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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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

  1. The claim that an octopus went tank-raiding and returned (and *hid evidence*) is apparently an Urban Legend, retold over and over in these sorts of pieces. Nobody seems to have ever produced such a video, which I think is dispositive. It’s also very implausible if you really think about it. Getting out of the tank and then shortly returning is going to produce a trail of water. The connection would be obvious (hey, there’s a long wet path between these two tanks, with a predator in one, and another has now-missing prey, oh, what in the world could be the connection?). There would also be streaks on the sides of the tanks. I don’t think an octopus understands the concept of “mopping up”. And even if it did, what would it use to mop up and then hide? (i.e. like painting yourself into a corner).

    That would actually be a pretty exhausting trip. Down the side of home tank, drag across the floor, then *up* the side of prey tank (I suppose doing the octopus equivalent of panting hard). I’ll grant it can rest in the prey tank for a while. Then the same thing over again, down the side of prey tank, drag across the floor once more, then *up* the side of home tank. Maybe it’s not utterly physically impossible, but it’s implausible. And that’s certainly going to leave much evidence in its wake.

    How are we able to communicate with octopuses at all, compared to, e.g. dogs? If we can’t even play “fetch” or something like that, it hardly seems to qualify.

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