Start Up No.1741: unmasking the fake design agency, the wrong crypto argument, are Groups rural?, EV prices set to fall, and more


If you’re planning to film indoors, consider whether there are fluorescent lights. It could make a big difference to the result. CC-licensed photo by Tom Page on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Still a bit windswept. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The elaborate con that tricked dozens into working for a fake design agency • BBC News

Leo Sands, Catrin Nye, Divya Talwar and Benjamin Lister:

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Gemma Brett, a 27-year-old designer from west London, had only been working at Madbird for two weeks when she spotted something strange. Curious about what her commute would be like when the pandemic was over, she searched for the company’s office address. The result looked nothing like the videos on Madbird’s website of a sleek workspace buzzing with creative-types. Instead, Google Street View showed an upmarket block of flats in London’s Kensington.

Gemma contacted an estate agent with a listing at the same address who confirmed her suspicion – the building was purely residential. We later corroborated this by speaking to someone who’d worked in the building for years. They had never seen Ali Ayad. The block of flats was not the global headquarters of a design firm called Madbird.

Gemma shared her discovery with another Madbird employee she had got to know and trust – Antonia Stuart, who was leading the company’s expansion into Dubai.

Using online reverse image searches they dug deeper. They found that almost all the work Madbird claimed as its own had been stolen from elsewhere on the internet – and that some of the colleagues they’d been messaging online didn’t exist.

They thought about their options. One was to leave quietly without causing a stir. They had no idea who was behind this con, or the scale of it. They were scared. On the other hand, they worried if the truth wasn’t exposed innocent staff could end up in trouble if they completed deals for Madbird based on lies. Deals were just days away.

In the end, they decided to send an all-staff email from an alias – Jane Smith.

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Terrific piece of work. It’s also a TV show on BBC3. And raises the question: how do you know your job is real?
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I was wrong, we need crypto • Hey.com

David Heinemeier Hansson:

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First the Ottawa police department got GoFundMe to confiscate donations with the intention of redirecting them to other causes [this is not true – Overspill Ed], then after an outcry, they backed down to merely blocking the money for 7-10 days before refunding. That seemed like a draconian escalation completely at odds with the tens of millions of dollars raised for social justice causes during the protest summer of 2020. But at the time, I thought it was something another fund-raising platform – one less likely to collaborate with the Canadian authorities – could route around. And GiveSendGo indeed started doing just that.

Turns out the concern over the donations was quickly rendered insignificant, as just a few days later, the Canadian prime minister imposed martial law on the protestors. Through powers intended for catastrophic events, he took to freeze the bank accounts of both Canadian protestors and donors, to compulsorily demand that tow-truck operators clear the streets, and forced insurance companies to drop policies for the protestors.

That “worked”. Together with police storming the protests with pepper spray and stun grenades, the area in front of parliament was cleared. But even that wasn’t enough. Even with the protests cleared out, the police vowed to press their new financial powers against anyone involved for months to come.

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So wrong, in so many ways. Canada is nearly the most vaccinated country in the world. The protesters are a foreign-funded unpopular minority who have been indulged while they disrupt daily life. That’s not political protest; it verges on insurrection.

More to the point. Hansson hasn’t considered that even if the protesters were being paid in bitcoin (etc), they’d still need to convert it to dollars. Guess what? That goes through money laundering checks, ie banks. (The Canadian government has flagged 253 bitcoin addresses as part of its investigations of foreign funding.) And you can’t buy fuel, or other things, with cryptocurrency. Maybe a blessing.
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COVID-19 genetic risk variant we inherited from Neanderthals • Medical Express

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In the autumn of 2020, Hugo Zeberg at Karolinska Institutet and MPI-EVA [Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology] and Svante Pääbo at MPI-EVA showed that we inherited the major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 from Neanderthals.

In the spring of 2021, the same researcher duo studied this variant in ancient human DNA and observed that its frequency has increased significantly since the last ice age. In fact, it has become unexpectedly common for a genetic variant inherited from Neanderthals. Hence, it may have had a favourable impact on its carriers in the past.

“This major genetic risk factor for COVID-19 is so common that I started wondering whether it might actually be good for something, such as providing protection against another infectious disease,” says Hugo Zeberg, who is the sole author of the new study in PNAS.

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See if you can guess what the other infectious disease – which predates Covid by quite some time – is before you click through.
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Apple Stores employees make effort to unionise • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Before officially filing, Apple Store organizers have been informally gauging interest among the staff, hoping that more than half of the employees will vote to unionize, people familiar with the matter say, the threshold needed to gain official legal standing with the NLRB.

In at least one case, store employees hoped to gain at least 80% support before officially filing to form a union. That’s because the organizers expect that Apple will try to convince employees to vote against the union.

To avoid detection by managers at the stores, employees have been meeting in secret and communicating with encrypted messaging, sometimes using Android phones, the competitor to Apple’s iOS operating system, to avoid any possible snooping by Apple.

Apple Store employees at one store said managers have already begun pulling employees aside and giving speeches about how unions will hurt employees, lower their wages and force Apple to take away benefits and opportunities, such as the “career experience” that Herbst described. Managers try to eavesdrop on employees, they said, while pretending to do something else.

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It’s probably better for workers to be in a union than not, but I’m interested in the “sometimes using Android phones” bit. If these people work in the Apple Stores they can’t possibly think that Apple is spying on their phones, unless they have phones provided by Apple which has MDM (mobile device management) software on it. If so, OK, there’s a tenuous possibility. But a personal iPhone running WhatsApp or Signal is going to be secure: your messages won’t leak. Are they using Android phones because those are their personal phones? Or, just possibly, the Android phones are PAYG – in effect “burners” so the phone number isn’t listed as a named contact on others’ phones, to show who’s organising if the phone somehow gets compromised? (Quite paranoid thinking now.)

I like the thing about managers eavesdropping. Everyone eavesdrops. It’s just sometimes you’re more paranoid about it.
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The people of the metaverse • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

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It’s revealing that, before the arrival of the net, people didn’t talk about “authenticity” as we do today. They didn’t have to. They understood, implicitly, that there was something solid behind whatever show they might put on for public consumption. The show was not everything. The anxiety of the deep fake had not yet taken hold of the subconscious. The reason we talk so much about authenticity now is because authenticity is no longer available to us. At best, we simulate authenticity: we imbue our deep fakeness with the qualities that people associate with the authentic. We assemble a self that fits the pattern of authenticity, and the ever-present audience applauds the pattern as “authentic.” The likes roll in, the views accumulate. Our production is validated. If we’re lucky, we rise to the level of influencer. What is an influencer but the perfection of the deep-fake self?

I know, I know. You disagree. You reject my argument. You rebel against my “reductionist” speculations. You think I’m nuts. I can almost hear you screaming, “I am not a deep fake! I am a human being!” But that’s what you would think, and that’s what you would scream. After all, you have created for yourself a deep fake that believes, above all else, that it is real.

The metaverse may not yet have arrived, but we are prepared for it. We are, already, the people of the metaverse.

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The internet is Tokyo • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick, in a joint post with Josh Kramer’s “New Public” newsletter, noting how a leakd Facebook document suggests there’s more use of Facebook Groups in rural areas than urban ones:

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We can only speculate, but why might rural folks use Facebook Groups more? If they’re like my wife’s Boomer aunt, they just want a place to talk about their interests (in her case, two elderly pugs named Thelma and Louise). Perhaps, because rural America is more conservative, this finding actually means that conservative users are more active in Groups. Or, maybe users in cities just have more options, and are using apps like Nextdoor instead.

But here’s my favorite theory, as expressed by a Facebook staffer with their name blacked out: “My hypothesis is that people in cities have compelling offline alternatives to whatever value FB Groups provide. But that seems a bit simplistic.” Actually, anonymous staffer, it suggests something really complicated — that population density is a factor affecting behavior on social platforms. This is fascinating to think about, and central to our mission at New_ Public.

Offline, density can manifest in rich, varied experiences that make cities worth living in. Our Co-director, Eli Pariser, previously of MoveOn and Upworthy, explained in WIRED why he loves living in crazy dense New York City, near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn:

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The park serves as an early-morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground, and farm stand. There are house-music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages, and, of course, the world-famous Great Pupkin Halloween Dog Costume Contest. In short, the park allows very different people to gather, see each other, and coexist in the same space. When it’s all working, Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.

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Pariser, of course, is famous as the author of The Filter Bubble. The idea that population density (or lack of it) leads to different behaviour on social networks is probably overlooked, but it’s been emerging from academic research for some years.
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The myth of tech exceptionalism • Noema

Yäel Eisenstat and Nils Gilman:

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All business leaders dislike being regulated (who likes rules?), but many tech leaders believe “tech” is fundamentally different from “mature” industries, like those that create chemicals or cars, whose goods and harms are eventually well understood and therefore regulatable. Tech’s identity, on the other hand, was defined around the constant creation of the radically new or the disruption of the outdated, for which the proper regulatory framework could not be anticipated in advance. Would-be tech regulators were derided as dull bureaucrats, would-be killers of the golden goose, applying rules based on systems that tech itself, if left alone, would soon supersede anyway.

In any other industry, the sorts of harms produced by Big Tech would long ago have spurred the standard response: government regulation. But the tech titans and their stalwarts have shielded themselves by resorting to two basic arguments — really, rhetorical strategies — to fend off the regulators. First, many in the tech world insist that whatever harms technology creates, it is more than outweighed by the good in the present. In a September podcast interview, for example, Instagram head Adam Mosseri argued: “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar.” Of course, Mosseri was roundly mocked for this line — he seemed unaware that, in fact, the auto industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the U.S. and Europe.

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Terrific essay (not short), via John Naughton. Eisenstat in particular knows very much whereof she speaks: a former CIA officer, she went to work for Facebook in the belief that they were hiring her to find and root out election disinformation. On Day 2 (after Day 1, orientation) she discovered that that wasn’t their intent at all. She left soon after, and is strong Facebook critic.
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Electric car prices could be about to plummet – here’s why • Sky News

Victoria Seabrook:

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Battery electric vehicle (EV) prices have already fallen dramatically and are expected to reach parity with petrol or diesel cars between 2025 and 2027 – and be cheaper very soon after.

The average motorist should save £700 a year in fuel costs by switching, according to New Automotive, a research group aiming to accelerate the shift to electric.

The price drop is partly due to advancements in the batteries, set to tumble further still, as well as carmakers producing more mass market cars.

“International agreements on climate change mean car companies understand that there is a global transition to clean transport under way,” said Ben Nelmes from New Automotive.

“They are racing to increase the number of electric models they are selling to secure a share of tomorrow’s car market,” he said.

Now that the auto industry is designing EVs from scratch – rather than adapting existing design structures known as “platforms” – they are improving both performance and cost.

Government plans to set targets for manufacturers to sell more EVs should help prices fall further.

For now, the car industry is calling for increased incentives for buyers until EV prices match those of combustion engine cars.

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Fun fact: around two-thirds “of people” in the UK have driveways and so could charge at home. I don’t know if that’s meant to equate to households or not, but it’s a lot more than one would expect. And the reason why prices could soon plummet is that a wave of secondhand EVs will hit the market, having been owned by fleets for a couple of years.
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How to avoid flickering video with fluorescent lights • Untamed Science

Rob Nelson:

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Essentially the problem has everything to do with understanding how fluorescent lights work. They’re not “on” all the time. Instead they flicker on and off at a certain frequency. They do this so fast that our eyes can’t sense it…

We’ll discuss how to get around this frequency. However, as we go through, understand that the frequency of AC currents differs depending where you are. In much of North and South America it’s 60 Hz and in Europe, Africa and Asia, it’s 50Hz…

If you set your camera up to capture a still frame at a certain frequency, it may mess you up. Here’s why. If you’re always capturing an image at the top of the curve [of illumination] (for example), you’re fine. However, if you start capturing video frames when the fluorescent light is putting out different intensities of light, you’ll run into trouble.

To get around this problem you have to match your frame rate with the frequency of the lights you are in. You need to shoot at frame rates that are divisible by the number of light pulses. So, in a 60 Hz AC area, you’ll need to shoot at 30, 60 or 120 fps.

However, If your camera is set up for European PAL shooting, you may not be able to get these frame rates. You can get around it by simply shooting at different shutter speeds.

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Mains frequency turns out to be useful for crime solving and a pain for filming. What else? (Thanks Matt L for the link.)
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The CDC isn’t publishing large portions of the Covid data it collects • The New York Times

Apoorva Mandavilli:

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For more than a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has collected data on hospitalizations for Covid-19 in the United States and broken it down by age, race and vaccination status. But it has not made most of the information public.

When the CDC published the first significant data on the effectiveness of boosters in adults younger than 65 two weeks ago, it left out the numbers for a huge portion of that population: 18- to 49-year-olds, the group least likely to benefit from extra shots, because the first two doses already left them well-protected.

The agency recently debuted a dashboard of wastewater data on its website that will be updated daily and might provide early signals of an oncoming surge of Covid cases. Some states and localities had been sharing wastewater information with the agency since the start of the pandemic, but it had never before released those findings.

Two full years into the pandemic, the agency leading the country’s response to the public health emergency has published only a tiny fraction of the data it has collected, several people familiar with the data said.

Much of the withheld information could help state and local health officials better target their efforts to bring the virus under control. Detailed, timely data on hospitalizations by age and race would help health officials identify and help the populations at highest risk. Information on hospitalizations and death by age and vaccination status would have helped inform whether healthy adults needed booster shots. And wastewater surveillance across the nation would spot outbreaks and emerging variants early.

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Pretty bad. By contrasts the UK effort has been laudable – a triumph for open data. (Thanks G 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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