Start Up No.1775: how smartphones defended Kyiv, who’s bitcoin for?, six-word sci-fi, when Facebook bought Instagram, and more


Would you feel confident repairing the screen, or any part, of your smartphone? The arrival of spare parts means some people think so. CC-licensed photo by Robert Nelson on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Six whole words? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How Kyiv was saved by Ukrainian ingenuity and Russian blunders • Financial Times

Tim Judah:

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On the second day of the invasion elderly friends of his parents, who did not have a smartphone, called to tell them where they had seen a Russian convoy close to the airport. Lysovyy immediately opened “STOP Russian War”, a Telegram chatbot created by the security services, and input the location. He also put a pin in the Google Maps location, screenshotted it and sent that, plus everything else he knew.

“I think many others made the same report,” he said.

About 30 minutes later the convoy was attacked by the Ukrainian military. In the distance the sky glowed orange from the flames, Lysovyy recalled.

Officials have since made it easier for citizens to upload enemy locations through the Diia app, a government portal for digital documents such as driving licences and Covid passes used by millions of Ukrainians.

Mstyslav Banik, a director at the ministry of digital transformation which created Diia, said that in the first days of the defence of Kyiv, before the Russians destroyed mobile masts to prevent Ukrainians disclosing their positions, their reports played “really a great role”, in defending the city.

Everyone was trying to help, he says, and this “is the new reality of war”.

People trapped behind Russian lines using chatbots, he said, were playing a 21st century version of partisans behind Nazi lines during the second world war. To make sure that the Russians do not feed Ukrainian positions into the chatbot, says Banik, somewhere in Ukraine teams filter reports before they are passed to the military.

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If you don’t have an FT subscription, you can read the story on a number of sites which… syndicate? the content. Such as this one. Doesn’t have the excellent graphics showing the timescale at which the Russians were pushed back, though.
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Russian blunders in Chernobyl: ‘they came and did whatever they wanted’ • The New York Times

Andrew Cramer:

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the Russian military had deployed officers from a nuclear, biological and chemical unit, as well as experts from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, who consulted with the Ukrainian scientists.

But the Russian nuclear experts seemed to hold little sway over the army commanders, he said. The military men seemed more preoccupied with planning the assault on Kyiv and, after that failed, using Chernobyl as an escape route to Belarus for their badly mauled troops.

“They came and did whatever they wanted” in the zone around the station, [chief safety engineer Valeriy] Simyonov said. Despite efforts by him and other Ukrainian nuclear engineers and technicians who remained at the site through the occupation, working round-the-clock and unable to leave except for one shift change in late March, the entrenching continued.

The earthworks were not the only instance of recklessness in the treatment of a site so toxic it still holds the potential to spread radiation well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

In a particularly ill-advised action, a Russian soldier from a chemical, biological and nuclear protection unit picked up a source of cobalt-60 at one waste storage site with his bare hands, exposing himself to so much radiation in a few seconds that it went off the scales of a Geiger counter, Mr. Simyonov said. It was not clear what happened to the man, he said.

The most concerning moment, Mr. Simyonov said, came in mid-March, when electrical power was cut to a cooling pool that stores spent nuclear fuel rods that contain many times more radioactive material than was dispersed in the 1986 catastrophe. That raised the concern among Ukrainians of a fire if the water cooling the fuel rods boiled away, exposing them to the air, though that prospect was quickly dismissed by experts. “They’re emphasizing the worst-case scenarios, which are possible but not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

…The background radiation in most of the 18-mile Exclusion Zone around the nuclear plant, after 36 years, poses scant risks and is about equivalent to a high-altitude airplane flight. But in invisible hot spots, some covering an acre or two, some just a few square yards, radiation can soar to thousands of times normal ambient levels.

A soldier in such a spot would be exposed every hour to what experts consider a safe limit for an entire year, said Mr. Chareyron, the nuclear expert.

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The scare stories are mostly just that – scares. Cutting the electrical power wasn’t going to be a risk for quite some time. The cobalt-60, though: unwise. (Related: how to warn the far future about radioactive materials.)
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April 2012: Facebook acquires Instagram • Hacker News

User “georgespencer”, ten years ago:

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This is not going to be one of the best tech acquisitions of the next decade. YouTube helped to propel Google into content. It also helped to commoditise web video in a massive way: reminiscent of the way which Google commoditised search (YouTube is probably just short of being a byword for online video at this point).

Instagram is a photo service in a sea of other photo services. Photography has been around on the web in meaningful ways for a long time. Flickr lost out to Facebook in the community stakes, and Instagram is doing great in whatever-the-fuck market it’s in (the share-to-my-twitter-followers market?), but this is not Google acquiring YouTube.

Bookmark this comment. See you in 2022.

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Hi George! Echoes of the disparaging description of the first iPod – “No wireless. Less space than a [Creative] nomad [MP3 player]. Lame.”

This is why pundits in the tech space tend to hedge their bets. Instagram *could* have just been one of multiple photo services (a very popular one at the time was called Hipstamatic; gave a lovely Polaroid-style effect to photos). But once Facebook really figured it out, and figured out how to monetise it, the sky was the limit. Rumours are that Apple was considering buying it. Not sure that would have been such a roaring success.
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Bitcoin struggles to find its star power in Miami • Fast Company

Ryan Broderick:

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Bitcoin may be a household name, but it’s still far off from replacing other currencies—a techno-utopian outcome that’s the stuff of crypto evangelists’ fantasies. This belief, that Bitcoin will one day usurp even the dollar, has almost religious undertones within the community. Yet for that to happen, Bitcoin still has to become a lot more mainstream. And the best way for it to do that, apparently, is to connect the currency to influencers and celebrities.

In fact, the issue of what influencers or celebrities can do for the Bitcoin community came up directly on Thursday morning, during a panel featuring Odell Beckham Jr., Serena Williams, Aaron Rodgers, and Cash App’s crypto product lead, Miles Suter. Beckham and Rodgers have both made headlines recently for taking their salaries in Bitcoin; Williams is heavily involved in the Bitcoin startup world.

“What role do influencers and icons play in [the ascent of Bitcoin]?” Suter asked the group onstage. All three guests all agreed that Bitcoin was the future, talking about how they thought it was a good long-term investment and how it gave them more financial freedom, but that’s about as deep as the conversation really got.

…It was pretty far away from the high energy radiating from the world of NFTs, and it was clear that the event’s bigger names aren’t sure what else to do other than just tell the audience to buy Bitcoin over and over again. A lot of people make fun of NFTs, but they’re an easier cultural product to point to and talk about than trying to have a fun conversation about lightning networks.

In fact, Cash App’s Suter said one of the company’s major initiatives this year is to try and make Bitcoin more relatable, which includes easier payment processes and a more intuitive QR code system. He also showed off a Spotify playlist of songs titled, “Cash App.” Though, cutting into some of the hype was the fact that Cash App suffered a major data breach the night before the conference. 

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Six-word sci-fi: stories written by you • WIRED

These are rather good (inspired, of course, by Hemingway’s* answer to the challenge to write a six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”).

For example the winner of a story “about surviving a high-tech disaster” is “My hands, once again, were mine”. Some of the runners-up are neat. There’s a new challenge: “a futuristic meal gone wrong”. Maybe you’ll win!

Though further down “A story about a new national holiday” has a runner-up of “Elon has just bought July 4th”, which feels a bit close to the bone.

* Possibly wasn’t Hemingway.
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The era of fixing your own phone has nearly arrived • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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WhenWhen I called up iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens, I figured he’d be celebrating — after years of fighting for right-to-repair, big name companies like Google and Samsung have suddenly agreed to provide spare parts for their phones. Not only that, they signed deals with him to sell those parts through iFixit, alongside the company’s repair guides and tools. So did Valve.

But Wiens says he’s not done making deals yet. “There are more coming,” he says, one as soon as a couple of months from now. (No, it’s not Apple.) Motorola was actually the first to sign on nearly four years ago. And if Apple meaningfully joins them in offering spare parts to consumers — like it promised to do by early 2022 — the era of fixing your own phone may be underway.

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We live in an age where people are very unsure about replacing a washer in a tap, adding a lightswitch to a circuit, or replacing a spark plug. You really think they’re going to fix the broken screen on their phone? Dream on. Articles like this bear the same relation to reality as all those breathless pieces about how Google’s modular Ara phone was going to Change Everything.

(And looking back at that Project Ara post, I’m reminded there was Soli, which would let you control your smartwatch with not-touching-it gestures. Appeared in the Google Pixel 4; abandoned the next year.)
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Shanghai releases more than 11,000 Covid-19 patients after recovery, but new infections keep climbing • South China Morning Post

Daniel Ren:

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Shanghai reported 24,944 new infections on Sunday, setting a record for the ninth consecutive day. Of those, 1,006 were symptomatic, slightly down from 1,015 on Saturday.

Shanghai, China’s commercial and financial capital, has seen more than 179,000 cases since the current outbreak, driven by the Omicron variant, began on March 1.

About 5,400 patients were reported to have mild symptoms while the others were asymptomatic.

Sunday was the first day since April 3 that no citywide mass testing was conducted.

“The tidal wave has yet to peak, and worries are that the citywide lockdown will last for another few weeks, which may cripple the local economy,” said Wang Feng, chairman of Shanghai-based financial service group Ye Lang Capital. “The business community is keeping a close eye on how the government will lift the lockdown.”

Vice-mayor Zong Ming said on Saturday that the city would embark on a zoning strategy to gradually lift the lockdown but did not give a clear time frame for implementing the policy.

People in areas classified as “precautionary zones” will be able to move about and certain essential businesses in these areas will be allowed to reopen, with limitations on the number of customers. But there was no easing in the lockdown in any part of the city on Sunday.

Thousands of businesses in Shanghai, from small restaurants to big-name multinational firms, have been forced to halt production. Shanghai set an economic growth target of 5.5% for 2022, but analysts expect it will miss that goal because of the Covid-19 controls.

…On April 5, the city authorities reversed an earlier plan to end an eight-day, two-phase shutdown of Pudong and Puxi, the eastern and western sides of the Huangpu River, leaving the whole city locked down.

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A policy of trying to prevent the Omicron variant spreading is doomed to fail. Even with widespread vaccination (as in the UK) it simply spreads widely, and Shanghai has done badly with vaccination of those over 60, due to distrust of the Sinovac vaccine. The vaccine works (well enough) but you can’t beat nature in this way. Things are going to get worse.
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How Anitta fans gamed Spotify to help make her Brazil’s top artist • Rest of World

Marília Marasciulo:

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On March 25th, musical artist Anitta became the first Brazilian to reach the number one spot on a global music chart when her song “Envolver” became the most streamed track on Spotify’s Daily Top 50 Global playlist. It was streamed 6.4 million times, with 4.1 million of those streams coming from Brazil. 

But her success on Spotify’s charts isn’t just a result of the song’s catchy chorus: Anitta fans and music industry experts told Rest of World that some of “Envolver”’s success can be attributed to fans gaming the platform’s algorithms in ways that potentially broke Spotify’s terms and conditions. At least some of that behavior was encouraged by Anitta’s own team, which pushed fans to inflate her streams on the platform.

On March 14th, Anitta’s official fan account on Twitter, QG da Anitta, retweeted another fan account’s post encouraging people to boost Anitta’s popularity by setting up playlists featuring her song and reminding them to “use different accounts on Spotify and remember to switch accounts after 20 streams.” The next day, that official account set up a raffle of Spotify Premium subscriptions for users who sent screenshots of using Spotify to stream “Envolver”. 

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It’s not as if gaming the charts is an even vaguely new thing; it’s been going on pretty much since there were charts. What’s new now is the use of social to do it essentially for free, rather than paying people to go around the stores which report to the charts companies and buy particular artists’ records.
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Investors are buying virtual land in a metaverse ghost town • Rest of World

Leo Schwartz and Lucía Cholakian Herrera on what happened to an Argentinian metaverse project that had been going since 2017, after Facebook rebranded as “Meta” and emphasised the metaverse:

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“All of a sudden, everybody on the planet was trying to figure out how to go buy a piece of the metaverse,” said Janine Yorio, the CEO of Everyrealm, a metaverse investment and development firm. “Platforms [like Decentraland] have received a disproportionate amount of speculative interest and investment dollars,” she told Rest of World.

As an early Decentraland user, Keiffer saw how quickly the platform changed. More users joined, but there were even more speculators. Many “are basically land companies,” he said. “They don’t really do much else.”

Keiffer eventually joined a virtual real estate company called TerraZero as its chief metaverse officer. Its goal was to not only buy up digital land but to develop and even rent it out. The company helps users put up virtual buildings and host events on plots of land, which can require the use of Decentraland’s software developer kit. TerraZero purchased 185 parcels of virtual real estate in March, valued at almost $3m. 

The challenge within a DAO like Decentraland’s is that the voting power is commensurate with how much land or Mana people control. People in the group’s Discord server question what the impact of this type of financial influence will lead to. “Voting favors the rich,” wrote one user, Sin Tachikawa.

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It’s just like the second home rows that blow up in tourist areas, where big money comes in and ruins everything.
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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?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1775: how smartphones defended Kyiv, who’s bitcoin for?, six-word sci-fi, when Facebook bought Instagram, and more

  1. *You really think they’re going to fix the broken screen on their phone? Dream on*

    Maybe not, but if Apple are supplying the spare parts I’d be a lot happier about letting the man with a little shop on the high street fix it.

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