Start Up No.1737: is misinformation up or is that fake?, the 14-month Covid case, HMRC seizes NFT, NYT’s Wordle shock, and more


In Siberia, global heating is turning permafrost into occasional slush – with dramatic results for buildings and the future climate. CC-licensed photo by Adam Jones on Flickr.

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


The “misinformation problem” seems like misinformation • Slow Boring

Matthew Yglesias:

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When I went on The Joe Rogan Experience in early December of 2020, he surprised me by veering way off-topic to do vaccine-skeptical takes.

Since this is not what my book is about and isn’t something I had professional background covering, I was not prepared to rebut his talking points effectively. That’s especially true because, at the time, the Covid-19 vaccines were loosely Trump-branded, so I wasn’t really expecting this to be a controversial issue and hadn’t looked into it. Which is just to say that Rogan was actually much better informed about the vaccine issue than I was. He (correctly) said the common, non-severe side-effects were considerably worse than I realized. And he also correctly said that the Phase III clinical trials were not long enough to gauge how enduring the protection the vaccines offered was. He, as a vaccine skeptic, had sought out a lot of vaccine skeptic talking points, and many of those talking points were factually true.

I, a normal sane individual who supports vaccination efforts, never bothered to look into anything about it other than when was I going to be able to get my shots.

But this is actually the general pattern in life. A normal person can tell you lots of factual information about his life, his work, his neighborhood, and his hobbies but very little about the FDA clinical trial process or the moon landing. But do you know who knows a ton about the moon landing? Crazy people who think it’s fake. They don’t have crank opinions because they are misinformed, they have tons and tons of moon-related factual information because they’re cranks. If you can remember the number of the Kennedy administration executive order about reducing troop levels in Vietnam, then you’re probably a crank — that EO plays a big role in Kennedy-related conspiracy theories, so it’s conspiracy theorists who know all the details.

More generally, I think a lot of excessive worry about “misinformation” is driven by the erroneous belief that more factual information would resolve political disputes.

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Certainly echoes a lot of what I found in researching Social Warming. But the difference now is that there are recommendation engines helpfully pulling together the cranks, who can then crankify themselves even further into CrankWorld.
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The Great Siberian thaw • The New Yorker

Joshua Yaffa visits the land where the ice beneath the ground always used to be frozen – but now isn’t:

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Soviet engineers came to treat vechnaya merzlota [literally “eternal frost”] as exactly that: eternal, stable, unchanging. “They believed they had conquered permafrost,” Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University, said. “You could construct a five- or nine-story building on top of piles and nothing happened. Everyone was happy.” But, Streletskiy went on, “that infrastructure was meant to serve thirty to fifty years, and no one could imagine that the climate would change so dramatically within that span.”

By 2016, a regional official had declared that sixty% of the buildings in Norilsk were compromised as a result of permafrost thaw. On May 29, 2020, a fuel-storage tank belonging to Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s largest mining companies, cracked open, spilling twenty-one thousand tons of diesel into nearby waterways and turning the Ambarnaya River a metallic red. Executives at the company said that the damage had been contained. But Georgy Kavanosyan, a hydrogeologist based in Moscow, who has a popular YouTube channel, travelled to Norilsk and took samples farther north, from the Pyasina River, which empties into the Kara Sea. He found pollutant concentrations two and a half times permitted levels, threatening fish stocks and ecosystems for thousands of miles.

The Kremlin could not ignore the scale of the disaster, which Greenpeace compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In February, 2021, the state ordered Norilsk Nickel to pay a two-billion- dollar fine, the largest penalty for environmental damage in Russian history. The company had said that the piles supporting the tank failed as the permafrost thawed. An outside scientific review found that those piles had been improperly installed, and that the temperature of the soil was not regularly monitored. In other words, human negligence had compounded the effects of climate change. “What happened in Norilsk was a kind of demonstration of how severe the problem can be,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said. “But it’s far from the only case. Lots of other accidents are happening on a smaller scale, and will continue to.”

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As it melts – irreversibly? – everything is changing.
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Turk sets unenviable COVID record by testing positive for 14 straight months • Reuters

Yesim Dikmen:

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When Muzaffer Kayasan first caught COVID-19, he thought he was destined to die since he was already suffering from leukemia. Fourteen months and 78 straight positive tests later, he is still alive – and still battling to shake off the infection.

Kayasan, 56, has Turkey’s longest recorded continuous COVID-19 infection, doctors say, possibly due to a weakened immune system from the cancer. Despite being in and out of hospital since November 2020, his spirits have been high.

“I guess this is the female version of COVID – she has been obsessed with me,” Kayasan joked last week as he found out that his latest PCR test was, yet again, positive.

Nine months in hospital and five months mostly alone in his flat have separated him from much of the outside world, including his granddaughter, Azra, who stays in the garden while visiting, talking through the glass back door.

“I will play with you when I get well,” he told her through a mask after giving her a plastic toy telephone.

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This is how variants emerge: the weakened immune system can’t quite kill the infection, but can squash it again and again until a mutation emerges that escapes the immune system and flourishes, and goes on to infect others.
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HMRC seizes NFT for first time in £1.4m fraud case • BBC News

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HMRC said the suspects in its fraud case were alleged to have used “sophisticated methods” to try to hide their identities including false and stolen identities, false addresses, pre-paid unregistered mobile phones, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), false invoices and pretending to engage in legitimate business activities.

Nick Sharp, deputy director economic crime, said the first seizure of an NFT “serves as a warning to anyone who thinks they can use crypto assets to hide money from HMRC”.

“We constantly adapt to new technology to ensure we keep pace with how criminals and evaders look to conceal their assets.”

HMRC said it had secured a court order to detain the seized crypto assets worth about £5,000 and three digital artwork NFTs, which have not been valued, while its investigation continues.

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Google lets you install Chrome OS on PCs and Macs • Forbes

Barry Collins:

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Google has released Chrome OS Flex, a version of its Chromebook operating system that can be installed on PCs and Macs.

Flex is being pitched at businesses who are managing fleets of old Windows machines or Macs. Google describes Chrome OS Flex as “a free and sustainable way to modernize devices you already own”.

Google is clearly trying to draw a comparison between the sluggish performance users often experience with older PCs, compared to the slick performance on offer from the more limited Chrome OS on ageing hardware. The hope being that businesses will decide they can do all they need on actual Chromebooks the next time they get to a hardware refresh.

Google recently snapped up Neverware, a company that was offering a version of the Chrome OS called CloudReady, which could be installed on PCs. That, however, had the disadvantage of no official support from the Google Play Store.

Google is also trying to play up the green credentials of switching to Chrome OS Flex, arguing that it will “refresh your older devices with a modern OS and extend their lifespan to reduce e-waste”. Given that chip shortages are currently limiting the supply of some computer brands, especially in the corporate space, it might also allow companies to get another year or two out of their existing hardware fleet.

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I can see the benefit in installing it on old PCs, but I’d have thought old Macs that were still in use had some software with specific utility. From the outset, I’ve always thought that ChromeOS’s benefits were to corporations, not particularly consumers. Yet the marketing doesn’t seem directed like that, perhaps because of Windows licencing pitfalls.
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Are we at risk of over-estimating the neo-climate sceptics? • BusinessGreen Blog Post

James Murray:

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Perhaps the most pertinent forerunner to this campaign [against the UK government’s 2050 net zero target] is not Brexit, but the various campaigns previously pedalled by [“Brexit hard man” Steve] Baker’s friends at the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the accompanying network of ‘free market’ think tanks and media titles.

Over the past decade this loose grouping has argued against renewables, only to watch them become the lowest cost form of new power capacity and backbone of the energy system. They’ve argued against electric vehicles, only to watch them become the driving force in the auto market. They’ve argued against net zero goals on the grounds no other countries have them, only to watch 90% of the global economy adopt such targets. And they’ve argued for fracking, only to watch it get itself banned. It’s quite the track record.

In fact, their only genuinely successful campaign of the past decade was the one that helped push David Cameron to cut energy efficiency funding schemes and shelve zero carbon home standards. According to recent analysis, that genius move has cost the UK around £2.5bn in higher bills, or £60 per household.

I was reminded of this litany this weekend while reading the letter from a small band of MPs arguing reviving fracking would restore a sense of community in northern England, and Andrew Neil’s bold suggestion that he had discovered “the answer to the energy crisis”. [Shale gas – Overspill Ed.]

When you unpack their manifesto the paucity of it is genuinely staggering. It goes something like this: blame the ‘green blob’ and ‘mad’ politicians; suggest there is a simple solution to a complex energy crisis; quote highly contestable projections for fracking production and jobs; make no mention of the negligible impact UK gas production would have on domestic prices without export bans or nationalisation; big up the potential of new nuclear projects, but make no mention of cost implications; make no mention of energy efficiency; and most of all, in no way engage with what to do about the increased emissions and climate risks that would come with the expansion of gas infrastructure. And that’s it.

The public is not stupid. None of this passes the sniff test, even before you consider the neo-climate denial it is built upon.

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A network of fake test answer sites is trying to incriminate students • The Markup

Colin Lecher:

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One feature from [online proctoring service] Honorlock especially piqued [computer science student Kurt] Wilson’s interest. The company, according to its materials, provides a way to track cheating students through what Honorlock calls “seed sites” or others call “honeypots”—fake websites that remotely tattle on students who visit them during exams.

Wilson pored over a patent for the software to learn more, finding example sites listed. By looking for common code and the same test questions over the past year, Wilson eventually turned up about a dozen honeypots apparently linked to Honorlock, five of which are still operating.

“It kind of became an obsession at one point,” said Wilson, who hasn’t tracked the honeypots in some months but was at one point checking for them daily.

The sites Wilson found are bare bones. They have names like “gradepack.com” and “quizlookup.com.” They’re largely a catalog of thousands of apparent test questions that are sometimes bizarrely specific. “In which part of the digestive system does chemical digestion begin?” one post asks. A multiple-choice question requests using “VSEPR theory to predict the molecular geometry around the carbon atom in formaldehyde, H2CO.”

Click on the “show answer” button below any of the questions and you won’t get help but will be rewarded with a digital chiming noise and no answer. But visitors to the sites are having detailed information about their mouse movements and even typing transmitted to an Honorlock server.

In the patent, recently flagged, along with an Honorlock honeypot site, by student media at Arizona State University, the company explains that its sites can track visitor information like IP addresses as evidence that a student was looking up answers on a secondary device.

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Some academics think it’s simply entrapment. I still find an educational system that assumes that in the world of work we won’t be able to instantly look things up, and crowdsource information, to be bizarre.
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The New York Times has changed Wordle’s solutions • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Wordle’s acquisition by The New York Times has already stirred up controversy, from broken streaks to accusations the game has become harder. [It hasn’t – Overspill Ed.] But here’s a big change the NYT isn’t shouting about: it’s altered Wordle’s solutions. As of Tuesday, February 15th (game number 241), the New York Times version of Wordle and the original version hosted at powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle have diverged and will now continue forever out of step.

Changes to Wordle’s word list by the NYT were spotted last week by a number of sources, including BoingBoing. Although some thought these changes only applied to the words you could guess, it turns out the Times also altered the list of possible solutions. (The Verge made this mistake as well — we regret the error.) This confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that the Times itself was running round telling publications that everything was the same in Wordle land. As NYT comms director Jordan Cohen told The Guardian: “Nothing has changed about the game play.” Which is really not true!

Sure, the game plays the same, but the Times has not only removed rude words like “pussy” and “whore” from possible guesses, it’s also changed the game’s future solutions. And surely for a game all about guessing words this counts as a change to gameplay.

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Well.. no? I’d take “gameplay” to refer to “how it does things”, not “what the solutions are”. Apparently the solution at Powerlanguage was too exotic so it was unceremoniously dumped. No doubt resynchronisation of the two will be on Vladimir Putin’s list of demands to be fulfilled before his troops retreat.
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My family is trapped in the metaverse • WIRED

Adrienne So:

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It didn’t start out this way. I first got the Meta Quest 2 as a loaner in November, to try coworking with my colleagues and experiment with briefings. For work or relaxation, I found the headset utterly unsatisfying. If I want to meditate, I will take my dog on a walk; if I want to blow off steam, I go for a run. “The killer app is reality!” my husband crowed, as he saw the headset sit dusty and unused on my desk for about a month.

That was until Christmas, when both sides of my family visited and we reinstituted strict social distancing to protect older family members in the middle of the Omicron surge. Trapped in my house with no escape from all of my loved ones, I downloaded Puzzling Places one night. Meditative music plays as you manipulate small pieces of landmarks, clothes, and places in a 3D space around you. The satisfying click and glow as I put each small piece into its place was addictive.

I downloaded a few more games. Then a few more. Getting used to the headset didn’t come easy. The headset is much lighter and easier to use than older iterations, but it’s still heavy and awkward. Getting plopped down into empty space with no legs is still disorienting; I bought myself a big bag of the same ginger gummy chews I used to combat nausea during pregnancy. 

Still, I persisted. In all honesty, I would not have if I were able to do literally anything else. A coworker suggested playing Beat Saber and FitXR. I organized a game of Blaston. My skeptical husband found that he also loved Puzzling Places, and my six-year-old demanded a (short) turn. My 4-year-old still doesn’t want to try it, but it’s only a matter of time. 

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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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