Start Up No.1681: Russia creates dangerous space debris cloud, has Google folded its Fold?, quit doomscrolling!, and more


Air pollution in Delhi is pushing the top of the scale. Is burning more coal really going to help? CC-licensed photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier on Flickr.

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


Russia blows up a satellite, creating a dangerous debris cloud in space • The Verge

Loren Grush:

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This morning, Russia destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile, creating thousands of pieces of debris that have spread out into Earth orbit, according to the US State Department. The US has identified more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris from the event, and many thousands of smaller ones that cannot be traced, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, said during a briefing.

The news comes amid reports from Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, independently verified by The Verge via NASA’s live feed, that the astronauts living on board the International Space Station had to shelter in place this morning due to a cloud of space debris that seems to be passing by the station every 90 minutes, the time it takes for the ISS to orbit the Earth. NASA has yet to confirm if the debris field passing the ISS is the same one created by the Russian anti-satellite, or ASAT, test, and the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, the State Department indicated that the debris field is a danger to the space station. “This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities,” Price told reporters. “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of our space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.”

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Yes, it’s the plot of Gravity, but now as real life. (Also the backstory, partly, of Wall-E.) Astonishingly stupid of Russia: the standard method is to make the satellite’s orbit decay so that it burns up.
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India’s pollution board says prepare for emergency steps as Delhi’s smog worsens • Reuters

Neha Arora and Mayank Bhardwaj:

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India’s federal pollution control board on Friday ordered states and local bodies to be in “complete readiness” for emergency measures to tackle New Delhi’s worsening smog conditions due to a drop in temperature and wind speeds.

A thick haze of toxic smog hung over the Indian capital, exacerbated by a spike in the burning of crop waste in surrounding farmlands.

It reduced visibility and the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 470 on a scale of 500, according to the federal pollution control board. This level of pollution means the air will affect healthy people and seriously impact those with existing diseases.

According to the pollution board’s “Graded Response Action Plan”, air quality remaining “severe” for 48 hours must prompt states and local bodies to impose emergency measures that include shutting down schools, imposing ‘odd-even’ restrictions on private cars based on their number plates, and stopping all construction.

In a circular late on Friday, the board said the government and private offices should reduce the use of private transport by 30% and advised the city’s residents to limit outdoor exposure.

“Meteorological conditions will be highly unfavourable for dispersion of pollutants till November 18, 2021 in view of low winds with calm conditions during the night,” the board said.

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According to a report on the radio, children born in Delhi are in effect 20-a-day smokers. The air quality is shocking. And yet India moved to retain coal burning at COP26.
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Lenders brace for more problems at NSO after US blacklisting • Financial Times

“FT Reporters”:

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Law firms Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher are independently working with creditor groups who are scouring credit agreements to see what recourse they may have against NSO, which faces severe restrictions on business with US companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

The US said it sanctioned the company for selling its military-grade spyware, Pegasus, to foreign governments that used these tools to carry out “transnational repression” of journalists, activists and embassy workers.

In response, lenders say they have tried to sell the loan on to other investors but have struggled to find willing buyers even at a discounted price. Most recently, quotes were around 70 cents on the dollar for the company’s $350m term loan maturing in 2025, according to a person familiar with the matter. Bloomberg News earlier reported the trading price of the loan.

At the same time, the creditor groups have been careful not to antagonise NSO’s management.

Shalev Hulio, the co-founder of the company, stepped down as CEO just before the commerce department designation, but still enjoys the support of the Israeli government, which will probably lobby the White House to reverse or soften the blacklist, people familiar with the matter said.

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I bet you would be careful not to antagonise NSO’s management. They’d probably drop Pegasus on your phone in an eyeblink and your personal life would be all over the internet within hours.
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Has Google dropped the Pixel Fold? • Display Supply Chain Consultants

Ross Young:

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DSCC has confirmed with its supply chain sources that Google has decided not to bring the Pixel Fold to market. Not in 2021 and reportedly not in the first half of 2022. Our sources indicated that Google believed the product wouldn’t be as competitive as it needed to be. They likely figured that competing against Samsung in the US and Europe in a small niche market facing higher costs than their primary competitor, would stack the odds against this project. I point out regional differences as in China, where Samsung is not as strong, we do expect to see many competing products with similar form factors from Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Huawei and Honor.

In terms of hardware, the Pixel Fold was expected to be the same size as the Galaxy Z Fold 3 with LTPO and variable refresh up to 120Hz. Unlike the Z Fold 3, it was not expected to have color on encapsulation nor an under panel camera. In addition, there were rumors that the cameras were not going to be state-of-the-art. According to 9to5google.com, the Pixel Fold cameras were expected to be a step down from the recently released Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.

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I like how the headline is unsure but the story is certain. Take your pick of Fold certainty. I didn’t think it sounded like a smart idea, given how tiny the market is, how terrible Microsoft’s effort has been, and how small Google’s smartphone efforts (drops in a bucket) are.
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How will Facebook keep its metaverse safe for users? • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:

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The man leading Facebook’s push into the metaverse has told employees he wants its virtual worlds to have “almost Disney levels of safety”, but also acknowledged that moderating how users speak and behave “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible”.

Andrew Bosworth, who has been steering a $10 billion-a-year budget to build “the metaverse”, warned that virtual reality can often be a “toxic environment” especially for women and minorities, in an internal memo from March seen by the Financial Times.

He added that this would be an “existential threat” to Facebook’s ambitious plans if it turned off “mainstream customers from the medium entirely”.

The memo sets out the enormous challenge facing Facebook, which has a history of failing to stop harmful content from reaching its users, as it tries to create an immersive digital realm where people will log on as 3D avatars to socialise, game, shop and work.

Bosworth, who will take over as Facebook’s chief technology officer next year, sketched out ways in which the company can try to tackle the issue, but experts warned that monitoring billions of interactions in real time will require significant effort and may not even be possible. Reality Labs, the division headed by Bosworth, currently has no head of safety role.

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I’m presently more persuaded by the view of Ben Thompson (of Stratechery) that the “metaverse”, or more likely metaverses, will principally be corporate, certainly in their first incarnations – like the first commercial PCs. They’ll be relatively bulky, and clunky, and bring benefits for narrow applications, rather than being all-purpose. (Thompson discusses this at length with John Gruber on the latest episode of Gruber’s Talk Show.)

Given that, the need for moderation essentially doesn’t exist, because you’ll have the heavy breath of HR on your neck, with everything you do and say recorded and replayable.
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Speaking of Facebook, you could consider:
• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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


The devious fossil fuel propaganda we all use • Mashable

Mark Kaufman:

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Another heralded environmental advertising campaign, launched three decades later in 2000, also won a laudatory advertising award, a “Gold Effie.” The campaign impressed upon the American public that a different type of pollution, heat-trapping carbon pollution, is also your problem, not the problem of companies drilling deep into the Earth for, and then selling, carbonaceous fuels refined from ancient, decomposed creatures. British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals.

It’s here that British Petroleum, or BP, first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early aughts. The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling — is largely responsible for heating the globe. A decade and a half later, “carbon footprint” is everywhere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a carbon calculator. The New York Times has a guide on “How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Mashable published a story in 2019 entitled “How to shrink your carbon footprint when you travel.” Outdoorsy brands love the term.

“This is one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever,” said Benjamin Franta, who researches law and history of science as a J.D.-Ph.D. student at Stanford Law School.

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The best manipulation is the sort you’re not even aware you’re agreeing with.
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‘I sniffed out good news like a bloodhound’: how I broke my doomscrolling habit • The Guardian

Pandora Sykes:

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George Resch loves two things in this world: “Making people think a little bit more positively, and making them laugh.” A former fence salesman from Long Island, New York, Resch is now the creator of the wildly popular (2.5 million followers) positive news outlet Tank’s Good News, set up in September 2017 after he saw a picture of an old woman being rescued from her living room in Texas during the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. Inspired by the image’s portrayal of “triumph in the tragedy” – she was on the back of a jet ski doing a double thumbs up – Resch, 41, began posting similar images: a young woman food shopping for an elderly couple too scared to get out of their car during peak pandemic in Oregon, or the homecoming queen who gave her crown to a recently bereaved classmate. Resch believes the appeal of his posts is simple: “It’s a hit of dopamine when you’re scrolling through doom and gloom.” Every day, he is inundated with messages from people saying he has saved their life.

…Speaking to friends, I realise that many of them are looking for, if not an escape, then a breather. They have secret joy rituals. Emily begins her day with videos of orcas, finding calm in their expansive inky blackness. Rosie watches videos of nuns on TikTok. Mary, a lawyer, and Andrew, a yoga instructor, have set up a side project called Hello Stranger, where they leave stamped blank postcards with Mary’s address written on them, around London, with a small note at the top asking people to share some happy news. To date, they have left 500 postcards and received 300 back. For those of us who feel anxious when anything is left unresolved, simple acts of routine, or completion, can be a vital salve. A woman goes shopping. An orca crashes its tail. A room of nuns hole-punch a sheet of unleavened bread with military efficiency, to create perfectly rounded communion wafers, over and over again.

The term “doomscrolling” was coined in a tweet in 2018, but popularised by business journalist Karen Ho in spring 2020, after she noticed how many people were hunched over their screens consuming excessive amounts of negative news, with faces like Munch’s Scream. Ho started by simply asking her followers every night on Twitter: “‘Hey, are you doomscrolling?’ and people were like, ‘Ohhhh, that’s what I’m doing!’” In response, she issued simple, daily self-care reminders – take a break from the screen, stop slouching, stretch your legs, grab a glass of water – and in autumn of last year, created @doomscroll_bot on Twitter to send regular reminders.

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Ex-security chief: we have privatised our cyber security. The winners are the hackers • Prospect Magazine

Ciaran Martin founded and led the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre:

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When the Queen opened the new National Cyber Security Centre in 2017, a senior government minister confided to me, at the margins of the festivities, their concern that the launch of this new department in GCHQ to fight digital threats represented “the nationalisation of cyber security.” But the opposite problem is emerging: we are privatising national security risk.

The US fuel crisis is a case in point. When Colonial Pipeline was hit, it wasn’t the pipeline controls that were hacked but the company’s corporate systems. It was the company, not the hackers, who shut down the pipeline, apparently because it could not run its services profitably because of the damage done to its business processes.

This was a decision that the company was perfectly entitled to take. But while it did not consult the US government beforehand, it fell to the US government to deal with the fallout. Washington had to suspend safety regulations concerning the transport of fuel by road and issue guidance to citizens to prevent panic buying and the storing of fuel in unsafe containers. It then sent the FBI after the hackers. Yet it had no involvement in any of the decisions that made such actions necessary; those were taken by the firm’s executives.

Colonial, it should be said, broke no rules. And that’s the point. Insufficient protection of its pipeline—a critical national asset—caused social disruption that clearly met the threshold of a national security threat. But there is nothing—yet—in the regulations governing this critical sector that requires firms to do better (and Republicans in Washington are starting to push back against suggestions for tighter controls). The unspoken message behind the Colonial case is that businesses can choose how to respond, whatever the consequences, and the government will pick up the tab.

The real lesson of 2021 is that digital vulnerabilities in a range of private and public organisations can be exploited to cause significant disruption and, potentially, serious social harm. That lesson will not be lost on authoritarian states that have better cyber capabilities than a few greedy Russian thugs. This year has revealed, among other things, that you can cause energy chaos in parts of America and a healthcare crisis in an EU member state with a few lines of malicious code of medium sophistication.

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Emails reveal new details of Trump White House interference in CDC Covid planning • POLITICO

Erin Banco:

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The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has conducted interviews over the last several months about how former President Donald Trump and his closest confidantes, including former White House adviser Scott Atlas and son-in-law Jared Kushner, tried to steer the course of the federal response, sidestepping the interagency process.

On Friday, the committee released emails and transcripts with former senior CDC officials about the White House’s attempts to sideline the agency at critical moments at the beginning of the U.S. outbreak.
The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.

The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.

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This is worth noting because of the breadth and depth of the interference revealed. Deborah Birx was frequently denigrated for allowing herself to be pushed around by Trump and his team. She clearly knew that was happening – yet judged it would be worse for everyone if she left than if she stayed. That in itself tells you that the things she foresaw happening without her were really, really terrible.

America still hasn’t come to terms with the extent to which Trump and his team ran a mafia operation.
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US 3G service is set to end in 2022, rendering useless old cellphones, life alerts and early model Kindles • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski:

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The wireless networks that underpin an assortment of devices, including life-alert alarms, older cellphones and tablets, are about to shut down, an action that consumer advocates say will leave some of society’s most vulnerable people without critical communications tools.

When they were rolled out nearly two decades ago, 3G wireless networks served as the bedrock of an explosion in cellphones and connected devices. Many devices have moved to 4G networks and newer phones are now moving onto 5G.

But a motley assortment still relies on the more rudimentary 3G service — ranging from location sensors that track school buses to connected breathalyzers police use to monitor convicted drunk drivers — and consumer advocates are urging the Federal Communications Commission to slow the change, which is set to start in February.

Older and low-income Americans are more likely to be affected by the shift, these advocates say. If they don’t upgrade in time, their phones and life-alert devices won’t be able to call 911 or other emergency services, government regulators warn.

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Amazing to think that 3G is 20-year-old infrastructure now. (In the US, it’s nearly old enough to drink.) The first 4G phones began appearing in 2010, but as the article points out, it’s the relatively low-bandwidth products that still count as ongoing infrastructure which really need 3G. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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