Start Up No.1734: Google+ is dead (again), who wants Macron’s DNA?, electricity ‘surge pricing’ coming, deciphering Indus, and more

Though useful for tracking lost dogs, Apple’s AirTags have also been used for malicious purposes – so the company is going to make it easier to find any you don’t own that are travelling with you. CC-licensed photo by Tony Alter on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Where are you exactly? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

An update on AirTag and unwanted tracking • Apple


New privacy warnings during AirTag setup: In an upcoming software update, every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will see a message that clearly states that AirTag is meant to track their own belongings, that using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.

Addressing alert issues for AirPods: We’ve heard from users who have reported receiving an “Unknown Accessory Detected” alert. We’ve confirmed this alert will not display if an AirTag is detected near you — only AirPods (3rd generation), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, or a third-party Find My network accessory. In the same software update, we will be updating the alert users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them instead of an “Unknown Accessory.”

…• Precision Finding: This capability allows recipients of an unwanted tracking alert to locate an unknown AirTag with precision. iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and iPhone 13 users will be able to use Precision Finding to see the distance and direction to an unknown AirTag when it is in range.

Display alert with sound: When AirTag automatically emits a sound to alert anyone nearby of its presence and is detected moving with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, we will also display an alert on your device that you can then take action on, like playing a sound or using Precision Finding, if available. This will help in cases where the AirTag may be in a location where it is hard to hear, or if the AirTag speaker has been tampered with.


Coming at some unspecified future date. Notable for the implication that Apple has helped law enforcement find who was behind some AirTags (“Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare”). The warning about linking the identifying information might make criminals take an extra step, of setting up a finsta iCloud account.
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So nice they killed it twice: Google+’s business pivot is dead • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Google+ is dead—again! The consumer version of Google+ may have shut down in April 2019, but Google kept the service rolling as an enterprise-focused social network it rebranded “Google Currents.” You need to pay for GSuite to use it, and only members of your organization can see the posts, so it is for private company announcements and discussions.

View more stories In the latest Google Workspace blog post, Google says that Currents is “winding down” starting in 2023. This is no surprise, since Google+ was a completely failed consumer product. Why Google thought pushing the dead service onto business would make Currents successful is unclear. (Hey, Google Stadia, does this sound familiar?) Google never really did anything with Currents after rebranding it as a business product. After rotting for years as a dead consumer product, Currents just rotted for a few more years with new business branding. What is surprising is that Google is pitching Google Chat as a replacement.


Amadeo’s job, as the guy doing the Google beat, is basically births and deaths. He’s like the classified bit of a newspaper.
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Every employee who leaves Apple becomes an ‘associate’ • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:


Inside Apple, your job classification can mean a lot. The difference between a “level 4” engineer and a “level 5,” for instance, could mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. And those titles help determine how much Apple employees can make when they leave the company for another job. But there’s a hitch.

In widely used databases that companies refer to for verification of job information, Apple changes the job title for every employee, whether they’re a PhD in computer science or a product manager, to “associate,” the company confirms.

Apple’s approach is bizarre if not unique, experts in employment practices say, but until now has gone largely unnoticed by anybody but a handful of job applicants whose résumés conflict with official databases maintained by job verification services run by companies such as Equifax and LexisNexis.

The title “associate” is generally used to connote more junior roles. Entry-level retail workers, for instance, are often called associates. Law firms refer to recent law school hires in the same way, and in universities, associate professors are ranked below those with the title “professor.”

The practice recently came to light when Cher Scarlett, a former Apple software engineer who raised concerns about alleged discrimination and misconduct at the company, filed a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that when Apple changed her job title to “associate,” it delayed the hiring process at a prospective employer by nearly a week, during which time the company rescinded the offer. Scarlett said the job verification service hired to vet her résumé was unable to resolve the discrepancy with Apple.

Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock confirmed that, for years, Apple has changed the job titles of its former employees to “associate.” Rosenstock declined to say why Apple does this or precisely when the practice began.


You can imagine that Apple doesn’t want its corporate structure to become visible as more and more people leave; recruiters and rivals spend huge amounts of time trying to figure out who fits where in an org chart.

But you’d think a grown-up company could at least confirm to a potential hirer what someone’s job was.
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People need to hear the good news about climate change • Slow Boring

Matthew Yglesias:


There is a lot of confusion about the difference between predictions and warnings.

But for example:
• I predict that another big wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections will hit next winter (if not sooner) as new variants emerge from animal reservoirs and the unvaccinated population as accumulated immunity wanes.
• I warn that there’s no guarantee the next variant (or the one after that) won’t combine super-transmissibility with being four or five times as deadly as Omicron (or worse), and unless we get cracking on next-generation vaccines, we could be staring down an epidemiological catastrophe within the next few years.

The prediction is something that I actually think is more likely than not to happen. With the warning, in this case, I am being hand-wavy about the actual probability (because I sincerely have no idea) but I’m trying to scare you a bit with a plausible small-probability catastrophe. The warning is a completely legitimate rhetorical device. In policy circles, we probably don’t spend enough time worrying about small odds of really bad things happening.

But if you are sitting around doomscrolling, paralyzed by the terror of SuperCovid, I want you to remember that this probably won’t happen and also that instead of worrying, you could take ten minutes to email your members of Congress and urge them to support the bipartisan Apollo Program for Biodefense. The odds of your email swaying a member of Congress are low, and the odds that one member of Congress getting fired up about this will cause it to pass are also low. But the odds of SuperCovid emerging are also low. We are simply trying to further reduce the probability, and every email you write counts.

By the same token, with climate change, two ideas are frequently mixed up:
• The IPCC predicts that unless we hold global warming to less than 1.5 degrees centigrade, the world will suffer some irreparable harms.
• The IPCC warns about cataclysmic results under the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unabated into the indefinite future.

These are both bad. But it’s not the case that we either hit the 1.5-degree target or else we fall into the nightmare scenario. There’s a whole range of possible outcomes.


OK, but I’m still waiting for the good news. Though as he points out, there are a lot of “doomers” out there (just as there are on Covid, to be honest.)
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An incomplete history of as a platform for scams, grift, and bad journalism • Nieman Journalism Lab

Joshua Benton:


If you need a refresher: The Gordon Gecko 1980s and NASDAQ-boom 1990s were both very good to Forbes, but things started to drift downward in the 2000s, both in print and in the new world online. When the financial crisis hit, there were cuts and layoffs and, for the first time, a non-Forbes hired to run the place, Mike Perlis. He and chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin came up with a revival strategy that just screams early 2010s digital media: It’s all about scale, baby, scale.

Forbes’ staff of journalists could produce great work, sure. But there were only so many of them, and they cost a lot of money. Why not open the doors to to a swarm of outside “contributors” — barely vetted, unedited, expected to produce at quantity, and only occasionally paid? (Some contributors received a monthly flat fee — a few hundred bucks — if they wrote a minimum number of pieces per month, with money above that possible for exceeding traffic targets. Others received nothing but the glory.)

As of 2019, almost 3,000 people were “contributors” — or as they told people at parties, “I’m a columnist for Forbes.”

Let’s think about incentives for a moment. Only a very small number of these contributors can make a living at it — so it’s a side gig for most. The two things that determine your pay are how many articles you write and how many clicks you can harvest — a model that encourages a lot of low-grade clickbait, hot takes, and deceptive headlines. And many of these contributors are writing about the subject of their main job — that’s where their expertise is, after all — which raises all sorts of conflict-of-interest questions. And their work was published completely unedited — unless a piece went viral, in which case a web producer might “check it more carefully.”

All of that meant that Forbes suddenly became the easiest way for a marketer to get their message onto a brand-name site.


A very entertaining spin through a fingers-over-the-eyes descent into crapness of what was once a respected brand. Sort-of related: crypto exchange Binance is investing $200m (in real money I hope) in Forbes. Yes, that’s Binance, which once filed a lawsuit against Forbes (then dropped it).
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Putin kept Macron at a distance for snubbing COVID demands: sources • Reuters

Michel Rose:


French President Emmanuel Macron refused a Kremlin request that he take a Russian COVID-19 test when he arrived to see President Vladimir Putin this week, and was therefore kept at a distance from the Russian leader, two sources in Macron’s entourage told Reuters.

Observers were struck by images of Macron and Putin sitting at opposite ends of 4-metre-long (13 ft) table to discuss the Ukraine crisis on Monday, with some diplomats and others suggesting Putin might be wanting to send a diplomatic message.

But the two sources, who have knowledge of the French president’s health protocol, told Reuters Macron had been given a choice: either he accepted a PCR test done by the Russian authorities and was allowed to get close to Putin, or he refused and had to abide by more stringent social distancing.

“We knew very well that meant no handshake and that long table. But we could not accept that they get their hands on the president’s DNA,” one of the sources told Reuters, referring to security concerns if the French leader was tested by Russian doctors.


What? What?? WHAT?? What exactly do they think Russia is going to do with Macron’s DNA? Clone him? Leave it at the scene of a crime and try to incriminate him? There’s caution, and there’s really wild caution. This sounds like they think Putin is some sort of Bond villain who can target people based on their DNA. (I liked No Time To Die, but it was fiction, people.)
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Energy ‘surge pricing’ to be offered to millions of households • Daily Telegraph

Matt Oliver:


Energy “surge pricing” is to be introduced for millions of British households for the first time after three of Britain’s largest suppliers threw their weight behind a revolutionary overhaul of the country’s power market.

Scottish Power, EDF and Octopus Energy said on Wednesday that they support radical new tariffs under which customers will be charged more for using energy during peak periods, and less in quieter ones.

The three businesses – which together have 11 million customers, equal to around a third of British households – gave their backing to a plan in which smart meters will automatically send half-hourly updates to suppliers about household energy use.

This change paves the way for the widespread use of surge pricing, raising the possibility that families could pay higher electricity rates for watching television or putting on the washing machine during peak times such as the morning and evenings, as prices fluctuate throughout the day.

The three companies already provide time-of-use deals to relatively small numbers of customers but experts say the smart meter overhaul will make it easy to offer them to millions more bill payers.

A Scottish Power spokesman said: “Time of use tariffs that are updated on a half-hourly basis will give consumers a real opportunity to save money on their energy bills, particularly for EV drivers charging from home.”


About half of domestic meters are “smart” meters that can feed directly back to the electricity companies how much energy they’re using, and allocate charging on that basis.

Wonder how the reactionary media (IOW right-wing ones) will react to this. Some people won’t like the idea of staggering when they use heavy consumption systems (heaters, washing machine, dishwasher, tumble dryer); others will get used to using timers.
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Geomagnetic storm destroys 40 new SpaceX satellites in orbit • The New York Times

Robin George Andrews:


Over the past three years, SpaceX has deployed thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit as part of its business to beam high-speed internet service from space. But the company’s latest deployment of 49 new satellites after a Feb. 3 launch did not go as planned.

As a consequence of a geomagnetic storm triggered by a recent outburst of the sun, up to 40 of 49 newly launched Starlink satellites have been knocked out of commission. They are in the process of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, where they will be incinerated.

The incident highlights the hazards faced by numerous companies planning to put tens of thousands of small satellites in orbit to provide internet service from space. And it’s possible that more solar outbursts will knock some of these newly deployed orbital transmitters out of the sky. The sun has an 11-year-long cycle in which it oscillates between hyperactive and quiescent states. Presently, it is ramping up to its peak, which has been forecast to arrive around 2025.

This recent solar paroxysm was relatively moderate by the sun’s standards. “I have every confidence that we’re going to see an extreme event in the next cycle, because that typically is what happens during a solar maximum,” said Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in England. If a milquetoast outburst can knock out 40 Starlink satellites hanging out at low orbital altitudes, a more potent solar scream has the potential to inflict greater harm on the mega-constellations of SpaceX and other companies.


Notice “and other companies” in that. SpaceX’s model, where unsuccessful satellites fall back, is actually a good thing: they’ll just burn up, won’t hit the ground, and won’t be space junk. Doesn’t help if there’s a big solar flare, but less (or not more) space junk is always welcome.
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She’s at the center of the Covid lab leak controversy. Now she’s telling her story • MIT Technology Review

Jane Qiu interviewed Shi Zhengli, the head of the Wuhan Institute of Virology:


As Shi showed me around her lab, she pointed to the deep freezers where the team kept tens of thousands of bat samples in chemical soups. She told me how virus-containing samples are kept frozen in the field, either on dry ice or in liquid nitrogen, before being transferred to dedicated, double-locked deep freezers in the Wuhan lab. Only designated personnel can access those samples; they need approval from two senior staff members, each of whom is in charge of a separate key to the two locks. All access to the samples is logged.

The core of her research over the past 18 years, she explained, has been to look for bat viruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-1, and to understand how they could evolve new features that allow them to infect humans. She talked me through that process, which begins with testing each bat sample to see if it contains a coronavirus—using the same PCR-based technique as many covid-19 tests. All coronaviruses contain a gene that encodes an enzyme called RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, or RdRp, which helps viruses replicate by making more copies of their genomes. If the characteristic RdRp shows up in a bat sample, it’s a telltale sign that a coronavirus is present. 

At first glance I was concerned by the sheer size of Shi’s collection of more than 20,000 bat samples. But she explained that on average only 10% contain coronaviruses, and only 10% of those are closely related to SARS-CoV-1: in all its years, the team has identified approximately 220 such viruses. The findings, say virologists such as Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney, have provided valuable insight into the evolutionary history of coronaviruses and the way they generate genetic variants.

Whenever the team found a bat relative of SARS-CoV-1, Shi says, she asked the same questions: How threatening is it to other animal species, including humans? What would it take for the virus to become one that, like SARS-CoV-1, can cause major epidemics?


Qiu worked as a molecular biologist for a decade and speaks Chinese and understands China. She wrote an earlier article in 2020 speaking to Shi. Of course the article doesn’t prove anything either way. It won’t convince the sceptics who insist Covid must have come from a “lab leak”. (This peer-reviewed paper says almost surely zoonosis.) Worth the time, though, to read an expert interviewed by someone who’s pretty close to the same.
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An ancient language has defied decryption for 100 years. Can AI crack the code? • Rest of World

Alizeh Kohari:


Politics aside, it is remarkable how little we know about the original people of the Indus Valley, who at one point constituted nearly 10% of the world’s inhabitants. It is especially galling given how much more we know about their contemporaries, such as the people of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. Part of the reason for this is the continued elusiveness of the Indus script.

Putting machines to work on the Indus script is trickier than using them to reverse-engineer [the ancient Greek script] Linear B. We don’t have a great deal of information about the Indus script: most crucially, we don’t know what other language it may be related to. As a result, a model like [MIT researcher Jaiming] Luo’s wouldn’t work for the Indus script. That’s not to say technology can’t help, though. In some ways, computer modeling has already played a crucial role: by showing that the Indus script is a language at all. 

For most of the 20th century, the Indus inscriptions were widely accepted as representations of an undeciphered language. Then, in 2004, a group of Harvard researchers — cultural neurobiologist and comparative historian Steve Farmer, computational theorist Richard Sproat, and philologist Michael Witzel — published a paper essentially rubbishing nearly all existing research on the matter. The Indus seals, they claimed, were nothing more than a collection of religious or political symbols — similar to, say, highway signs — and all attempts to decipher them as a language were a waste of time. To underscore their point, Farmer offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could find an Indus inscription containing at least 50 symbols. 

Most Indologists and other Indus script researchers dismissed these arguments. One group of mathematicians, however, turned to computers to investigate the claims. Ronojoy Adhikari, a professor of statistical physics at the University of Cambridge, was one of them. 


Not a short read, but absorbing. I feel we’re getting better at identifying the spaces where machine learning can do find solutions that we can’t. And: another good story from Rest Of World. (Thanks Peter R for the link.)
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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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