Start Up No.1720: faster internet means less Big Society, how the Covid-19 dashboard was built, the trouble with earbuds, and more

An old sort-of favourite on Apple’s desktop Mac OS X, the Dashboard, was phased out – but now it’s needed more than ever as widgets proliferate. CC-licensed photo by Ben Ramsey on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Faster internet speeds linked to lower civic engagement in UK • The Guardian

Robert Booth:


Faster internet access has significantly weakened civic participation in Britain, according to a study that found involvement in political parties, trade unions and volunteering fell as web speeds rose.

Volunteering in social care fell by more than 10% when people lived closer to local telecoms exchange hubs and so enjoyed faster web access. Involvement in political parties fell by 19% with every 1.8km increase in proximity to a hub. By contrast, the arrival of fast internet had no significant impact on interactions with family and friends.

The analysis of behaviour among hundreds of thousands of people led by academics from Cardiff University and Sapienza University of Rome found faster connection speeds may have reduced the likelihood of civic engagement among close to 450,000 people – more than double the estimated membership of the Conservative party. They found that as internet speeds rose between 2005 and 2018, time online “crowded out” other forms of civic engagement.

The study’s authors have also speculated that the phenomenon may have helped fuel populism as people’s involvement with initiatives for “the common good”, which they say are effectively “schools of democracy” where people learn the benefit of cooperation, has declined.

Other studies have shown that social media engagement has strengthened other kinds of civic engagement, for example by helping to organise protests and fuelling an interest in politics, even if it does not manifest in traditional forms of participation.

However, politics conducted online has been found to be more susceptible to “filter bubbles”, which limit participants’ exposure to opposing views and so foster polarisation.


This appears to be the study, though nobody troubles to link to it 🙄. Not so much “bowling alone” as “internetting alone”.
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Over 90 WordPress themes, plugins backdoored in supply chain attack • Bleeping Computer

Bill Toulas:


A massive supply chain attack compromised 93 WordPress themes and plugins to contain a backdoor, giving threat-actors full access to websites.

In total, threat actors compromised 40 themes and 53 plugins belonging to AccessPress, a developer of WordPress add-ons used in over 360,000 active websites.

The attack was discovered by researchers at Jetpack, the creators of a security and optimization tool for WordPress sites, who discovered that a PHP backdoor had been added to the themes and plugins.

Jetpack believes an external threat actor breached the AccessPress website to compromise the software and infect further WordPress sites.


It would be really nice – like, really nice – if WordPress were a lot more robust against this sort of thing, which goes on all the time. I was looking at a site about the Brexit referendum, and it was rotten with bitcoin spam. People set up sites and forget them, and leave security holes wide open. WordPress has been a boon, but also a security nightmare.
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How the UK COVID-19 dashboard was built, using Postgres and Citus for millions of users • Microsoft Tech Community

Claire Giordano:


The list of people who rely on the UK Coronavirus dashboard is quite long: government personnel, public health officials, healthcare employees, journalists, and the public all use the same service.


“While ministers and scientists are able to see individual data sets before the public, the dashboard itself is an example of truly democratized, open-access data: the latest graphs and someone sitting at home in Newcastle sees the latest trends and graphs for the first time at 4pm, the same moment as Boris Johnson [the Prime Minister] in his office in Downing Street does.”
—The i newspaper, 12 February 2021, Behind the scenes of the coronavirus dashboard


In addition to exemplifying the value of open-access data, the UK Coronavirus dashboard is open source. All of the software, and the SQL queries themselves, can be found on GitHub, under the MIT license with the data available under the Open Government License 3.0.

Accessibility is another important design principle. The dashboard is designed for people with different disabilities. The interface is simple to use and enables anyone to navigate the data, letting you visualize trends over time and across geographic regions.

This post is a deep dive into how the UK Coronavirus analytics dashboard came to be, and why it’s architected the way it’s architected. In this post you’ll learn about the database challenges the team faced as the dashboard needed to scale—with an eye toward how the UKHSA team uses Azure, the Azure Database for PostgreSQL managed service, and the Citus extension which transforms Postgres into a distributed database.


One million users per day, 70m hits per day. A real triumph for open data, I’d say.
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Apple should bring back Dashboard • 512 Pixels

Stephen Hackett:


The design of Dashboard [which was an “under-the-desktop” virtual layer, which featured “widgets” consisting of simple HTML and CSS] got toned down over time, and eventually it wasn’t even enabled by default on clean macOS installations. Keyboards that once shipped with a dedicated Dashboard shortcut were slowly phased out. By the time Apple finally pulled the plug on Dashboard in macOS Catalina, most of the widgets that once graced this corner of the OS had died off. The party had packed up years earlier, leaving just a small percentage of users still relying on the feature.

Apple killed off Dashboard at exactly the wrong time. Just one year after Catalina killed Dashboard, Apple started allowing developers to bring their iOS widgets over to the Mac in macOS Big Sur. Sadly, they all got stuffed into the slide-out Notification Center user interface.

Notification Center is a real mess. Even on a Pro Display XDR, you get three visible notifications. That’s it. Anything older is hidden behind a button, regardless of how many widgets you may have in the lower section of the Notification Center column.

Apple needs to rethink this and let this new class of widgets breathe, being able to use the entire screen like the widgets of yore could. Bringing back Dashboard is an obvious solution here, and I’d love to see it make a return.


As Hackett points out, the old widgets did offer a small amount of interactivity, which the new ones don’t – they’re just a static window onto whatever they point at. An odd regression.
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Lawmakers target bitcoin and crypto’s carbon footprint • Buzzfeed News

Sarah Emerson:


For years, cryptocurrency has rivaled entire nations in terms of energy use, and US lawmakers are just now starting to investigate how crypto mining operations could be undermining global efforts to combat climate change.

This question was the subject of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday that broadly examined the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum. The panel addressed a growing refrain that certain types of crypto transactions are catastrophically energy intensive and are extending the lifetime of fossil fuel resources. Committee members also questioned some of the promises made by crypto boosters, such as the claim that miners can actually help stabilize energy grids.

“Our focus now needs to be reducing carbon emissions overall, and increasing the share of green energy on the grid,” subcommittee Chair Rep. Diana DeGette said during introductory remarks. While the unique demands of crypto “present potential benefits,” DeGette continued, “it’s important to understand the degree to which this is actually being done.”

The hearing marks one of the few times that lawmakers have discussed crypto’s climate implications on a bipartisan stage. Last year, six crypto company executives testified before the House Financial Services Committee; one of those CEOs, Bitfury’s Brian Brooks, appeared again on Thursday as a panel witness alongside other crypto CEOs and former government officials.

“Crypto’s energy consumption is a feature, not a bug,” said witness John Belizaire, CEO of data center developer Soluna Computing, claiming that “the narrative of [crypto’s] threat to the grid is wrong.”


Gonna disagree with you there, John. The noise about banning mining – and, more to the point, rising interest rates and inflation – seems meanwhile to have spooked (some) owners of crypto, which saw big selloffs on Friday.
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I tried to fix my wireless earbuds. It did not go well • Financial Times

Alexandra Heal:


Of the 54 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally in 2019, less than one-fifth was formally recycled. Small electronics epitomise the problem. They’re easy to hoard, cheap to replace and have been neglected by government recycling targets, which are based on weight. The issue will only become more acute as smaller and smaller electronics proliferate in our daily lives. (Global spending on wearable tech has nearly doubled since 2019 and is forecast to grow at a similar rate.) “Every piece of dust makes a mountain,” says Ruediger Kuehr, a sustainability researcher at United Nations University, the research arm of the UN.

Right now, mass-market electronics don’t get much smaller than earbuds. Unlike plug-in earphones, an earbud’s dependence on a battery gives it a limited life span and requires a complex chemistry of critical raw materials such as lithium and cobalt. The magnets in the charging cases are likely to contain neodymium, another rare earth material. For Michael Rohwer from the US business sustainability network BSR, earbuds represent the most difficult part of the e-waste conundrum. “The number of headphones you’ve been through in your life is probably staggering. Earbuds take that problem to the next level.”

Holding up my lifeless pair, I wondered what the world was going to do with the looming deluge of dead sets. If everyone else was going to stuff them in a drawer too, could something be done? I resolved to try to fix them and, pretty quickly, found myself falling down a very tiny, very deep rabbit hole.


Long story short, you’re not going to fix those suckers. Let someone else recycle them when, inevitably, they die.
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How BBC News topped 20m Instagram followers – and why it’s not on TikTok • Press Gazette

Charlotte Tobitt:


BBC News crossed 20m followers on Instagram in December – the first news account in the world to do so.

The closest news account on the platform is CNN with 16.3m followers. The next biggest UK-based newsbrand is The Guardian on 4.9m.

Although all major newsbrands saw their Instagram accounts grow as the Covid-19 pandemic led to a demand for trusted news sources, BBC News has done particularly well out of it.

BBC News head of social Jeremy Skeet told Press Gazette there is a simple formula of four things that have helped the account grow:

• “laser-like focus” on the audience
• regular posting
• creating more explainers especially in relation to Covid-19, and
• using text on images.

“Obviously we’ve tweaked various things as we’ve gone along,” he said. “But fundamentally, I think that’s what’s driven our growth and lots of other people’s growth.”


The decision not to use TikTok (and to abandon Snapchat) is that the audience is… younger. Skeet said of that:


“We’re only going to go on to these platforms if editorially we think they’re the right platforms to be on and we can create the content that would work on this platform and work for BBC News. We haven’t really got the resources to do video solely for TikTok so we’re not going to do that.”


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Debate: Lawfare and UK Court System • Hansard, the record of the UK Parliament

Last week David Davis attracted a lot of attention for calling for Boris Johnson to resign. But this debate that he instigated is, to me, far more important:


Early in 2021, Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a video investigation into President Putin’s palace on the Black sea. In the video, he waved a copy of “Putin’s People” by Catherine Belton, a much respected Financial Times journalist at the time. Just two months later, Belton and her publisher were suddenly served with a series of lawsuits, filed over the course of six weeks by four Russian billionaires and the state-run company Rosneft—that, I think, gives away that the Russian state is involved.

Media lawyers with decades of experience in such cases said that they had never seen a legal onslaught of such scale and intensity. Those cases dragged on for over a year, and the cost of that year alone ran into the millions—£1.5 million for Catherine Belton alone. If the case had gone on, it would have cost millions more.

One of those suing Belton—the final one—was Roman Abramovich, the multi-billionaire owner of Chelsea football club. Abramovich claimed that Belton’s book alleged that he had a corrupt relationship with the Russian President and was making payments into Kremlin slush funds. An identical suit was also filed in an Australian court by Abramovich, to effectively double the cost of defending the case and to further intimidate HarperCollins.

It is worth reminding people of Mr Abramovich’s background and the character of the man. We are speaking here of the man who manages President Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee. This is a man who was refused a Swiss residency permit, due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organisations. Abramovich was also deemed a danger to public security and a reputational risk to Switzerland.


What he says is protected under Parliamentary privilege (so he can’t be sued, and happily nor can I if I just report it accurately). The allegations in the debate are absolutely appalling. It’s clear that reforms of the damages and costs system is needed.
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The nanotechnology revolution is here — we just haven’t noticed yet • WSJ

Christopher Mims:


Another example of modern nanomachines manipulates light rather than electricity. A new kind of lens, known as a “metalens,” has been shown in the laboratory to be able to bend and shape light in ways that used to require a whole stack of conventional lenses, says Juejun Hu, an associate professor of materials science at MIT. The advantage of metalenses is that they are thin and nearly flat—at least to the naked eye.

Under an electron microscope, the surface of a metalens looks like a plush carpet. At this scale, the metalens is clearly covered with minuscule pillars—each one-thousandth the width of a human hair—sticking up from its surface. This texture allows a metalens to bend light in a way that’s analogous to the way that conventional lenses do. (The way these little silicon “fibers” work is novel enough that they forced physicists to rethink their understanding of how light and matter interact.)

A handful of startups are translating metalens technology to commercial applications. Among them is Metalenz, which just announced a deal with semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics to make 3-D sensors for smartphones. This application of metalenses could allow a greater variety of phone manufacturers to achieve the kind of 3-D sensing that enables Apple’s Face ID technology.

Unlocking your phone with your face is just the beginning, says Metalenz CEO Robert Devlin. Metalenses also have abilities that can be difficult to reproduce with conventional lenses. For example, because they facilitate the detection of polarized light, they can “see” things conventional lenses can’t. That could include detecting levels of light pollution, allowing the cameras on automobile safety and self-driving systems to detect black ice, and giving our phone cameras the ability to detect skin cancer, says Mr. Devlin.


I wish, I so wish, that there were more attention paid (as Chris does) to this real, and really important, stuff than to vanity concepts like NFTs.
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ICO criticises government-backed campaign to delay end-to-end encryption • Computer Weekly

Bill Goodwin:


The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has stepped into the debate over end-to-end encryption (E2EE), warning that delaying its introduction leaves everyone at risk – including children.

The privacy watchdog said end-to-end encryption plays an important role in safeguarding privacy and online safety, protecting children from abusers, and is crucial for business services.

The intervention follows the launch of a government-funded campaign this week that warns that social media companies are “blinding themselves” to child sexual abuse by introducing end-to-end encrypted messaging services.

Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of innovation, said the discussion on end-to-end encryption had become too unbalanced, with too much focus on the costs, without weighing up the significant benefits it offers.

“E2EE serves an important role both in safeguarding our privacy and online safety,” he said. “It strengthens children’s online safety by not allowing criminals and abusers to send them harmful content.

“It is also crucial for businesses, enabling them to share information securely and fosters consumer confidence in digital services.”


The ICO and the Home Office being at odds probably isn’t that new, but outright contradicting a message really is.
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Fraudsters hijack Instagram accounts to scam others • BBC News

Beatrice Pickup and Shari Vahl:


[Nicole Reeves, 36] had come across a video posted by her friend and former colleague Shaks, 27, who also lives in Bristol. In the video he explained how he had invested £500 and received £5,000 back.

She messaged who she thought was her Shaks via Instagram, and he confirmed that it was true. Ms Reeves was then instructed to contact a profile called Shanny_Powell1_ on Instagram. She was told that she could benefit from fluctuations in currency and that if she invested £500 she would get £5,000 within an hour.

Having transferred the funds, she was told she had been chosen for a special bonus and would be receiving £20,000, but only if she could find some more money to pay for ‘taxes’. In total, Ms Reeves transferred a total of £1,200 to an account in Jamaica using a money transfer website.

She said: “I kept thinking to myself, this is real, I’ve verified it, I’ve watched my friend in this video and I’ve spoken to him through Instagram on a message, so it’s got to be real.” Ms Reeves then received a phone call from someone who claimed to be a manager.

He asked her to record a video of herself, to tell everyone how great the investment was and showing appreciation to ‘Shanny Powell’.

She was told that she would receive the money once she had recorded the video. Finally, she was persuaded to hand over her Apple ID, password, and then the one time passcode that appeared on her phone. She was told this was to prove her identity.

“Things started to happen in front of my face. Everything started going absolutely crazy,” she said. “Things were happening to my Instagram account which I was getting logged out of and I was locked out of my phone.” Ms Reeves never received any of the money promised.


I know I should be sympathetic but honestly, how can you reach the age of 36 and think that you can increase the value of your money tenfold in an hour? And then to hand over everything including your 2FA codes. Astonishing.
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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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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