Start Up No.1709: GPT-3 as the spirit writer, biggest wind farm turns on, Intel’s unapology to China, the Alexa gap, and more

Amazing but true – the news agency Reuters used to have a dedicated journalist “in” Second Life. It wasn’t a success. Will the metaverse offer better? CC-licensed photo by Deryck Hodge 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. A sort of look ahead. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This is the last Overspill of 2021. Thanks for all the links, feedback and support. Back (spirits willing) on January 10, when we’ll have found out whether CES 2022 went ahead.

Last chance for charity time!
It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre. Dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch the adorable Lollipop and then try to deny that. Here’s Lollipop’s home.

The automatic muse • ROUGH TYPE

Nicholas Carr:


In the fall of 1917, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, now in middle age and having twice had marriage proposals turned down, first by his great love Maud Gonne and next by Gonne’s daughter Iseult, offered his hand to a well-off young Englishwoman named Georgie Hyde-Lees. She accepted, and the two were wed a few weeks later, on October 20, in a small ceremony in London.

Hyde-Lees was a psychic, and four days into their honeymoon she gave her husband a demonstration of her ability to channel the words of spirits through automatic writing. Yeats was fascinated by the messages that flowed through his wife’s pen, and in the ensuing years the couple held more than 400 such seances, the poet poring over each new script. At one point, Yeats announced that he would devote the rest of his life to interpreting the messages. “No,” the spirits responded, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” And so they did, in abundance. Many of Yeats’s great late poems, with their gyres, staircases, and phases of the moon, were inspired by his wife’s mystical scribbles.

One way to think about AI-based text-generation tools like OpenAI’s GPT-3 is as clairvoyants. They are mediums that bring the words of the past into the present in a new arrangement. GPT-3 is not creating text out of nothing, after all. It is drawing on a vast corpus of human expression and, through a quasi-mystical statistical procedure (no one can explain exactly what it is doing), synthesizing all those old words into something new, something intelligible to and requiring interpretation by its interlocutor. When we talk to GPT-3 we are, in a way, communing with the dead. One of Hyde-Lees’ spirits said to Yeats, “this script has its origin in human life — all religious systems have their origin in God & descend to man — this ascends.” The same could be said of the script generated by GPT-3. It has its origin in human life; it ascends.


GPT-3 is very likely to impose itself on more and more of our daily lives, even if we don’t see it (marketing material? Opinion articles? Adverts?), in 2022. Take note.
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The world’s biggest offshore wind farm is up and running • Singularity Hub

Vanessa Bates Ramirez:


Two and a half years ago, the Hornsea 1 offshore wind farm started generating power. Located in the North Sea off the coast of Grimsby, England, it was completed in 2020, with 174 turbines and a generating capacity of 1.2 gigawatts. It was the biggest offshore wind farm in the world at the time, and now its sister site, Hornsea 2, has launched as well.

The site generated its first power over the weekend, and when complete, will have 165 turbines capable of generating 8 megawatts each, for a total of 1.32 gigawatts of electricity. According to Orsted, the Danish energy firm running the sites, Hornsea 1 and 2 will together be able to power over 2.3 million homes.

2.3 million homes in the UK are equivalent to far fewer homes in the US; Americans are serious energy hogs, with average annual electricity consumption per household in 2020 hovering around 10,715 kWh, almost triple that of the UK’s 3,731 kWh. We should be working harder to scale back on our giant appliances, around-the-clock air conditioning, and ever-ready hot water—but that’s a separate conversation.

Besides being the biggest operational wind farm in the world, Hornsea also takes the crown on another designation: it’s the farthest from shore, which means it takes a lot of cables to get the energy generated by those spinning blades into the national grid. Hornsea 1 sits 75 miles (120 kilometers) from shore, Hornsea 2 55 miles (89 km). The offshore cables feed into onshore cables, which terminate at a substation in Killingholme, a town about two hours’ drive from Manchester. Unlike their not-too-far-away floating neighbors in Scotland’s Hywind farm, Hornsea’s turbines are anchored to the ocean floor.

Despite its distance from shore, Hornsea’s location was chosen very deliberately, as wind speeds in the area average 16-22 miles per hour; for comparison’s sake, the top 3 windiest cities in the US get gusts of around 13 mph.


Linked to Hornsea One going live in September 2019. Lot of progress in two years. Can it help with electricity prices, which are still spiking as gas prices leap up? Another big one for 2022.
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Intel apologizes after asking suppliers to avoid China’s Xinjiang region • WSJ

Liza Lin:


US semiconductor giant Intel apologized after setting off a social-media backlash with a letter asking suppliers to avoid sourcing from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has conducted a campaign of forcible assimilation against religious minorities.

In a letter to global suppliers, dated this month and published in several languages on its website, Intel called on its business partners to steer clear of the remote northwestern region of China, noting that “multiple governments have imposed restrictions on products sourced from the Xinjiang region. Therefore, Intel is required to ensure our supply chain does not use any labor or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region.”

By midweek, the letter had been singled out by irate Chinese social-media users and a nationalist state-run tabloid, denouncing Intel’s unwillingness to conduct business involving Xinjiang.

On Thursday, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip maker said its letter was written only to comply with US law and didn’t represent Intel’s stance on Xinjiang.


In other words, “our apology wasn’t a reflection of what we think.” US-China tensions (especially over Xinjiang) are going to be another source of tension for technology in 2022.
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November 2008: Exclusive: why Reuters left Second Life, and how Linden Lab can fix it • Business Insider

Eric Krangel was assigned to “report” on Second Life, which your parents will explain to you was an early version of the metaverse:


For a year and a half, I reported under the byline “Eric Reuters” in Second Life, before settling in at my new home here at SAI.

So what happened? Is Second Life dying? No, but the buzz is gone. For all the sound and fury over recent price hikes and layoffs at Linden Lab, Second Life has a community of fanatically loyal users. Since Linden Lab derives its revenue from user fees, not advertisements, Second Life is much more likely to survive the Web 2.0 shakeout than most other startups.

It’s hard to say what, if anything, Linden Lab can do to make Second Life appeal to a general audience. The very things that most appeal to Second Life’s hardcore enthusiasts are either boring or creepy for most people: Spending hundreds of hours of effort to make insignificant amounts of money selling virtual clothes, experimenting with changing your gender or species, getting into random conversations with strangers from around the world, or having pseudo-nonymous sex (and let’s not kid ourselves, sex is a huge draw into Second Life). As part of walking my “beat,” I’d get invited by sources to virtual nightclubs, where I’d right-click the dancefloor to send my avatar gyrating as I sat at home at my computer. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.


His advice on how to improve things included:


Abandon the idea that Second Life is a business app. I wasn’t in Second Life to play, I was there on assignment for Reuters. The login server would crash. I’d try to reach sources, but Second Life’s IM window would hang on “waiting” all day when trying to figure out who was online. “Teleports” — the ability to move from point to point anywhere in Second Life — would stop working and I’d get locked out of my own office. These weren’t one-offs, they were my daily, first-hand, happens-all-the-time experiences. For all its bugs, Second Life is tolerable as a playground, but enterprise users will never and should never use it for business. Re-focus on the core mission: Keeping the hobbyists happy and converting potential recruits into hardcore (read: fees-paying) users.


So now we’re trying with enterprise users, but in smaller spaces. The question of whether this time round there is one unified metaverse (what Second Life tried), multiple interoperable ones or multiple incompatible ones (I’ll plump for the latter) might start to shake out in 2022. It’s going to be another centralised/decentralised argument.
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Alexa is nagging you more because Amazon knows you don’t care about its new features • The Verge

James Vincent:


If you regularly use an Alexa device, you’ve probably been upsold by Amazon’s assistant at some point. Ask Alexa to carry out some basic task like setting a timer, and it will finish its response with a cheery “By the way, did you know I could [insert feature you’ve never heard of here].” As highlighted in a recent report from Bloomberg, this is because Amazon knows that users aren’t really getting stuck into the full range of Alexa’s capabilities.

Bloomberg’s report is based on internal Amazon docs, and features some interesting statistics about Alexa usage. Here are the ones we found most eye-catching:

• In 2020, Amazon determined that 25% of US households have at least one Alexa device, with this rising to 27% for Amazon Prime customers.
• Christmas is when a lot of customers buy new Alexa devices, but keeping people engaged can be tough. Per Bloomberg, Amazon found in some years that 15% to 25% of new Alexa devices were no longer active by just the second week of use.
• Last year, Amazon concluded that the market for smart speakers had “passed its growth phase,” and estimated it would expand only 1.2% annually in future.
• In 2018, Amazon projected that it would lose $5 on average per Alexa device sold, and that by 2028 it hoped this would be $2-per-unit profit. The company mainly wants to generate revenue from Alexa devices by using them to direct people to other Amazon services.
• Alexa devices with screens are used more: 74% of users who have an Alexa device with a screen use it weekly, compared to 66% of Echo users, and 56% of Echo dot owners. That suggests a problem with discoverability and usability for voice interfaces.
• In a planning doc from 2019, Amazon noted that Alexa users discover half of all the features they will ever use within three hours of activating a new device. For most users there are just three main use-cases: playing music, setting timers, and controlling lights.

Taken together, these statistics don’t paint the rosiest picture for Alexa’s future.


As Benedict Evans once observed, the voice interface is as inscrutable as a blinking cursor in a terminal: there’s no clue what it can do, and it’s even worse than a command line at telling you when you get things wrong and what the right incantation is.

Expect a lot more ads on Echos. If it’s this bad for Alexa devices, probably even worse for Google’s – and more so for Apple (though it at least makes it back on the price). And this is like the Kindle: all the excitement, but in reality little use. (Also: turn off Alexa’s unwanted suggestions.)
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Jack Dorsey goes on unfollowing frenzy after Web3 beef • Coindesk

Cheyenne Ligon:


To the uninitiated, it sounds like a bunch of rich guys arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But beyond Twitter drama, Block Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey’s public sparring with venture capitalists over “Web 3″ serves as a proxy for a long-running debate – not only about which cryptocurrencies are best but what they are good for.

The contretemps highlights important questions about what a truly decentralized internet would really look like, and what role different stakeholders have in building it. Dorsey, a longtime bitcoin aficionado, appears to have aligned himself with the so-called maximalists, a camp highly suspicious of any rival to the original cryptocurrency and any non-monetary application of the underlying technology.

Both sides of the Web 3 debate bemoan the current state of the internet, dominated by a handful of large platforms (not least of all Twitter, where Dorsey stepped down as CEO last month). But the maximalists distrust the Web 3 crowd’s use of crypto tokens as a way to fund such projects. The fact that VCs are big holders of these tokens is, to the maximalists, damning, a classic case of “meet the old boss, same as the new boss.”

Web 3 advocates, which include but are not limited to VCs, counter that a variety of approaches is needed to make good on the internet’s liberating promise; that tokens can align participants’ interests in a network; that Web 3 developers’ reliance on VCs is a perverse consequence of outdated securities laws; and that while Bitcoin was a bona fide breakthrough, its utility is limited and the purists are being shortsighted.


Fair explanation of the divide. This is going to be a very big topic in 2022.
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Street Fighter II, The World Warrier [sic] • Fabien Sanglard

Sanglard is writing a series about Street Fighter II and the CPS-1:


One of my favourite anecdotes about Street Fighter II is Akiman’s account of an issue discovered shortly before shipping.


Just three days before the deadline, I discovered something horrible. I had made a mistake with the subtitle “World Warrior”, mis-spelling it “World Warrier.”


– Akiman, Lead graphic design on SF2 (translated by Shmuplation)

To fully understand the issue, we need to dig into how the arcade hardware works. The CPS-1 is a super tile drawing machine. It can draw a lot of tiles but cannot alter them. They are taken from the GFX ROM as they are and sent to the screen (although they can be flipped horizontally or vertically).

The GFX ROM and the 68000 instructions ROM as burned separately. The problem Akiman describe is that the GFX ROM had been burned but he could still make changes to the instructions.

But how could he fix the mistake if the artwork was set in stone at this point?


All that’s available is the tiles used to create all the characters in the game. A fun story (thanks Ravi for the link).
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Porsche’s synthetic eFuel could make ICE cars as clean as EVs • Car and Driver

Sebastian Blanco:


Porsche’s eFuels are made out of CO2 and hydrogen and are produced using renewable energy. The final result is a liquid that an engine will burn the same as if it was gasoline made from crude oil, but an eFuel can be produced in a climate-neutral manner, at least in theory. Speaking at the recent launch of the new 911 GT3, Porsche vice president of Motorsport and GT cars Frank Walliser said the company will have its first small test batch—just 130,000 liters, or 34,340 gallons—of eFuel ready by 2022.

“Synthetic fuel is cleaner and there is no byproduct ,and when we start full production we expect a CO2 reduction of 85 percent,” Walliser told the U.K. publication Evo. “From a ‘well to wheel’ perspective—and you have to consider the well-to-wheel impact of all vehicles—this will be the same level of CO2 produced in the manufacture and use of an electric vehicle.”

One of eFuel’s big benefits is that you can pump it into a standard gasoline-powered vehicle without needing to make any adjustments to the engine. Porsche’s eFuel is not meant just for roadgoing vehicles, either. The newest Porsche 911 GT3 Cup race car can run on synthetic fuels, which Porsche said “significantly lowers CO2 emissions under racing conditions.”

“This technology is particularly important because the combustion engine will continue to dominate the automotive world for many years to come,” said Michael Steiner, a member of Porche’s executive board for R&D, said in a statement in September. “If you want to operate the existing fleet in a sustainable manner, eFuels are a fundamental component.”

Porsche is not the first automaker to investigate cleaner petroleum-substitute fuels, by any means. Audi produced its first batch of e-diesel in 2015, for example, and Bentley, Mazda, and McLaren have all said positive things about synthetic fuels. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz has taken an opposing stance, with R&D chief Markus Schäfer having told the U.K. publication Autocar in 2020 that e-fuel is not a viable option and that the automaker is focusing solely on electrification.


I’d really like to know more about this eFuel. Carbon dioxide isn’t hard to come by, but hydrogen? Normally only from electrolysing water or cracking oil. And what’s the process that creates a..hydrocarbon? All seems very roundabout.
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Facebook may be dangerously unprepared for Libya’s upcoming presidential election, documents show • Rest of World

Vittoria Elliott:


Facebook is the most popular social platform in Libya, with more than 5 million users in a country of 7 million people, according to DataReportal, an organization that collects data around internet and social media usage around the world. The apparent HNEC [High National Election Commission of Libya] hack was just the latest example of how the platform has become a central focal point for disinformation, misinformation, and inflammatory speech leading up to the Libyan presidential election — the first in the country’s history.

Twelve experts, including social media and conflict analysts, told Rest of World that in the months leading up to the December 24th election, Facebook appears to be woefully unprepared to manage Libya’s complex combination of hate speech, polarized media, active conflict, and fragile electoral politics. Experts and analysts told Rest of World that they fear that the country might erupt into conflict at any time.

Earlier this year, Facebook labeled Libya a “Tier 3” country, meaning that the company has likely not been taking a proactive, “war-room” style approach to the upcoming election. Instead, the company would be taking action only in response to reports from users or “trusted partners,” civil society organizations that have a direct line to the company — an approach, experts said, that fails to reckon with the severity of the circumstances.

“[The] situation in Libya is illustrative of a bigger problem,” a social media analyst who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of their work around Libya, told Rest of World. “The system that Facebook has in place right now to determine which countries are high risk, is leading to an underinvestment in countries where the risks of violence are some of the highest.”


Sigh. Those elections are today. Consistent as ever, Facebook, despite years of warning.

Have a wonderful break. Back in two weeks.
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You could always buy my latest book, Social Warming, about how social networks affect society, democracy, politics and journalism.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1708: US Army builds vaccine against variants, WordPress’s democracy push, NSO’s Ugandan hubris, and more

When the AI system GPT-3 was asked to write a paper about robots not replacing humans for law work, it cited one of the first shows to mention the internet. We don’t know why. CC-licensed photo by Ben Sutherland 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. Nearly there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Charity time!
It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch the wonderful Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.

US Army creates single vaccine against all COVID and SARS variants, researchers say • Defense One

Tara Copp:


Within weeks, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to announce that they have developed a vaccine that is effective against COVID-19 and all its variants, even Omicron, as well as from previous SARS-origin viruses that have killed millions of people worldwide. 

The achievement is the result of almost two years of work on the virus. The Army lab received its first DNA sequencing of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020. Very early on, Walter Reed’s infectious diseases branch decided to focus on making a vaccine that would work against not just the existing strain but all of its potential variants as well.

Walter Reed’s Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine, or SpFN, completed animal trials earlier this year with positive results. Phase 1 of human trials, which tested the vaccine against Omicron and the other variants, wrapped up this month, again with positive results that are undergoing final review, Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of Walter Reed’s infectious diseases branch, said in an exclusive interview with Defense One. 

Unlike existing vaccines, Walter Reed’s SpFN uses a soccer ball-shaped protein with 24 faces for its vaccine, which allows scientists to attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces of the protein.

“It’s very exciting to get to this point for our entire team and I think for the entire Army as well,” Modjarrad said. 

The vaccine’s human trials took longer than expected, he said, because the lab needed to test the vaccine on subjects who had neither been vaccinated nor previously infected with COVID.


First, the lab would have received RNA sequencing, not DNA sequencing. And the idea of a vaccine for *all potential variants* is a bit overplayed. They seem to have a (non-mRNA) vaccine that can be adapted. But the mRNA vaccines can be adapted too. Still: this is definitely a good thing.
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Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet? • Protocol

David Pierce:


In every way that matters, Automattic is a reflection of Mullenweg (you could say he puts the “Matt” in Automattic). He started building web software because he wanted a place to store and share his photos; he’s a blogger to the core, and loves anything that aids in the free expression of ideas on the internet. He loves jazz, which is why WordPress releases are named for jazz musicians. He loves to read and write and work from anywhere, so he turned Automattic into a company that supports bloggers and promotes remote work. He buys companies that make products he likes, and companies that have missions he believes in. Most of all, he believes that open-source software is the future of everything. And he’s betting on it every way he can.

Eighteen years after he first started working on WordPress, Automattic is more powerful than ever. It’s a $7.5bn company, one of the biggest private companies in the industry. And yet its founding idea — that software should be available to everyone and editable by anyone, that communities can build great things together, that walled gardens always eventually fall — seems more tenuous than ever. There’s another 17-year-old company named Facebook that flies in the face of everything Mullenweg believes in, and is threatening to own the future of the internet.

Most people will tell you it feels like the future of tech hangs in the balance. But the way Mullenweg sees it, open is still going to win. It’s not a matter of if, only when. And all he’s trying to do is help make it happen a little faster.


Mullenweg is all for the decentralised web, and when you look at how many sites use WordPress (even if it’s often hidden) you realise that his vision is a bit like that of Linux.
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What was the first TV show to reference the internet? • The Atlantic

Adrienne LaFrance:


Even as dial-up Internet connections went mainstream, television representations of the web lagged. Computers appeared on television mostly as props, boxy monitors sitting dark on desks. The arrival of Internet represented a huge cultural shift, but it was barely a plot point in the 1990s—with some exceptions.

The X-Files had to have been among the first shows to use the web in a storyline, in “2Shy,” which originally aired in November 1995. The episode features a mutant serial killer who sweet-talks self-conscious women online, convinces them to meet in-person, then pulverizes their flesh for sustenance. (Moral of the story: Chat with strangers online and an alien will turn your body into goo.)

A year later, in 1996, an episode of Friends treats an online romance between one of the show’s male leads and a mystery woman as amusing and bizarre. “Well, we haven’t actually met,” Chandler says of his new love interest. “We stayed up all night talking on the Internet.” The audience laughs. Monica shouts “Geek!” More laughter.

Then, later in the episode, there’s this exchange between Chandler and Phoebe, as Chandler chats online:

Phoebe: How’s your date with your cyber-chick going? [Gestures at laptop] Ooh, hey. What is all that?

Chandler: Oh, it’s a website. It’s the, uh, Guggenheim Museum. See, she likes art, and I like funny words.

Phoebe: What does she mean by “HH”?

Chandler: [Sheepishly] It means we’re holding hands.

“You know,” Phoebe concludes, “I think it’s so great that you are totally into this person, yet for all you know she could be like 90 years old, or have two heads, or it could be a guy… It could be, like, a big, giant guy.”


Friends really is deeply embedded in the web, as the next link shows.
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Will machines replace us? Machine-authored texts and the future of scholarship • Law, Technology and Humans

Benjamin Alarie, Arthur Cockfield and GPT-3, writing in a legal journal:


We present here the first machine-generated law review article. Our self-interest motivates us to believe that knowledge workers who write complex articles drawing upon years of research and effort are safe from AI developments. However, how reasonable is it to persist in this belief given recent advances in AI research? With that topic in mind, we caused GPT-3, a state-of-the-art AI, to generate a paper that explains “why humans will always be better lawyers, drivers, CEOs, presidents, and law professors than artificial intelligence and robots can ever hope to be.” The resulting paper, with no edits apart from giving it a title and bolding the headings generated by GPT-3, is reproduced below. It is imperfect in a humorous way. Ironically, it is publishable “as-is” only because it is machine-generated. Nevertheless, the resulting paper is good enough to give us some pause for thought. Although GPT-3 is not up to the task of replacing law review authors currently, we are far less confident that GPT-5 or GPT-100 might not be up to the task in future.


In their comments ahead of the article, the humans note that


the article is not suitable as a law journal article. It lacks citations to supporting sources and exhibits odd assumptionsin some parts (as with its discussion of [the TV series] Friends). GPT-3 also demonstrates gender bias when it indicates, “For instance, most people instinctively know that a woman who is crying during an argument isn’t necessarily telling the truth.”


To be honest, it reads more like something written by someone not quite sober. They know the words, but not the order for them. See for yourself.
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The secret Uganda deal that has brought NSO to the brink of collapse • FT via Ars Technica

Mehul Srivastava:


In February 2019, an Israeli woman sat across from the son of Uganda’s president and made an audacious pitch—would he want to secretly hack any phone in the world?

Lt. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in charge of his father’s security and a long-whispered successor to Yoweri Museveni, was keen, said two people familiar with the sales pitch.

After all, the woman, who had ties to Israeli intelligence, was pitching him Pegasus, a piece of spyware so powerful that Middle East dictators and autocratic regimes had been paying tens of millions for it for years.

But for NSO, the Israeli company that created Pegasus, this dalliance into East Africa would prove to be the moment it crossed a red line, infuriating US diplomats and triggering a chain of events that would see it blacklisted by the commerce department, pursued by Apple, and driven to the verge of defaulting on its loans, according to interviews with US and Israeli officials, industry insiders, and NSO employees.

A few months after the initial approach, NSO’s chief executive, Shalev Hulio, landed in Uganda to seal the deal, according to two people familiar with NSO’s East Africa business. Hulio, who flew the world with the permission of the Israeli government to sell Pegasus, liked to demonstrate in real time how it could hack a brand-new, boxed iPhone.

…The blacklisting, which came in November, means that NSO cannot buy any equipment, service, or intellectual property from US-based companies without approval, crippling a company whose terminals ran on servers from Dell and Intel, routers from Cisco, and whose desktop computers run on Windows operating systems, according to a spec sheet from a sale to Ghana, in West Africa.


Notice “industry insiders” in there – I suspect that’s Apple spilling the beans, on a very background basis, because Apple really hates NSO because of what NSO has done to the iPhone’s reputation for security.

And it’s also an amazing story of hubris: the Ugandan government hacked US diplomats there. Bad move.
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Risk of hospital stay 40% lower with Omicron than Delta, UK data suggests • The Guardian

Ian Sample and Heather Stewart:


The Omicron variant of coronavirus appears to be milder, with a 15%-20% reduced chance of a hospital visit and at least a 40% lower risk of being admitted overnight, the first UK data of its kind has showed.

But as daily Covid cases topped 100,000 for the first time on Wednesday, experts warned that high transmissibility means the NHS is still at risk of being overwhelmed.

In what was described by scientists as a “qualified good news story”, two studies on Wednesday pointed to a lower risk of hospitalisation with Omicron.

An Imperial College outbreak modelling team led by Prof Neil Ferguson analysed hospitalisations and vaccine records among all PCR-confirmed Covid cases in England between 1 and 14 December. The dataset included 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.

Their report found that the risk of any attendance at hospital was 15% to 20% lower with Omicron versus Delta, and 40%-45% lower when the visit resulted in admission for at least one night. For the small percentage of people who had neither been previously infected with Covid nor vaccinated, the risk of hospitalisation was about 11% lower for Omicron versus Delta.

Ferguson said that while it was “good news”, the assessment did not substantially change Sage modelling pointing to 3,000 daily hospitalisations in England at the peak of the wave next month without restrictions beyond the plan B measures currently in place.


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Americans widely distrust Facebook, TikTok and Instagram with their data, poll finds • The Washington Post

Heather Kelly and Emily Guskin:


Most Americans say they are skeptical that several Internet giants will responsibly handle their personal information and data about their online activity. And an overwhelming majority say they think tech companies don’t provide people with enough control over how their activities are tracked and used. The survey was conducted in November among a random sample of 1,122 adults nationwide.

According to the survey, 72% of Internet users trust Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to responsibly handle their personal information and data on their Internet activity. About 6 in 10 distrust TikTok and Instagram, while slight majorities distrust WhatsApp and YouTube. Google, Apple and Microsoft receive mixed marks for trust, while Amazon is slightly positive with 53% trusting the company at least “a good amount.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Only 10% say Facebook has a positive impact on society, while 56% say it has a negative impact and 33% say its impact is neither positive nor negative. Even among those who use Facebook daily, more than three times as many say the social network has a negative rather than a positive impact.


Not surprising that people trust Amazon; what is there not to trust – ok, apart from all the fake reviews and multiple fake brands? At least Amazon delivers tangible stuff, or video content. Whereas Facebook’s deliverables are a lot harder to specify.

Though I bet those people saying they think Facebook is a net negative haven’t deleted their accounts. (The survey makes interesting reading, mostly to spot the leading questions on topics such as whether devices listen to you.)
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If you’re looking for books, I’d always recommend Social Warming, my latest book, about the effects social networks are having on society. Here’s a mini-review on Twitter.

The Spectator Covid Tracker • The Spectator


The Spectator data tracker. Updated daily


This is interesting, and has been going for a while. This link is to the Sage (UK scientific committee advising government on emergencies) scenarios – note, not predictions – for what would happen under various circumstances, v what happened in reality.

Of course the scenarios don’t match the reality (they’re way worse) because you model bad things in scenarios, where people ignore you, so you know how prepared you might have to be. Like you’re going on a long journey, and you need to know what you’ll do if you can’t refuel at your first planned stop. Not what happens if everything goes wonderfully.

It’s all using public data, so it’s perfectly legitimate. Showing the gap doesn’t show a failure of scenarios, though. It shows the success of vaccination.
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New Log4J flaw caps year of relentless cybersecurity crises • WSJ

David Uberti and Dustin Volz:


cyberattacks on major technology providers and the interconnected world of software and hardware that power the global economy continued at a relentless pace in 2021, according to US officials and security experts. Instead of one company being victimized at a time like in a traditional data breach, thousands were often exposed simultaneously. Businesses, hospitals and schools also worked to defend themselves against an onslaught of ransomware attacks, which increasingly reap $10m or more in extortion payments.

The annus horribilis culminated this month with discovery of a flaw in an obscure but widely used internet code known as Log4j, which one senior Biden administration official said was the worst she had seen in her career. The latest vulnerability comes as U.S. officials warn corporate leaders of a potential surge of cyberattacks while businesses slow their operations during the holiday season.

The string of incidents highlights how decades of digital transformation have linked business and government computer systems in opaque and sometimes surprising ways that will create new vulnerabilities. Major disruptions are certain to continue, cybersecurity officials said.

“Network defenders are exhausted,” said Joe Slowik, threat-intelligence lead at the security firm Gigamon. New attention and investment in cybersecurity hasn’t improved the status quo, he said. “Money is flowing into the field, but largely on technical solutions while the core need—more capable people—remains hard to address.”


Do we ever expect this to improve – to reach a state where we say “no, really, things actually got better in online security”? I can’t think there’s ever been a year where that happened. In some fields, perhaps, but overall no – and the discovery that NSO creates a computer from a bug in a compression algorithm suggests that our capabilities at exploiting flaws will only grow.
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Amazon, Meta scrap CES plans in Las Vegas after Covid surge • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


Amazon, Meta Platforms, Pinterest, Twitter and several news outlets have cancelled plans to attend the annual CES technology conference in Las Vegas, a response to surging Covid-19 cases around the world.

The show, put on by the Consumer Technology Association, is still scheduled to get underway in early January. But efforts to return to normal after an online-only event this year have been hindered by the raging omicron variant.

“Due to the spike in Covid cases across the country in the past week, we’ve decided to cancel our in-person presence at CES next month,” Twitter said in a statement. “We’ll continue to actively monitor the situation into the new year and find other opportunities to connect with our clients and partners.”

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, echoed those remarks. “Out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees, we won’t be attending CES in-person due to the evolving public health concerns related to Covid-19,” Meta said. The company is exploring how it can participate virtually.

Amazon and its smart-home subsidiary Ring did likewise. The retail and technology giant said that “due to the quickly shifting situation and uncertainty around the Omicron variant, we will no longer have an on-site presence at CES.”

T-Mobile US, a CES sponsor, said Tuesday it will “significantly limit” its in-person presence at the show. And chief executive officer Mike Sievert will no longer be giving a keynote speech at the event, either in-person or online. 

“The vast majority of our team will not be traveling to Las Vegas,” the wireless carrier said. The company “looks forward to an in-person CES 2023, which we hope includes an on-stage keynote in front of a live audience.”


CES is also, though, a place for Shenzhen companies to find buyers for their goods. Both buyers and sellers will surely be expecting a busy 2022. So while the top-line companies might not be there, there will be plenty of folk from the trenches of electronics.
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What are FFP2 masks, mandatory in some European countries? • The Economist


FFP stands for “filtering face piece”. It is a European standard for mask efficiency, ranging from one, the lowest grade, to three, the highest. FFP2 masks filter at least 94% of all aerosols, including airborne viruses such as covid-19. America’s N95 and China’s KN95 masks provide similar levels of protection. These disposable masks have several layers of different fabrics, including a polypropylene filter, made by “melt-blowing” polymer to create miniscule, irregular fibre patterns that can trap the smallest airborne particles. A study published in December by the Max Planck Institute, a German research organisation, found well-fitting FFP2 masks reduced the risk of infection with covid-19 to 0.1%. Cloth or medical masks, on the other hand, merely disrupt the airflow of the speaker and trap the largest aerosol particles in their woven material. Their efficacy varies wildly depending on the design and fabric used: tight-fitting, multi-layered masks made from dense materials are much more effective than single-layer linen masks. One study in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found surgical masks were three times more effective at preventing inhalation of aerosols than homemade cloth ones. Another study, in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal, compared different cloth masks and found that their efficacy at containing viral particles ranged from 26% to 79%.


I wonder at this “reduced to 0.1%” – compared to what? (This is the paper.) FFP2 masks are now very cheap in Europe, though when wearing them you do look as though you’ve come to put foam insulation in the cavity walls.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1707: TikTok tops Google, Manchin’s coal goal, AirTags good or bad?, the email disinformation channel, and more

Guess which site displaced Google as the busiest in 2021, according to CloudFlare? CC-licensed photo by Solen Feyissa on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Still a few days left for charity time! It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre. Dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: take a look at the wonderful Lollipop, who is completely indifferent to his nonfunctioning back legs, and then try to deny that.
Here’s Lollipop’s home.

TikTok got more traffic than freakin’ Google in 2021 • Gizmodo

Brianna Provenzano:


TikTok is truly unstoppable: The video-sharing platform just pushed Google aside to become the most popular website in the world, according to web performance and security company Cloudflare’s 2021 Year in Review internet traffic rankings.

TikTok cracked Cloudflare’s list of top 10 sites last year, coming in at seventh in popularity behind the .coms for Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix and Amazon. For 2021, the order of that list is largely unchanged—Amazon jumped up one slot, switching places with Netflix—aside from TikTok’s surge to the top.

In a blog post, Cloudflare noted that comparing the numbers between the two years could yield potentially misleading results, since the service only culled data from September to December in 2020 (compared to all 12 months being accounted for in 2021). According to Cloudflare, TikTok first peaked in the global traffic rankings on Feb. 17, 2021, followed by a few more days in March and June and then, finally, a more permanent stay at the top beginning in late August.

The app’s popularity has surged during the pandemic; while it initially attracted a teenaged audience set on coordinating lip sync and dance videos, TikTok has since piqued the curiosity of users of all ages and demographics, who flock to the app for its cooking hacks, memes, and spirituality content, to name just a few topics.


The Cloudflare blogpost is absorbing in its own way, but what’s evident is that TikTok simply leapfrogged all the other sites, and pushed them down; the traffic back and forth to its servers must be colossal. (I can’t find the point at which Google became the largest site in the world; certainly before 2010, at a guess.)

Mark this: a Chinese site running an opaque algorithm choosing content to show to more than a billion people is now the No.1 website in the world. Also: “pivot to video”, indeed. (It started as a music lipsyncing site.)
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If you’re after some Christmas reading, you could try Social Warming, my latest book, about how social networks are changing everything. TikTok is just a bigger harbinger.

Behind Manchin’s opposition, a long history of fighting climate measures • The New York Times

Jonathan Weisman and Lisa Friedman:


Mr. Manchin, who defied gale-force political headwinds in 2010 by running for the Senate on his opposition to President Barack Obama’s climate change legislation, killed a provision in Build Back Better that would have imposed stiff penalties on electric utilities that continued to burn coal and natural gas.

But even with the stick dropped from the House’s bill, West Virginia’s coal interests were working hard to kill off the measure’s carrot, a package of tax credits to make clean energy more financially competitive, and, by extension, struggling coal even less so. Their lobbyists talked frequently to Mr. Manchin.

With every Republican opposing the bill in the evenly divided Senate, Democratic leaders could not afford to lose a single vote, and Mr. Manchin has said he had concerns about energy issues from the start.

“I said, this is absolutely a very, very far-reaching piece of legislation which changes so many categories in American culture and American society, revamping the entire tax code and revamping the entire energy policies for our country — and the social platforms that we use to support people,” he told a West Virginia broadcaster on Monday.

West Virginia coal and gas, and policies designed to stop their burning, have always had a special place in Mr. Manchin’s politics. A Manchin family-owned business has made a small fortune selling waste coal from abandoned mines to a heavily polluting power plant in the state. The blind trust in which Mr. Manchin’s interests lie held between $500,000 and $1m last year, according to his most recent disclosure form. The company, Enersystems, valued at between $1m and $5m, delivered the senator $492,000 in dividends, interest and business income in 2020, the May disclosure states.


In 2018, Manchin defeated his Republican opponent by 29,000 votes, to represent a state ranking 40th in population: it has 1.8 million residents. (That’s about twice as many as Birmingham, but a whole lot less than London.)

He gets to decide what happens to millions of people. It’s utterly unrepresentative, as is the Senate.

Related: via Andrew Curry, Gen Z thinks the political system (among other things) is broken. Manchin is the proof.
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Discovery of AirTag tracking device prevents double theft of truck • Fox 7 Austin

Rudy Koski:


A Fayette County Sheriff’s deputy was flagged down in Ellinger this week by a man reporting an AirTag in his truck that turned out to be stolen out of Harris County.

FCSO Lt. David Beyer told FOX 7 the man had told the deputy he was heading to work in Austin when he got an alert on his iPhone that he was being tracked.

“He got bamboozled, he got taken,” said Lt. Beyer.

An Apple AirTag was found between the passenger seat and center console. Investigators determined the truck, which the man had been purchased a few hours earlier in Houston, was actually a stolen vehicle.

Lt. Beyer believes a double steal was about to be in play. “I’m sure the individuals who had the tracking device in there probably had a key to it so all they had to do was follow this guy, to where ever the car was parked, get in it, take off in it,” he said.

The rightful owners of the stolen truck picked it up Thursday morning and the man who bought the stolen truck is out his $800 down payment. The theft case has been handed over to authorities in Houston.

Used car dealers have been using tracking devices for years, mainly for customers with bad credit, in case the vehicle has to be repossessed. La Grange mechanic Duane Evans installs tracking devices for car dealers. They’re typically connected to a power source to keep transmitting and increases the range.

“A lot of people get behind on their car payments, say I’ll take it out to my ranch, out here in the country or somewhere, hide the car until I catch up on the payments, and all of a sudden a wrecker comes pulling up the driveway, and they go, how in the world did you find this car, and its like, isn’t technology really grand,” said Evans.


Via Neil Cybart, who has been digging around the question of what’s going on with the police reports about AirTags in cars as preparations for theft. (There was another thread about this at the weekend, by a woman who claimed she kept getting warnings about a “device travelling with you”. She thought it might be a creep at a bar; more likely it’s either the dealer in case of a repo, or a jealous boyfriend.)

Seems like AirTags’ potential misuses or marginal uses are coming clearer. They’re not even a year old yet.
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Understanding the Impact of Apache log4j vulnerability • Google Online Security Blog

James Wetter and Nicky Ringland, Open Source Insights Team:


As of December 16, 2021, we found that 35,863 of the available Java artifacts from Maven Central depend on the affected log4j code. This means that more than 8% of all packages on Maven Central have at least one version that is impacted by this vulnerability. (These numbers do not encompass all Java packages, such as directly distributed binaries, but Maven Central is a strong proxy for the state of the ecosystem.)

As far as ecosystem impact goes, 8% is enormous. The average ecosystem impact of advisories affecting Maven Central [the most significant Java repository] is 2%, with the median less than 0.1%.

Direct dependencies account for around 7,000 of the affected artifacts, meaning that any of its versions depend upon an affected version of log4j-core or log4j-api, as described in the CVEs. The majority of affected artifacts come from indirect dependencies (that is, the dependencies of one’s own dependencies), meaning log4j is not explicitly defined as a dependency of the artifact, but gets pulled in as a transitive dependency.


It’s sort of like Omicron, but for security vulnerability.
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Now in your inbox: political misinformation • The New York Times

Maggie Astor:


A few weeks ago, Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, falsely claimed that the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda, a $1.75 trillion bill to battle climate change and extend the nation’s social safety net, would include Medicare for all.

It doesn’t, and never has. But few noticed Mr. Crenshaw’s lie because he didn’t say it on Facebook, or on Fox News. Instead, he sent the false message directly to the inboxes of his constituents and supporters in a fund-raising email.

Lawmakers’ statements on social media and cable news are now routinely fact-checked and scrutinized. But email — one of the most powerful communication tools available to politicians, reaching up to hundreds of thousands of people — teems with unfounded claims and largely escapes notice.

The New York Times signed up in August for the campaign lists of the 390 senators and representatives running for re-election in 2022 whose websites offered that option, and read more than 2,500 emails from those campaigns to track how widely false and misleading statements were being used to help fill political coffers.

Both parties delivered heaps of hyperbole in their emails. One Republican, for instance, declared that Democrats wanted to establish a “one-party socialist state,” while a Democrat suggested that the party’s Jan. 6 inquiry was at imminent risk because the G.O.P. “could force the whole investigation to end early.”

But Republicans included misinformation far more often: in about 15% of their messages, compared with about 2% for Democrats. In addition, multiple Republicans often spread the same unfounded claims, whereas Democrats rarely repeated one another’s.


Strictly it should be called political disinformation, because (as Nina Jankowicz pointed out, on a related topic) “there is malign intent driving it, whether profit or power”.
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The year of garbage internet trends • Vox

Rebecca Jennings:


Sea shanties [a big thing from, errr, January 9th to 23rd] are the framework with which I view a great many things that happened in 2021, because so many of them were entirely meaningless fads: blips on the radar lasting only for a moment but just long enough to obscure some larger, more important picture. It is fascinating to trace the origins of these glitches of nothingness: inconsequential tweets that turned into inconsequential TikToks that turned into inconsequential news articles that somehow, suddenly seemed more consequential than anything else that day.

In 2021 the race to identify the next fad became a bloodsport: Trendwatching, and, to a slightly lesser extent, trend naming, have become such popular hobbies on social media that even professional trend forecasters are beginning to tire of it. “Last spring there was a trend going around of people talking about the trends they hate,” recalls Mandy Lee, a trend analyst and popular fashion TikToker under the username @oldloserinbrooklyn, “and I was like, ‘How is this the content that’s going viral?’ Ironically, it’s a trend about a trend, therefore it becomes a trend.”

In October, Lee made a video predicting that the “indie sleaze” aesthetic, widely regarded as the American Apparel-slash-Cobrasnake hipster early-Lady Gaga vibe popular in the mid 2000s to the early 2010s, might be heading for a resurgence now that the Y2K McBling aesthetic has gone mainstream. The video went viral, and within days media publications from Dazed to the Daily Mail began writing trend stories citing her video. But they weren’t really stories about what’s currently happening — they were stories about what could soon be a fashion trend.


This will only get worse: shorter and shorter, faster and faster.
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Octopuses keep surprising us; here are eight examples • Natural History Museum

Lisa Hendry:


Scientists use the size of an animal’s brain relative to its body as a rough guide to its intelligence, as it gives an indication of how much an animal is ‘investing’ in its brain.

It’s not a perfect measure, as other factors such as the degree of folding in the brain also play a role, but smarter animals tend to have a higher brain-to-body ratio.

An octopus’s brain-to-body ratio is the largest of any invertebrate. It’s also larger than many vertebrates, although not mammals.

Octopuses have about as many neurons as a dog – the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) has around 500 million. About two thirds are located in its arms. The rest are in the doughnut-shaped brain, which is wrapped around the oesophagus and located in the octopus’s head.

Octopuses have demonstrated intelligence in a number of ways, says Jon. ‘In experiments they’ve solved mazes and completed tricky tasks to get food rewards. They’re also adept at getting themselves in and out of containers.’

There are also intriguing anecdotes about octopuses’ abilities and mischievous behaviour.

‘I remember reading one about a lab where all the fish were going missing from their tank,’ says Jon. ‘The staff set up a little video camera and it turned out that one of the octopuses was getting out of its tank, going to the other tank, opening it, eating the fish, closing the lid, going back to its own tank and hiding the evidence.’

There is footage of similar sneaky behaviour and ingenious problem-solving happening in the wild.


Andrew Curry (him again!) made the point that octopuses are essentially aliens we’ve learnt to communicate with. Certainly there’s no justification for eating them when we know this. (I bet the first human-written book they learn to read will be titled “How to Serve Octopus”.)
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Woola raises €2.5M seed led by Future Ventures to replace bubble wrap with wool • TechCrunch

Mike Butcher:


Some 55 billion parcels are shipped in bubble wrap every year. Plastic bubble wrap is reliant on fossil fuels and 98% of plastic packaging is single-use. You can imagine the adverse environmental impact of all this plastic.

The founders of Woola were running an online e-commerce store and saw the packaging problem firsthand. The lack of options in sustainable and scalable protective packaging led to them re-discovering wool — an unused resource that is elastic and regulates temperatures and humidity.

The result was their startup, which uses leftover sheep wool to replace bubble wrap. These wool-based packages can be reused, repurposed, or returned by the end user, with the ultimate goal of making the solution “closed-loop” so nothing goes to waste.


This is, of course, good, but it should be noted that the photo accompanying the story is marvellous.
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Bugs across globe are evolving to eat plastic, study finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


Microbes in oceans and soils across the globe are evolving to eat plastic, according to a study.

The research scanned more than 200m genes found in DNA samples taken from the environment and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastic.

The study is the first large-scale global assessment of the plastic-degrading potential of bacteria and found that one in four of the organisms analysed carried a suitable enzyme. The researchers found that the number and type of enzymes they discovered matched the amount and type of plastic pollution in different locations.

The results “provide evidence of a measurable effect of plastic pollution on the global microbial ecology”, the scientists said.

Millions of tonnes of plastic are dumped in the environment every year, and the pollution now pervades the planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. Reducing the amount of plastic used is vital, as is the proper collection and treatment of waste.

But many plastics are currently hard to degrade and recycle. Using enzymes to rapidly break down plastics into their building blocks would enable new products to be made from old ones, cutting the need for virgin plastic production. The new research provides many new enzymes to be investigated and adapted for industrial use.


Question is, once you get bacteria that can eat plastic, how do you stop them? Bacteria aren’t exactly the most cooperative of beasts. Or else you’ll have the bacteria chomping the plastic, and then you’ll need to zap the entire area before they chew up the cars, planes, electrical insulating wire…
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1706: news’s next problem is summaries, Facebook’s Finland failure, China’s surveillance strategy, and more

In happier times – for her at least – Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes was fêted. Now a jury is deciding whether she is a fraudster. CC-licensed photo by TechCrunch on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. In summary. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Charity time! It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch the wonderful Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.

Better paywalls won’t save us from what’s coming • Nieman Journalism Lab

Sam Guzik:


Over the summer, researchers at Google published a paper laying out a vision for a new type of search engine. Instead of delivering users a list of links in response to their query, a natural language model would directly summarize information from multiple sources on the Internet.

That aligns with a broader shift in how users are searching for information. More than 40% of internet users around the world say that they use voice search — whether deployed in AI assistants or as a feature in browser-based search engines. That suggests that consumers are getting more comfortable interacting with their devices by speaking commands (and hearing the results).

As we contend with how natural language search interfaces will upend what we know about audience strategy, we also need to prepare for a world where users increasingly consume news on wearable devices.

The evidence tells us that these trends will continue in 2022. Users will spend more time with devices without screens. They will get information directly from AI assistants that can summarize information without sending the user to a news website. The question for us is: What are we going to do about it?

How will we fund our newsrooms if users’ browsing habits change and they don’t hit paywalls as they do today? What’s the value of news if users engage with devices that give them an always-on stream of information? How will the value of our newsgathering change if users spend more time on immersive digital platforms that record their interactions automatically?


This partly explains why news organisations are very keen to have audio output (The Times in London has been very active, creating its own internet and digital radio station) which can then be relayed over smart speakers as needed. The shift to non-screen systems (whether voice or other) plus the automatic summarisation of content from multiple sources really creates a question of how you can create value from news.
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Facebook failing at Finnish moderation • Yle Uutiset


A Facebook data leak has revealed that Finnish-language moderation rests with a handful of moderators, eleven people working in Berlin. While the social media giant praises the efficiency of its automated moderation tools, documents obtained by Yle show that these are of little use when it comes to small languages like Finnish.

The company’s ability to detect hate speech is not as good as Facebook has led users to believe. Moderation for languages like Finnish is often half-baked, a fact apparent in thousands of pages of leaked internal Facebook documents obtained by Yle.

These documents show that Facebook has not developed Finnish-language automated moderation for things like hate speech, violence and nudity.

Facebook has always wanted to keep the inner workings of its moderation secret. It has, for example, not wanted to say how many workers it has moderating content in different languages. It has also refused to reveal in which languages it employs automatic moderation.

The company turned down two separate requests from Yle to discuss how it carries out Finnish-language moderation.

Globally Facebook employs some 15,000 people whose job it is to trawl through published posts. These moderators, who mainly work through subcontractors, scrutinise content in 70 different languages.

When it comes to Finnish moderators, we now know there’s about ten of them working in Berlin.


Finland’s population is more than 5.5 million. Also: moderation problems grow geometrically as the network grows linearly.
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If you want a review/recommendation of Social Warming, my latest book on the effects of Facebook and other social netowrks on society and democracy, there’s one here from John Naughton. Thanks John!

Google ending OnHub router support & Home control in 2022 • 9to5Google

Abner Li:


Before Google Wifi was announced alongside the original Pixel phone, Google a year earlier released OnHub-branded routers from Asus and TP-Link. In late 2022, Google will end support for OnHub routers that will be seven years old at that time.

In August of 2015, Google unveiled a router manufactured by TP-Link ($199.99) running its software and featuring a “front-facing antenna reflector that acts like a satellite dish” to deliver the fastest possible speeds to everything in that direction. This was followed by an Asus model ($219.99) later that October with a physical gesture/wave over the top starting device prioritization, while OTAs added various new features. After Google Wifi launched, both often saw simultaneous updates.

Meanwhile, Google offered shells to customize the TP-Link version, including those from designer studios. It was quite wild, and could vaguely be seen as a precursor to the interchangeable bases that the first-generation Home speaker offered.

At six years old, currently, Google said “a lot has changed” in the router landscape, and that it will end support for them on December 19, 2022. This is according to emails that customers (via Droid-Life) have been receiving and a new support document.

Until that date, “your OnHub router will continue to work as normal,” but without security updates for new software features. The last combined OnHub and Google Wifi update came in October of 2019, while Google and Nest Wifi have had several OTAs since then.


As of one year from now, the routers will produce a Wi-Fi signal, but you won’t be able to manage them through the Google Home app: no updating Wi-Fi settings, add new Wi-Fi devices, or run speed tests.

“A lot has changed” in routers? Apart from Apple getting out of the business, the competition has only got more intense.
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How China surveils the world • MIT Technology Review

Mara Hvistendahl speaks to Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategy Policy Institute, who has written a report on Chinese data-gathering:


Q: What is the CCP doing with all of this data?
A: The CCP collects data in bulk and worries about what to do with it later. Even if it’s not all immediately usable, the Party anticipates better technical ability to exploit the data later on. 

Large data sets can reveal patterns and trends in human behavior, which help the CCP with intelligence and propaganda as well as surveillance. Some of that data is fed into tools such as the social credit system. Bulk data, like images and voice data, can also be used to train algorithms for facial and voice recognition. 

The CCP’s methods are not that different from what we see in the global advertising industry. But instead of trying to sell a product, the CCP is trying to exert authoritarian control. It’s using capitalism as a vehicle to access data that can help it disrupt democratic processes and create a more favorable global environment for its power. 

Q: Why is this a threat outside China?
A: Citizens of liberal democracies are rightly concerned with how tech companies abuse their data, but at least in liberal democracies there are growing restraints on how data is used. In China, where the party-state literally says that the purpose of the law is to “strengthen and improve the Party’s leadership,” technology is deployed to extend the political power of the party-state and developed according to that standard. The Party talks about its intent to shape global public opinion in order to protect and expand its own political power. At the same time, Chinese tech companies collect data in support of such efforts. Anyone living in a liberal democracy should be concerned about the ramifications this has for freedoms and privacy. 

Q: So should we all delete TikTok from our phones?
A: I will not put it on mine. TikTok is a good example of a seemingly benign app that can give the CCP a lot of useful data.


The article is paywalled. Unfortunately if your Javascript breaks, so does the paywall.
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Exclusive: Polish opposition duo hacked with NSO spyware • Associated Press

Frank Bajak and Vanessa Gera:


The aggressive cellphone break-ins of a high-profile lawyer representing top Polish opposition figures came in the final weeks of pivotal 2019 parliamentary elections. Two years later, a prosecutor challenging attempts by the populist right-wing government to purge the judiciary had her smartphone hacked.

In both instances, the invader was military-grade spyware from NSO Group, the Israeli hack-for-hire outfit that the US government recently blacklisted, say digital sleuths of the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab internet watchdog.

Citizen Lab could not say who ordered the hacks and NSO does not identify its clients, beyond saying it works only with legitimate government agencies. But both victims believe Poland’s increasingly illiberal government is responsible.

A Polish state security spokesman, Stanislaw Zaryn, would neither confirm nor deny whether the government ordered the hacks or is an NSO customer.

Lawyer Roman Giertych and prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek join a list of government critics worldwide whose phones have been hacked using the company’s Pegasus product.


Becoming harder and harder for NSO to justify its actions. Wonder if this will lead to more sanctions from other countries (the EU?) and what effect those would have. If it’s a software company, how do sanctions affect it, exactly?
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A COVID-denying kickboxing world champion just died from Covid • Vice

David Gilbert:


Fred Sinistra, 40, was unvaccinated and would not even use the term COVID-19, his coach Osman Yigin told Belgian outlet SudInfo. Instead, he dismissed COVID-19 as “a little virus” and railed against government restrictions. 

But after the kickboxer contracted COVID-19, Yigin said he told Sinistra that if he did not admit himself to hospital, he would no longer train the former world champion. Sinistra did go to the hospital, and posted several pictures of himself on Facebook and Instagram inside an intensive care ward in Liège. 

But in a video posted on Facebook on Nov. 24, Sinistra is clearly struggling to catch his breath as he railed against the pandemic, dismissed COVID-19, and claimed that a “little virus” was not going to stop him. “I have no time to waste with lazy people,” Sinistra wrote in an accompanying caption.

On November 26,  Sinistra said he was “disgusted” that a planned fight on December 4 had been cancelled. “A warrior never abdicates, I will come back even stronger,” Sinistra wrote. Days later, he discharged himself from the hospital and returned home where he reportedly treated himself with oxygen.  

On December 13, Sinistra replied to comments on his Facebook page, writing: “Thank you all for your support. I’m home recovering, as I should. I will come back a thousand times stronger.”

Three days later Sinistra’s death was announced by his partner on his Facebook page.


Not the sort of person you’d expect to die from Covid. But the ways this virus messes with your body is essentially impossible to predict.
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The future is not only useless, it’s expensive • Gawker

Dan Brooks:


this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.

It is also obviously a pyramid scheme, in which the need for a salable commodity is imperative and endlessly renewed, but the commodity itself does not matter because it is useless — not even useless the way all art is useless, because you can get the images and whatever grains of nourishment your hungry little soul might find in them for free, but useless the way a canceled stamp is useless, useless like a receipt or an envelope that has been torn open. NFTs are an occasion for commerce masquerading as art, just as so many ostensibly meaningful experiences of the 21st century turn out to be occasions to spend money masquerading as life.

That’s how they feel to me, anyway. Presumably there is someone out there right now — not [NFT hawker Sean] Lennon but one of this followers, someone who consistently refers to him as “Sean Ono Lennon, whose dad was John Lennon from the Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time” at a speed 1.5 times faster than normal talking — who saw SkullxNFT and experienced it as some of the most beautiful and emotionally moving art in history, right up there with the Mona Lisa and Avengers: Endgame.


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Why it’s too early to get excited about Web3 • O’Reilly

Tim O’Reilly is the guy who defined “Web 2.0” (among other things), so he’s the one to ask about the whole “Web3” thing:


During my career, we have gone through several cycles of decentralization and recentralization. The personal computer decentralized computing by providing a commodity PC architecture that anyone could build and that no one controlled. But Microsoft figured out how to recentralize the industry around a proprietary operating system. Open source software, the internet, and the World Wide Web broke the stranglehold of proprietary software with free software and open protocols, but within a few decades, Google, Amazon, and others had built huge new monopolies founded on big data.

Clayton Christensen generalized this pattern as the law of conservation of attractive profits: “When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized, the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.”

Blockchain developers believe that this time they’ve found a structural answer to recentralization, but I tend to doubt it. An interesting question to ask is what the next locus for centralization and control might be. The rapid consolidation of bitcoin mining into a small number of hands by way of lower energy costs for computation indicates one kind of recentralization. There will be others.

…None of the examples in the article [in the NYT about crypto] focus on the utility of what is being created, just the possibility that they will make their investors and creators rich.

And it’s not just mainstream media that’s doing breathless reporting about the money to be made as if the creation of actual value were irrelevant. Stories from those who’ve gone down the “crypto rabbit hole” are eloquent on the subject of access to riches


“I tend to doubt it” isn’t really what you want to hear from O’Reilly. (Though of course this will be dismissed by the believers as “not getting it”.)
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Jury in Elizabeth Holmes’s fraud trial has begun deliberations • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:


A jury on Monday began deliberating the merits of the fraud trial against Elizabeth Holmes, the entrepreneur accused of lying to investors and patients about her blood testing start-up, Theranos.

Ms. Holmes’s trial has stretched nearly four months, with testimony from dozens of witnesses including scientists, chief executives and a four-star general. The proceedings have come to represent a defining moment for the tech industry and its culture of overly optimistic salesmanship.

The jury of eight men and four women is debating whether prosecutors have shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ms. Holmes committed nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud while pitching Theranos to investors and patients. Her former business partner and boyfriend, Ramesh Balwani, was indicted alongside her in 2018. Both have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Balwani faces trial next year.

Each of the 11 counts carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though they would most likely be served concurrently. Deliberations are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Ms. Holmes’s case stands out for its rarity: Few tech executives have been indicted over fraud, fewer have gone to prison and even fewer than that have been women.


First time for everything, of course. The big question is whether the prosecution managed to pin responsibility on Holmes, who tried to deflect everything onto Balwani.
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Start Up No.1705: TikTok fuels viral shooting fears, Omicron v LFTs, brainstorm the Beatles way!, BMJ roasts Facebook, and more

The Echo Show from Amazon is a sort of iPad for making video calls. Should Apple follow suit? CC-licensed photo by Rosenfeld Media 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. Hello, I’m not on the train. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Charity time! It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch a different video of Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.

How panic over rumored school shooting threats went viral • The Verge

Mia Sato:


On Thursday, officials across the country were responding to viral posts on social media saying schools would be the target of shootings on December 17th. Some canceled classes or allowed kids to stay home. Others said they would increase police presence on campus. And some simply said they were monitoring the situation. But just about everyone was united in one message: the threats officials were hearing about were deemed to be not credible.

TikTok, meanwhile, was awash in videos: “POV your parents are making you stay home because of the December 17th trend,” reads one post. “Guys stay safe; I’m staying home,” says another. “Hope everybody is okay.”

Now into Friday afternoon, there thankfully haven’t been reports of widespread violence at schools, and TikTok has begun to remove some of the more alarming warnings on its platform about the potential for violence. But it’s still unknown where the warnings started — or if threats of violence even existed in the first place.

It’s easy to see how the concern spread, though, since people who saw warnings of school violence on TikTok were likely primed to react. The rumors were spreading just weeks after a deadly school attack. And viral threats have a history of taking hold when they prey on what people worry about the most, especially when the source is thought to be a new technology.

“We can think about media panics going back several centuries, potentially, but at least over the past 100 years,” James Walsh, associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who has written about social media and societal panic, tells The Verge. “Adult society has always been concerned about how new media content or new media technologies are going to corrupt young, impressionable minds.”


In a hyperconnected world, these panics can wash across a nation in no time at all. And TikTok is supremely tuned for it. Paying attention to it?
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Omicron puts spotlight on UK’s use of rapid tests to stem Covid spread • Financial Times

Hannah Kuchler:


Lateral flow tests return results faster than PCRs and are far cheaper — but less accurate. The rapid tests contain a strip of antibodies that turns red if it reacts with the plentiful protein that makes up the virus’ shell. PCR tests detect the presence of virus earlier and in smaller quantities because they amplify the sample and pick out genetic signatures. In the UK, people are advised to have a PCR test to confirm a positive result.

The sheer number of cases of Covid-19 in the UK — up 44% to 534,415 in the past seven days means that LFTs will pick up more cases, but they will also miss more people who could spread the disease.

Tom Lewis, a medical microbiologist at North Devon district hospital, said the tests were most useful if you understand how likely it is that you are infected — and the probability someone is carrying the virus has changed “overnight”. 

If you assume 1 in 100 people is now infected, he said, there will be an average of four people at risk of spreading the virus at a 400-person event. Based on experience, lateral flow tests will pick up only two.

“That doesn’t sound much, but two people are now moving around in that room with Covid and infectious . . . they have about a 50% chance of transmitting, probably higher now with the Omicron variant. It’s definitely a transmission event,” he said.

But he said the tests make people feel safe. “The lateral flows are a massive confidence trick,” he added.


Basically the diagram says it:
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Apple should sell bigger iPad for smart home; Amazon Echo Show 15 review • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman with his weekly opinion column (though Bloomberg affects a neutrality that would make the BBC whistle):


It has iMacs on desks, iPads and MacBooks in backpacks, Apple Watches on wrists, iPhones in pockets, Apple TVs in living rooms and AirPods in ears. In the future, it may have headsets on faces and self-driving cars on roads.

But Apple has been a laggard in one key area: the home. It’s way behind rivals such as Amazon and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in smart speakers and related devices—and not by design. Apple knows the importance of the home market.

That’s why it launched HomeKit in 2014, letting customers control appliances from iPhones and iPads, and debuted the HomePod smart speaker in 2017. The initial HomePod was a flop, but a newer $99 version has sold better. HomeKit also has picked up some steam by gaining support for more types of accessories.

Still, Apple has just 5% of the smart speaker market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon, with its Alexa voice assistant, accounts for 69% of sales, with Google coming in second at 25%. 

And Apple lacks a do-it-all home hub—a device with a screen—making it all the harder to catch up.

Apple could learn a thing or two from its rivals. After testing out Amazon’s new Echo Show 15 and the Facebook Portal—from the company now calling itself Meta Platforms Inc.—I think I know the path forward: a giant iPad.

I have found the Echo Show 15—with its large display—to be a compelling device for checking the weather, controlling smart home appliances, watching security footage, and reading notes and lists each morning. While widgets are currently limited on the device, I do think the big touch screen is a compelling platform if Amazon and developers choose to take advantage of it.


A classic of the genre, where the genre is “deciding things Apple should make” (see also: netbook, gaming laptop, etc etc) and “spending Tim Cook’s money”.
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Ten lessons in productivity and brainstorming from The Beatles • Fluxx Studio Notes

Tom Whitwell:


The first part of Peter Jackson’s epic Beatles documentary Get Back is a masterclass in facilitation and creative management. Paul McCartney tries a stoned, grumpy band through writing, arranging, recording and performing dozens of songs within a short deadline.

He’s using the Design Thinking playbook, 20 years before it was written…


The ten lessons that Whitwell draws out are excellent, and make really good points. One thing you’re probably not aware of (I wasn’t; haven’t watch the documentary) is this:


The deadlines on the project are absurd. They have to write, record and perform an album of songs in 12 days. As Paul says “we’ve got to do it methodically this one… we’ve got to get some system to get through 20–30 songs.”


Astonishing productivity.
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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 Developer GSC Game World U-turns on NFTs • Kotaku

Luke Plunkett:


STALKER 2 developers GSC Game World announced yesterday that they’d be adding NFTs to the game. Public reception was, as you’d imagine, not kind.

NFTs (and the blockchain itself) are an environmental disaster, a pump-and-dump scam, and a pointless assault on existing technologies and systems that don’t need fixing. So whichever approach you want to come at them from—or all three if you like, I’m not here to stop you—they suck.

I think fan reaction was best summed up by this top-voted comment on Reddit, which simply said:

They literally had to do nothing to keep me hyped for that game and still fucked it up.

You would think that a video game studio connected to the internet in any way in 2021 would have seen this coming, but then [there’s a tweet pointing out that the game doesn’t have any female characters, and then they got into NFTs].

Anyway, 24 hours after making the announcement, and having taken flak for all of those 24 hours, the studio decided it was time to tweet out an “apology” letter. Of course it didn’t actually apologise for anything, aside from a perceived “miscommunication”…

… Not long after publishing the tweet (and being called out all over again) GSC went and deleted it.

An hour later they instead, announced the decision to “cancel anything NFT-related in STALKER 2,” with an incredible statement. After outlining in their earlier tweet how NFTs were going to help fund development, this time they essentially blame fans for depriving GSC Game World of a scammy source of revenue:


Game folk really, really don’t like NFTs.
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Notes on Web3 • Robin Sloan

Where “Web3” is the platform of cryptocurrency systems being built on top of everything else:


Here are my notes on Web3:

• It’s for kids. I mean that in a good way! I think Web3 has res onated pow er fully with young peo ple because it feels like some thing gen uinely new, and it feels like it can be theirs. Who could argue with those feelings? Not me.

• I think Web3 is pro pelled by exhaus tion as much as by excite ment. This isn’t appar ent on the surface, but I believe it’s there, lurk ing just below. If you are 22 years old, Twit ter has been around for about as long as you’ve known how to read. YouTube is fixed as firmly as the stars. I honestly don’t know how that feels, but I wonder if it’s claustrophobic?

• I have vivid mem o ries of the fer ment of the late 2000s, a new social net work flar ing up every week! I lived in San Francisco; they were build ing them in South Park. That fun froth hard ened into a com pact drama tis per sonae that has remained basi cally unchanged for years now. So, here comes Web3 — and the basic emo tional appeal of NEW OPTIONS can not be overstated.

• Many Web3 boost ers see them selves as disruptors, but “tokenize all the things” is noth ing if not an obe di ent con tin u a tion of “market-ize all the things”, the cam paign started in the 1970s, hugely suc cessful, ongoing. I think the World Wide Web was the real rupture — “Where … is the money?”—which Web 2.0 smoothed over and Web3 now attempts to seal totally.

• A large frac tion of Web3’s mag net ism comes from the value of the under ly ing cryptocurrencies. Therefore, a good diag nos tic ques tion to ask might be: would you still be curi ous about Web3 if those cur ren cies were worthless, in dol lar terms? For some peo ple, the answer is “yes, absolutely”, because they find the foun da tional puz zles so compelling. For others, if they’re honest, the answer is “nnnot reallyyy”.


There’s plenty more too. This seems a good outline of the desire that’s driving so many people to call it “Web3” (which also includes “people don’t seem to believe us when we say it’s like the early web, so maybe if we say it’s like Web 2.0 then they’ll be impressed”).
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Open letter from The BMJ to Mark Zuckerberg • The BMJ

Fiona Godlee and Kamran Abbas:


We are Fiona Godlee and Kamran Abbasi, editors of The BMJ, one of the world’s oldest and most influential general medical journals. We are writing to raise serious concerns about the “fact checking” being undertaken by third party providers on behalf of Facebook/Meta.

In September, a former employee of Ventavia, a contract research company helping carry out the main Pfizer covid-19 vaccine trial, began providing The BMJ with dozens of internal company documents, photos, audio recordings, and emails. These materials revealed a host of poor clinical trial research practices occurring at Ventavia that could impact data integrity and patient safety. We also discovered that, despite receiving a direct complaint about these problems over a year ago, the FDA did not inspect Ventavia’s trial sites.

The BMJ commissioned an investigative reporter to write up the story for our journal. The article was published on 2 November, following legal review, external peer review and subject to The BMJ’s usual high level editorial oversight and review.[1]

But from November 10, readers began reporting a variety of problems when trying to share our article. Some reported being unable to share it. Many others reported having their posts flagged with a warning about “Missing context … Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.” Those trying to post the article were informed by Facebook that people who repeatedly share “false information” might have their posts moved lower in Facebook’s News Feed. Group administrators where the article was shared received messages from Facebook informing them that such posts were “partly false.”

Readers were directed to a “fact check” performed by a Facebook contractor named Lead Stories.[2]

We find the “fact check” performed by Lead Stories to be inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible.

— It fails to provide any assertions of fact that The BMJ article got wrong

— It has a nonsensical title: “Fact Check: The British Medical Journal Did NOT Reveal Disqualifying And Ignored Reports Of Flaws In Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Trials”

— The first paragraph inaccurately labels The BMJ a “news blog”

— It contains a screenshot of our article with a stamp over it stating “Flaws Reviewed,” despite the Lead Stories article not identifying anything false or untrue in The BMJ article

— It published the story on its website under a URL that contains the phrase “hoax-alert”


And that’s not the worst of it. The social networks haven’t covered themselves in glory at all in their fact checking in the past two years.
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Sidewalk Labs products will be folded into Google proper • Engadget

Kris Holt:


Alphabet’s smart city project is winding down and Google will take over its products. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff announced the news in a letter, in which he noted he is stepping down for health-related reasons. A spokesperson confirmed to Engadget that Sidewalk Labs products will be folded into Google, though Alphabet plans to spin out Canopy Buildings as a separate company.

“Starting next year, Sidewalk products Pebble, Mesa, Delve, and Affordable Electrification will join Google, becoming core to Google’s urban sustainability product efforts,” Doctoroff wrote. “These products will continue to be led by Sidewalk Labs President of Urban Products Prem Ramaswami and Chief Technology Officer Craig Nevill-Manning, both Google alumni, and the teams will continue to execute on their vision and serve customers.”

Pebble is a vehicle sensor system designed to manage curb and parking space, and Delve is centered around bolstering real estate development with the help of AI. Mesa sensors are designed to help save energy, while Affordable Electrification is about managing home energy use. Canopy Buildings, meanwhile, focuses on “factory-automated mass timber construction.”


Hard to tell whether this means that Sidewalk is a success or not. It isn’t successful enough after six years to stand on its own, but then nothing that gets big enough within the Alphabet umbrella is going to be let to carry on. (The exception could have been Waymo, the self-driving car bit.) I’d guess this means that it’s mostly going to languish – never getting anything like the attention that it did as a stand-alone division.
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John Henry HyperCard Sampler • They Might Be Giants

Jon Uleis takes us back to 1994:


They Might Be Giants has just completed a new album, John Henry, which will be in the stores this August, but you don’t have to wait until then to experience the twenty new songs (interpretive snippets in extremely crappy lo-fidelity) presented here for your listening enjoyment!


The original was a Hypercard product (well, it was 1994) but Uleis has rewritten it in HTML5. Neat! (It’s not the real music, of course, but this is to some extent a dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs thing.
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Find out if 5G is worth the upgrade: a multi-country analysis • Speedtest


The holidays are nearly here and with them the desire to treat yourself or a loved one to an upgraded phone, just because. The first question you’re likely to ask yourself as you browse new models is “To 5G or not to 5G?” Once you check the Ookla 5G Map™ to see if your operator has deployed 5G in your area, you’ll probably want to know if the 5G speeds are worth the extra cost. We’ve analyzed Speedtest Intelligence® data from the most popular Android and iPhone devices around the world during Q3 2021 to help you see if it’s worth the upgrade. Click a country from the list to jump down to the related analysis.

• Australia
• Bahrain
• Canada
• China
• France
• Japan
• Saudi Arabia
• South Africa
• South Korea
• United Arab Emirates
• United Kingdom
• United States

Our analysis includes data on the five 4G Android devices in each country with the largest number of results during Q3 2021 as well as the five most popular 5G-capable Android devices. We have also compared the iPhone 13 to the iPhone 11. Even the fastest device can only perform at the level of the network it’s on. For that reason, speeds for the same device vary widely from country to country in the data below.


Generally, it’s faster. Quite a bit faster. But hardly worth the trouble of buying a new phone (or moving country) specifically. Speaking of 5G…
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Anti-5G necklaces found to be radioactive • BBC News


Mobile networks use non-ionising radio waves that do not damage DNA.
Despite this, there have been attacks on transmitters by people who believe they are harmful.

The products identified included an “Energy Armor” sleeping mask, bracelet and necklace. A bracelet for children, branded Magnetix Wellness, was also found to be emitting radiation.

“Don’t wear it any more, put it away safely and wait for the return instructions,” the [Dutch authority fo nuclear safety and radiation protection] ANVS said in a statement.

“The sellers in the Netherlands known to the ANVS have been told that the sale is prohibited and must be stopped immediately, and that they must inform their customers about this.”

Conspiracy theories have fuelled a market of “anti-5G” devices that are typically found to have no effect.

In May 2020, the UK’s Trading Standards sought to halt sales of a £339 USB stick that claimed to offer “protection” from 5G.


Classic. It could only be better if you had to paint a sign on (being sure to lick the paintbrush tip first).
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If you’re still looking for a Christmas book, either as a gift or for yourself, how about Social Warming, my latest book, on how social networks are affecting our society just as global warming is affecting the climate.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1704: Facebook blocks surveillance firms, a radioactive president?, Toyota’s pay-to-drive, omicron’s 70x advantage, and more

If you set two AIs playing chess on an infinite board… what would happen? CC-licensed photo by QyiQ23607 Pisano 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. Charity suggestions at end. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook bans seven ‘cyber mercenary’ companies from its platforms • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Michael Safi:


The social media company said on Thursday that its investigation had revealed new details about the way the surveillance companies enable their clients to “indiscriminately” target people across the internet to collect intelligence about them, manipulate them – and ultimately compromise their devices.

Among the surveillance companies that Facebook named in its investigation and banned from its platforms are:

• Black Cube, an Israeli company that gained notoriety after it emerged that the disgraced media mogul and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein had hired them to target women who had accused him of abuse. Black Cube rejected Facebook’s claims about its activities
• Cobwebs, another Israeli company that Facebook said enabled its clients to use public websites and dark web sites to trick targets into revealing personal information. The company also reportedly works for US clients, including a local police department in Hartford, Connecticut
• Cytrox, a North Macedonian company that Facebook said enabled its clients to infect targets with malware following phishing campaigns.

The investigation conducted by Facebook comes as the company is itself facing intense scrutiny in Washington and around the world following accusations by a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, that it enabled the spread of hate speech and disinformation.

The Facebook investigation is significant, however, because it reveals new details about the way parts of the surveillance industry use social media – from Facebook to Instagram – to create fake accounts to deceive their targets and conceal their own activities.

While many of the companies claim that they are hired to target criminals and terrorists, Facebook said the industry “regularly” enabled its clients to target journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes and human rights activists and their families.


Sure that the US administration will be along in a minute to sanction Facebook like it did NSO. (There’s also the obvious joke – FB exec: “intrusive, constant surveillance? That’s our job!”)
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There is no ‘Them’ • The Pull Request

Antonio García Martínez:


the real problem with the ‘Them’ [as he found a group of non-tech friends complaining about the Techopoly, thus viewed, to him a technologist who used to work at Facebook]: it ascribes a level of wilful agency to organisations (or entire industries) which are really baskets of disparate individuals and agendas grappling with happenstance and an intractable reality. It’s an illusion only readily maintained by outsiders, as insiders have seen how the sausage is really made. Nobody who’s opened a Facebook dashboard and seen figures in the billions blinking back at them would believe that any ‘Them’ could possibly manipulate this seething mass of humanity in a controlled, willful way.

The real Facebook struggle is to somehow manage all this complexity in scalable ways: an algorithm that sorts the billions of pieces of content created per day; machine learning that hopefully doesn’t filter out the noxious detritus of imperfect humanity in too, too wrong a way; some imperfect body of policies that placates often incomprehending regulators and is still implementable by overtaxed operations people. The thought that any set of people, no matter how motivated, could deploy grand designs of overt social control over that globe-spanning mess seems delusional when you realize the scale of it.

When our car gets stuck in the snow on the way to Tahoe, we don’t blame President Biden; well, some political partisans people might, and who knows, poor Federal infrastructure policy might be residually to blame for that poorly-marked turn we missed. But broadly we ‘get’ that national governance is a complicated, multi-tiered phenomenon, and assigning individual agency to this or that person or policy comes off as contrived. Somehow that worldliness disappears (or didn’t exist to begin with) when it comes to tech, which still confronts this unbridgeable chasm when it comes to explaining itself to the normies (and believe me, some have tried).


Martínez is smart, though I feel he’s a step away from realising that the fact he’s describing a system that’s impossible to control by its nature doesn’t absolve those who created the system from blame.
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• 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?
Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Toyota made its key fob Remote Start into a subscription service • The Drive

Rob Stumpf:


Remember when BMW wanted to charge drivers to use Apple CarPlay? How about the subscription required for the Mercedes EQS’s rear-wheel steering functionality in Europe? It turns out that luxury marques aren’t the only ones looking to cash in on that sweet, sweet software as a service cash: Toyota has been testing the waters by making the remote start functionality on your proximity key fob part of a larger connected services subscription.

Yes, it appears the pay-to-play ethos that’s spreading around the industry has reached the world’s largest automaker. A Toyota spokesperson confirmed to The Drive that if a 2018 or later Toyota is equipped with Toyota’s Remote Connect functions, the vehicle must be enrolled in a valid subscription in order for the key fob to start the car remotely. To be clear, what we’re talking about is the proximity-based RF remote start system, where you press a button on the fob to start the car while outside of it within a certain distance—say, from your front door to warm up your vehicle in the driveway on a cold morning before you get in. Your fob uses radio waves to communicate with the car, and no connection back to Toyota’s servers is needed. But the function will not work without a larger Remote Connect subscription.


That’s a tasty $8 per month or – discount! – $80 per year. How would you like to pay? Now, the story clarifies that the free period might be up to 10 years. But that’s only might. Who knows if Toyota might find itself a bit squeezed on cashflow some day? The mission creep of subscriptions into all sorts of places they’re not wanted continues.
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Omicron variant may multiply 70 times faster than delta • USA Today

John Bacon and Celina Tebor:


The omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster in the human bronchial tubes than the initial COVID-19 infection or the delta variant, according to a new study from the University of Hong Kong.

The lightning-fast spread within people may explain why the variant may transmit faster among humans than previous versions, the researchers say. Their study also showed the omicron infection in the lung is significantly lower than the original SARS-CoV-2, which may be an indicator of lower disease severity. The research is currently under peer review for publication.

By infecting many more people, a very infectious virus may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less dangerous, said Dr Michael Chan Chi-wai, the study’s principal investigator.

“Taken together with our recent studies showing that the omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, the overall threat from omicron variant is likely to be very significant,” he said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the omicron variant has now been reported in at least 36 states and 75 countries. Schools and businesses are grappling with how to manage the latest threat.


I hadn’t seen (or heard) that 70x figure before, but it fits in with other stuff that’s been floating around, about the RBD (receptor binding domain – the bit that latches on to the cell surface) having much stronger affinity for ACE2, the cell protein that it binds to. If it can attach better then it would be more likely to penetrate the cell and reproduce. Omicron is very much out of control now in the UK.
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Fact check: did Jimmy Carter stop a nuclear reactor from destroying Ottawa? • Newsweek

Ewan Palmer:


On December 12, 1952, the Chalk River NRX nuclear reactor suffered a partial meltdown. The incident resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water flooding the core and causing major damage to the reactor.

As reported by, the major failure, along with “several poor decisions by facility operators,” resulted in a nuclear fission chain reaction that caused the power level to rise exponentially.

At the time, the NRX reactor operated at around 30 megawatts (MW). On December 12, workers at the plant were preparing for a reactor-physics experiment at low power. However, a defect in the NRX shut-off rod mechanism, combined with the human errors, caused a temporary loss of control over reactor power, ultimately causing it to surge to between 60 and 90 MW.

“This energy load would normally not have been a problem, but several experimental fuel rods that were at that moment receiving inadequate cooling for high power operation ruptured and melted,” the FAQ section of the Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor website states.

Thousands of nuclear fission particles were released into the atmosphere. The radioactive water also ended up in the reactor building’s basement, before being pumped out into shallow ditches near the Ottawa River.

The US was then called in to help with the clean up the site. [Jimmy] Carter, a trained nuclear engineer who had worked under famed Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the Navy’s nuclear program on the atomic submarine “Sea Wolf,” was asked to lead a team for the cleanup operation.

The Historical Society of Ottawa said that as part of the cleanup plan, the reactor had to be shut down, disassembled and replaced, with the team also needing to clean any spilled radioactive material. The intensity of the radiation meant that Carter and each member of his team could only spend about ninety seconds at the core location. Before the operation, which involved being lowered into the core, an exact replica of the reactor was built on a nearby tennis court, where Carter and his men practiced cleaning and repairing it.

Carter described the operation in his book, Why Not the Best?, which he released while running for president in 1976. “We all went out on the tennis court, and they had an exact duplicate of the reactor on the tennis court. We would run out there with our wrenches and we’d check off so many bolts and nuts and they’d put them back on,” Carter told Canadian journalist and author Arthur Milnes.


The accident is now rated 5 out of 7 on the severity scale. (Chernobyl, of course, was a 7.)

Jimmy Carter is 97 years old.
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Apple may be making standalone 4K monitors to match the iMac • Macworld

Michael Simon:


If there’s one gaping hole in Apple’s lineup, it’s a standalone display that doesn’t cost $4,999 (without a stand). But according to a new rumor, that might change in 2022.

We’ve heard previous rumors that Apple is working on a display to go with its M1 Macs, but a new report sheds a little more light on what Apple has in mind. According to Twitter user Dylan, who has previously leaked accurate information about the 24-inch iMac and iPhone 13, LG is manufacturing two displays “encased in unbranded enclosures for usage as external monitors that are in early development” that “have the same specifications as the upcoming 27in and current 24in iMac displays.”

LG makes many of Apple’s current displays, including the ProDisplay XDR, so based on the specs and the secrecy, it’s likely that these are bound for use in an Apple product.


Apple used to do displays, then it didn’t for a long time (or let them become hopelessly out of date), then it did but they were wildly expensive. For years people have been asking for a 5K display like that used for the iMac 5K, but without the “iMac” bit. Most would probably settle for the 4K format.
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Meta opens up access to VR social platform Horizon Worlds • The Verge

Alex Heath:


During a demo of Horizon Worlds, I was greeted by a few Meta employees at the Plaza, a central gathering place used to enter custom worlds and games built by users. We first visited a creator lounge area where you try custom items being built, like a bow and arrow or paper plane launcher, and enter building competitions to win cash prizes. Then we hopped to another world and divided up into teams to play a battle royale shooting game. After that, I was given a demo of Horizon’s building tools that let you create a world and items from scratch.

A key part of Horizon Worlds is the ability to write basic code that sets rules for how objects work, such as a gun shooting when you press the trigger or a ball bouncing when it touches a surface. The code, which Meta calls script blocks, acts similarly to layers in Photoshop by letting you chain together rules to create complex interactions, such as a leaderboard that automatically updates after a game is finished. “Attaching behaviors to objects is actually one of the biggest innovations that I’m proud of for the team,” says Sharma.

He says that, so far, Meta employees have been making the script blocks at the request of beta testers and that the company eventually plans to release a free library of them. An asset library of objects is also coming. Right now, the coding for script blocks is done entirely in VR, but eventually, Meta plans to let them be built from a desktop computer.

Safety is a big concern for a VR environment like Horizon Worlds, where you can easily interact with someone you don’t know. Earlier this month, a beta tester posted in the official Horizon group on Facebook about how her avatar was groped by a stranger. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”

Sharma calls the incident “absolutely unfortunate” and says that after Meta reviewed the incident, the company determined that the beta tester didn’t utilize the safety features built into Horizon Worlds, including the ability to block someone from interacting with you. (When you’re in Horizon, a rolling buffer of what you see is saved locally on your Oculus headset and then sent to Meta for human review if an incident is reported.) “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” he says.


Between this and Parmy Olson’s experience recounted in yesterday’s roundup, something tells me that the metaverse already has a harassment problem, and solving it isn’t about having controls be “trivially easy and findable”. It’s about defaults.
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The hidden world of Ethereum snipers • Sam Chepal

Samneet Chepal:


Despite its massive success as a protocol, many users are not aware of the fact that anytime a transaction is made it might be in the crosshairs of a hyper-optimized sniper bot. These sophisticated bots are fine-tuned around the core technological architecture of Ethereum to hunt for profitable opportunities. Earlier this year it was not uncommon to see these bots make more than $250k in a single trade. Many stories have already been documented on the dangers of these bots such as Dan Robinson’s journey into the Dark Forest and samczun’s escape from the Dark Forest. Fortunately, recent innovations within the Ethereum eco-system have been developed to help reduce the negative externalities of these snipers.

…Suppose XYZ token is trading for $100 on Uniswap but $120 on Sushiswap. A simple arbitrage strategy would be to buy XYZ token for $100 on Uniswap and sell the same token on Sushiswap at $120, resulting in an arbitrage of $20. An arbitrageur would submit both trades at the same time to ensure the position is opened and closed in the same transaction which ensures a relatively risk-free profit. In this case let’s suppose the arbitrageur sends over this transaction with a gas transaction fee worth $5, leaving him with a net profit of $15.

When the arbitrageur submits this transaction to the network, he’s unaware that sniper bots are sniffing through the mempool looking for any exploitable opportunities. Given this user’s trade is publicly available for anyone to see before it becomes finalized in the blockchain, a sophisticated sniper bot could front-run this user by simply bribing the miner with higher gas fees. In this case the sniper bot would simply copy the exact same trade as the arbitrageur but offer a slightly higher gas fee of $10, leaving the sniper bot with a net profit of $10. Ironically, this bot may get sniped by another bot willing to pay a higher gas fee bribe to the miner. This new sniper bot may be willing to pay $15 worth of transaction fees to collect a net arbitrage profit of $5.


But – and it’s an important but – only one can succeed, because the transaction can only happen once.
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Melania Trump launches NFT venture, promising ‘an amulet to inspire’ • The Guardian

David Smith:


In Melania’s first public venture since leaving the White House almost a year ago, an NFT named Melania’s Vision can be bought between 16 and 31 December with the SOL cryptocurrency or an old-fashioned credit card.

An irony-free statement from her office says it is “a breathtaking watercolor art by Marc-Antoine Coulon, and embodies Mrs Trump’s cobalt blue eyes, providing the collector with an amulet to inspire.”

“The limited-edition piece of digital artwork will be 1 SOL (approximately $150) and includes an audio recording from Mrs Trump with a message of hope.”

Melania, 51, joins a growing list of celebrities offering lucrative digital memorabilia. Earlier this year Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi, Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt and American football player Tom Brady launched their own collections of NFTs. Singer Justin Bieber and K-pop group BTS have also dived in.


The absolutely perfect intersection of grifts.
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The biggest chess game ever • YouTube

Lex Fridman:


It’s two Stockfish 14 chess AI engines playing each other on a chess board that is infinitely expanding outwards, initializing the squares at the edges with middlegames from 30,000 grandmaster games including from Carlsen, Fischer, Kasparov, Spassky, Tal, Karpov, and so on.

I love chess, always have, but chose to stop playing it myself early on when I became passionate about building AI systems, and instead became a fan of watching the game and the humans who play it.


The commentary explains plenty more. (It’s a terrific choice of music too.) Whenever people start suggesting that maybe, just maybe a super-capable chess AI might in some way be showing us what a generalised intelligence might be like, I’m reminded of the satirical SF writer John Sladek’s book “The Reproductive System”, in which a huge machine takes over the world. Someone asks it to identify itself, and it produces a long response; “then, as if to be on the safe side, added ‘P-Q4’.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I’ve been lax in suggesting charities to give to at Christmas. (There’s another week coming, so stay with it.) But if you want to get your donations on early, I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.

Start Up No.1703: Chinese hackers try log4j flaw, inside an NSO iMessage attack, Google tries AR again, is biomass bad?, and more

Wouldn’t it be great if computer webcams were situated in the middle of the screen, or somewhere better? Dell has a concept for that. CC-licensed photo by JJ Merelo 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 increasing every two days. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hackers backed by China seen exploiting security flaw in internet software • WSJ

Robert McMillan and Dustin Volz:


Hackers linked to China and other governments are among a growing assortment of cyberattackers seeking to exploit a widespread and severe vulnerability in computer server software, according to cybersecurity firms and Microsoft.

The involvement of hackers whom analysts have linked to nation-states underscored the increasing gravity of the flaw in Log4j software, a free bit of code that logs activity in computer networks and applications.

Cybersecurity researchers say it is one of the most dire cybersecurity threats to emerge in years and could enable devastating attacks, including ransomware, in both the immediate and distant future. Government-sponsored hackers are often among the best-resourced and most capable, analysts say.

“The effects of this vulnerability will reverberate for months to come—maybe even years—as we try to close these doors and try to hunt down all the actors who made their way in,” said John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at the US-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant.

Both Microsoft and Mandiant said they have observed hacking groups linked to China and Iran launching attacks that exploit the flaw in Log4j. In an update to its website posted late Tuesday, Microsoft said that it had also seen nation-backed hackers from North Korea and Turkey using the attack. Some attackers appear to be experimenting with the attack; others are trying to use it to break into online targets, Microsoft said.


This is going to go on and on. How long before it pops up in a seriously big exploit?
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A deep dive into an NSO zero-click iMessage exploit: Remote Code Execution • Google Project Zero blog

Ian Beer and Samuel Groß:


In the late 1990’s, bandwidth and storage were much more scarce than they are now. It was in that environment that the JBIG2 standard emerged. JBIG2 is a domain specific image codec designed to compress images where pixels can only be black or white.

It was developed to achieve extremely high compression ratios for scans of text documents and was implemented and used in high-end office scanner/printer devices like the XEROX WorkCenter device shown below. If you used the scan to pdf functionality of a device like this a decade ago, your PDF likely had a JBIG2 stream in it.

The PDFs files produced by those scanners were exceptionally small, perhaps only a few kilobytes. There are two novel techniques which JBIG2 uses to achieve these extreme compression ratios which are relevant to this exploit.

Effectively every text document, especially those written in languages with small alphabets like English or German, consists of many repeated letters (also known as glyphs) on each page. JBIG2 tries to segment each page into glyphs then uses simple pattern matching to match up glyphs which look the same:

JBIG2 doesn’t actually know anything about glyphs and it isn’t doing OCR (optical character recognition.) A JBIG encoder is just looking for connected regions of pixels and grouping similar looking regions together. The compression algorithm is to simply substitute all sufficiently-similar looking regions with a copy of just one of them.

There’s a significant issue with such a scheme: it’s far too easy for a poor encoder to accidentally swap similar looking characters, and this can happen with interesting consequences. D. Kriesel’s blog has some motivating examples where PDFs of scanned invoices have different figures or PDFs of scanned construction drawings end up with incorrect measurements. These aren’t the issues we’re looking at, but they are one significant reason why JBIG2 is not a common compression format anymore.


So it turns out that the NSO’s Pegasus relies on a flaw in a decades-old piece of open source software originally intended for scanning. One observer’s description: “NSO has been using simple logical operators in an old compression format to basically build a whole virtual computer on top of it.” The blogpost isn’t a short read, by the way. There’s also the discussion on Hacker News, with its predictable mixture of yawning and awe.
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The millions of tons of carbon emissions that don’t officially exist • The New Yorker

Sarah Miller:


In essence, Drax [power station] is a gigantic woodstove. In 2019, Drax emitted more than fifteen million tons of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by three million typical passenger vehicles in one year. Of those emissions, Drax reported that 12.8m tons were “biologically sequestered carbon” from biomass (wood). In 2020, the numbers increased: 16.5m tons, 13.2m from biomass. Meanwhile, the Drax Group calls itself “the biggest decarbonization project in Europe,” delivering “a decarbonized economy and healthy forests.”

The apparent conflict between what Drax does and what it says it does has its origins in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change of 1997. The conference established the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to reduce emissions and “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) classified wind and solar power as renewable-energy sources. But wood-burning was harder to categorize: It’s renewable, technically, because trees grow back. In accounting for greenhouse gases, the IPCC sorts emissions into different “sectors,” which include land-use and energy production. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, the IPCC was concerned that if they counted emissions from harvesting trees in the land sector, it would be duplicative to count emissions from the burning of pellets in the energy sector.

According to William Moomaw, an emeritus professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and lead author of several IPCC reports, negotiators thought of biomass as only a minor part of energy production—small-scale enough that forest regrowth could theoretically keep up with the incidental harvesting of trees. “At the time these guidelines were drawn up, the IPCC did not imagine a situation where millions of tons of wood would be shipped four thousand miles away to be burned in another country,” Moomaw said.


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Google is building a new augmented reality device and operating system • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:


Google was one of the early leaders in the first wave of modern augmented reality (AR) research and devices, but the company has appeared to cool to AR in recent years even as Apple and Facebook have invested heavily in it. But it looks like that trend will soon be reversed.

On LinkedIn, operating system engineering director Mark Lucovsky announced that he has joined Google. He previously headed up mixed reality operating system work for Meta, and before that he was one of the key architects of Windows NT at Microsoft. “My role is to lead the Operating System team for Augmented Reality at Google,” he wrote.

He also posted a link to some job listings at Google that give the impression Google is getting just as serious about AR as Apple or Meta.

…Other job listings say new hires will be working on an “innovative AR device.” And one specifies that Google is “focused on making immersive computing accessible to billions of people through mobile devices.”


So Google is getting serious about AR… again? It’s as if there’s no institutional memory there, or they think that everything about Google Glass should be consigned to the bin. Which might, actually, not be wrong.
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The Metaverse via Oculus is awkward if you’re a woman. And beware of griefers • Bloomberg

Parmy Olson:


So what is social VR like? Imagine gaming combined with zany, old-style Internet chat rooms: messy, experimental and often dominated by men. There are trolls and obnoxious kids. And while most people are generally well-behaved and enthusiastic about the new medium, there seem to be few measures in place to prevent bad behavior beyond a few quick guidelines when you enter a space and features that let you block and mute problematic users.

On a visit to Horizon Venues for my first mingling experience, I picked an avatar that was a close approximation of what I looked like in real life: straight brown hair and a blazer and jeans. But it meant that when I was teleported into the main lobby area — a vast room with a tree in the middle — I was the only woman among a dozen or so men. We were all cartoonish-looking avatars floating around with no legs. Quite a few of us were in leather jackets.

Within moments, I was surprised by a deep voice in my ear, as if someone was whispering into it. “Hey. How are you?” One of the avatars had zoomed up to within inches of me, then floated away, taking me aback. A small group of male avatars began to form around me, staying silent. As I chatted with a man from Israel named Eran who was showing me how to jump (you need to figure out how to activate it via your settings), several in the surrounding crowd started holding their thumbs and forefingers out in front of them, making a frame. Digital photos of my bemused avatar appeared between their hands. One by one, they began handing the photos to me. The experience was awkward and I felt a bit like a specimen.

“Just chuck em’ away,” said a man in a bright blue suit with a London accent who had just floated up to us. Despite many attempts to shake away the portraits, they kept sticking to my digital hand like flypaper. 

Meta warns all visitors to Horizon Venues that its “trained safety specialists” can dredge up a recording of any incident, and that users can activate a Safe Zone around themselves by pressing a button on their virtual wrist, muting the people around them. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I was uncomfortable, and there were no clear rules about etiquette and personal space.


Amazing: again and again, these digital spaces are created with no thought of how women will respond to them.
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Wind power becomes Spain’s leading energy source for 2021 • EL PAÍS English Edition

Ignacio Fariza:


Even if the wind stops blowing in the next three weeks, wind power will end the year as the leading source of electricity in Spain. This will mean wind overtaking nuclear in the national energy matrix for the first time since 2013, the only year since records began in which wind turbines were the main source of power. That year was particularly good in terms of wind resources while nuclear was affected by the closure of the Garoña plant in Burgos. Since then, however, wind power has continued to grow as a percentage of total energy generated both in absolute and relative terms, a trend that looks to continue in the near future.

The milestone, advanced by Spanish news site Nius, is just a taste of things to come. “Wind power is going to dominate the Spanish electricity grid for a long time,” says Francisco Valverde, a consultant at the energy company Menta Energía.

According to the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), released by the Spanish government last year, the installed capacity of wind turbines will almost double between now and 2030. During this period, the rate of growth of solar photovoltaic will be even greater as installed capacity more than quadruples, making it the second most important electricity source, though it will still lag far behind wind power, even when solar thermal is taken into account. Meanwhile, installed nuclear power will fall to less than half its current level. And both combined-cycle plants, which use natural gas, and hydroelectricity will maintain their weight in a mix in which coal will no longer be included.


Nuclear has been the biggest single source for quite a while; both nuclear and wind are more than 20% of generation, and CCGT about 17% this year. (Solar has only recently gone above 4%.)
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Swift Playgrounds 4 is here, and it’s a thing of beauty • Hacking with Swift

Paul Hudson @twostraws:


Folks have been requesting Xcode for iPad for some time, but that would have required a pretty epic effort – does that mean all of Interface Builder? All the Objective-C and C++ support? Or – *cue silent screaming* – Info.plist files?

Swift Playgrounds has chosen a different way: rather than trying to recreate all of Xcode on iPadOS, it instead aims to produce “Diet Xcode” – by which I mean “slimmer, faster, and streamlined” and not “why does my drink taste weird.” That means we get Xcode-style code completion that appears instantly, we get Xcode-style instant SwiftUI previews as we type, we get Xcode-style imports for SPM packages through Git, and much more.

And don’t think for a moment there are compromises on what you can code, because there really aren’t: this is full Swift 5.5 with all the latest concurrency features, plus access to the full set of SwiftUI API for iOS 15. Even better, at last there is access to debug output using print() and similar – by default it slides up from the bottom in a toast-style notification then animates away after a few seconds, but you can also make the console permanently visible if you prefer.

But, critically we don’t get some of Xcode’s biggest problems. For example, when you want to add a capability to a Swift Playgrounds app, it’s all done using a beautiful new user interface where you select from a list, then enter any addition data as prompted – that means goodbye to adding keys like “NSLocationAlwaysAndWhenInUseUsageDescription” to your property list.

Best of all, if you decide you want to move your project over from Swift Playgrounds to Xcode, you can do just that: just hit Share, then AirDrop it to your Mac, and Xcode will pick up exactly where you left off.


So, in brief, you can now write apps for the iPad (or iPhone) on the iPad. Which was a longstanding criticism of the iPad – that it wasn’t a “proper” computer because you couldn’t write apps on it to run on it. Guess they’ll need new ones now.
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Winter is coming: researchers uncover the surprising cause of the Little Ice Age • University of Massachusetts Amherst


The Little Ice Age was one of the coldest periods of the past 10,000 years, a period of cooling that was particularly pronounced in the North Atlantic region. This cold spell, whose precise timeline scholars debate, but which seems to have set in around 600 years ago, was responsible for crop failures, famines and pandemics throughout Europe, resulting in misery and death for millions. To date, the mechanisms that led to this harsh climate state have remained inconclusive. However, a new paper published recently in Science Advances gives an up-to-date picture of the events that brought about the Little Ice Age. Surprisingly, the cooling appears to have been triggered by an unusually warm episode.

When lead author Francois Lapointe, postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in geosciences at UMass Amherst and Raymond Bradley, distinguished professor in geosciences at UMass Amherst began carefully examining their 3,000-year reconstruction of North Atlantic sea surface temperatures, results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, they noticed something surprising: a sudden change from very warm conditions in the late 1300s to unprecedented cold conditions in the early 1400s, only 20 years later.

Using many detailed marine records, Lapointe and Bradley discovered that there was an abnormally strong northward transfer of warm water in the late 1300s which peaked around 1380. As a result, the waters south of Greenland and the Nordic Seas became much warmer than usual. “No one has recognized this before,” notes Lapointe.

Normally, there is always a transfer of warm water from the tropics to the arctic. It’s a well-known process called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which is like a planetary conveyor belt. Typically, warm water from the tropics flows north along the coast of Northern Europe, and when it reaches higher latitudes and meets colder arctic waters, it loses heat and becomes denser, causing the water to sink at the bottom of the ocean. This deep-water formation then flows south along the coast of North America and continues on to circulate around the world.

But in the late 1300s, AMOC strengthened significantly, which meant that far more warm water than usual was moving north, which in turn cause rapid arctic ice loss. Over the course of a few decades in the late 1300s and 1400s, vast amounts of ice were flushed out into the North Atlantic, which not only cooled the North Atlantic waters, but also diluted their saltiness, ultimately causing AMOC to collapse. It is this collapse that then triggered a substantial cooling.


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Amazon Polly • Amazon


Amazon Polly is a service that turns text into lifelike speech, allowing you to create applications that talk, and build entirely new categories of speech-enabled products. Polly’s Text-to-Speech (TTS) service uses advanced deep learning technologies to synthesize natural sounding human speech. With dozens of lifelike voices across a broad set of languages, you can build speech-enabled applications that work in many different countries.

In addition to Standard TTS voices, Amazon Polly offers Neural Text-to-Speech (NTTS) voices that deliver advanced improvements in speech quality through a new machine learning approach. Polly’s Neural TTS technology also supports a Newscaster speaking style that is tailored to news narration use cases.

Finally, Amazon Polly Brand Voice can create a custom voice for your organization. This is a custom engagement where you will work with the Amazon Polly team to build an NTTS voice for the exclusive use of your organization.


Alexa-responding-and-more-as-a-service. Available in eight languages, and both male and female in six of those. I reckon that they’ve covered most of the world’s population there (it includes Chinese) – if they can get Hindi in too, they’re sorted. And the free tier offers 5 million characters per month for the first 12 months. Unclear whether that’s permanent; the implication seems to be that it isn’t.
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Whatever happened to Buzzfeed? • Read Max

Max Read:


The future no longer seems very open; in fact, its contours seem very, very clear. What had once been a rat’s nest of 15 or 20 recognizable independent digital-media startups has been reduced, through purchases and mergers, to four consolidated brand portfolios that have any chance at medium-term survival: BuzzFeed-Huffpost-Complex, Vox-Verge-SB Nation-Eater-NYMag, Bustle-Mic-Gawker, and Vice-Refinery29.

All of these rely for revenue on some mix of display advertising and sponcon, ecommerce and affiliate marketing, and direct payments in the form of subscriptions or membership1. All of them have laid off workers. All of them are likely to go public (or try) within the next couple years, to cash out investors and to make consolidation easier. The most optimistic outcome for any one of these companies is that it leads the next round of mergers and acquisitions and emerges at the top of a larger portfolio of brands, giving it more leverage with advertisers and further diversifying its audience and revenue streams.

The sector is now the province of private-equity vultures rather than venture-capital sharks. No one looks at digital media companies and sees unicorns anymore; they see stones that might have a little more blood in them2.

What’s changed? Not much about the fundamentals, really. The big difference between now and 2011 is that there’s no longer the expectation (or recent experience) of “disruptive” upheaval in media infrastructure. Part of what made the digital media sector so attractive to venture capitalists in the early 2010s was how frequently and how quickly the landscape of media distribution was changing. Every few years a new growth opportunity would emerge — SEO! No, wait, social sharing! No, wait, dark social! No, wait, video! No, wait ecommerce! — offering potentially huge audiences or revenue figures. (But also necessitating debilitating shifts in editorial tone, resources, and strategies.)

No one expects a new Facebook (or, for that matter, a new iPhone) to emerge anytime soon, transforming the whole sector3; we’ve reached a point where we know what works and what needs to happen.


Though we think we’ve reached the point where we know what works every few years; and then it changes.
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Dell’s wire-free webcam could one day eradicate Zoom side-eye • The Verge

Emma Roth:


At first glance, the Concept Pari looks like the typical webcam that sits atop your monitor. However, Dell made it so that you can remove the cylindrical camera housing from its dock (which also doubles as a USB-C wireless charging station, letting you carry around the 1oz camera in your hand). The camera itself shoots in 1080p, has a built-in mic, and because it’s wireless, is connected to Wi-Fi. Dell also notes that it comes with a vertical indicator light, helping you maintain alignment as you use the camera freehandedly.

What might be neater than its wire-free housing is that if you’re tired of staring into the face of a soulless webcam during virtual meetings, the Concept Pari comes with a magnetic backing that allows you to stick the camera anywhere on your monitor (hopefully without affecting the display). Place the camera just above the head of the person you’re talking with, and you should be able to comfortably maintain eye contact while actually looking at the person on your screen.

When you’re done with a meeting, you can reverse the camera in its dock so that it’s facing away from you, offering additional privacy when the camera’s not in use. Dell says it will still charge when it’s in this position. Although the webcam isn’t for sale just yet, and very well may never be, it’s a concept that doesn’t seem too unrealistic to see a lot of people adopting.


It all reads so well until that very final sentence. The problem of webcams being off-centre – up, down, sideways – is so very frustrating given how prevalent video calls are now.
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Still some time to order my book (for yourself or a friend): Social Warming explains why outrage and fake news travel so much further and faster on social networks, and how that creates problems for journalism, democracy – and society.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1702: Instagram passes 2bn users, log4j’s scale revealed, Huawei’s surveillance questions, Snap’s ARv4, and more

The UK Post Office says it can’t afford to recompense the former staff it wrongly accused of theft – so the government will have to pick up the tab. Can it really not afford it? CC-licensed photo by Andrew Bowden 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.

Huawei documents show Chinese tech giant’s involvement in surveillance programs • The Washington Post

Eva Dou:


A review by The Washington Post of more than 100 Huawei PowerPoint presentations, many marked “confidential,” suggests that the company has had a broader role in tracking China’s populace than it has acknowledged.

…”Privacy protection is our top priority”, the company said.

The Post reviewed more than 3,000 PowerPoint slides from the presentations outlining surveillance projects co-developed by Huawei with partner vendors. Five of the most relevant slides are translated into English below, with original formatting retained. Each outlines a surveillance solution created in a partnership between Huawei and another company, with both companies’ technology.

The Post could not confirm whom the Chinese-language presentations were shown to, or when. Some of the slides showcase surveillance functions specific to police or government agencies, suggesting that Chinese government authorities may have been the intended audience. Many of the PowerPoints have a creation timestamp of Sept. 23, 2014, with the latest modifications to the files made in 2019 or 2020, according to the presentations’ metadata.

Each of the five presentations has a final slide stating a “Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.” copyright, with dates ranging from 2016 to 2018.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington said criticism of Huawei was groundless. “Huawei has long publicly expressed its readiness to sign a ‘no back door’ agreement and to set up a cyber security assessment center in any country to receive external scrutiny,” it said. “So far, no other company has ever made the same commitment.”

…The Huawei slides shed light on the company’s role in five surveillance activities in China: voice recording analysis, detention centre monitoring, location tracking of political individuals of interest, police surveillance in the Xinjiang region, and corporate tracking of employees and customers.


It’s not quite a smoking gun, but it’s certainly some smoke in the same room as a gun.
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Snap AR Spectacles hands-on: an ambitious, impractical start • The Verge

Alex Heath:


tIt doesn’t take long to realize why Snap’s first true AR glasses aren’t for sale. The overall design is the highest quality of any standalone AR eyewear I’ve tried, and they make it easy to quickly jump into a variety of augmented-reality experiences, from a multiplayer game to a virtual art installation. But the first pair I was handed during a recent demo overheated after about 10 minutes, and the displays are so small that I wouldn’t want to look through them for a long period of time, even if the battery allowed for it.

Snap is aware of the limitations. Instead of releasing these glasses publicly, it’s treating this generation of Spectacles like a private beta. The company has given out pairs to hundreds of its AR creators since the glasses were announced in May and has recently made a few notable software updates based on user feedback. “It was really just about getting the technology out there in the hands of actual people and doing it in a way that would allow us to maximise our learning from their experiences of using it,” Bobby Murphy, Snap’s co-founder and chief technology officer, says of the rollout.


30-minute battery life (whaaat?); the AR experiences included “a zombie chase, a pong game, solar system project and an interactive art piece”. None of which is what people want. “Years away” for useful ones, Snap reckons. 15th time lucky?
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What’s the deal with the Log4Shell security nightmare? • Lawfare

Nicholas Weaver:


So what is log4j? 

The first rule of being a good programmer is don’t reinvent things.  Instead we re-use code libraries, packages of previously written code that we can just use in our own programs to accomplish particular tasks.  And let’s face it, computer systems are finicky beasts, and errors happen all the time. One of the most common ways to find problems is to simply record everything that happens. When programmers do it we call it “logging”. And good programmers use a library to do so rather than just using a bunch of print()—meaning print-to-screen statements scattered through their code.  Log4j is one such library, an incredibly popular one for Java programmers.  

Unfortunately there is a very easy to exploit vulnerability, leaving an enormous volume of projects vulnerable. Recall the famous XKCD “dependency” comic: almost every project written in Java (and there are a lot of programs, ranging from major products like Minecraft to Internet of Things devices to bespoke custom software) is going to include log4j or a similar library. So if there is a vulnerability in log4j, it now potentially affects huge swaths of digital infrastructure.

So how does the vulnerability work? Java has a design flaw in it: It has a lot of complexity and the ability to load random pieces of code and execute them. The most common way this vulnerability expresses itself is through serialization, the ability to take a piece of data and turn it into a Java object, complete with code that is executed with the object. The log4j vulnerability is a combination of Java’s serialization tendencies with an intermingling of code and data in the logging infrastructure.


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The numbers behind a cyber pandemic – detailed dive • Check Point Software


Since Friday, December 9th, when the vulnerability was reported, actors around the world are on the lookout for exploits. The number of combinations of how to exploit it give the attacker many alternatives to bypass newly introduced protections. It means that one layer of protection is not enough, and only multi-layered security posture would provide a resilient protection. Three days after the outbreak, we are summing up what we see until now, which is clearly a cyber pandemic that hasn’t seen its peak yet.

Diving into the numbers behind the attack, gathered and analyzed by Check Point Research, we see a pandemic-like spread since the outbreak on Friday, by the beginning of the week, on Monday.
Early reports on December 10th showed merely thousands of attack attempts, rising to over 40,000 during Saturday, December 11th. Twenty-four hours after the initial outbreak our sensors recorded almost 200,000 attempts of attack across the globe, leveraging this vulnerability. As of the time these lines are written, 72 hours post initial outbreak, the number hit over 800,000 attacks.

It is clearly one of the most serious vulnerabilities on the internet in recent years, and the potential for damage is incalculable… We have so far seen an attempted exploit on almost 44% of corporate networks globally.


The number of variants puts the coronavirus to shame – 45 different ones within 72 hours of the word getting out. Who says humans can’t beat viruses?
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Bank of England warns on crypto-currency risks • BBC News


Although not much of UK households’ wealth is currently held in assets such as Bitcoin, they are becoming more mainstream, said deputy Bank governor Sir Jon Cunliffe.
If their value fell sharply, it could have a knock-on effect, he said. The Bank needed to be ready to contain those risks, he added.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Sir Jon said that at present, about 0.1% of UK households’ wealth was in crypto-currencies. About 2.3 million people were estimated to hold them, with an average amount per person of about £300.

However, he stressed that crypto-currencies had been “growing very fast”, with people such as fund managers wanting to know whether they should hold part of their portfolios in crypto-currencies.

“Their price can vary quite considerably and they could theoretically or practically drop to zero,” he said. “The point, I think, at which one worries is when it becomes integrated into the financial system, when a big price correction could really affect other markets and affect established financial market players. It’s not there yet, but it takes time to design standards and regulations.”

He added: “We really need to roll our sleeves up and get on with it, so that by the time this becomes a much bigger issue, we’ve actually got the regulatory framework to contain the risks.”


0.1%, 2.3 million, £300 (=£690m, or $910m). Numbers to remember.
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Web3 is going just great

Molly White:


…and is definitely not an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already-smoldering planet.


A fabulous (in that context) timeline of things. Dead people’s accounts being used to push NFTs, huge hacks, oh my.
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UK taxpayer to foot bill for Post Office staff wrongly convicted of theft • The Guardian

Zoe Wood:


The government has agreed that the taxpayer will foot the substantial compensation bill for former Post Office workers who were wrongly convicted of theft due to the defective Horizon IT system.

The Post Office has said it cannot afford the multimillion-pound cleanup bill for the scandal and on Tuesday the government, which is the service’s only shareholder, confirmed its intention to step in.

So far, 72 post office operators’ convictions have been quashed. Several other cases are in train, and there are potentially hundreds more operators whose convictions relied on Horizon evidence who may seek to clear their names.

In a written ministerial statement, the postal affairs minister, Paul Scully, said he wanted those with quashed convictions to be compensated “fairly and swiftly”.

The vast majority of these people had received interim payments of up to £100,000 while they waited for the next step, Scully said. The government was now making cash available so final compensation awards could be made, he said.

“We are working with the Post Office to finalise the arrangements that will enable the final settlement negotiations to begin as soon as possible,” he said. The money would enable the Post Office to deliver the “fair compensation postmasters deserve”.

Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 post office operators based on information from a recently installed computer system called Horizon.


“Cannot afford”. In 2020 the Post Office had revenues of £951m and a trading profit of £86m. It incurred legal costs of £20m, plus £58m in payouts. It’s made provisions of £153m. It’s got £443m of cash and equivalents on hand.

Perhaps it’s reasonable to say that the Horizon scandal happened when the Post Office was government-owned, so the government should bear the cost. But it feels a little like privatising the profit, socialising the losses.
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How to use the iPhone’s new App Privacy Report • The Verge

Barbara Krasnoff:


Information is power, and if you’re an iPhone user, you can now get more information about how often your apps access your data (for example, your location or your microphone). The App Privacy Report, which became available with iOS 15.2, also lets you know each app’s web activity and what domains they attach to.

The feature is off by default, but if your phone has updated to iOS 15.2, it’s very simple to turn on:

• Go to Settings > Privacy > App Privacy Report (which will be at the bottom of the screen)
•Select “Turn On App Privacy Report”
• Select App Privacy Report at the bottom of the Privacy screen.
• and wait.

After that, you can follow the same series of selections to see your report. (You can also use a Shortcut for quicker access right from your home screen or a Siri voice command.)

You won’t immediately see any data — it takes time for your phone to collect the data and assemble the report, but you can start to see results in just a few minutes.


Tells you which apps accessed your data over the past seven days; app network activity (which domains they contacted); most-contacted domains.
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Instagram surpasses two billion monthly users • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


Whether pressure from [Democrat senator Richard] Blumenthal and others in Washington forces any changes at Instagram is a looming issue, because Facebook relies on the app’s user growth.

The main Facebook app had 2.91 billion monthly active users as of October, and expansion is slowing compared to Instagram. In the time Instagram’s user base has doubled, Facebook’s has grown by just 30%. Revenue at the Facebook app is forecast to increase 18% next year to $135.1bn, according to eMarketer, while Instagram’s growth is expected to top 30% to $60.5bn.

For Meta to finance its bold and costly ambitions to move the company to the so-called metaverse — a world of virtual and augmented reality experiences — it needs Instagram to keep growing and throwing off hefty profits.

“I still see it as a very important part of the company,” Heger said. “If you look in the next five years, Instagram revenue is growing faster than the revenue from the core platform.”


Again, this is the problem with the “break them up” narrative. Instagram would be Instagram, an absolute behemoth, even if it weren’t owned by Facebook. You have to limit the size.
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There’s plenty more in Social Warming, my latest book. (Here’s a nice comment about it that I came across.)

Ofgem chief: we need to go much further in regulating energy suppliers • Financial Times

Jonathan Brearley is the chief executive of Ofgem, the British energy regulator:


Increased competition in energy supply, as recommended by the Competition and Markets Authority in 2016, opened up the market, but the regulations were not ready to weather a global shock on this scale. It is clear that any regulatory regime needs to be allowed to effectively manage market shocks — and Ofgem’s price cap has not always been sufficiently flexible. Having seen this latest crisis play out, I want these lessons to be applied in real time, to build the market we need for the future in a systematic way that understands all these complex drivers.

Put simply, we need an urgent step change to bring in the rules and regulations needed to create a stronger, more innovative and resilient energy market, fit for the future so we can change the way we run energy businesses for good.

As the regulator, I want to support suppliers to manage risks, and to stamp out bad practice when we see it.

Every time I speak to energy consumers I hear that this is a worrying time, and that action is required. At Ofgem, our core purpose is to protect consumers by making sure the market works in their interests.

And Ofgem’s safety net has worked. I am proud that we have protected 4m customers, that no customer has been left without an energy supplier, and that credit balances have been preserved.

We’ve given consumers certainty and control over their bills and made millions available to vulnerable bill-payers. But just as the price cap has protected them from month-to-month price volatility, we need to lessen the cost to consumers of companies failing, by making the market more resilient.


Basically, realising that the regulatory structure isn’t up to the challenge of a world where gas prices can quintuple in a year but you have tiny suppliers who have made longer-term promises to consumers.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1701: Ressa blasts tech titans, Bukele rolls again on bitcoin, the Dunning-Kruger military AI, and more

Would it help people to visualise climate change as an asteroid heading for Earth? A new film thinks so. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill 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. Increasing rapidly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ressa blasts US tech titans for ‘virus of lies’ in Nobel Prize speech • Nikkei Asia

Cliff Venzon:


Filipino journalist Maria Ressa called out US social media companies that have “allowed a virus of lies” to spread in her Nobel Peace Prize speech Friday, sending a warning about misinformation threatening “election integrity.”

Technology, with its “godlike power” has “allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world,” Ressa said.

Ressa, who heads the news site Rappler, delivered her speech after receiving the award in Oslo. She shares the prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

The two journalists won the award for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression at a time when free, independent and fact-based journalism is under fire, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said when announcing the prize in October.

“Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us,” Ressa added.


You can read her whole speech. Of course, it’s at Rappler.
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Her Instagram handle was ‘Metaverse.’ Last month, it vanished • The New York Times

Maddison Connaughton:


In October, Thea-Mai Baumann, an Australian artist and technologist, found herself sitting on prime internet real estate.

In 2012, she had started an Instagram account with the handle @metaverse, a name she used in her creative work. On the account, she documented her life in Brisbane, where she studied fine art, and her travels to Shanghai, where she built an augmented reality company called Metaverse Makeovers.

She had fewer than 1,000 followers when Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, announced on Oct. 28 that it was changing its name. Henceforth, Facebook would be known as Meta, a reflection of its focus on the metaverse, a virtual world it sees as the future of the internet.

In the days before, as word leaked out, Ms. Baumann began receiving messages from strangers offering to buy her Instagram handle. “You are now a millionaire,” one person wrote on her account. Another warned: “fb isn’t gonna buy it, they’re gonna take it.”

On Nov. 2, exactly that happened. Early that morning, when she tried to log in to Instagram, she found that the account had been disabled. A message on the screen read: “Your account has been blocked for pretending to be someone else.”

Whom, she wondered, was she now supposedly impersonating after nine years? She tried to verify her identity with Instagram, but weeks passed with no response, she said. She talked to an intellectual property lawyer but could afford only a review of Instagram’s terms of service.

“This account is a decade of my life and work. I didn’t want my contribution to the metaverse to be wiped from the internet,” she said. “That happens to women in tech, to women of color in tech, all the time,” added Ms. Baumann, who has Vietnamese heritage.


How surprising, isn’t it.
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The moral bankruptcy of Facebook • The New Yorker

Andrew Marantz:


In her review of “An Ugly Truth” [a book about Facebook], my colleague Jill Lepore compared Facebook to a church. In any kind of church—not to mention a multilevel-marketing scheme, or a doomsday cult—there are true believers. If you start to get the creeping feeling that your church’s core ideology is indefensible, you have two options. You can do whatever it takes to defend the indefensible, or you can leave. For most true believers, though, the latter option—choosing apostasy, which is a kind of self-exile—is not really an option at all. If this is the dilemma that binds a follower, how much more strongly does it bind the church’s founding pastor, or its prophet?

For years, people have tried to appeal to Mark Zuckerberg’s better judgment, but he was never going to become an apostate. Facebook isn’t just his job; it’s his identity. It’s standard, at moments like this, to quote Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is a perceptive line, but William Jennings Bryan, forty years prior, put it even more aptly: “It is useless to argue with a man whose opinion is based upon a personal or pecuniary interest; the only way to deal with him is to outvote him.” Sinclair was a muckraker; Bryan was a populist. Journalism can diagnose Facebook’s many flaws, but journalism alone can’t fix them. There are no silver-bullet solutions to the civilizational threats posed by the social-media behemoths. At least, if there are, I don’t claim to know them. But I do know what Bryan would have done, for a start: break ’em up.


The question is, how do you “break ’em up”? Into what bits? Facebook on its own is supremely toxic, which is the point repeatedly made. Instagram on its own is toxic. WhatsApp contributes on its own to widespread disinformation and misinformation problems, especially in India and Brazil. Splitting Meta into its constituent parts isn’t enough.
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There’s a lot more in Social Warming, my latest book, which has suggestions on exactly how you do achieve the aim of “break ’em up”.

Salvadoran President Bukele’s latest bitcoin venture is another distraction • Foreign Policy

David Gerard:


At the Latin American Bitcoin and Blockchain Conference on Nov. 20, Bukele came onstage to an animation of beaming down from a flying saucer and outlined his plans for Bitcoin City: a new charter city to be built from scratch, centered on bitcoin mining—and powered by a volcano.

Bitcoin City would be paid for with the issuance of $1bn in “volcano bonds,” starting in mid-2022. The 10-year volcano bonds would pay 6.5% annual interest; $500m of the bond revenue would be used to buy bitcoins. The bitcoins would be locked up for five years, then sold to recover the $500m purchase price; any profit on the sale would be paid out as an additional dividend. Holding $100,000 in volcano bonds for five years would qualify investors for Salvadoran citizenship.

US Bitcoin services company Blockstream first proposed the volcano bonds to Bukele in July. The bonds will be issued as tokenized securities on Blockstream’s proprietary Liquid blockchain. Samson Mow of Blockstream assured Bloomberg that all the numbers would work out, under Mow’s rosy assumption that the price of one Bitcoin would hit $1m within five years.

Holders of El Salvador’s existing sovereign debt were unimpressed. The volcano bonds would be a strictly worse investment than buying the country’s existing bonds and hedging them with bitcoins. The existing bonds dropped from 75 cents on the dollar to a record low of 63.4 cents after the volcano bond announcement.

…The trouble is that mining bitcoins in El Salvador makes no economic sense. Bitcoin mining is a process of competitively wasting electricity to guess a winning number every 10 minutes or so. Your business input is electricity; so miners are in direct competition with every other miner in the world, and go wherever reliable electricity is cheapest and the government is willing to turn a blind eye to the whole enterprise—a pressing issue since China kicked cryptocurrency miners out in May.

The world’s average price for bitcoin mining is around five cents per kilowatt-hour; but industrial rates in El Salvador are 13 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. In one four-day period, the Berlín operation mined $269 of Bitcoin—and was estimated to have spent at least $4,672 worth of electricity doing so.


Very hard to find useful updates on what’s happening here, but at a macro level it doesn’t seem good.
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This Air Force targeting AI thought it had a 90% success rate. It was more like 25% • Defense One

Patrick Tucker:


If the Pentagon is going to rely on algorithms and artificial intelligence, it’s got to solve the problem of “brittle AI.” A top Air Force official recently illustrated just how far there is to go.

In a recent test, an experimental target recognition program performed well when all of the conditions were perfect, but a subtle tweak sent its performance into a dramatic nosedive, 

Maj. Gen. Daniel Simpson, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, said on Monday.

Initially, the AI was fed data from a sensor that looked for a single surface-to-surface missile at an oblique angle, Simpson said. Then it was fed data from another sensor that looked for multiple missiles at a near-vertical angle.

“What a surprise: the algorithm did not perform well. It actually was accurate maybe about 25% of the time,” he said.

That’s an example of what’s sometimes called brittle AI, which “occurs when any algorithm cannot generalize or adapt to conditions outside a narrow set of assumptions,” according to a 2020 report by researcher and former Navy aviator Missy Cummings. When the data used to train the algorithm consists of too much of one type of image or sensor data from a unique vantage point, and not enough from other vantages, distances, or conditions, you get brittleness, Cummings said.

…But Simpson said the low accuracy rate of the algorithm wasn’t the most worrying part of the exercise. While the algorithm was only right 25% of the time, he said, “It was confident that it was right 90% of the time. So it was confidently wrong. And that’s not the algorithm’s fault. It’s because we fed it the wrong training data.”


The first part is familiar as the “tank problem” (which itself appears to be an urban legend, though its effects are probably real). The idea of an AI suffering Dunning-Kruger syndrome, though, is new to me.
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How driverless cars will change our world – BBC Future

Jenny Cusack:


At the Mcity Test Facility at the University of Michigan, experts are addressing this. The world’s first purpose-built testing ground for autonomous vehicles, it’s a mini-town of sorts, made up of 16 acres of road and traffic infrastructure. It includes traffic signals and signs, underpasses, building facades, tree cover, home and garage exterior for testing delivery and ride-hailing, and different terrains such as road, pedestrian walkways, railway tracks, and road-markings which the vehicles must navigate. It’s here that experts test scenarios that even the most experienced of drivers may be pressed to handle, from children playing in the street to two cars trying to merge on a junction at the same time.

“In order to test driverless technology like this, it depends on hundreds of different variables in any given situation,” explains Necmiye Ozay, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan. Her solution is to create a group of varied thinkers.

“We’re trying to bring people from different parts of the university – not only engineers, but we have people from across disciplines such as psychology, more human-machine-interaction type people, because there are lots of angles to this problem we are trying to solve when it comes to safety,” says Ozay. In the facility, Ozay and her team can test different traffic scenarios, as well as explore how autonomous vehicles communicate with each other yet keep vehicle and personal data secure from hackers.

…One new space we can expect to see driverless technology deployed in is high-risk environments, from nuclear plants to military settings, to limit the dangers to human life, says Fowler. A Rio Tinto mine in Western Australia, for example, is currently operating the largest autonomous fleet in the world. The trucks are controlled by a centralised system miles away in Perth.

“If you can take people out of that and you can have vehicles that are driving themselves, and are fully automated even, if you’ve got somebody who’s remotely needing to control that vehicle in that high-risk environment then that’s got to be good,” says Fowler.


My test for an autonomous vehicle would be the streets of Cambridge (UK), where student cyclists bring new meaning to Brownian motion.
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Gettr by the Pu$$y • The Bulwark

Tim Miller:


For starters, Gettr’s verification system is a mess because the platform hasn’t figured out how to resolve the tension between freedom of speech and the freedom to spoof. Which is to say, if you’re a Newsmax anchor, you can get a special red Verrit V, meaning that you are who you say you are. Other accounts are stuck with a black V that I could not determine the significance of. Still other accounts display a homemade checkmark.

And the pranksters got me! My very first brand follow—@SonicFastFood—was not a representative of America’s heritage of innovative and tasty drive-in cuisine, but rather a digital gathering space for furry porn. Of which there is a lot on Gettr.

Look, that’s not my bag of beans but no judgment. If MAGAs are into that sort of thing, that’s cool. But let me just say that during my first day on Gettr I didn’t come across a single substantive exchange of ideas—but I was exposed to a very great deal of Sonic the Hedgehog erotica. What a world.

…The most revealing part of the Gettr experience wasn’t what was on the platform—but what wasn’t.

Because it turns out that this cesspool would have been even worse if not for the fact that Jason Miller was doing exactly the same thing that Facebook and Twitter and all the other Big Bad Tech Oligarchs do: moderating his site’s content in order to provide a more usable product for his audience.

Complaints about this heavy-handed, neo-Puritan moderation were all over the platform.


Lest you think this is a left-wing site laughing at a right-wing social network, The Bulwark is unapologetically Reaganite in viewpoint. It’s just that Reagan now looks like Biden to the GOP faithful.
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‘Don’t Look Up’ nails the media apocalypse • The New York Times

Ben Smith:


[Director of the Netflix film, Adam] McKay said he tried five different ideas that would allow him to make a movie about the climate crisis, but nothing worked. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years, without exaggeration, since the Chicxulub comet, bigger than the Black Plague, bigger than Krakatoa?” he said in an interview, describing the question that kept him up at night.

“How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history,” he continued, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about — or when it is being talked about, it’s in the fourth block, or the ninth story down?”

He hit on the solution while talking one night in January 2019 with [David] Sirota, who was venting about the news media’s passive reaction to climate change, saying it was as though a meteor was headed for earth and no one seemed to get it. Soon, the two were texting plot points back and forth.

“Don’t Look Up” is populated by politicians and Silicon Valley madmen denying reality for their own reasons, behaving in ways that are recognizably self-interested and deluded. But the real villain is a news media that is forever chasing after a distracted audience and, as a result, simply … cannot … focus.

When the two scientists emphasize the reality of the coming apocalypse during their appearance on “The Daily Rip,” the host played by Mr. Perry is singularly focused on one thing: whether the meteor will take out his ex-wife’s house in Florida. The other host, played by Cate Blanchett as a charming, hyper-educated, amoral stand-in for Mika Brzezinski, is more interested in the DiCaprio character’s nerdy sex appeal.

…In a twist right out of the movie itself, much of the publicity for “Don’t Look Up” has been focused on Hollywood gossip. Early in the rollout, Mr. McKay told Vanity Fair that he hadn’t spoken with his longtime partner Will Ferrell, the star of “Anchorman” and other McKay films, including “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights,” since he cast a different actor to play the lead in a planned HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers.

Seeing a Hollywood spat push aside an earnest message on climate change was “almost hilariously ironic,” Mr. McKay said.


Only almost, though.
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What makes boosters more effective than the first two Covid jabs? • The Guardian

Hannah Devlin:


Mutations in the virus mean its spike protein now looks quite different from that of the original Wuhan strain that all current vaccines were designed to target. That in turn means antibodies from previous infection and vaccination will be less efficient at intercepting Omicron. Because they stick to the virus less vigorously, a higher quantity of antibodies is also required to compensate for them being less well matched.

Studies show that a booster dose increases the levels of antibodies significantly above the level seen after two doses, which some hope means waning immunity will occur more slowly after a third dose, though insufficient time has passed to determine if this is the case.

Early studies also suggest that the quality of antibodies is higher following a booster. The immune system continues to refine exactly which antibodies are selected and amplified based on subsequent encounters with the virus or vaccine, and studies suggest there is a broader, more potent immune response following a third dose.

There is also reason for some optimism that vaccines may hold up better against severe disease than against infection. The immune system has a second line of defence in T cells, which attack cells already infected. These tend to stick around longer and they recognise parts of the virus that are more highly conserved, meaning Omicron’s mutations are less likely to throw them off the scent. So if antibodies are not good enough to stave off infection, T-cells can swoop in to bring the disease under control before it makes a person seriously unwell.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1700: Apache’s RCE flaws, the YouTuber detective, Twitter Spaces problems, chronological Instagram?, and more

The Selina Meyer character in HBO’s Veep efficiently satirised American politicians – but now they’re not the people with power nowadays. CC-licensed photo by Jeffrey Zeldman 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. Seventeen hundred! There’ll be a test. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Extremely critical Log4J vulnerability leaves much of the internet at risk • The Hacker News

Ravie Laksmanan:


Log4j is used as a logging package in a variety of different popular software by a number of manufacturers, including Amazon, Apple iCloud, Cisco, Cloudflare, ElasticSearch, Red Hat, Steam, Tesla, Twitter, and video games such as Minecraft. In the case of the latter, attackers have been able to gain RCE on Minecraft Servers by simply pasting a specially crafted message into the chat box.

“The Apache Log4j zero-day vulnerability is probably the most critical vulnerability we have seen this year,” said Bharat Jogi, senior manager of vulnerabilities and signatures at Qualys. “Log4j is a ubiquitous library used by millions of Java applications for logging error messages. This vulnerability is trivial to exploit.”

Cybersecurity firms BitDefender, Cisco Talos, Huntress Labs, and Sonatype have all confirmed evidence of mass scanning of affected applications in the wild for vulnerable servers and attacks registered against their honeypot networks following the availability of a proof-of-concept (PoC) exploit. “This is a low skilled attack that is extremely simple to execute,” Sonatype’s Ilkka Turunen said.

GreyNoise, likening the flaw to Shellshock, said it observed malicious activity targeting the vulnerability commencing on December 9, 2021. Web infrastructure company Cloudflare noted that it blocked roughly 20,000 exploit requests per minute around 1800 UTC on Friday, with most of the exploitation attempts originating from Canada, the US, Netherlands, France, and the UK.


Pretty comprehensive list of big user companies. RCE – remote code execution – is the worst of the worst. This has been concerning security people up and down the internet, though of course it won’t percolate up to the rest of the world until something really dramatic happens. And it’s unlikely this will be used to do something dramatic; more likely, to extract information or to access a system and lurk in there.
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Why satire gave up on politics • UnHerd

Dorian Lynskey:


Next to most politicians, the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are fascinatingly weird characters with literally cosmic ambitions. Mark Zuckerberg, in his public appearances, comes off as less a human being than a beta-version AI — a flesh-and-blood demonstration of the uncanny valley. This is good material. Take Christopher Evan Welch in Silicon Valley, whose character Peter Gregory always looked as if he were on the verge of teleporting back to his home planet, Oscar Isaac’s malfunctioning hipster hermit in Ex Machina, or Nick Offerman’s glumly deranged schlub-genius in Devs. Succession’s Lukas Mattson combines a killer instinct with airport-bookstore self-help mantras and the distinct impression that he could tank [his Scandinavian content streaming service] GoJo’s share price with a single ill-judged tweet composed while tripping at Burning Man.

But tech gurus aren’t just a fun new toy for writers to play with. Satire follows power, and power is not where it was. In Western democracies there is a general sense that politicians are hamstrung and hopeless while tech companies are busy changing the way we communicate, think and act. After a mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, for example, social media companies did far more to dampen Trump’s efforts to overturn the election than Congress did.

Iannucci told me that his final episode of Veep, which ended with a deadlocked electoral college, “seemed to me to sum up where American politics is”, which is to say paralysed. While Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda depends on the vanity of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Jeff Bezos is flying into space and earning $143,000 a minute. Which man is the more fertile source of both comedy and outrage? In Succession, Logan Roy has the power to bring down one president and handpick another, yet even he is at the mercy of Lukas Mattson’s whims.


This is a really good point. (Yes, Succession is satire.) Silicon Valley was fine satire, and the episode of Veep where Selina Meyer goes to Silicon Valley and is unblinkingly told by one company that “we think of ourselves as post-tax” is one of the best in the whole series.

We also use satire to tear down that which we think has been placed wrongly above us. So there’s that.
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Businessweek 2021 Jealousy List • Bloomberg

The Bloomberg editors and staff:


At Bloomberg Businessweek, we read—a lot. We also listen to podcasts and watch a ton of stuff (often with borrowed passwords). Sometimes we read, watch, or listen to something that we wish we had published. To recognize a job well done, the magazine’s staff and many of our contributors in the Bloomberg newsroom have compiled our annual yearend Jealousy List. Congratulations to those on this year’s list, we hate/love you.


I mean, strictly it should be called the Envy List, shouldn’t it. No matter; plenty of fun content in there, too variable to classify.
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Scuba-diving YouTuber finds car linked to teens missing since 2000 • The New York Times

Amanda Holpuch:


A YouTuber who uses underwater sonar equipment to investigate missing persons cases found a car belonging to two Tennessee teenagers who have been missing for 21 years, potentially bringing an end to the cold case.

It is at least the fourth time since late October that people who investigate cold cases on YouTube have dived and found a submerged vehicle belonging to a missing person.

The teenagers, Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel, both of Sparta, Tenn., were last seen on April 3, 2000, leaving Erin’s home in her 1988 Pontiac Grand Am.

Late last month, Jeremy Sides, 42, who runs the YouTube account Exploring With Nug, searched nearby lakes for a few days before turning his attention to Calfkiller River. Shortly before nightfall on Nov. 30, his sonar device showed that his boat was floating above a car-shaped object. He spent the night in his van, then dived to identify the car’s make and license plate number first thing the next morning. It was a match for Erin’s missing Pontiac.

Mr. Sides documented the discovery in a 20-minute YouTube video that includes his phone call to Steve Page, the sheriff of White County, to report the findings. In the video, the sheriff meets Mr. Sides at the site and expresses his thanks: “You just became White County’s hero.”

In a brief telephone interview, the sheriff said that divers recovered human remains on Thursday but that they had not been positively identified. “We do believe it’s them,” Sheriff Page said on Friday. “We found articles that came out of the car and was in the water that leads us to believe it’s them.”


Obviously, having a YouTube channel is the financial incentive for his activities. I wonder if it’s encouraging or the opposite that individuals are making more impact in cold cases than the police, who should have so many more resources (such as access to bank accounts and phone records) at their disposal.

Then you consider that in the UK a serial killer was only caught by the efforts of the relatives of his victims, which makes you wonder more deeply about the efficacy of the police.
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How a bug in Android and Microsoft Teams could have caused this user’s 911 call to fail • Medium

Mishaal Rahman goes into some detail (with a fair amount of digging into Android) to figure out this bug, mentioned last week:


I do not use Microsoft Teams that often, but from what I’ve read online, there have been problems where it frequently logs the user out. I have also read reports that enterprises can set a policy to log the user out from time to time for security reasons.

After inspecting a decompiled version of the Microsoft Teams application, we were able to determine why a new PhoneAccount instance appears every time the app restarts. We found that when the user is not signed in, a new, randomly generated UUID is used to create the PhoneAccount instance that gets added to Android’s TelecomManager. This means that every time the Teams app restarts or crashes, a new UUID is generated for users that are not logged in, and thus a new PhoneAccount is added to Android’s TelecomManager. Because Teams has a boot broadcast receiver, this also happens every time the phone is rebooted.


For complicated reasons (which are explained, but it’s not short), having too many “PhoneAccount” IDs can cause emergency calls to fail. There is a little open source app for Android users which will detect if there are too many PhoneAccounts registered on a phone.
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Social media makes us know too much about each other • The New York Times

Michelle Goldberg:


As [Duke University professor of sociology Christopher] Bail writes in his recent book, “Breaking the Social Media Prism,” [his team] recruited 1,220 Twitter users who identified as either Democrats or Republicans, offering to pay them $11 to follow a particular Twitter account for a month. Though the participants didn’t know it, the Democrats were assigned to follow a bot account that retweeted messages from prominent Republican politicians and thinkers. The Republicans, in turn, followed a bot account that retweeted Democrats.

At the time, a lot of concern about the internet’s role in political polarization centered around what the digital activist Eli Pariser once called filter bubbles, a term for the way an increasingly personalized internet traps people in self-reinforcing information silos. “The echo chamber idea was reaching its kind of apex in terms of its public influence,” Bail told me. “It nicely explained how Trump had won, how Brexit had happened.” Bail’s team wanted to see if getting people to engage with ideas they wouldn’t otherwise encounter might moderate their views.

The opposite happened. “Nobody became more moderate,” said Bail. “Republicans in particular became much more conservative when they followed the Democratic bot, and Democrats became a little bit more liberal.”

Social media platforms have long justified themselves with the idea that connecting people would make the world more open and humane. In offline life, after all, meeting lots of different kinds of people tends to broaden the mind, turning caricatures into complicated individuals. It’s understandable that many once believed the same would be true on the internet.

But it turns out there’s nothing intrinsically good about connection, especially online. On the internet, exposure to people unlike us often makes us hate them, and that hatred increasingly structures our politics. The social corrosion caused by Facebook and other platforms isn’t a side effect of bad management and design decisions. It’s baked into social media itself.


No. It’s baked into humans. We identify our tribe, and we reject (weakly or strongly) those not in our tribe. We can rub along with large numbers of people in daily life as long as we don’t know too much about their deepest political, social, or other views. Once we’re exposed to that a lot – hello, social media! – we get that tribal itch to either welcome them or reject them. That’s what gives you social warming. (I guess the interesting question next would be to identify at what age those tribal delineations are moulded. Feel free to email/comment/tweet, social scientists.)
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Twitter Spaces is being used by the Taliban and white nationalists • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Will Oremus, Craig Timberg and Nitasha Tiku:


Earlier this year, as Twitter raced to roll out Spaces, its new live audio chat feature, some employees asked how the company planned to make sure the service didn’t become a platform for hate speech, bullying and calls to violence.

In fact, there was no plan. In a presentation to colleagues shortly before its public launch in May, a top Twitter executive, Kayvon Beykpour, acknowledged that people were likely to break Twitter’s rules in the audio chats, according to an attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters. But he and other Twitter executives — convinced that Spaces would help revive the sluggish company — refused to slow down.

Fast forward six months and those problems have become reality. Taliban supporters, white nationalists, and anti-vaccine activists sowing coronavirus misinformation have hosted live audio broadcasts on Spaces that hundreds of people have tuned in to, according to researchers, users and screenshots viewed by The Washington Post. Other Spaces conversations have disparaged transgender people and Black Americans. These chats are neither policed nor moderated by Twitter, the company acknowledges, because it does not have human moderators or technology that can scan audio in real-time.


The fear of Clubhouse’s growth obviously drove this, but I wonder whether now that that threat is fast receding they’ll get on top of it. There’s a suggestion in the story of internal demands for big big BIG listener numbers, but quantity is never the answer online.
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Still a few days to order Social Warming, my latest book, which explains how tribalism and outrage turns social networks sour – and how that affects people even in places where social network penetration is low.

How cryptocurrency revolutionized the white supremacist movement • Southern Poverty Law Center

Michael Edison Hayden and Megan Squire:


Less than a quarter of Americans presently own some form of cryptocurrency as of May 2021. But those numbers increase substantially within fringe right-wing spaces, according to Hatewatch’s findings, approaching something much closer to universal adoption. Hatewatch struggled to find any prominent player in the global far right who hasn’t yet embraced cryptocurrency to at least some degree. The average age of a cryptocurrency investor is 38, but even senior citizens in the white supremacist movement, such as Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, 69, and Peter Brimelow of VDARE, 73, have moved tens of thousands of dollars of the asset in recent years.

Cryptocurrency, or a group of digital moneys maintained through decentralized systems, has grown into a billion-dollar industry. A growing swath of Americans embrace the technology. Nothing is inherently criminal or extreme about it, and most of its users have no connections to the extreme far right. (One of the authors of this essay owns cryptocurrency, as disclosed in an author’s note at the end.) However, the far right’s early embrace of cryptocurrency merits deeper analysis, due to the way they used it to expand their movement and to obscure funding sources. It is not uncommon for far-right extremists to seek to hide their dealings from the public. The relative secrecy blockchain technology offers has become a profitable, but still extraordinarily risky, gamble against traditional banking.

“There are a lot of Bitcoin whales from pretty early [on in its history],” futurist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier told the Lex Fridman podcast in September. (People use “whales” to describe those who hold large sums of cryptocurrency.) “And they’re huge, and if you ask, ‘Who are these people?’ there’s evidence that a lot of them are not the people you would want to support.”

…“Bitcoin started in right-wing libertarianism,” [cryptocurrency critic David] Gerard said in an email. “This is not at all the same as being a neo-Nazi subculture. That said, there’s a greater proportion of Nazis there than you’d expect just by chance, and the Bitcoin subculture really doesn’t bother kicking its Nazis out. … Bitcoiners will simultaneously deny they have Nazis (which they observably do), and also claim it’s an anti-bitcoin lie, and also claim it’s good that anyone can use Bitcoin.”


The far right seems to have embraced it early on, perhaps because it couldn’t be blocked like traditional banking. But it is visible in a way they might not like, to everyone’s benefit.
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Instagram head answers questions about the future of the chronological feed • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:


In a Q&A on Friday, [Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri] said that the company is testing out two versions of the feature and that it’s “targeting early next year” as a release window.

One version of the chronological feed would let you “pick your favorites and they show up at the top in chronological order,” he said. The other would let you see the posts from everyone you’re following in chronological order, though he didn’t mention how recommended posts would be interspersed.

When a follow-up question asked Mosseri when the feature would show up, he said it wouldn’t be too long, and that Instagram is “already testing the favorites idea.” He said that “full chronological” mode would come shortly after.


Benedict Evans wrote back in 2013 that algorithmic feeds become necessary once you’ve go above a certain number of people you’re following:


When people get married, they are often quite sure that they will have a small, quiet wedding. None of these massive, extravagant parties with hundreds of people for us! We’ll just invite close family and friends. Then, you make a list of ‘close family and friends’… and realise why people have 100 or 200 people at a wedding. You know a lot more people than you think.

I was reminded of this recently by the fact that, according to Facebook, its average user is eligible to see at least 1,500 items per day in their newsfeed. Rather like the wedding with 200 people, this seems absurd. But then, it turns out, that over the course of a few years you do ‘friend’ 200 or 300 people. And if you’ve friended 300 people, and each of them post a couple of pictures, tap like on a few news stories or comment a couple of times, then, by the inexorable law of multiplication, yes, you will have something over a thousand new items in your feed every single day.


Even so, I think a lot of people will want Instagram Chrono.
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This terrible book shows why the Covid-19 lab leak theory won’t die • The New Republic

Lindsay Beyerstein reviews “Viral” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley (yes, that Matt Ridley):


When you raise concrete objections to one theory, lab leakers throw out a slightly different version. If Covid-19 couldn’t be made from RaTG13, what if it was made from some other virus like RaTG13? No social or geographic link to the Wuhan Institute? Well, maybe it was some other lab we don’t know about. No obvious signs of genetic modification? Suppose they used an invisible technique? None of these scenarios is prima facie impossible, and therefore, once raised, none can be dismissed out of hand. But none of them is supported by any evidence whatsoever. And if you don’t like those, they have others. They’re just asking questions, here.

The through line in all of these possible scenarios is that there is no through line. There’s no overarching coherent narrative about when or how this “lab leak” happened. And in making that clear, Viral also shows why the very weakness of the lab leak case is also its greatest strength: The great part about suspicions—from a conspiracy theorist’s perspective—is that they don’t have to gel into any coherent theory. You can just have a bad feeling that becomes someone else’s job to resolve for you.

This is why the lab leak theory will never die, no matter how much evidence virologists are patiently accumulating on the side of natural origin. It’s all about suspicion and innuendo. And when one supposedly suspicious event is unpacked, it’s usually a long and boring explanation nobody wants to hear. Meanwhile, the theorists have already found 10 more things that seem spooky to them. Conspiracy theories, we’re learning, are even harder to eradicate than infectious diseases.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified