Start Up No.1759: UK publishes online harms bill, coder targets Russian files, Studio Display gets lukewarm hello, and more


If we really want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we need a lot more heat pumps. Ever seen one? CC-licensed photo by Luis Tamayo on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Possibly a news organisation? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Tech bosses face jail if they hamper Ofcom investigations from next year • The Guardian

Dan Milmo:

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The new measures [in the UK Online Safety Bill] include:

• New criminal offences in England and Wales covering cyberflashing, taking part in digital “pile-ons” and sending threatening social media posts
• Tech firms must prevent scam adverts from appearing online
• Big platforms must tackle specific categories of legal but harmful content, which could include racist abuse and posts linked to eating disorders
• Sites hosting pornography must carry out age checks on people trying to access their content.

The updated legislation introduced to parliament on Thursday confirms, and brings forward, UK-wide proposals for a fine or jail for senior managers who fail to ensure “accurate and timely” responses to information requests from regulator Ofcom.

It introduces a further two new criminal offences that apply to companies and employees: tampering with information requested by Ofcom; and obstructing or delaying raids, audits and inspections by the watchdog. A third new criminal offence will apply to employees who provide false information at interviews with the watchdog.

Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, said tech firms have not been held to account when abuse and criminal behaviour have “run riot” on their platforms. Referring to the algorithms that tailor what users see on social media platforms – which have been heavily criticised during scrutiny of the draft bill – she added: “Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.”

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There are so many strange elements to this. “Taking part” in digital pile-ons? What counts as taking part? It can be hard to know that you’re doing that. And so on. The Hacked Off group is annoyed because news organisations’ social media posts won’t be subject to the same strict rules as individuals’. (So… does Russia Today, aka RT, get a free pass?) Dorries (or her department – though there’s a certain Dorries-esque quality to the writing) wrote a stout defence of the changes, which apparently will allow people to be really rude to politicians during elections. Wa-hey. The contradictions and postings about “you won’t like the unintended consequences” have already started emerging.

(There’s a page of supporting documentation from DCMS. The really important definition, though, is of what constitutes a “Category 1” service – the few big ones – which is laid out in this 2020 government response, in para 2.16.)
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• Which makes this an appropriate day to push my book about the effects of social media on society –
Social Warming – don’t you think?

The ‘Freedom Convoy’ bitcoin donations have been frozen and seized • Vice

Ekin Genç:

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a strangely familiar fate has befallen bitcoin donations: many truckers now can’t cash out their donated bitcoin due to financial sanctions, with some of the bitcoins being seized from NobodyCaribou by the authorities. The lead protesters and fundraiser organizers are now facing a class-action lawsuit that wants to give all the donated bitcoins to Ottawa citizens who were in the vicinity of the protests.

J.W. Weatherman, a pseudonymous lead bitcoin donor whom NobodyCaribou reached out to for help, brainstormed an action plan via a 25-page public Google doc, and eventually a coder volunteered to help divide 14.6 bitcoins into 100 separate bitcoin wallets to be distributed to the truckers.

But for the truckers to access the funds, NobodyCaribou had to approach them individually and hand out a meticulously-detailed explanation on how to claim the bitcoin as well as the codes necessary, all carefully placed in envelopes.

“I orange-pilled many truckers by giving them 8,000 reasons to look into it,” NobodyCaribou told Motherboard. “10% of truckers refused the donation fearing scam or because [of] complexity,” he said.

One trucker, who goes by “UOttowaScotty” on YouTube, was on a live-stream from his cab on Feb. 16 when NobodyCaribou approached him and handed out an envelope that contained “$8,000 worth of bitcoin,” along with instructions on how to claim it. “That’s insane, man,” the trucker said, “definitely one of the craziest things that’s happened over the last two weeks.”

According to a web page tracking fund movements in the distributed wallets, half of the wallets of the truckers have been accessed so far.

But all that radically transparent approach – intended for the peace of mind of donors like Weatherman, who had threatened HonkHonkHodl with a lawsuit if they failed to distribute bitcoin to truckers before being enlisted to help — is also what made the plans go awry.

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A tale as old as time. Well, as old as bitcoin, anyway.
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B.I.G. sabotage: Famous npm package deletes files to protest Ukraine war • Bleeping Computer

Ax Sharma:

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This month, the developer behind the popular npm package ‘node-ipc’ released sabotaged versions of the library in protest of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

Newer versions of the ‘node-ipc’ package began deleting all data and overwriting all files on developer’s machines, in addition to creating new text files with “peace” messages.

With over a million weekly downloads, ‘node-ipc’ is a prominent package used by major libraries like Vue.js CLI.

Select versions (10.1.1 and 10.1.2) of the massively popular ‘node-ipc’ package were caught containing malicious code that would overwrite or delete arbitrary files on a system for users based in Russia and Belarus. These versions are tracked under CVE-2022-23812.

On March 8th, developer Brandon Nozaki Miller, aka RIAEvangelist released open source software packages called peacenotwar and oneday-test on both npm and GitHub.

The packages appear to have been originally created by the developer as a means of peaceful protest, as they mainly add a “message of peace” on the Desktop of any user installing the packages.

“This code serves as a non-destructive example of why controlling your node modules is important,” explains RIAEvangelist.

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Sneaky little tweak.
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What you’re feeling isn’t a vibe shift. It’s permanent change • Buzzfeed News

Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

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Far from folding in front of Russian military might, Ukraine’s people used social media to tell a coherent and deeply moving story of national identity. In essence, ordinary Ukrainians used the argument of Westernization as a weapon: here we are, displaying the very values you preach and claim to defend — freedom, openness, transparency, and national pride — so will you come to defend us?

But in making the plea, Ukraine exposed a problem with the West. In the 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union — nearly my entire lifetime — liberalism has come to be taken for granted, the will to defend it withered. Three decades of not articulating what you stand for will do that.

Meanwhile, Russia has spent years pointing out that the neat story America tells has actually been a lie. The West, so secure in its superior narrative and assuredness that history has ended, has regularly defied some of its own fundamental tenets. It has repeatedly violated state sovereignty (see: the Iraq War). It has overlooked certain crises (see: Palestine) in favor of strategic interests. And it has preached the transformative power of free trade while simultaneously cooking up extraordinary sanctions (see: Venezuela, Iran). All in all, the US may have claimed moral superiority, but Russia needn’t reach far to poke holes in it.

So now the rules-based order stands blemished, facing accusations of hypocrisy from its foes and disappointment from those who saw it as a beacon of hope. If liberalism stands for defending freedom everywhere, it sure isn’t eager to show it.

The immediate consequence of this is another protracted war with no end in sight. The medium term carries uncertainty and danger. It turns out that not only are the bad guys not gone, they may even be winning. Some parts of the West do not have the luxury of feeling distance from danger. In the long term, the aftermath of the war in Ukraine means we can no longer tell ourselves the idealistic story that has only barely held up for the last 30 years. The rules-based order that I’ve understood to be central to the world has been revealed to be ineffectual and incapable of fulfilling its promise.

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History, in fact, has very much not ended.
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Apple Studio Display review: nothing to see here • The Verge

Nilay Patel:

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Apple is generally terrific when it comes to displays across its devices, and the Studio Display is great at the basics: it’s clear, it’s sharp, it’s bright. If you have ever looked at a 27-inch 5K iMac display, you know exactly what this thing looks like. The Studio display is the same 27-inch size, the same 5120×2880 resolution, the same 218 pixels per inch, the same 60Hz refresh rate, and has the same single-zone LED backlight. The only real spec difference is that Apple says the Studio Display now has a “typical brightness” of 600 nits vs. 500 on the iMac, but in my actual typical use next to a 2015-vintage 27-inch iMac, that’s pretty hard to see.

The real issue is that $1,599 is a lot of money, and here, it’s buying you panel tech that is woefully behind the curve. Compared to Apple’s other displays across the Mac, iPhone, and iPad lineup, the Studio Display is actually most notable for the things it doesn’t have.

Let’s start with the backlight. In general, the best modern displays create true blacks by cutting all the light coming from the black parts of the screen. There are several ways to do this, and Apple itself uses different tech across its high-end products to produce true blacks in various ways: OLED screens on the iPhones, advanced local dimming on the Pro Display XDR, and Mini LED display backlights on the MacBook Pro and iPad Pro.

The Studio Display has… well, it has none of that. It’s a regular old LED backlight that lights the entire screen all the time, and the darkest black it can produce is basically gray. In normal use in a well-lit room, it looks fine enough — LCD displays have looked like this for a long time now — but if you’re watching a movie in a dark room, the letterboxing will look light gray.

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Everyone is particularly critical of the webcam, which produces blown-out pictures despite having a chip from the iPhone of only two years ago. (Apple says there’ll be a software update.) The criticism about the backlight (and LED) would be better if there were any 5K OLED displays at a comparable price. There aren’t.
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Why you (and the planet) really need a heat pump • WIRED

Matt Simon:

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Americans spend around 90% of their time in indoor spaces, which we heat by burning fossil fuels that also warm the planet and sully the air of our homes. Our descendants will be especially confused because for years we’ve had easy access to a cleaner, more efficient alternative: the fully electric heat pump.

At long last, though, the humble heat pump is exploding in popularity. Unlike a boiler or furnace, which burn fossil fuels to produce heat, this device transfers heat through an outdoor unit into the indoor space. (It looks a bit like a traditional air conditioner.) In the winter, a heat pump extracts heat from outdoor air, but it can be reversed in the summer to pump heat out, providing cooling. Exchanging heat in this way is much more efficient than generating it.

Last year, 4 million heat pumps were installed in the US, up from 1.7 million in 2012. Europe, too, is coming around to the heat pump, with sales increasing 28% in Germany in 2021 and 60% in Poland. That’s no small feat, given the global pandemic slowdown, and it’s just the beginning of growth, especially with Europe’s push for energy independence from Russia amid the war in Ukraine.

“Heat pumps are a few years behind electric vehicles but really deserve similar attention and could deliver very sizable reductions in emissions if we deployed them much more rapidly,” says Jan Rosenow, director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO dedicated to the transition to clean energy.

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The great hope for the UK’s energy transition – we need them to replace gas boilers. Of which there are a lot.
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Netflix test will let members pay for password-sharing users • Variety

Todd Spangler:

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in an upcoming test launching in three countries — Chile, Costa Rica and Peru — Netflix will let members who share their accounts with people outside their household do so “easily and securely, while also paying a bit more,” according to Chengyi Long, director of product innovation at Netflix. The new options will roll out in the next few weeks in the three countries (and may or may not expand beyond those markets).

“We’ve always made it easy for people who live together to share their Netflix account, with features like separate profiles and multiple streams in our Standard and Premium plans,” Long wrote in a blog post about the test. “While these have been hugely popular, they have also created some confusion about when and how Netflix can be shared. As a result, accounts are being shared between households — impacting our ability to invest in great new TV and films for our members.”

With the “add an extra member” feature, members with Netflix’s Standard and Premium plans will be able to add subsidiary accounts for up to two people they don’t live with, each with their own profile, personalized recommendations, login and password — for less than the cost of a separate Netflix plan.

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Naturally you know that the other shoe to drop will be to ban those password-sharing users in different locations from sharing the password/accessing the service. No doubt it’s chosen those three countries as places where sharing is rife but it also thinks that it can find marginal benefits getting some users to pay for their freeloading pals/family members.
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What was the TED Talk? • The Drift

Oscar Schwartz:

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Gates’s popular and well-shared TED talk [in 2015, about pandemic preparedness] — viewed millions of times — didn’t alter the course of history. Neither did any of the other “ideas worth spreading” (the organization’s tagline) presented at the TED conference that year — including Monica Lewinsky’s massively viral speech about how to stop online bullying through compassion and empathy, or a Google engineer’s talk about how driverless cars would make roads smarter and safer in the near future. In fact, seven years after TED 2015, it feels like we are living in a reality that is the exact opposite of the future envisioned that year. A president took office in part because of his talent for online bullying. Driverless cars are nowhere near as widespread as predicted, and those that do share our roads keep crashing. Covid has killed five million people and counting.

At the start of the pandemic, I noticed people sharing Gates’s 2015 talk. The general sentiment was one of remorse and lamentation: the tech-prophet had predicted the future for us! If only we had heeded his warning! I wasn’t so sure. It seems to me that Gates’s prediction and proposed solution are at least part of what landed us here. I don’t mean to suggest that Gates’s TED talk is somehow directly responsible for the lack of global preparedness for Covid. But it embodies a certain story about “the future” that TED talks have been telling for the past two decades — one that has contributed to our unending present crisis.

The story goes like this: there are problems in the world that make the future a scary prospect. Fortunately, though, there are solutions to each of these problems, and the solutions have been formulated by extremely smart, tech-adjacent people. For their ideas to become realities, they merely need to be articulated and spread as widely as possible. And the best way to spread ideas is through stories — hence Gates’s opening anecdote about the barrel. In other words, in the TED episteme, the function of a story isn’t to transform via metaphor or indirection, but to actually manifest a new world. Stories about the future create the future. Or as Chris Anderson, TED’s longtime curator, puts it, “We live in an era where the best way to make a dent on the world… may be simply to stand up and say something.” And yet, TED’s archive is a graveyard of ideas. It is a seemingly endless index of stories about the future — the future of science, the future of the environment, the future of work, the future of love and sex, the future of what it means to be human — that never materialized. By this measure alone, TED, and its attendant ways of thinking, should have been abandoned.

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His argument is against “solutionism” – the idea that if you put a good idea out there, it’s job done. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have politics or need (as far as we do) politicians.
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Here come The Smiths [in defence of foreign correspondents] • Dave Lee

Riffing on an article in the New York Times about the new news operation from Justin and Ben Smith:

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[Justin] Smith also shared his thoughts about what he called the end of an era when news outlets based in London, New York or Washington dispatched journalists to foreign countries to report on the goings-on there. He asked why foreign readers would not prefer a homegrown English-speaking native to report the news in their region.

“The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane,” Mr. Smith said.

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He’s certainly not the first person to make this argument. Smith’s point is that by hiring strong English speakers locally you can not only expand more cheaply, but with more integrity since locals know more than outsiders. (It’s an argument also used by media executives when they’re slashing budgets, it’s worth noting.)

It’s hard to question this logic without sounding like a pompous arse. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong.

A foreign correspondent isn’t vital because he or she knows more than a local, but because he or she is representing the audience. An ambassador, essentially, with similar frames of reference and an instinct for what’s surprising, unique, shocking (or yes, entertaining) about a news event. Without being too blunt about it: it’s better coverage. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason the best and most honest books about places usually come from travel writers.

Now, is there a risk of “parachute” journalism, where the typically white and male reporter flies in one day, stands on a hotel roof, and pretends to know it all? Yes. But that’s just bad reporting–not an indictment of the foreign correspondent as a concept.

The very best at the job, the likes of Lyse Doucet [in conflict areas] or Steve Rosenberg [in Russia], combine their knowledge of their audience with an ability to harness the right sources on the ground. The current coordination between the BBC’s core English news service and the teams from BBC Russia and BBC Ukraine is perhaps the best example of pairing the two pools of expertise.

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(Dave worked for the BBC for some years. And he’s absolutely right.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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