts. This one, which is unusual in that’s a single written-through piece, is utterly stellar. I recommend you subscribe – there’s a free or paid tier.
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The Metaverse: what it is, where to find it, who will build it, and Fortnite • MatthewBall.vc

Matthew Ball, writing back in January 2020:

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Just as it was hard to envision in 1982 what the Internet of 2020 would be — and harder still to communicate it to those who had never even “logged” onto it at that time — we don’t really know how to describe the Metaverse. However, we can identify core attributes.

The Metaverse, we think, will…

• Be persistent – which is to say, it never “resets” or “pauses” or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely
• Be synchronous and live – even though pre-scheduled and self-contained events will happen, just as they do in “real life”, the Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone and in real-time
• Be without any cap to concurrent users, while also providing each user with an individual sense of “presence” – everyone can be a part of the Metaverse and participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time and with individual agency
• Be a fully functioning economy – individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of “work” that produces “value” that is recognized by others
• Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms
• Offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences – your Counter-Strike gun skin, for example, could also be used to decorate a gun in Fortnite, or be gifted to a friend on/through Facebook. Similarly, a car designed for Rocket League (or even for Porsche’s website) could be brought over to work in Roblox. Today, the digital world basically acts as though it were a mall where every store used its own currency, required proprietary ID cards, had proprietary units of measurement for things like shoes or calories, and different dress codes, etc.
• Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organized groups or commercially-focused enterprises

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Still some distance off, when compared with Ryan Broderick’s observations above.
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The Apple Polishing Cloth is everything wrong with society • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:

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Don’t get me wrong. The Apple polishing cloth thing is stupid. The $19 glorified microfiber square is now back-ordered into oblivion. But after saying my piece about the cloth, I figured it’d slither away into the black hole where so many forgotten blogs have died before it. The news cycle is always churning, and we as a species need to constantly be entertained, outraged, or focused on making/sending memes. A stupid $19 cloth inspires all three, but the internet also has the attention span of a gadfly. It’s only a matter of time before Apple surfaces the “next” polishing cloth.

I asked my editor Caitlin McGarry, who came into possession of an Apple Polishing Cloth when she reviewed the nano-textured 27-inch iMac last year, how she would describe the product: “It feels like luxury, that’s all I can say,” she said. It’s better than a microfiber cloth, but not something she’d actually spend her own money on. This is probably the natural conclusion we should’ve all reached.

But alas, here we are. iFixit has done a teardown of the cloth. (Surprise, it’s actually two clothes glued together.) The New York Times has published a semi-ridiculous, overly serious investigation into the cloth. There is a Twitter parody account. Some asshat is selling it on eBay for $48, and another asshat out there will probably buy it. Apple is likely watching all this with befuddled bemusement, patting us chuds on the head for giving it free marketing for something that doesn’t deserve this much attention, counting its billions. As of this writing, the cloth is back-ordered through early January. You jackals. This was not how the polishing cloth jokes were supposed to turn out, and really, it was over the second Elon Musk tweeted about it [on Oct 22].

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Jellyfish attack nuclear power plants, again and again • Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Susan D’Agostino:

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The clash between gelatinous jellyfish and hulking nuclear power plants has a long history. These spineless, brainless, bloodless creatures shut down the Torness nuclear power plant in 2011 at a cost of approximately $1.5m per day, according to one estimate. Swarms of these invertebrates have also been responsible for nuclear power plant shutdowns in Israel, Japan, the United States, the Philippines, South Korea, and Sweden.

Humans have unwittingly nurtured the adversarial relationship between jellyfish and nuclear power plants. That is, human-induced climate change has raised ocean water temperatures, setting conditions for larger-than-usual jellyfish populations. Further, the relatively warm water near nuclear power plant discharge outlets may attract jellyfish swarms, according to one study. Also, pollution has lowered oxygen levels in sea water, which jellyfish tolerate more than other marine animals, leading to their proliferation.

Some look at jellyfish and see elegant ballerinas of the sea, while others view them as pests. Either way, they are nothing if not resilient. Jellyfish are 95% water, drift in topical waters and the Arctic Ocean, and thrive in the ocean’s bottom as well as on its surface. Nuclear power plant operators might take note: Older-than-dinosaur jellyfish are likely here to stay.

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If I was listening correctly to last week’s In Our Time (about corals), jellyfish are somehow tied up with the life cycle of one of the animals that is essential to coral reefs, which are bleaching (losing the motile animal). So it’s all goes well for the jellyfish, but not so much for the coral. Or, of course, the nuclear power stations. (Via Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things.)
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Apple trims iPad production to feed chips to iPhone 13 • Communications Today

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Apple has cut back sharply on iPad production to allocate more components to the iPhone 13, multiple sources told Nikkei Asia, a sign the global chip supply crunch is hitting the company even harder than it previously indicated.

Production of the iPad was down 50% from Apple’s original plans for the past two months, sources briefed on the matter said, adding that parts intended for older iPhones were also being moved to the iPhone 13.

The iPad and iPhone models have a number of components in common, including both core and peripheral chips. This allows Apple to shift supplies between different devices in certain cases.

The company is prioritizing iPhone 13 output in part because it forecasts stronger demand for the smartphone than for the iPad as Western markets begin to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, sources said. Europe and the Americas account for 66% of Apple’s revenue.

The peak of new iPhone sales also comes within months of release, so ensuring smooth production for the iPhone 13, which was released on Sept. 24, is a top priority for Apple right now.

Demand for the iPad, however, has also been robust thanks to the rise of remote working and learning amid the pandemic. Global shipments of iPads climbed 6.7% on the year to 53.2 million devices last year, securing a 32.5% global market share, far ahead of the No. 2 Samsung’s 19.1% share, according to IDC data. Total iPad shipments were 40.3 million for the first nine months of this year, up 17.83 % from the same time a year ago.

…This is not the first time Apple has prioritized iPhones over iPads. In 2020, it reallocated some iPad parts to the iPhone 12, its first full-range of 5G handsets, to shield its most iconic product from supply chain constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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(The story is reprinted from the Nikkei.) There’s so reliably always an iPhone supply story within a month or two of whichever is the latest one to be released. The regularity would shame clockwork. First time I’ve seen “production steady, but something else missing out” that I recall, though.
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Instagram brings back Twitter Card preview support for posts • TechCrunch

Aisha Malik:

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Instagram is bringing back support for Twitter Card previews starting today. Now when users share an Instagram link on Twitter, a preview of the post will be shown in the tweet. Prior to this change, when users posted an Instagram link on Twitter, the tweet would only display the URL of the Instagram link.

The social media platform made the controversial decision to remove Twitter Card support back in 2012. At the time, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom said the reason was that Instagram wanted to take control of its content and that the company wanted images to be viewed on Instagram, as opposed to Twitter.

The change was met with backlash, as it made cross-posting more difficult for users. In some cases, users found workarounds through third-party platforms in order to feature Instagram posts in tweets.

Twitter has also acknowledged the change in a tweet, noting that “if you want to share your latest Instagram post on the Twitter timeline too, you’re in luck. Now when you share a link to an IG post in a Tweet, it’ll show up as a card with a preview of the photo.”

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The subtle thing about this rapprochement is that it shows how the two networks don’t view each other as competitors any more. The time when this interchange was blocked, all the social networks were at war with each other, fighting for users. (See my post from the time about Twitter blocking Tumblr from using its social graph.) Now, they’ve reached a steady state. It might even benefit them both: Twitter users get to see Instagram posts, but might also visit them.

So, iPad app next, Instagram? Only been 11 years.
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Since we’re mentioning the early days of social networks, they’re a topic that’s covered in Social Warming, my latest book – along with the more dramatic effects that followed once they grew large.


This is what 3°C of global warming looks like • The Economist

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rise of 3°C in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100 would be disastrous. Its effects would be felt differently around the world, but nowhere would be immune. Prolonged heatwaves, droughts and extreme weather events could all become increasingly common and severe. Worryingly, slow progress from governments in cutting emissions make this an uncomfortably plausible scenario. This film shows what that world would look like.

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It’s 16 minutes (though I have to admit it felt longer – there’s a certain ponderous style to lots of climate effect films).


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Fossil fuel subsidies: If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we should not pay people to burn fossil-fuels • Our World in Data

Max Roser:

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Billions of the poorest people in the world do not have access to modern sources of energy. Four out of ten people in the world – that’s 3 billion – do not have access to clean, modern energy for cooking. They have to cook and heat with wood, crop waste, charcoal, coal or dried dung. Millions die every year from indoor air pollution as a result, as I wrote in this essay on energy poverty.

Fossil fuel subsidies are expensive and environmentally disastrous. But because energy access is so crucial the solution is not as simple as just repealing these subsidies. If they cannot access fossil fuel energy, they need substitutes. To end the subsidies that sustain the consumption of fossil fuels we need to make energy from clean sources affordable.

Whether industry and private individuals choose energy from fossil fuels or from clean alternatives is largely decided by their price. To transition away from fossil fuels to clean sources, the clean alternatives need to be cheaper. The fact that fossil fuels are subsidised makes this transition much harder. Clean alternatives don’t just have to be cheaper than fossil fuels, they need to be cheaper than fossil fuels with subsidies.

As so often with progress, the world rarely solves a problem through a single event. Repealing subsidies is a process. The good news is that there are several countries that are making progress and that others can learn from. Indonesia – home to 270 million people and a country with a major oil industry – is one of them. Researchers Beaton, Lontoh, and Wai-Poi (2017) show how the country overcame the political obstacles to gasoline and diesel subsidy reforms and focus on the reforms after the 2014 price hike. …The data in the charts [in the post] shows that Italy, Ukraine, and Thailand are also examples of countries that have recently reduced subsidies.

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One of those things where it just continues because even though it’s bad the idea of not doing it is even worse.
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How ExxonMobil captured COP26 • Byline Times

Nafeez Ahmed:

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The Government, which is hosting the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, is being formally advised by Texas fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil – one of the world’s biggest funders of climate science denial – according to Government documents examined exclusively by Byline Times.

The documents, unnoticed until now, reveal that Government officials have met with ExxonMobil representatives a total of at least nine times since 2020 to discuss UK climate strategy, net zero, decarbonisation and even Brexit – shaping both Britain’s own net zero plan, and how it has framed discussions at COP26.

Top Government ministers and officials have met repeatedly not just with ExxonMobil representatives but also with other oil industry officials over the past five years to explore key issues around Britain’s net zero climate strategy, associated energy policies, and in particular the role of carbon capture, utilisation and storage, the documents reveal.

The meetings, particularly those involving ExxonMobil, increased in the run-up to COP26.

The meetings reveal how one of the world’s biggest funders of climate science denial, as well as other major carbon polluters, are now formally advising this year’s host of COP26 on how to achieve net zero. Perhaps most importantly, they have done so not by breaking the law, but by simply exploiting the extraordinary largesse provided to them by Boris Johnson’s Government.

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The accusation (made in a rather woolly piece of writing; Byline Times could do with tougher editing) is that the UK government has been allowing fossil fuel companies to dictate climate moderation policy – including reliance on technologies that don’t exist at the scale we need, and which might never do.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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