Start Up No.1745: Instagram’s fake war reporters, vertical tabs!, Peloton’s rust trouble, Covid from Wuhan market?, and more


The war in Ukraine is going to change our futures significantly. It’s already changing our experience of war. CC-licensed photo by Bartosz Brzezinski on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Scammy Instagram ‘war pages’ are capitalizing on Ukraine conflict • Input Mag

Taylor Lorenz:

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Just hours after the first explosions rocked Ukraine Wednesday night, massive Instagram meme pages began promoting an account purporting to be that of a journalist live-streaming from the ground.

The posts urged fans to follow @livefromukraine to stay in the loop on the breaking news. “PUTIN DECLARES WAR: @livefromukraine is streaming the chaos now!!” one meme page with more than 3.7 million followers posted along with a carousel of videos supposedly showing Russian jets flying overhead and a missile hitting an airport.

A slew of other meme pages followed suit, promoting @livefromukraine — affiliated with a similar page called @POVwarfare — throughout the day yesterday. The bios for both accounts claimed that they were run by journalists in Ukraine. Instagram users flocked to the pages, which were set to private, hoping to gain any morsel of information on what was happening from the ground.

But @livefromukraine and @POVwarfare were not run by Ukrainian journalists — they were operated by a young meme admin in the U.S. who oversees a network of viral content across the web.

The accounts are what have become known as “war pages” on Instagram. They gather shocking battleground footage and videos depicting violence and repost them on Instagram with little to no context, often in an effort to leverage tragedy and conflict to gain followers. (War accounts such as @waraholics, @military_footage, and @war_strikes have all gained followers since the crisis in Ukraine heated up.) Some then monetize these followers by posting advertisements, often for OnlyFans creators.

“What I’m trying to do is get as many followers as possible by using my platform and skills,” the administrator for @livefromukraine and @POVwarfare, who calls himself Hayden, says when reached by phone yesterday. …“I don’t really know what’s going on with all this political tension,” Hayden says. “I’m just trying to document what’s going on.” His verification methods involve sussing out the comment sections of the videos and seeing if other people have claimed they are false. “I can’t really verify them myself,” he says of the videos he shares.

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War as a sort of spectator sport for Likes. Strange times. (Note that Lorenz has moved on from the NYTimes, where I think she didn’t get sufficient support for the sorts of stories she wrote – exposing sketchy behaviour by Silicon Valley types who had big megaphones that they’d use to go after her.)
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How the crisis in Ukraine may end • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:

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There are now five ways that the aggression in Ukraine can end, according to Paul Poast, a professor of foreign policy and war at the University of Chicago. They are: a disastrous quagmire or retreat for Russia; violent regime change in Kyiv; the full conquest of Ukraine; the beginning of a new Russian empire; or a chaotic stumble into something like World War III.

In an interview for my podcast Plain English, Poast discussed these five scenarios in depth, the major factors that will shape the outcome of this crisis, the Biden administration’s response to Putin, why he feels this invasion is reminiscent of Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor, and the most important things to watch out for in the coming week. This is an edited and abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

Thompson: Tell me what you are looking for in the next week to determine the most likely outcome of this crisis.

Poast: Two things. First, how is the actual military campaign going? Does Russia seem like they’re achieving quick success? That will tell us whether full conquest is still likely. And second, watch Poland. I really do think that Poland could be the flashpoint. What does the refugee situation in Poland look like? What is Russia saying about the refugees? Are there any hints about whether Russia is planning any kind of move against Poland? Anything along those lines would bring us closer to the nightmare scenario of war against NATO.

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I’m optimistic of something like disastrous quagmire/retreat where Putin is able (with a little help from those who don’t want escalation) to portray it, even to himself, as a success – eg securing some sort of corridor around Crimea. The expectation in the Kremlin certainly seems to have been that it would all be over by now.

I’d also recommend this analysis by Thomas Friedman at the NYT, who points out that since Russia took over the Crimea, Ukraine’s biggest trading partner has gone from being Russia to being the EU. Russia’s economy isn’t big enough to sustain it.
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Elon Musk activates Starlink satellites on Ukraine plea • Bloomberg

Natalia Kniazhevich:

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Elon Musk said his Starlink satellite service is up and running in Ukraine, responding to a plea from the deputy prime minister to supply satellite-based communications to help resist Russia’s invasion of the country.

More Starlink terminals are en route, Musk tweeted Saturday in reply to Mykhailo Fedorov’s entreaty, without explaining how the equipment would get there.

Musk’s SpaceX plans to take thousands of Starlink satellites into orbit, creating an internet-service constellation that would work as a low-cost alternative to remote land-based systems that are vulnerable to interruption. The billionaire previously donated 50 satellite terminals to restore the internet in Tonga, whose telecommunications network was severely disrupted by a tsunami this year.

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Getting the satellites oriented is one thing, but getting the terminals distributed in the country quite another. As with all the questions about supply of anything to Ukraine just now, it’s pretty mysterious. And while we’re on the subject of Mr Musk…
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Elon Musk promises full self-driving “next year” for the ninth year in a row • Jalopnik

Jason Torchinsky:

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It’s happened again! It’s incredibly predictable, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less glorious or wonderful! During Tesla’s earnings call yesterday, where the company very justifiably crowed about their record revenue and Model Y production at their new Texas factory, Tesla CEO and adorable optimist Elon Musk gave the world what they wanted and confidently predicted that Tesla would achieve “full self-driving” (FSD) — a term usually understood to refer to SAE Autonomy Levels 4 and 5, requiring no monitoring or input from whomever is in the car — less than a year from now. This makes the ninth year in a row he’s predicted full FSD coming in around a year! It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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There’s now a neck-and-neck race as to which will happen first: Tesla cars achieve FSD, or we get usable fusion power. Place your bets.
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New research points to Wuhan market as pandemic origin • The New York Times

Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller:

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Scientists released a pair of extensive studies on Saturday that point to a market in Wuhan, China, as the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Analyzing data from a variety of sources, they concluded that the coronavirus was very likely present in live mammals sold in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late 2019 and suggested that the virus twice spilled over into people working or shopping there. They said they found no support for an alternate theory that the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.

“When you look at all of the evidence together, it’s an extraordinarily clear picture that the pandemic started at the Huanan market,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of both studies.

The two reports have not yet been published in a scientific journal that would require undergoing peer review.

…In a separate line of research, scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention carried out a new analysis of the genetic traces of coronaviruses collected at the market in January 2020. Previous studies have shown that the viruses sampled from early cases of Covid belonged to two main evolutionary branches. The Huanan market samples included both branches, the scientists reported in a study they posted online on Friday.

Dr. Worobey, who said he was not aware of the study until it was made public, said that their findings are consistent with the scenario he and his colleagues put forward for two origins at the market.

“The beauty of it is how simply it all adds up now,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences, who was not involved in the new study.

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The puzzle of there being two ever so slightly different strains of SARS-Cov-2 seems to be answered by the hypothesis that they crossed to humans from two different animal species, at slightly different times (a few weeks apart). I’m sure this will finally end the debate. (OK, it won’t. Thanks G for the link.)
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Ex-ERCOT chief says Governor Abbott directed freeze blackouts to stop before decision to run up billions in bills • Houston Chronicle

James Osborne:

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The former head of the Texas power grid testified in court Wednesday that he was following the direction of Governor Greg Abbott when the grid manager ordered wholesale power prices to stay at the maximum price cap for days on end during last year’s winter storm and blackout, running up billions of dollars in bills for power companies.

Bill Magness, the former CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said even as power plants were starting to come back online, former Public Utility Commission Chair DeAnn Walker told him that Abbott wanted them to do whatever necessary to prevent further rotating blackouts that left millions of Texans without power.

“She told me the governor had conveyed to her if we emerged from rotating outages it was imperative they not resume,” Magness testified. “We needed to do what we needed to do to make it happen.”

…The decision to keep power prices at the maximum cap is now at the center of a bankruptcy trial waged by the Waco-based electric co-op Brazos Electric. Brazos contends that decision was made recklessly, adding up to a $1.9bn power bill from ERCOT that forced co-op into bankruptcy.

…The original order to raise power prices to the cap was made by the Public Utility Commission on Feb. 15. The aim was to provide incentives to get power plants back online and encourage large power users such as factories and petrochemical plants to stay offline. Even as power plants were starting to come back online on Feb. 17, ERCOT elected to keep prices at the cap another 32 hours, a decision that the Texas Independent Market Monitor criticized in a report last year as having “exceeded the mandate of the Commission.”

“This decision resulted in $16bn in additional costs to ERCOT’s market,” wrote Carrie Bivens, director of ERCOT’s Independent Market Monitor.

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This, you’ll recall, is the outcome of Texas refusing to become part of a federal power grid. Bad decisions about power tend to be over-reliance on single sources. See also: Germany and Russian gas.
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Inside ‘Project Tinman’: Peloton’s plan to conceal rust in its exercise bikes • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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In September last year, staff at Peloton warehouses, which receive high-end bikes originally manufactured in Taiwan, noticed that paint was flaking off some of the exercise machines.

The cause was a build-up of rust on “non-visible parts” of the bike — the inner frame of the seat and handlebars — and did not affect the product’s integrity, Peloton recently told the Financial Times.

Instead of returning the bikes to the manufacturer, executives hatched a plan, dubbed internally as “Project Tinman”, to conceal the corrosion and sent the machines to customers who had paid between $1,495 and $2,495 to purchase them.

The project was first revealed in FT Magazine last week but eight current and former Peloton employees across four US states have provided further details on the operation.

They described the plan as a nationwide effort to avoid yet another costly recall just months after the company’s most tragic episode — the death of a child due to the design of its treadmill.

Internal documents seen by the FT showed that Tinman’s “standard operating procedures” were for corrosion to be dealt with using a chemical solution called “rust converter”, which conceals corrosion by reacting “with the rust to form a black layer”. Employees said the scheme was called Tinman to avoid terms such as “rust” that executives decided were out of step with Peloton’s quality brand.

Insiders were also angered about enacting a plan that they argued cut across Peloton’s supposed focus on its users, who are called “members” to evoke a sense that buyers are more than customers and part of a broader community. Tinman also put a spotlight on the company’s quality control process versus meeting aggressive sales targets in the search for growth.

“It was the single driving factor in my beginning stages of hatred for the company that I had spent the previous year and a half falling in love with,” said an outbound team lead, who reviews products before they are shipped to customers.

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Totally cosmetic, no effect on performance or durability. Except at those prices you’d feel a bit miffed at flaky paint, surely.
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A technical note on access to Russia’s Ministry of Defence site • Topicbox

William Waites, on Dave Farber’s “interesting people/things” mailing list:

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Yesterday, as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, some people on the Internet noticed a strange thing. I’m not going to comment on the big picture except to say that the situation is terrible, the invasion criminal and the failure of other countries to do anything meaningful to stop it, reprehensible. Nor will I attempt to expound on how the conditions for this to happen came to exist; there are plenty of people who know more about that than I do. Instead, I will examine this strange detail that will surely be just a minor footnote in this terrible conflict, try to explain what it means, and, at the end, indulge in some hopeful speculation into how it got there.

The web site of the Russian Ministry of Defence looks like it’s “down” from the perspective of nearly everyone outside of Russia and a small number of other countries. If you point a web browser at it right now, you’ll get a blank page. But the _way_ that it is down is interesting. If you look closely, you’ll see that it is producing an error code 418.

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You’re familiar with 404 Not Found, but 418? Like most people you’ve probably never heard of it. But it means “I’m A Teapot”. But why would the Russian defence ministry website be returning such a peculiar error code? Waites has an intriguing theory. (Though that may be from earlier in the conflict; I tried the same commands as him and simply got “reset by peer”, with no HTTP code.)
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Randy Russian soldiers bombard Ukrainian girls with flirty Tinder requests • The Sun

Nick Parker:

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When Dasha [Synelnikova] asked outright whether Andrei was a Russian soldier, he replied with a cheeky “gif” video of Hollywood star Jim Carrey, as if to say: “Oops!”

In the space of one hour, Dasha’s Tinder trawl unearthed a steady stream of Russian admirers, all appearing to be among Putin’s force massing north of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian military intelligence said last night that the sheer volume of troops there pointed to an attack on the city in the coming hours.

Soldiers looking for love included bearded “Black” — a 33-year-old Chechen fighter who posted a snap of himself in bed clutching a pistol — and another cuddling a kitten.

Alexander, 29, posed in a beret with his sunglasses tucked in his tight blue and white striped vest.

Uniformed Gregory, 25, seemed keen to show off his military watch in another snap.

Another Russian was Alexander, 31 — a possible Russian spy. He revealed he was working in the “Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation.”

Dasha said: “These guys are just the same as anyone else on Tinder — they want love or companionship. So it’s kind of hard to imagine that they could be coming here to attack us. I hope it won’t happen.”

Russian units have been ordered to switch off mobile phones in preparation for an invasion, it has emerged. Advanced units of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps are said to have received the order.

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Tinder as a route to discovering intel about the opposing forces? Wouldn’t have happened if Hitler were in charge. (There’s a picture of Synelnikova holding her phone to prove it, in case you’re dubious. I found this story via a tweet linking to the FT linking to the NY Post linking to The Sun, which seems to be the origin.)
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You should switch to a browser with ‘vertical tabs’ • Debugger

Clive Thompson:

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I’m a pretty extravagant tab-hoarder. Currently I’ve got 94 tabs open — and that’s on the low side, since the number is usually well over 150. This is probably way more than the average person, I grant you! As this decade-old study of Firefox users would suggest, most people probably have a single-digit number of tabs open. Not me. I go for broke.

Why do I have so many tabs open? Because my work is research-intensive, and also longitudinal: If I’m working on a story for a few months, I might open 25 tabs in a flurry of research one evening, then leave half of them open as mental reminders for the weeks to come — oh, yeah, I should follow up on that. Seeing those weeks-old tabs, as I flit about doing my work, is a mental trigger to keep thinking about that subject.

It’s much like the cognitive value of leaving stacks of paper on your desk for months. When you idly glance at the corner of a document, peeking out from an unruly stack, it helps refresh that document in your mind. It keeps subjects from vanishing from your attention, and encourages your backbrain to ruminate on those subjects for weeks, months, or years. (This, indeed, was one of the findings in the insanely interesting book The Myth of the Paperless Office.) Having a document or tab lurk around the edges of your work for a long, long time can be crucial to doing long-term thinking.

Now, I know there are people who hate having cluttered desks and cluttered browsers. They find it distracting and mentally chaotic. That’s cool; this piece is not aimed at you! It’s for those of us who get deep value from having a sprawling amount of info arrayed before us.

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I’m often a terrible tab hoarder, and make every effort to close them and get them out of the way; I “save” them by having my browser history go back a year, meaning I can easily find a closed tab if I can remember some part of the headline or URL. So I don’t agree with this piece; but in case you’re a tab hoarder too, his recommendation is that you switch to Vivaldi, as it offers vertical tabs. I can see the point of that. It feels like a necessary next step in browser UI evolution.)
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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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