Start Up No.1779: down among the Covid “police”, how to join Nato, yay Sidekick!, Peloton raises plan prices, and more


If Elon Musk owned and controlled Twitter, how would he be able to run it effectively as well as two other demanding tech companies? CC-licensed photo by Get Everwise on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Graduand, graduamus, graduate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


If Elon Musk gets his way, Twitter will lose years of progress • TechCrunch

Taylor Hatmaker:

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It’s still a mystery how Musk plans to execute his grand plans at Twitter while competently helming two large, ambitious tech companies, but the world’s richest man apparently didn’t have enough to keep him busy. Not content to simultaneously run two tech companies, Musk is aiming for three. And that could be very bad news, both for a platform that was finally starting to move in a healthy direction and the team that’s taking it there.

Twitter isn’t perfect. It’s always been both things — the terrible hell site and the one that occasionally gives us moments of transcendence. During Russia’s bloody invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Twitter has been both a nexus of misinformation and a vital aggregator of real-time open source intelligence about the war. Much like, in its last era, Jack Dorsey was both a self-serious aloof tech mystic and one who occasionally had moments of real moral clarity that reverberated through the platform and its policies.

Musk isn’t just the antithesis of the leadership Twitter actually needs right now — he’s also an emblem of the platform at its worst. A petty, thin-skinned troll much too rich for all of this (truly it would only take one million dollars to keep me from tweeting ever again — a modest price!), Musk actively conducts a formidable army of internet goons, regularly misleads the public about his heroic efforts to intervene in various global crises, sows mistrust about the media when the media is generally just doing its job, slanders private citizens and generally conducts himself like a person who doesn’t give a single shit about the literally incomprehensible power differential between himself and basically every other person on the planet.

And, we’ve really got to emphasise this bit, Musk really should have more than enough going on to keep him from executing a dramatic and totally unnecessary power grab at his favourite place to trawl for internet points with weed and boob jokes.

Social media is very different from spaceships, but the first one isn’t easy either. Running a social media company in 2022 is as much about running a company as it is about mitigating very real society-level harms like harassment, misinformation and negative impacts to mental health. Musk isn’t just unconcerned with things like harassment and misinformation, two of Twitter’s most pressing threats to the social order; he’s a notorious vector for both.

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Yes. And yes and yes. Dorsey was pushed out for trying to run two tech companies. How Musk thinks he could do better atop three is bizarre. But then, so is much of his public behaviour.
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I trained to become a fake cop with Covid conspiracists • Vice

Tim Hume:

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To understand how the world really works, the tutor is explaining to our group of trainee “sovereign citizens,” you have to grasp the concept of “word spells.”

For example, she says, when a judge or police officer asks if we “understand” them, we should never say yes – because they’re really asking if we “stand under” them, or submit to their authority. Saying “I comprehend” would avoid that pitfall. To illustrate the “word spell” concept further, she writes the phrase “build back better” on the whiteboard – a slogan adopted by the UK and US governments for their pandemic-recovery programmes – and asks if we notice anything about it.

Then she excitedly circles the lower-case “b’s,” which sort-of-but-don’t-really resemble 6s. “That’s right!” she says. “6-6-6!”

I’m here undercover, amid a group of COVID “truthers” in a chilly community hall in southwest London, for a crash course in “sovereign citizen” ideology. It’s an arcane anti-government conspiracy theory, with roots in US far-right “patriot” groups, that peddles the idea that followers can essentially declare themselves exempt from laws they don’t like by decoupling themselves from their supposed “contract” with the government.

…My six fellow classmates all hail from recognisable strands of the COVID conspiracist “freedom” movement, seeing the world through the prism of corona truther Telegram groups, whose members believe that the pandemic is some kind of plot by elites to oppress the masses.

There’s a middle-class midwife; a veteran anti-vaxxer; a hippyish alternative lifestyler who casually states that the deadly Travis Scott concert stampede in November was actually a case of Satanic blood sacrifice. There’s a 30-something couple, both health and wellness enthusiasts; and a young Black father, who explains that he’s currently locked in a fierce dispute with the NHS staff treating his sick newborn over his refusal to follow hospital COVID protocols.

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An absorbing insight into mental illness. Because, after all, that’s what it really is. But read to the end of the piece for an excellent twist.
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South Africa’s floods a ‘teachable moment’ for climate adaptation • Thomson Reuters Foundation

Kim Harrisberg:

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As downpours swamped South Africa’s third-largest city this week, residents lucky enough to still have internet access and power shared harrowing videos of highways turned into rivers, collapsed buildings and flood-capsized cars.

The deluge has killed more than 300 people in KwaZulu-Natal province, and with more heavy rain expected on the weekend residents and experts questioned whether the city had prepared sufficiently for worsening weather extremes. “We don’t have the government’s attention,” complained Siya Gumede, 26, outside his home in Shakaskraal township north of Durban – a home now with only walls after a neighbouring church collapsed onto its roof on Sunday.

…In 2020, Durban – KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city – released its Climate Action Plan outlining strategies to green its energy, cut flood risk, improve waste management and conserve water, with a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

While climate activists acknowledged the plan was progressive, they said there was limited evidence it was being implemented. But measures ranging from better drainage to more careful urban planning will be crucial to limiting losses during weather extremes such as this week’s floods, climate experts said.

A study from the World Weather Attribution released this week said climate change had increased rainfall associated with tropical cyclones that hit southern Africa. “This is a teachable moment,” said Christopher Trisos, a lead author of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change adaptation and risks released in late February. “The IPCC report found that 90% of African cities do not yet have substantial climate adaptation plans, which is extremely concerning,” Trisos, director of the Climate Risk Laboratory in Cape Town, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But there are still opportunities to adapt.”

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How can a country join NATO? – NATO’s WordPress site

All the current members of NATO:

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In order to be eligible to be invited to join NATO, a country must meet the following criteria:

1. The country needs to be located in Europe continent.
2. The country must be a democracy.
3. There must be a capacity and willingness to contribute the security of the Euro-Atlantic area.

If the country meets all requirements above, it can be invited to a program called the “Membership Action Plan (MAP)” – which divides the rest of the enrollment process into four more stages –

If a country accepts the invitation to the “MAP”, it will benefit advice and support in many aspects, from defence and military, up to political advisements. This stage has no time limit and may differ from one country to another. It’s important to note the fact that NATO claims that participation in it does not affect the chances for future membership.

The next stage starts with a meeting between all the Alliance members. They are discussing the extent of the state’s compatibility with the organization (accession talks). Eventually, this stage ends within the moment the invitee country agrees to accepts the “commitment, rights, and obligation” of NATO.

This stage is very formal and includes some bureaucracy. According to the organization rules, in this specific stage, each member of the alliance have to sign and legalize “The Accession protocol”, which will approve the invitee country affiliation to NATO. Nevertheless, at the same time when the ratification process is headway, the invitee country will still be integrated into some of NATO’s works. These works include meetings, volunteer work etc. In the edge mode, it can even include joining as a supporting country (for example – if the security of the Euro-Atlantic area has been injured) and to transfer fundings, reinforce military forces and act like all the other countries in the Alliance.

One of the admission conditions to be a member in NATO is that the invitee country must submit to the Alliance its own “bill of ratification”. Every country process this stage in a different way, accordingly to its national democratic procedure (differs from one land to another). In some countries, this stage may include a national plebiscite. For this countries, this stage will take more time then countries which only do a parliamentary vote.

Once the fourth stage is complete (the parliament voted yes or alternatively the plebiscite is passed) the country successfully becomes a part of the NATO organization.

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Perhaps like me you’ve been wondering how long Ukraine (or Sweden or Finland) would take to join NATO, the answer seems to be “how long is a piece of string?” For reference, the newest member (Montenegro) took eight years.

Which would give Russia plenty of time to make good on its vague threats to the Scandinavians.

(* This isn’t an official Nato site, as far as I can tell, but it’s a lot more readable – and makes the MAP process clearer – than the official Nato site, where I can’t find an equivalent explanation.)
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The Sidekick was the best smartphone ever • Debugger

Clive Thompson:

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Last weekend, I cleaned out one of my Messed Up Old Tech drawers, with help from my 14 year old son. We tossed out some ancient Mesopotamian Zip drives, a copy of Microsoft Office 2000, and a tangle of cords whose original functions are lost to the mists of time.

At the bottom of the drawer we found a real prize, though: my 2004 Sidekick II phone.

If you were in your teens or twenties back around the turn of the century, you probably remember this device. The first version arrived in 2002; the second (pictured in the article) in 2004.

Back in the early ‘00s, mobile phones were still awfully basic — they made phone calls and sent texts. To compose a text, you pecked away on the twelve-button keypad. That was it, mostly.

So the Sidekick arrived like a pure blast from the future. It had a complete web browser, built-in messaging apps (like AOL Instant Messenger), email and texting, and an honest-to-goodness app store. The device pioneered so many things it’s hard to list them all! It was the first phone to let you multitask several apps at once, for example, and the first to keep you abreast of what each app was doing. (If you got an IM on AOL while using another app, it’d display the message scrolling along the top. Common today! But invented by the Sidekick folks.) The phone stored data in the cloud. Developers released a wild array of software for the Sidekick, including a full-on telnet/SSH client that I used to log into old-school text-based BBSes, like I’d stepped straight out of a goddamn hacker movie.

But the absolute killer feature was that rotating screen. It flicked open with the menace of a switchblade, making a sumptuous snick. Beneath it lay a keyboard so ergonomically wonderful that I could type practically as fast as I could on my laptop.

It was the sweetest phone anyone had ever seen. I was an early adopter of the first model, and when I opened it on the subway in 2002, heads turned.

And frankly, they probably still would!

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Then Microsoft bought Danger, Sidekick’s makers, and things did not go well. (A subplot in my first book, Digital Wars, is how much at war Microsoft and the Danger team were.)
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Why Germany won’t keep its nuclear plants open • Uncharted Territories

Tomas Pueyo:

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Germany has 20,000 MW of installed nuclear energy, but they closed 90% of that after Fukushima (27 reactors). The last three reactors still in operation are slated to close on December 31st, 2022.

The country has 31,000 MW of installed capacity for natural gas. But although it sounds like 50% more than for nuclear energy, that’s not the case.

Nuclear energy is very expensive to build but very cheap to operate. The construction of the reactors and all the safety protocols required are very expensive. But nuclear plants don’t use much uranium and don’t require many people to operate. Since nuclear plants are so expensive to build and so cheap to operate, they are always turned on.

Gas is the opposite. The fixed costs are low, but burning gas is very expensive, so gas power plants tend to be the last ones to be turned on, only during peak demand. That’s why the six nuclear reactors that were operating in Germany in 2021 generated 80% as much power as all the gas power plants. If you turned back on all the nuclear reactors, you could eliminate nearly all the need for gas electricity—and some coal too, which is quite polluting. 

Conversely, if you closed the three nuclear reactors remaining and covered that through gas, you’d need to increase your gas burning for electricity by 30%, which could increase gas from Russia by an equivalent amount. Put in another way: turning all the German nuclear reactors back on could approximately stop gas imports from Russia. Shutting the remaining ones down could increase the dependency on Russian gas by about 30%.

So why doesn’t Germany do it?

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Pueyo (who, you’ll recall, predicted how Covid was going to get very bad, very quickly because of exponential growth in March 2020), dug up the documents for why Germany won’t. And notes there’s no cost-benefit analysis. And:

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What do Germans think about it? 75% of them were in favour of the closure of nuclear plants before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but now 70% of them favour keeping them open. The government is running on inertia.

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Five ways to fight the information war • Tim Harford

The undercover economist on all that immensely shareable, but not immensely trustworthy, content on social media:

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disinformation is often designed less to con the gullible, and more to force us all into a reflexive crouch, instinctively rejecting the very idea that the truth will ever be known. Few people are fooled by clumsy footage of a fake President Zelensky ordering Ukrainians to surrender, but rather more will go on to reject footage that is perfectly genuine.

The non-profit news organisation ProPublica recently reported the phenomenon of fake fact-checking. Social media posts, amplified by Russian state TV, appear to be fact-checkers debunking Ukrainian disinformation. In reality, they are themselves disinformation, debunking claims that were never made.

It’s a more sophisticated version of the UK’s Conservative party briefly rebranding itself on Twitter in 2019 as a fact-checking organisation. The aim, in both cases, is probably not straightforward deception. It is to breed confusion, cynicism and distraction.

Which brings me to lesson five: we mustn’t lose sight of what matters. I’m writing this column about disinformation because I know more about disinformation than [about] Kremlinology or combined-arms warfare. But it is vital not to let a discussion of disinformation distract us from what is happening — an outrageous war, an economic crisis and a humanitarian catastrophe.
While most of us are far from the tanks and the bombs, we are all participating in an information war.

The good news is that every one of us has been in training for it all our lives. We have developed a keen sense for bullshit, and filled our cognitive toolboxes with sharp and sturdy tools for thinking clearly.

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Hey, speak for yourself, Harford.
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What HBO’s “Chernobyl” got right, and what it got terribly wrong • The New Yorker

Masha Gessen, in 2019:

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The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.

The Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book on Chernobyl reconstructs the sequence of events and assigns blame. In effect, Plokhy argues, it was the Soviet system that created Chernobyl and made the explosion inevitable. Glimmers of this understanding appear in the HBO series, too. In the final episode, Legasov, testifying as a witness, tells a Soviet court that the disaster happened because the tips of the control rods were made of graphite, which sped up the reaction, when the control rod was supposed to slow it down. When asked, by the prosecutor, why the reactor was designed this way, Legasov cites the same reason that other safety precautions are ignored and other corners are cut: “It’s cheaper.” He seems to be damning the whole system.

…The viewer is invited to fantasize that, if not for [reactor chief] Dyatlov, the better men would have done the right thing and the fatal flaw in the reactor, and the system itself, might have remained latent. This is a lie.

It would be harder to show a system digging its own grave instead of an ambitious, evil man causing the disaster. In the same way, it’s harder to see dozens of scientists looking for clues when you can just create a single fantasy character who will have all the good disaster-fighting traits. This is the great-men (and one woman) narrative of history, where it’s a few steps, a few decisions, made by a few men that matter, rather than the mess that humans make and from which they suffer.

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Decide for yourself if this is more applicable to Tim Hardford’s disinformation observation, or Germany’s nuclear reluctance. Or.. both? (And “Chernobyl” remains a fantastic series, as Gessen acknowledges.)
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Google Assistant Snapshot appears to finally be dead • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:

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After years of neglect, the spiritual successor to Google Now appears to be gone for good, with Google Assistant Snapshot disappearing widely across Android devices.

Google Assistant Snapshot was a partially hidden, often forgotten addition to the Google app and the Discover feed on the leftmost part of Android homescreens that debuted in 2018. The feature offered up the ability to pull in weather forecasts, calendar appointments, reminders, and more into one place, much like Google Now did.

Earlier this year, Google quietly announced with a notice in its app that Snapshot would be “going away,” but without a firm date. That notice arrived a few weeks after a widespread bug had prevented access to the feature for many users.

Now, as of mid-April 2022, it seems that Google Assistant Snapshot has been fully sunset.

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The whole concept of Google Now – that your phone would tell you the information you needed for the day ahead, perhaps even being proactive (lots of traffic, leave earlier) – seemed smart. Yet Google doesn’t seem to have been able to make it cohere, as keeps happening. Where’s Google’s focus?
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Peloton raises subscription fees, cuts prices for Bikes, Treads • CNBC

Lauren Thomas:

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“The pricing changes being announced today are part of [new] CEO Barry McCarthy’s vision to grow the Peloton community,” a company spokesman told CNBC.

Effective June 1, the price of Peloton’s all-access subscription plan in the United States will go up to $44 per month, from $39. In Canada, the fee will rise to $55 per month, from $49. Pricing for international members will remain unchanged, Peloton said. The cost of a digital-only membership, for people who don’t own any of Peloton’s equipment, will still be $12.99 a month.

Peloton explained the decision in a company blog post shared with CNBC. “There’s a cost to creating exceptional content and an engaging platform,” the company said. The price increases will allow Peloton to continue to deliver to users, it added.

Meantime, beginning Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, Peloton will slash the prices of its connected-fitness bikes and treadmills in hopes of making its products more affordable to a wider audience and increase its market share coming off of a pandemic-fueled surge in demand.

The price of its Bike will drop to $1,445 from $1,745. The cost includes a $250 shipping and set-up fee
• The Bike+ will drop to $1,995 from $2,495
• The Tread machine will sell for $2,695, down from $2,845. The Tread cost includes a $350 shipping and set-up fee.

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1) Those are 20% cuts in hardware price, roughly. Is that really enough to tempt new users?
2) And a 12-13% rise in subscription cost. Why would new users be attracted by that, if they weren’t before? (OK, the $300 reduction in bike cost would take 60 months, aka five years, to be eaten by the subscription rise. But lower capex v higher opex is not attractive.)
3) If it’s about the cost of content creation, why (as John Gruber asks) haven’t digital-only membership prices risen?

I remain fascinated by how badly Peloton is working towards its obvious end state where it takes the high end to provide really good fitness workouts for any platform, not just its own hardware. Though it will find companies like Zwift already there, and happy to have a fight for user loyalty.
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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

Start Up No.1778: metaverse company offers (virtual) immortality, Dall•E 2 tested, AlphaFold gets big, NFTs on the slide?, and more


Apparently Mark Zuckerberg wants an “iPhone moment” for his new AR spectacles. But how many such moments has tech had, in a world where most fails? CC-licensed photo by Nobuyuki Hayashi on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Behind Mark Zuckerberg big plans for AR glasses • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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MarkMark Zuckerberg has a grandiose vision for the metaverse, and he hopes that you’ll one day see the same thing, too — quite literally, through a pair of augmented reality glasses.

Zuckerberg calls AR goggles a “holy grail” device that will “redefine our relationship with technology,” akin to the introduction of smartphones. During the special effect-laden video announcing Facebook’s corporate rebrand to Meta last October, they acted as the connective tissue for his metaverse pitch, letting people play games and work with virtual humans Star Trek-style. At one point, Zuckerberg wore them while fencing with a hologram. “Don’t be scared to stab,” his virtual sparring partner quipped.

Zuckerberg may have big hopes for smart glasses, but the near-term reality of the technology is far less lofty. The demonstrations during Zuckerberg’s Meta presentation, such as playing virtual chess on a real table with someone’s avatar, weren’t based on any functioning hardware or software. And Meta doesn’t yet have a working, wearable prototype of its planned AR glasses but rather a stationary demonstration that sits on a table.

Still, Zuckerberg has ambitious goals for when his high-tech glasses will be a reality. Employees are racing to deliver the first generation by 2024 and are already working on a lighter, more advanced design for 2026, followed by a third version in 2028.​​ The details, which together give the first comprehensive look at Meta’s AR hardware ambitions, were shared with The Verge by people familiar with the roadmap who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

…If the AR glasses and the other futuristic hardware Meta is building eventually catch on, they could cast the company, and by extension Zuckerberg, in a new light. “Zuck’s ego is intertwined with [the glasses],” a former employee who worked on the project tells me. “He wants it to be an iPhone moment.”

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How many “iPhone moments” have there been? Real tech announcements that then swept the world through consumer adoption? The iPhone, iMac (affected PC design for a decade), iPod. Windows 95. What others? The list is actually not very long, I think.
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Metaverse company to offer immortality through ‘live forever’ mode • Vice

Maxwell Strachan:

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Almost five years ago, Artur Sychov’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which would ultimately kill him within a few years. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “It kind of hit me that the time I had with him was limited,” he told me last week. At the time, Sychov’s children were just a few years old, and it pained him to think that they might grow up without a memory of their grandfather. 

In those moments, he started to wonder if there was some way in which his children might be able to have a conversation with their grandfather, even after he was gone. 

Sychov is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of the many versions of the metaverse that have sprouted up in recent years. Unlike many of its competitors, Somnium Space is already compatible with virtual reality headsets, allowing for an immersive 3D experience.

The death of Sychov’s father served as the inspiration for an idea that he would come to call “Live Forever” mode, a forthcoming feature in Somnium Space that allows people to have their movements and conversations stored as data, then duplicated as an avatar that moves, talks, and sounds just like you—and can continue to do so long after you have died. In Sychov’s dream, people will be able to talk to their dead loved one whenever they wish.

“Literally, if I die—and I have this data collected—people can come or my kids, they can come in, and they can have a conversation with my avatar, with my movements, with my voice,” he told me. “You will meet the person. And you would maybe for the first 10 minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it’s actually AI. That’s the goal.”

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Black Mirror: just predicting the future, not exaggerating it.
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Playing with DALL·E 2 • LessWrong

Dave Orr:

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I got access to Dall·E 2 yesterday. Here are some pretty pictures!

My goal was to try to understand what things DE2 could do well, and what things it had trouble understanding or generating. My general hypothesis is that it would do a better job with things that are easy to find on the internet (cute animals, digital scifi things, famous art) and less well with more abstract or more unusual things.

Here’s how it works: you put in a description of a picture, and it thinks for ~20 seconds and then produces 10 photos that are variations on that description. The diversity varies quite a bit depending on the prompt. 

…Anything involving people, small defined objects, and so on, looks much more like the previous systems in this area. You can tell that it has all the concepts, but can’t translate them into something realistic.

This could be deliberate, for safety reasons — realistic images of people are much more open to abuse than other things. Porn, deep fakes, violence, and so on are much more worrisome with people. They also mentioned that they scrubbed out lots of bad stuff from the training data; possibly one way they did that was removing most images with people.

Things look much better with animals, and better again with an artistic style.

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It’s really quite weird, but this is also coming on quite rapidly. (Here’s another tryout.) Consider that the first Deep Dream stuff was back in 2015; in seven years you can prompt for anything and it gets sort-of close to it.

Maybe we need to start thinking about our role in a world where AI can write all the books we could ever want to read and generate all the pictures we could ever want to look at, write the screenplays we’d want to see acted, perhaps even create the films from them.
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What’s next for AlphaFold and the AI protein-folding revolution • Nature

Ewen Callaway:

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For more than a decade, molecular biologist Martin Beck and his colleagues have been trying to piece together one of the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzles: a detailed model of the largest molecular machine in human cells.

This behemoth, called the nuclear pore complex, controls the flow of molecules in and out of the nucleus of the cell, where the genome sits. Hundreds of these complexes exist in every cell. Each is made up of more than 1,000 proteins that together form rings around a hole through the nuclear membrane. These 1,000 puzzle pieces are drawn from more than 30 protein building blocks that interlace in myriad ways.

…In 2016, a team led by Beck, who is based at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics (MPIB) in Frankfurt, Germany, reported a model1 that covered about 30% of the nuclear pore complex and around half of the 30 building blocks, called Nup proteins.

Then, last July, London-based firm DeepMind, part of Alphabet — Google’s parent company — made public an artificial intelligence (AI) tool called AlphaFold. The software could predict the 3D shape of proteins from their genetic sequence with, for the most part, pinpoint accuracy. This transformed Beck’s task, and the studies of thousands of other biologists (see ‘AlphaFold mania’).

“AlphaFold changes the game,” says Beck. “This is like an earthquake. You can see it everywhere,” says Ora Schueler-Furman, a computational structural biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, who is using AlphaFold to model protein interactions. “There is before July and after.”

Using AlphaFold, Beck and others at the MPIB — molecular biologist Agnieszka Obarska-Kosinska and a group led by biochemist Gerhard Hummer — as well as a team led by structural modeller Jan Kosinski, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg in Germany, could predict shapes for human versions of the Nup proteins more accurately. And by taking advantage of a tweak that helped AlphaFold to model how proteins interact, they managed to publish a model last October that covered 60% of the complex. It reveals how the complex stabilizes holes in the nucleus, as well as hinting at how the complex controls what gets in and out.

In the past half-year, AlphaFold mania has gripped the life sciences. “Every meeting I’m in, people are saying ‘why not use AlphaFold?’,” says Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at University College London.

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AlphaGo had a similar effect on the game of Go – professionals are now measurably better. AlphaFold is probably going to change our lives a lot more, though.
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The most popular chess streamer on Twitch • The New Yorker

Jacob Sweet:

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[American grandmaster Hikaru] Nakamura beat the crafty Hungarian grandmaster Richárd Rapport in the first of two semifinal matches. In the video detailing his second, he explained his philosophy. “Now, one of the big differences between now and two or three years ago when I was playing chess professionally—that’s all I was doing for the most part—is that I literally don’t care,” Nakamura said. “What that means is that, in a lot of these situations now, I’ll just pick a line and play it at the board. I will not worry about trying to pick the precise line or something that I’ve looked at most recently. I will just choose to show up and play the line that I want to play.”

Chess competition is stressful, and being one of the best players in the world doesn’t make it any less so. After a draw on day five of the tournament, Rapport—who won the second leg of the Grand Prix and clinched a spot in the Candidates weeks later—gave an unrelentingly brutal post-match interview, in which he called himself his toughest opponent and pondered what he could have done with his life had he not devoted it to an underfunded, unforgiving game. “I wish I had chosen something else,” Rapport said. “If I had put in a similar amount of time and energy over the years, I think I’d be a happier person as of now.”

It is only in this context that Nakamura’s “I don’t care” mantra approaches truth. Once hailed as the future of American chess, Nakamura has devoted his life to an ultracompetitive game, one that only two or three dozen people can make a comfortable living solely from playing. As he rose up the world ranks, he treated opponents like enemies and used criticism as fuel, becoming a highly disliked member of the chess scene. In online chess, where he was known for his blitz prowess since the 2000s, he often accused opponents of cheating and fired off nasty messages after losses. The “I literally don’t care” mantra itself is a reference to Nakamura’s bitter reaction to a fluke online loss in which he repeated the phrase many more times than one would expect from someone who literally did not care.

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Nakamura became a chess master at 10, grandmaster at 15 – younger than Bobby Fischer in both cases. That makes him a complete phenomenon. Yet it sounds like he can only escape the burden of the game by telling himself, and everyone else, that he doesn’t care.

Interesting too that he eschews, or seems to, lengthy analysis. One wonders too what Bobby Fischer would be like in this modern age. What would his Twitch stream be like?
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‘Jack Dorsey’s first tweet’ NFT went on sale for $48m. It ended with a top bid of just $280 • Coindesk

Sandali Handagama:

»

A non-fungible token (NFT) of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet could sell for just under $280. The current owner of the NFT listed it for $48m last week.

Iranian-born crypto entrepreneur Sina Estavi purchased the NFT for $2.9m in March 2021. Last Thursday, he announced on Twitter that he wished to sell the NFT, and pledged 50% of its proceeds (which he thought would exceed $25 million) to charity. The auction closed Wednesday, with just seven total offers ranging from 0.09 ETH ($277 at current prices) to 0.0019 ETH (almost $6).

“The deadline I set was over, but if I get a good offer, I might accept it, I might never sell it,” Estavi told CoinDesk via a WhatsApp message on Wednesday.

Estavi has two days to accept the bid, or it will expire.

«

1) On what planet has something that anyone can copy appreciated in value 16-fold in 13 months?
2) Related: anyone know how much an NFT of a burst bubble is selling for these days?

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Wikipedia community votes to stop accepting cryptocurrency donations • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

More than 200 long-time Wikipedia editors have requested that the Wikimedia Foundation stop accepting cryptocurrency donations. The foundation received crypto donations worth about $130,000 in the most recent fiscal year—less than 0.1% of the foundation’s revenue, which topped $150m last year.

Debate on the proposal has raged over the last three months.

“Cryptocurrencies are extremely risky investments that have only been gaining popularity among retail investors,” wrote Wikipedia user GorillaWarfare, the original author of the proposal, back in January. “I do not think we should be endorsing their use in this way.”

GorillaWarfare is Molly White, a Wikipedian who has become something of an anti-cryptocurrency activist. She also runs the Twitter account “web3 is going just great“, which highlights “some of the many disasters happening in crypto, defi, NFTs, and other web3 projects”, the account profile says.

In her proposal for the Wikimedia Foundation, GorillaWarfare added that “Bitcoin and Ethereum are the two most highly used cryptocurrencies, and are both proof-of-work, using an enormous amount of energy.”

According to one widely cited estimate, the bitcoin network consumes around 200 TWh of energy per year. That’s about as much energy as is consumed by 70 million people in Thailand. And it works out to around 2,000 kWh per bitcoin transaction.

Bitcoin defenders countered that bitcoin’s energy usage is driven by its mining process, which consumes about the same amount of energy regardless of the number of transactions. So accepting any given bitcoin donation won’t necessarily lead to more carbon emissions.

«

So the latter argument is: “It’s really bad no matter whether you use it or not, so why not take it? Please take it.”

Always fascinating how Wikipedia is the relatively sane oasis in the ocean of internet madness.
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Why the past ten years of American life have been uniquely stupid • The Atlantic

Jonathan Haidt:

»

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009.

In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favorite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements—from the Postal Service through the telephone to email and texting—that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.

But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics [with Facebook’s Like button and Twitter’s Retweet button].

«

Fascinating piece, in which he likens what’s going on to the Tower of Babel – after things all went south for the inhabitants of Babel. Not a short piece, but absorbing. (I’d argue that what he’s describing is Social Warming: virality and undermining of institutions are core effects.)
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I liked the idea of carbon offsets, until I tried to explain it • Climateer

Steve:

»

The idea behind offsets is simple: instead of halting your own carbon emissions, you pay someone else to reduce theirs. It’s attractive because the net reduction in CO2 is the same, but the cost can be much lower, meaning we can achieve faster reductions and/or minimize the impact on the economy. For instance, today there is no practical way for an airline to stop burning jet fuel, but JetBlue has been offsetting their emissions by helping to fund programs such as solar and wind farms, forest protection, and landfill gas capture1.

It’s a controversial topic. Some claimed “offsets” are fairly sketchy. It’s been argued that all offsets are a smoke screen that allows polluters to keep on polluting. Personally, until I sat down to write this piece, I felt that offsets were useful when evaluated rigorously. But it took me three or four tries to write a complete draft. Each time, I would get halfway through, only to realize that my concept of when offsets make sense was flawed. It’s just too difficult to frame a coherent story in which offsets help us on the path to net zero emissions.

In the end, I’ve come around to the view that most offset programs do not get us closer to a net zero world, and therefore are a dangerous distraction. There are some very well-intentioned and well-run organizations engaged in tracking and certifying offsets, but unfortunately I think they’re relying on a flawed premise.

«

His main focus is on “avoided emissions”, when you try to get someone not to emit carbon – eg paying to protect a forest, or insulate a building. That’s in contrast to “negative emissions” where you actually remove carbon (CO2 or CH4) from the atmosphere. Thus he argues that “preserving an acre of rainforest” doesn’t actually help at all. It leaves you worse off because carbon emission is still going on – you’re not growing the rainforest.

Unfortunately, he’s correct.
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As climate fears mount, some Americans are deciding to relocate • Yale E360

Jon Hurdle:

»

Like a growing number of Americans, the Brazil family realized they could no longer live in a place [Ashland, southern Oregon, hit by forest fires] where they faced soaring temperatures and worsening wildfires driven by climate change, and so decided it was time to move to a less vulnerable part of the country. They chose New England, where [wife] Mich, a psychologist, got a transfer from her employer, the US Veterans Administration, to its office in White River Junction, Vermont. After more than a year of living in a series of temporary accommodations near their former Oregon home, they moved last October to an apartment in Enfield, New Hampshire — close to the Vermont border — where they have begun to rebuild their lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times we looked at a map of the whole country and asked, ‘Where do we want to live?’” [husband] Forest said in the basement apartment where they now live with their children, ages 5, 3, and 1. “The West Coast was no longer an option. The Midwest didn’t appeal. And then looking out here, we don’t have to worry about drought and fires. We don’t have to worry about smoke and heat.”

After being forced out of their home, the Brazil family joined other Americans escaping the worsening impacts of climate change. These migrants include New Orleans residents who fled their city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Houstonians who were driven out by flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Other communities have begun to disappear entirely. Residents of the coastal Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles, which sits just a foot or two above sea level, are being pushed out by rising seas. Inhabitants of coastal Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref and Newtok — where more intense storm surges caused by declining sea ice are eroding coasts weakened by melting permafrost — are being relocated.

«

Not quite climate refugees, but shows that population movement isn’t limited to far-off countries.
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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

Start Up No.1777: the psychopathy of bitcoin, the mystery of the Tesla Twitter bot army, Mac maker hit by lockdown, PM fined, and more


Imagine you had a job you really liked, but you had to do it in an office where you couldn’t personalise your workspace. How would that make you feel? CC-licensed photo by Daniel Tuttle on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Bitcoin fans are psychopaths who don’t care about anyone, study shows • The Sun via NY Post

Harry Pettit:

»

The average Bitcoin investor is a calculating psychopath with an inflated ego, according to scientists.

A team of experts recently surveyed more than 500 people to uncover the personality traits that are most common among crypto nuts. They identified that many investors exhibit signs of the “dark tetrad”, a group of four unsavoury traits made up of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism.

In plain English, that means dark tetrads have an inflated sense of self-importance and derive pleasure from the pain of others. They also find it difficult to empathise with others and are sly and manipulative.

Scientists at Queensland University of Technology described their findings in research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences earlier this month. They asked 566 people to complete personality surveys as well as answers questions about their attitudes to crypto.

Of the participants, one in four reported that they owned crypto and two-thirds showed an interest in crypto investing.

All four dark tetrad traits correlated with an affinity for investing, each for their own reasons.

According to the researchers, dark tetrads are partly drawn to crypto because they are prepared to take risks. Digital assets such as Bitcoin are infamously volatile and the feast-or-famine nature of investing is particularly enticing to some.

Study lead author Dr. Di Wang wrote in The Conversation: “Dark tetrad traits are ‘dark’ because of their ‘evil’ qualities: extreme selfishness and taking advantage of others without empathy.”

«

I’d have linked directly to The Conversation article, but it was wordier: The Sun, as you’d expect, got to the meat of the topic much more directly.
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Elon Musk’s not-so-secret weapon: an army of Twitter bots • Los Angeles Times

Russ Mitchell:

»

In early November 2013, the news wasn’t looking great for Tesla. A series of reports had documented instances of Tesla Model S sedans catching on fire, causing the electric carmaker’s share price to tumble.

Then, on the evening of Nov. 7, within a span of 75 minutes, eight automated Twitter accounts came to life and began publishing positive sentiments about Tesla. Over the next seven years, they would post more than 30,000 such tweets.

With more than 500 million tweets sent per day across the network, that output represents a drop in the ocean. But preliminary research from David A. Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, concludes that activity of this sort by so-called bots has played a significant part in the “stock of the future” narrative that has propelled Tesla’s market value to altitudes loftier than any traditional financial analysis could justify.

In a market in love with “meme stocks,” sexy narrative is proving far more profitable than financial analysis, said Kirsch, co-author of “Bubbles and Crashes: The Boom and Bust of Technological Innovation.”

…Over the 10-year study period, of about 1.4 million tweets from the top 400 accounts posting to the “cashtag” $TSLA, 10% were produced by bots. Of 157,000 tweets posted to the hashtag #TSLA, 23% were from bots, the research showed.

Kirsch and research assistant Moshen] Chowdhury tracked 186 Tesla-related bot accounts and found that after each was launched, the company’s stock appreciated more than 2%. (They looked at the average stock return for the week previous to the bot’s creation and for the week following.) While Tesla’s market value has increased over the years, the price has seen dramatic ups and downs. The periods around bot creation showed sharp increases, but outside those windows, trading was far more volatile, Chowdhury said.

“This isn’t a causal relationship, but it does raise questions,” Kirsch said, about why there’s a correlation that does not appear to be random. “We’re trying to understand the mechanism. It can’t be just a bunch of tweets that push the stock. People have to notice them, interpret them and act on them.”

«

Very, very big hanging question: who’s behind the bots? But they don’t know.
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@elon • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway points out that he took a stake in Twitter long before Elon Musk (OK, it was only 0.000276%) but that he found activists who agreed with him in thinking Twitter gets too little revenue for what is “among the most important products in history – real time news source, global communications platform”. So what’s his big idea?

»

Twitter should move to a subscription model (#fuckingobvious). Corporate users and users with large followings would pay for a fraction of the value they receive. I have long advocated for this model; by shifting the company’s revenue source from advertisers to users, subscription aligns economic incentives with user experience, rather than user exploitation. This leads to a myriad of benefits, which is why recurring-revenue businesses register greater growth and retention and bigger valuations.

Nothing better illustrates the value of Twitter to its users than Tesla. The carmaker spends almost nothing on advertising (GM spends $2+ billion per year), yet it has built the best brand in the industry. This is a function of performance (outstanding products, exceeding targets) multiplied by reach. The reach is a function of Elon’s 80.9 million PR agents (i.e., his Twitter followers). The social network could charge Mr. Musk $10 million a month and — after making a series of ad hominem attacks on the board/company/CEO — he would pay it. Nearly every Fortune 10,000 company and A/B/C list celebrity who uses the platform as a real-time communications tool would pay fees scaled by follower count.

In addition, ad-supported media is what drives the enragement cycle, the bots, and the misinformation plaguing Twitter. Cleaning that up would be good for business, and for the commonwealth. False stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones — and spread six times faster.

«

He then takes Musk out to the woodshed and points out that he’s mostly an idiot, even if he has done remarkable things with Tesla and, especially, SpaceX.

Twitter subscriptions? Seems smart enough to me. Give it exclusivity and value, and revenue.
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Shanghai, Kunshan lockdowns hit iPhone, Mac and iPad makers • Nikkei Asia

Lauly Li:

»

Three key Apple suppliers have suspended production in and near Shanghai as strict COVID-19 lockdown measures show signs of affecting the US tech giant’s supply chain in China.

Pegatron, the iPhone assembler, said in a stock exchange filing on Tuesday that operations at its two production sites in Shanghai and the Chinese city of Kunshan have been suspended to comply with government regulations. These are Pegatron’s only iPhone manufacturing bases, as its new iPhone assembly plant in India has not yet begun operation, Nikkei Asia has learned. Pegatron makes roughly 20% to 30% of all iPhones.

Pegatron told Nikkei Asia that it is in close communication with its clients and suppliers, while complying with local government regulations, and hopes to resume production soon.

Quanta, the world’s biggest contract notebook manufacturer and a key MacBook maker, told Nikkei Asia that it has halted production at its key manufacturing site in the Songjiang district of Shanghai since the start of April in compliance with the government’s COVID prevention measures. Quanta, which also counts Dell and HP as clients, has around 20% of its total notebook capacity in Shanghai. It also makes some Internet of Things products and servers for non-U.S. destinations in the city. Major iPad and notebook maker Compal Electronics also has halted activities at its Kunshan facilities, according to the company.

«

The stop-go is going to affect everyone, not just Apple. It’s worse, much worse, for the citizens of Shanghai, where the crisis may be approaching some sort of crescendo.
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#Wearenotwaiting – the parents who hacked diabetes • Always On

Rory Cellan-Jones on how parents built their own remote monitoring system for their childrens’ type 1 diabetes:

»

Amy, with her needlephobia, still needed to keep pricking her finger to test her blood glucose levels. There was a new wearable device called the Dexcom which provided constant glucose monitoring but at that stage regulators had not approved it for use by children as an integrated system with an insulin pump – it was 2014 before that was allowed.

That spurred Kevin on, aware that as Amy was entering her teens, they needed to find a way of allowing her a little more freedom. How could they let her go to town or the cinema with her friends, knowing that she might have a hypo and friends wouldn’t know what to do?

Having finally got hold of a Dexcom monitor, he decided to make its data available to Amy. So he built something for her:

“Because it was just a radio frequency that just flings the data out there, we had this other device that she could keep in her pocket in a little box. And then that device bluetoothed to her phone. That was the element of her being able to see on her phone what her glucose readings were.”

The next step was to make the data available online so that it could be seen on any smartphone or smartwatch.

…A system called Nightscout was developed by the hacker community to make glucose readings from the Dexcom available in the cloud. Built on open source principles it is still available today and works with a wide range of glucose monitors. Meanwhile, another open source project Android APS allowed Kevin to monitor Amy’s condition on an Android smartphone or smartwatch: “So whatever device I had, as long as you had internet connectivity, then I could get that information.”

One device he used was the Pebble, a very early smartwatch. As Amy spread her wings, her parents now had reassurance that they would get an alert if her glucose readings hit dangerous levels.

«

Very neat story of how those who are most motivated can make things happen, even in health tech. And applause for the Pebble, with its e-ink display.
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The Solar Power Series • Tom Hegen

Hegen is a landscape photographer, who has done series on greenhouses and oyster farms:

»

In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year. Having this in mind, renewable energy sources could be the key to combating climate change.

What does transforming towards more sustainable sources of energy look like?

This series explores solar power plants in the United States, France and Spain.

These man-made, constructed landscapes represent our efforts of building a more sustainable future in the most sophisticated ways.

The US images came together with helicopter pilot and my fellow partner Lars Gange.

«

The pictures were taken in 2021. Some are of what you’d understand as solar farms: lots of solar panels. Others (quite a few) are of “concentrating solar” systems which use parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a tower, and heat up fluid pumped through it. I think they’re meant to look a bit haphazard.

The whole site’s worth a browse.
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Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to be fined over lockdown parties • BBC News

Jennifer Scott:

»

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be fined by the police for attending a birthday party thrown for him during a Covid lockdown.

No 10 confirmed he would receive the fixed penalty notice for going to the hour-long gathering in the Cabinet Room on 19 June 2020.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the PM’s wife, Carrie Johnson, have also been notified they will get fines.

It comes as part of a Met investigation into illegal parties in Downing Street.

Spokespeople for Mrs Johnson and Mr Sunak said they had not been told which event the fines were linked to.

However, they were reported to be at the same gathering for the PM’s birthday – which was said to have been attended by 30 people.

«

OK, so it took about 21 months for the police to do this, but they got there. Looking forward to how the US copes with whoever was in charge around the events of January 6th 2021, which on that timescale should be around July this year.

(Also: this is a Big Fucking Deal. You make the rules and you break the rules?)
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What Le Corbusier got right about office space • Tim Harford

Harford is the FT’s “undercover economist”, but often also a behaviourist:

»

In 2010, the psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up an experiment in which participants were asked to perform simple administrative tasks in a variety of office spaces. They tested four different office layouts. One was stripped down: bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. The second layout was softened with pot plants and almost abstract floral images. Workers enjoyed this layout more than the minimalist one and got more and better work done there.

The third and fourth layouts were superficially similar, yet produced dramatically different outcomes. In each, workers were invited to use the same plants and pictures to decorate the space before they started work, if they wished. But in one of them, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished decorating, and then rearranged it all. The physical difference was trivial, but the impact on productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic. When workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and, of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted.

It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting — it was the lack of control.

Yet there is a long, dismal tradition of disempowering workers. In the 1960s, the designer Robert Propst worked with the Herman Miller company to produce “The Action Office”, a stylish system of open-plan office furniture that allowed workers to sit, stand, move around and configure the space as they wished.
Propst then watched in horror as his ideas were corrupted into cheap modular dividers, and then to cubicle farms or, as Propst described them, “barren, rathole places”. Managers had squeezed the style and the space out of the action office, but above all they had squeezed the ability of workers to make choices about the place where they spent much of their waking lives.

«

This stuff seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s non-obvious in prospect. How many “clean desk” offices have you worked in? (Me: zero. Newspaper offices are notoriously messy.) I always detested the notion.
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How Apple’s monster M1 Ultra chip keeps Moore’s Law alive • WIRED

Will Knight:

»

Benchmarking of the M1 Ultra has shown it to be competitive with the fastest high-end computer chips and graphics processor on the market. [Apple VP of hardware technologies, Tim] Millet says some of the chip’s capabilities, such as its potential for running AI applications, will become apparent over time, as developers port over the necessary software libraries.

The M1 Ultra is part of a broader industry shift toward more modular chips. Intel is developing a technology that allows different pieces of silicon, dubbed “chiplets,” to be stacked on top of one another to create custom designs that do not need to be redesigned from scratch. The company’s CEO, Pat Gelsinger, has identified this “advanced packaging” as one pillar of a grand turnaround plan. Intel’s competitor AMD is already using a 3D stacking technology from TSMC to build some server and high-end PC chips. This month, Intel, AMD, Samsung, TSMC, and ARM announced a consortium to work on a new standard for chiplet designs. In a more radical approach, the M1 Ultra uses the chiplet concept to connect entire chips together.

Apple’s new chip is all about increasing overall processing power. “Depending on how you define Moore’s law, this approach allows you to create systems that engage many more transistors than what fits on one chip,” says Jesús del Alamo, a professor at MIT who researches new chip components. He adds that it is significant that TSMC, at the cutting edge of chipmaking, is looking for new ways to keep performance rising. “Clearly, the chip industry sees that progress in the future is going to come not only from Moore’s law but also from creating systems that could be fabricated by different technologies yet to be brought together,” he says.

“Others are doing similar things, and we certainly see a trend towards more of these chiplet designs,” adds Linley Gwennap, author of the Microprocessor Report, an industry newsletter.

The rise of modular chipmaking might help boost the performance of future devices, but it could also change the economics of chipmaking. Without Moore’s law, a chip with twice the transistors may cost twice as much. “With chiplets, I can still sell you the base chip for, say, $300, the double chip for $600, and the uber-double chip for $1,200,” says Todd Austin, an electrical engineer at the University of Michigan.

«

The irony is that at pretty much the point that Moore’s Law stopped applying, chips are now everywhere. The challenge isn’t increasing speed so much as applying what’s there well.
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Apple plans to add features to the iPhone health app this year • The Verge

Nicole Wetsman:

»

Apple is planning an expansion to the iPhone health app this year that would include additional sleep tracking and a tool to remind people to take medication, Bloomberg reported. The company could also add body temperature sensing to the Apple Watch this year and is still working on developing a blood pressure monitor.

The new medication tool would let users scan pill bottles and track when they took the medication. Not all planned features would be available at launch.

A body temperature sensor could help expand fertility tracking features on the Apple Watch. Body temperature changes over the course of the menstrual cycle, and that data can help predict when someone might get their period or the window when they’re most likely to become pregnant. The Oura smart ring has a temperature sensor that gives users information about their period, and it’s FDA-cleared to feed data to the digital birth control Natural Cycles.

Apple pushed plans to add a blood pressure monitor to the Apple Watch back to 2024, Bloomberg reported. Blood pressure is a major target for wearable companies and could make devices significantly more useful for tracking cardiac health. But the feature is notoriously tricky, and experts say it still needs more refinement before it can perform well in the real world.

«

Basically, Apple is targeting old people with the medication stuff – notice how it added fall detection a few years ago and who it directly targeted (children of older people who might fall over, who then bought their parents a Watch). After yesterday’s Pebble piece I was discussing on Twitter whether Apple would go after Garmin’s top-end segment of the fitness market. This shows they won’t, and why: there are more people taking pills than shaving seconds off their 10k 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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1776: Twitter v Musk pt..3?, PC market stalls, Apple may face new EU music antitrust, get random on Substack, and more


the Pebble smartwatch was a great success.. until it wasn’t. Ten years after its crowdfunding, its CEO reflects on what went wrong. CC-licensed photo by Michael Sheehan on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Is that the time? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Success and failure at Pebble • Medium

Eric Migicovsky, who was the CEO:

»

In 2012 we launched Pebble on Kickstarter and raised over $10m from 68,000 people around the world. This was our first breakthrough (a classic five-year overnight success!) Over the next few years, we sold 2 million watches and did over $230m in sales.

But in the end, we failed. We didn’t build a sustainable, profitable business. We sold parts of our business to Fitbit at the end of 2016.

What happened? Here’s my TL;DR of why we failed:
• Sales for our version 2.0 (Pebble Time) in 2015 didn’t hit forecasts and the oversupply in inventory put us into a major cash crunch (targeted ~$100m in sales, we did $82m)
• Pebble Time did not succeed because in a quest for huge growth we attempted to expand beyond our initial geeky/hacker user base and failed to reposition it — first as a productivity device, then as a fitness watch. In hindsight, this was stupid and obvious and 100% my fault. We didn’t know if there was actually a market for a more “productivity” smartwatch and we weren’t a fitness company at the core
• Another reason — the bezel on Pebble Time was too damn big! I knew this in my heart but the project was so behind at the time that I didn’t have the guts to change it
• In 2015, we also doubled our operating expenses in anticipation of future growth. This, combined with lower gross margins as we tried to cram more technology into our 2015 lineup, caused us to lose profitability (we did $9m in net profit in 2013 and broke even in 2014).

We spent 2016 desperately trying to cut costs, retain the team, build another product, raise money and, eventually, sell the company.

The underlying problem was that we shifted from making something we knew people wanted, to making an ill-defined product that we hoped people wanted.

«

There was also the little thing of Apple launching its Watch in 2014, arriving in 2015, though as Migicovsky points out Apple didn’t get the positioning right either: it thought the smartwatch was a fashion item, instead of a fitness and messaging device. I had a Pebble, and while it was fine, it couldn’t compete with the Apple Watch. Though there was all the (bigger) Android market for Pebble to go after.
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Twitter grapples with an Elon Musk problem • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Kate Conger:

»

Inside Twitter on Monday, employees were dismayed and concerned by Mr. Musk’s antics, according to half a dozen current and former workers, who were not authorized to speak publicly. After the billionaire suggested over the weekend that Twitter convert its headquarters into a homeless shelter because “no one shows up anyway,” employees questioned how Mr. Musk would know that given that he hadn’t visited the building in some time. They also pointed out that Mr. Musk, whose net worth has been pegged at more than $270bn, could easily afford to help San Francisco’s homeless himself.

Others said they were upset at Mr. Musk’s tweets criticizing the company’s product and business model, noting that he didn’t appreciate the time and thought that went into updating Twitter’s services over the years and that he had no knowledge of the product road map. Some employees said they were relieved after reading that Mr. Musk would not join the board of directors, according to people who viewed internal communications at Twitter.

When it still appeared that Mr. Musk would join the board, Mr. Agrawal scheduled a question-and-answer session for Mr. Musk to respond to employee concerns. The session has been canceled, a person with knowledge of the decision said.

Mr. Musk’s push is the second time in two years that Twitter has dealt with an activist investor. In 2020, the investment firm Elliott Management accumulated a 4% stake and used its position to press for changes, including an ouster of Jack Dorsey as chief executive and more aggressive financial growth. Mr. Dorsey stepped down in November.

«

But the latter was at least something comprehensible. Musk deleted a load of tweets over the weekend about “ideas” he was considering. I’d say unless you’re directly working for Musk, it’s simpler just to ignore him. If he has something he wants to say, he can write a letter like anyone else. (As a general rule, I don’t think it’s worth following anyone with more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. Does terrible things to their ego.)
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Worldwide PC revenue up by more than 15% even as shipments fall 3% in Q1 2022 • Canalys

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The PC market had a healthy start to 2022 as overall revenue grew by more than 15%, despite the first year-on-year shipment decline since Q1 2020. The latest Canalys data shows that worldwide shipments of desktops and notebooks fell 3% annually to 80.1m units against a backdrop of major geopolitical turmoil and softening consumer demand.

Revenue, however, hit US$70bn as prices continued to rise in a supply-starved market and consumers’ appetite for costlier PCs kept increasing. Notebook shipments shrank 6% year on year to reach 63.2m units, while desktop numbers grew 13% to reach 16.8m units.

«

Notebook/desktop divide stating steady at 80/20 there, as it has been for years. But now we’re probably going to start hitting all the effects of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong shutdowns on the supply chain, plus shortages of chips, and the pandemic in retreat.

There’s only so many times you can kit out home offices, so we’re probably going to see the PC market go into retreat for the next year or so.
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Apple faces extra EU antitrust charge in music streaming probe – source • Reuters via Irish Times

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Apple faces an additional European Union antitrust charge in the coming weeks in an investigation triggered by a complaint from Spotify, a person familiar with the matter said, a sign that EU enforcers are strengthening their case against the US company.

The European Commission last year accused the iPhone maker of distorting competition in the music streaming market via restrictive rules for its App Store that force developers to use its own in-app payment system and prevent them from informing users of other purchasing options.

Such requirements have also come under scrutiny in countries including the United States and Britain.
Extra charges set out in a so-called supplementary statement of objections are usually issued to companies when the EU competition enforcer has gathered new evidence or has modified some elements to boost its case.

«

It keeps on not going away, the Spotify case. This one could cost Apple a lot of money unless it does ease how it operates the App Store.
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The hot list: the rise and fall of the singles chart • Medium

Matt Locke, following up on my observation that all music charts get gamed, and have been pretty much from the start:

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the concepts we use to frame and organize attention are palimpsests, built through the same competitions, frustrations, and dead ends as culture itself. They are invented to solve an immediate problem but grow in value and importance until they end up an inextricable part of the culture they seek to measure.

This is how the singles chart started — not as an attempt to create the most influential concept in music of the past half-century, but as an attempt to sell more advertising in a fledgling music magazine. Its inventor, Percy Dickins, was a magazine advertising salesman, ex-merchant seaman, and keen amateur musician. Stuck at the Melody Maker, the stuffy trade magazine for professional musicians, Dickins jumped at the chance to join the team starting a new magazine — the New Musical Express. Looking to find ways to increase its advertising income, he saw an opportunity to run lists of the bestselling singles, a relatively new format that was gaining popularity with young music fans:

»

We used to run a scheme for the PRS showing the best-selling sheet music. Looking through Variety they had all these records and I said to Ray [Sonin, the co-founder of the NME] “this would be a good idea, to have the best-selling records” and he said “good idea, you set it up.” I thought “If we’ve got all these records reviewed here, we can ask for ads to go with them. There are more records coming out now” and we gradually went that way. The paper was going well, we were being printed on a rotary press; it’s getting very popular and we are the paper. When we got the record chart going as well it was fantastic. We got more publicity from it.

«

«

Thus, as Matt points out, the real intent of the singles chart wasn’t to find the most popular song. It was to sell advertising space.
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‘Black carbon’ threat to Arctic as sea routes open up with global heating • The Guardian

Karen McVeigh:

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In February last year, a Russian gas tanker, Christophe de Margerie, made history by navigating the icy waters of the northern sea route in mid-winter. The pioneering voyage, from Jiangsu in China to a remote Arctic port in Siberia, was heralded as the start of a new era that could reshape global shipping routes – cutting travel times between Europe and Asia by more than a third.

It has been made possible by the climate crisis. Shrinking polar ice has allowed shipping traffic in the Arctic to rise 25% between 2013 and 2019 and the growth is expected to continue.

But Arctic shipping is not only made possible by the climate crisis, it is adding to it too. More ships mean a rise in exhaust fumes, which is accelerating ice melt in this sensitive region due to a complex phenomenon involving “black carbon”, an air pollutant formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.

When black carbon, or soot, lands on snow and ice, it dramatically speeds up melting. Dark snow and ice, by absorbing more energy, melts far faster than heat-reflecting white snow, creating a vicious circle of faster warming.

Environmentalists warn that the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the global average, has seen an 85% rise in black carbon from ships between 2015 and 2019, mainly because of the increase in oil tankers and bulk carriers.

The particles, which exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular illness in towns, are short-term but potent climate agents: they represent more than 20% of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from ships, according to one estimate.

…“We’re hitting this cascading tipping point for the climate,” said Dr Lucy Gilliam, senior shipping policy officer of Seas at Risk. “With the IPCC report, we are seeing again why we need to do something about black carbon urgently.”

Last Monday, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned it was “now or never” for action to stave off climate breakdown.

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Ukraine and Russia gear up for war’s biggest battles • WSJ

Yaroslav Trofimov:

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The tactical situation is more advantageous for Russia on the Donbas front. Russian supply lines are shorter, and the more concentrated area of operations allows Russia to more effectively use air support, Ukrainian and Western military officials said.

This different type of warfare, with large formations facing each other instead of small-unit strikes, is a major reason why Kyiv says it urgently needs heavy weapons, such as artillery, tanks and antiaircraft batteries that most Western allies have been reluctant to supply so far.

“The battle for Donbas will remind you of the Second World War, with its large operations and maneuvers, the involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes and artillery. And this will not be a local operation, based on what we see in Russia’s preparations,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said after meeting NATO ministers this past week. “Either you help us now—and I’m speaking days, not weeks—or your help will come too late and many people will die.”

While Ukraine initially sought Soviet-designed heavy weapons systems that its troops are trained to use, the limited supply of this equipment and ammunition, combined with the prospect of a lengthy conflict, mean that Kyiv is now requesting purchases of NATO-standard heavy weapons, Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said.

“The Soviet-made weapons that we have obtained can only strengthen Ukraine for a short time,” he said in a speech posted by the Ministry of Defense.

Ukraine managed to win the first round of the war because of close-contact infantry engagements, he said, but now Russia has changed its tactics and is relying more on long-range artillery, aviation and missile strikes—weapons that Ukraine has limited ability to counter.

“The war is entering the phase of competition for resources, which are almost unlimited in Russia in comparison to Ukraine,” Mr. Reznikov said. “To win in this war, we need a different kind of assistance from what we received before.”

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Five takeaways from the first round of France’s presidential election • POLITICO

Laura Kayali and Victor Jack offer some straightforward ones you’ll know (it’s Macron v Le Pen, Zemmour on the far right fizzled, Mélenchon on the last did well, and then this:

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4. Former ruling parties are dead

This presidential election has completed what Macron started in 2017: former ruling parties — the Socialist Party and conservative Les Républicains — are now damaged for good and it’s hard to see how they could recover. 

Valérie Pécresse, who represented Les Républicains, scored below 5 percent, according to projections. This is a double embarrassment: It is not only the lowest result for her party in its history, but it also means that Les Républicains potentially won’t get their campaign expenses reimbursed — as parties need to reach the 5% threshold to get their money back. 

Long-running divisions were also made clear shortly after the results, as Pécresse said she would vote for Macron while her right-wing internal rival Eric Ciotti said he wouldn’t. 

As for Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, she couldn’t even reach 2 percent. That’s one-third of 2017 Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon’s already historically low score.

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The effective dissolution of the main parties is amazing. Unclear whether that goes all the way down to local level. If it has, then it’s all En Marche and Front National. Centrist and far right. Quite the move of the Overton window.
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What Substack is hiding • Scrubstack

Elan Kiderman Ullendorff:

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You may have seen Wikipedia’s random article button. Click it and, as the name suggests, you’ll be taken to a random Wikipedia page.

Most websites don’t have a button like this. That’s because by definition, randomness entails relinquishing control. Platforms do not like to relinquish control — they want to design every aspect of what you see and when, to appear as a blank slate on which you can project all of your hopes and ideologies.

My experience of using Instagram, because of my social network, my behavior, and the data that has been gathered about me, is very different from your experience of using Instagram. It’s like we’re each trapped in a room and all of our content is quietly delivered through a slot in the door.

But imagine if we could walk down the halls and peek into the windows of each others’ rooms? What would we see?

In search of an answer to this question, I made a random Substack button called 🔀 Scrubstack.

You are reading a newsletter hosted on Substack right now. It is more likely than not that you are generally interested in what it has to say (I hope you are!), that there are relatively few degrees of separation between you and me, and that you’re reading this pretty soon after I wrote it.

Jumping through 🔀 Scrubstack is more akin to the experience of walking into a stranger’s home and taking a random book off of the shelf. What you read may not interest you, may not be meant for you, may be written for an imagined audience in the distant past.

«

Randomness and serendipity are in sadly short supply. The latter in particular.
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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

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.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Start Up No.1774: how bitcoin helped trace a child abuse site, life in El Salvador, FBI v Russian malware, exit Twitter?, and more


The progress of the war in Ukraine was forecast, mostly correctly, by a wargaming team ahead of the invasion in February. But their forecast isn’t encouraging for resolution. CC-licensed photo by manhhai on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. No, you delete your account. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Inside the bitcoin bust that took down the web’s biggest child abuse site • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

»

The UK National Crime Agency agent showed [South African entrepreneur Jonathan] Levin a Bitcoin address that the agency had determined was part of [child sexual abuse content site] Welcome to Video’s financial network. Levin suggested they load it in Chainalysis’ crypto-tracing software tool, known as Reactor. He set down his cup of tea, pulled his chair up to the agent’s laptop, and began charting out the site’s collection of addresses on the Bitcoin blockchain, representing the wallets where Welcome to Video had received payments from thousands of customers.

He was taken aback by what he saw: many of this child abuse site’s users—and, by all appearances, its administrators—had done almost nothing to obscure their cryptocurrency trails. An entire network of criminal payments, all intended to be secret, was laid bare before him.

Over the years, Levin had watched as some dark-web operators wised up to certain of his firm’s crypto-tracing tricks. They would push their money through numerous intermediary addresses or “mixer” services designed to throw off investigators, or use the cryptocurrency Monero, designed to be far harder to track. But looking at the Welcome to Video cluster in the NCA office that day, Levin could immediately see that its users were far more naive. Many had simply purchased bitcoins from cryptocurrency exchanges and then sent them directly from their own wallets into Welcome to Video’s.

The contents of the website’s wallets, in turn, had been liquidated at just a few exchanges—Bithumb and Coinone in South Korea, Huobi in China—where they were converted back into traditional currency. Someone seemed to be continually using large, multi-input transactions to gather up the site’s funds and then cash them out. That made it easy work for Reactor to instantly and automatically cluster thousands of addresses, determining that they all belonged to a single service—which Levin could now label in the software as Welcome to Video.

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Deeply reported. (Deeply disturbing, too, in what it tells you about some of the people we share the planet with.)
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Paying with bitcoin in world’s crypto capital is still an infuriating experience • Bloomberg via Archive

Michael McDonald:

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The sign at el Salvador International Airport beckons like a message from the future. “Chivo,” it reads in slick blue script. Slang for “cool,” the word signals that Bitcoin are welcome at passport control, along with the almighty dollar and credit card.

So begins my journey—and experiment. For five days, I’m trying to pay my bills only in Bitcoin. El Salvador is the ideal laboratory. In September it became the first country to declare Bitcoin legal tender, which means all businesses should accept it as a form of payment.

On this Monday in February, the airport cashier stands before me, ready to accept the $12 entry fee. On her shirt she wears the El Salvador coat of arms, which features its famed volcanoes and motto: “God, Union, Liberty.” It’s a fitting image for the dream of cryptocurrency, which seeks to disrupt the world financial system.

I wave my iPhone, packed with Bitcoin ready to show their value as an honest-to-goodness medium of exchange. Then the official interrupts my reverie. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says. “Only cash or credit.”

It turns out that Chivo, El Salvador’s Bitcoin-processing system, isn’t so cool after all. Its point-of-sale device, a white gizmo that looks like a credit card reader, isn’t working. Something about the internet signal. I charge the fee to my Visa card. Score one for international banking, zero for the digerati.

It’s disappointing, because the trip took some serious prep.

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McDonald gives it a go. And he shows that, for all President Bukele’s noise, it isn’t working.
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US says it secretly removed malware worldwide, pre-empting Russian cyberattacks • The New York Times

Kate Conger and David Sanger:

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The malware enabled the Russians to create “botnets” — networks of private computers that are infected with malicious software and controlled by the GRU, the intelligence arm of the Russian military. But it is unclear what the malware was intended to do, since it could be used for everything from surveillance to destructive attacks.

An American official said on Wednesday that the United States did not want to wait to find out. Armed with secret court orders in the United States and the help of governments around the world, the Justice Department and the FBI disconnected the networks from the GRU’s own controllers.

“Fortunately, we were able to disrupt this botnet before it could be used,” Mr. Garland said.

The court orders allowed the FBI to go into domestic corporate networks and remove the malware, sometimes without the company’s knowledge.

President Biden has repeatedly said he would not put the US military in direct conflict with the Russian military, a situation he has said could lead to World War III. That is why he refused to use the US Air Force to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine or to permit the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine from NATO air bases.

But his hesitance does not appear to extend to cyberspace. The operation that was revealed on Wednesday showed a willingness to disarm the main intelligence unit of the Russian military from computer networks inside the United States and around the world. It is also the latest effort by the Biden administration to frustrate Russian actions by making them public before Moscow can strike.

«

The FBI can “go into” domestic corporate networks “sometimes without the company’s knowledge”? This is a hell of a thing to mention in passing.
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Why the WHO took two years to say COVID is airborne • Nature

Dyani Lewis:

»

According to Trish Greenhalgh, a primary-care health researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, the IPC GDG [Infection Prevention and Control Guidance Development Group, an external group which advises the WHO on infection containment] members were guided by their medical training and the dominant thinking in the medical field about how infectious respiratory diseases spread; this turned out to be flawed in the case of SARS-CoV-2 and could be inaccurate for other viruses as well. These biases led the group to discount relevant information — from laboratory-based aerosol studies and outbreak reports, for instance. So the IPC GDG concluded that airborne transmission was rare or unlikely outside a small set of aerosol-generating medical procedures, such as inserting a breathing tube into a patient.

That viewpoint is clear in a commentary by members of the IPC GDG, including Schwaber, Sobsey and Fisher, published in August 20202. The authors dismissed research using air-flow modelling, case reports describing possible airborne transmission and summaries of evidence for airborne transmission, labelling such reports “opinion pieces”. Instead, they concluded that “SARS-CoV-2 is not spread by the airborne route to any significant extent”.

In effect, the group failed to look at the whole picture that was emerging, says Greenhalgh. “You’ve got to explain all the data, not just the data that you’ve picked to support your view,” and the airborne hypothesis is the best fit for all the data available, she says. One example she cites is the propensity for the virus to transmit in ‘superspreader events’, in which numerous individuals are infected at a single gathering, often by a single person. “Nothing explains some of these superspreader events except aerosol spread,” says Greenhalgh.

Throughout 2020, there was also mounting evidence that indoor spaces posed a much greater risk of infection than outdoor environments did. An analysis of reported outbreaks recorded up to the middle of August 2020 revealed that people were more than 18 times as likely to be infected indoors as outdoors. If heavy droplets or dirty hands had been the main vehicles for transmitting the virus, such a strong discrepancy would not have been observed.

«

I still see people washing their hands as though it’s going to make the faintest difference; and wearing masks outside, ditto. The concerning phrase is “could be inaccurate for other viruses as well”. Maybe we’ve had a lot wrong for quite a while without realising.
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Apple TV+ market share grows and gets closer to HBO Max • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:

»

According to a new report from JustWatch, Apple TV+ lost some users after Apple reduced the free trial period for new customers in July 2021. Between July and September 2021, Apple TV+’s market share declined below 5%, but the platform regained subscribers in October 2021, surpassing the 5% mark.

The influx of new users to Apple TV+ in that period might be explained by the highly anticipated new shows and seasons that were released in September and October, such as Foundation, Invasion, and the second season of The Morning Show

In February 2022, the global market share of Apple TV+ was 5.6% – which is still far behind major competitors like Disney+ and Netflix, but it’s getting close to HBO Max. The streaming platform owned by WarnerMedia lost subscribers last month despite its expansion to more European countries. JustWatch estimates that HBO Max accounts for 7% of the global streaming market share.

«

The graph shows Disney+ with 17.6%, HBO Max with 7%, Apple with 5.6%, and Peacock (NBC?) with 2.1%. Guessing that pretty much all the rest is taken by Netflix.

Love to know where Apple wants to get to with TV+. Is 5% enough? Or should it be 10%? 15%?
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Wargaming a Long War: Ukraine fights on • Modern War Institute

James Lacey, Tim Barrick and Nathan Barrick on the ongoing wargame that tried – ahead of time – to simulate what would happen in Ukraine, found it surprising, and is now catching up with reality, and trying to predict the future:

»

Although Russia continues suffering higher attrition rates than its opponent, Ukrainian forces are far from unscathed. The most damaging losses for the Russians are in experienced officers, troops, and armored vehicles, which are the primary targets of local counter-attacks given increasing numbers of portable antitank weapons. The wargame highlighted Ukrainian capabilities to employ killer-drones to knock out Russian vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery.

Open sources claim that Ukraine has over fifty such weapons on near-constant patrols and this number is growing. If only one drone in ten kills a vehicle each day, that equates to 150 vehicles a month and 1,350 Russian vehicles losses between now and Christmas. Moreover, the wargame-imposed daily success rate of a mere ten% is likely a gross underestimate. Add to this the losses inflicted from thousands of anti-tank weapons and the Russians soon ran short on modern armor to support combat operations. Over the wargame’s year-long course, Russian losses in troops and vehicles approached the entire amount it had built up around the perimeter of Ukraine at the conflict’s start.

Despite our intention to devote the rest of the wargame to a possible insurgency or national resistance campaign, the fact that, even if Ukraine was not winning the war, it was certainly not losing it, caused a re-evaluation. As Ukraine still had an intact, discernible, and well-manned front line, it was decided to let the wargame continue on its natural course. What was apparent to all was that the wargame was starting to parallel the situation the warring parties found themselves in 1915, with both sides unable to launch major offensives as manpower and munitions stocks were nearly exhausted.

«

Yes, that’s 1915, the First World War one year in to its four-year duration. But notice how things are turning out unlike they expected, again and again. (Thanks G for the link.)
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How much is US intelligence helping Ukraine? • Mystics & Statistics

Christopher Lawrence:

»

The strike at Belgorod [by two Ukrainian helicopters on a fuel dump inside Russia] brings out a point that I have not discussed yet in this blog. It does appear that Ukraine is getting significant help from the US intelligence assets. I have not evidence of this and am not aware of any other reporting on this.

Still, I find it hard to believe that Ukraine flew two or more helicopters dozens of miles across enemy territory, dodging radar, dodging their air force, and dodging their extensive SAM [surface to air missile] capability, to strike at a depot in Russia, if they did not know the path was clear. It is possible that a couple of guys took a high risk operation figuring they could get in and out of there by flying low, but most likely, the Ukrainians knew exactly what the radar coverage and SAM coverage was and flew between or around it. Ukraine probably does not have that intel capability. The US does. 

There have been several other incidents in the war that point to Ukraine having good intelligence. This includes 1) the picking off of six Russian generals, 2) the preplanned ambush that halted the Russian armored column at Brovary, and 3) the attack on the airbase near Kherson that took out at least ten Russian helicopters.

Each of these may have been caused by Ukrainian planning and acumen, but they are easier to explain if Ukraine has considerable help from US intelligence assets. It is pretty hard to conceive that Ukraine flew two+ helicopter into Russia to strike near Belgorod without knowing what was in the area.

«

Seems very likely that it’s real-time intelligence, not just something that gets passed day by day.
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Twitter employees vent over Elon Musk investment and board seat • Business Insider

Kali Hays:

»

Twitter employees expressed outrage, frustration and disappointment after learning Elon Musk is deeply involved in their company as the top shareholder and newly minted board member.

Musk helped build PayPal, birthed the modern space industry through SpaceX, and made Tesla the world’s leading electric carmaker. While that makes him more than qualified as a director, the billionaire is a divisive figure who speaks his mind and pushes companies and employees hard. Tesla faces 46 lawsuits from former and current employees alleging they were targeted and harassed based on gender and race, for instance.

One Twitter employee changed their Twitter profile name this week to “elon musk is a racist demagogue with a god complex.” Another took to the platform to say he’s “so disappointed,” adding that Musk being appointed to the board is “a huge step in the wrong direction.”

“Never been a perfect platform or fully convincing leadership, but I felt the overall direction and room Safety was given were encouraging,” Brian Waismeyer wrote. “This one hits hard.”

Private chatter inside the company has a similar tone to the public postings of Twitter staff, according to one worker. Some people are “frustrated” that an executive like Musk is now seen influencing any of Twitter’s decisions, this person said. They asked not to be identified discussing sensitive topics.

«

The perfect tweet on the topic. Though as Hays also points out, the surge in the stock means that lots of the staff there are abruptly quite a bit richer through their stock options. And talking of Twitter staff venting on Twitter…
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It’s time for institutions to make their employees get off Twitter • The Washington Post

Megan McArdle:

»

We in the media rue how so much of the right has closed itself off into bubbles that cannot be penetrated by facts or sources inconvenient to its ideology. We have talked much less about how our own behavior contributes to this phenomenon, particularly on social media.

I wouldn’t trust anyone who talked about me and my friends with the arrogant contempt that I routinely see emanating from journalists and academics on Twitter; we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives don’t, either. Especially as they watch institutions be forced by Twitter mobs to hew to an ever-narrower ideological line.

These costs of tweeting aren’t balanced by the benefits, and at this point the majority of Twitter users I know seem to agree. They hate what Twitter does to their organizations and friends, they hate the pervasive fear, they even hate how much time they waste that could have been spent on better work. But they’re addicted to the attention, or fear ceding mindshare to people who are willing to stay in the fray. And so they’re all stuck in a destructive, yet unfortunately stable, equilibrium.

I’m just as guilty as anyone, and I can see how this might sound like me asking my boss to fire my dealer, because I don’t have the fortitude to quit. But this is really a collective action problem: People feel they have to stay on because others do, and others are on for the same reason.

Collective action problems can generally be solved only institutionally, which is why I think the big media outlets and the major think tanks should tell their employees to read Twitter all they like, but not to post anything more controversial than baby pictures or recipes for cornbread. Those who are lucky enough to have reputations big enough to lose — or to work for organizations that do — will be better off if they take their voices back inside the institutions that were designed to amplify their best work, rather than their worst moments.

«

I think there’s a general truth in here, and in Social Warming I write about the effect that Twitter (in particular, Facebook less so) has had on journalism – driving journalists to compete to put out hot takes, to boost their brand, and often do so in effective opposition to the organisation they’re working for. The BBC seems to me to be getting hold of this.

Related: NYT’s executive editor tells its journalists to “meaningfully reduce” time spent on Twitter.
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US wind energy sets record for power generation • CNNPolitics

Ella Nilsen:

»

The United States set a major renewable energy milestone last Tuesday: wind power was the second-highest source of electricity for the first time since the Energy Information Administration (EIA) began gathering the data.

As E&E reporter Ben Storrow noted and the EIA confirmed, wind turbines last Tuesday generated over 2,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity, edging out electricity generated by nuclear and coal (but still trailing behind natural gas).

Last year, wind was the fourth-largest electricity source behind natural gas, coal, and nuclear, generating close to 380 terawatt-hours for the entire year, according to the EIA. For context, a terawatt is a thousand times bigger than a gigawatt.

Major milestone aside, wind energy in the US is still lagging behind one European country that recently broke a record of its own: Germany.

Although the US has more wind capacity by sheer numbers – it’s a larger country with a larger population – Germany is outpacing the US in terms of how much electricity it gets from wind. In February alone, windmills in Germany generated a record 20.6 terawatt-hours of wind energy, Rystad Energy reported Tuesday, which made up 45% of its total energy in February.

In 2020 – the most recent year the EIA has robust statistics for – Germany got 24% of its electricity from wind, compared to 8% in the US.

«

Just think how well positioned Germany would be if it had kept its many reactors online.
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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

Start Up No.1773: Facebook plans virtual currency (again), Twitter edits?, AirTags one year on, go wild with WD-40, and more


The world’s probably got enough phone chargers, so it’s good news that another Android OEM won’t include them with new phones. CC-licensed photo by Blondinrikard Fröberg on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Day 40 of the two-day invasion. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook owner Meta targets finance with ‘Zuck Bucks’ and creator coins • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:

»

Meta has drawn up plans to introduce virtual coins, tokens and lending services to its apps, as Facebook’s parent company pursues its finance ambitions despite the collapse of a project to launch a cryptocurrency.

The company, led by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, is seeking alternative revenue streams and new features that can attract and retain users, as popularity falls for its main social networking products such as Facebook and Instagram — a trend that threatens its $118bn-a-year ad-based business model.

Facebook’s financial arm, Meta Financial Technologies, has been exploring the creation of a virtual currency for the metaverse, which employees internally have dubbed “Zuck Bucks”, according to several people familiar with the efforts.

This is unlikely to be a cryptocurrency based on the blockchain, some of the people said. Instead, Meta is leaning towards introducing in-app tokens that would be centrally controlled by the company, similar to those used in gaming apps such as the Robux currency in popular children’s game Roblox.

According to company memos and people close to the plans, Meta is also looking into the creation of so-called “social tokens” or “reputation tokens”, which could be issued as rewards for meaningful contributions in Facebook groups, for example. Another effort is to make “creator coins” that might be associated with particular influencers on its photo-sharing app Instagram.

«

Not even vaguely close to the globe-spanning regulation-independent cryptocurrency idea of Libra, and for that reason quite likely to get approved and succeed.

“Zuck Bucks”, though. Eugh.
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Police records show women are being stalked with Apple AirTags across the country • Vice

Samantha Cole:

»

Police records reviewed by Motherboard show that, as security experts immediately predicted when the product launched, this technology has been used as a tool to stalk and harass women.

Motherboard requested records mentioning AirTags in a recent eight month period from dozens of the country’s largest police departments. We obtained records from eight police departments.

Of the 150 total police reports mentioning AirTags, in 50 cases women called the police because they started getting notifications that their whereabouts were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. Of those, 25 could identify a man in their lives—ex-partners, husbands, bosses—who they strongly suspected planted the AirTags on their cars in order to follow and harass them. Those women reported that current and former intimate partners—the most likely people to harm women overall—are using AirTags to stalk and harass them. 

In one report, a woman called the police because a man who had been harassing her had escalated his behavior, and she said he’d placed an AirTag in her car. The woman said the same man threatened to make her life hell, the report said. 

…The fact that there are so many reports from people about AirTag stalking means Apple’s security measures, such as the notifications, are working as intended, said [director of cybersecurity at the EFF, Eva] Galperin. “It’s not that somebody has randomly found an AirTag. It’s that the anti-stalking mitigations that Apple has implemented are finally working, and the results are that some smaller subset of those people are then going to police,” she said. “So, yes, we did understand from the very beginning that this was going to be a major problem. But part of it I think is just reflected in the fact that stalking is a major problem.”

«

No evidence that they’re being used for human trafficking (phew) and where they’re attached to cars, it seems to be thieves trying to steal the car.
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Google bans apps with hidden data-harvesting software • WSJ

Byron Tau in Washington and Robert McMillan in San Francisco :

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Google has yanked dozens of apps from its Google Play store after determining that they include a software element that surreptitiously harvests data.

The Panamanian company that wrote the code, Measurement Systems S. de R.L., is linked through corporate records and web registrations to a Virginia defense contractor that does cyberintelligence, network-defense and intelligence-intercept work for US national-security agencies.

The code ran on millions of Android devices and has been found inside several Muslim prayer apps that have been downloaded more than 10 million times, as well as a highway-speed-trap detection app, a QR-code reading app and a number of other popular consumer apps, according to two researchers who discovered the behavior of the code in the course of auditing work they do searching for vulnerabilities in Android apps. They shared their findings with Google, a unit of Alphabet, federal privacy regulators and The Wall Street Journal.

Measurement Systems paid developers around the world to incorporate its code—known as a software development kit, or SDK—into their apps, developers said. Its presence allowed the Panamanian company to surreptitiously collect data from their users, according to Serge Egelman, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, and Joel Reardon of the University of Calgary.

Modern apps often include SDKs written by little-known companies like Measurement Systems “that aren’t audited or well understood,” Mr. Egelman said. Inserting them is often enticing for app developers, who get a stream of income as well as detailed data about their user base.

“This saga continues to underscore the importance of not accepting candy from strangers,” Mr. Egelman said.

«

Reading between the lines, this was the NSA/CIA/FBI trying to track (potential) terrorists: they paid from $100 to $10,000 per month. Wonder if an audit will find similar on an app that far-right users like.
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Twelve clever things you never knew WD-40 could do • Lifehacker

Sarah Showfety:

»

Originally created as a rust-prevention solvent for use in the aerospace industry, WD-40 has become the go-to product for your home’s squeaky door hinges and stuck bike chains (Which can be counter productive as it then traps dirt and dust inside.) There’s some debate about what the product actually is, however—and what it should be used for.

If you believe the WD-40 website, the popular household fix-it spray “is a unique, special blend of lubricants.” If you believe the rest of the internet, it is not really a lubricant; rather a degreaser and water-displacing solvent. (According to the brand, the name does stand for Water Displacement, 40th formula.”) In addition to the lubricants it purportedly contains, it also has anti-corrosion agents and ingredients for “penetration and soil removal.”

Regardless of where you stand on its fundamental constitution, it’s hard to deny the product has a lot of practical uses around the house and garage—many that the average consumer of WD-40 may not be aware of.

«

If you think about it as a water repellent, you might be able to guess some of them. But it’s a useful list.
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I think Twitter thinks we like using it 😕 • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick on Twitter’s vaguely promised addition of an edit button (“not because of a poll”):

»

as someone who makes A LOT of Twitter typos, I actually just think the entire need for a Twitter edit button would be fixed if you could thread tweets independently of when they were published. A typo or an error in a tweet really only matters in threads and it’s kind of weird you can only link together tweets with a reply.

Anyways, like I said, I have a lot of questions about how this would work and Twitter’s communications team has not provided really anything of substance about it, which is kind of wild seeing as how an edit button would fundamentally change the nature of the platform possibly more than anything else they’ve done since the jump from 140 characters to 280.

Ed Zitron, who writes a real good newsletter, felt similarly, tweeting, “I feel like there are ways they could’ve announced this that included significantly more detail. Twitter’s comms strategy remains completely confusing to me.”

I think the reason Twitter’s communication is so bad about this kind of stuff is because everything Twitter does comes from a wildly misinformed place of perceived user enthusiasm. And they’re actually one of the few major platforms that still operates this way. Facebook is basically a nation state now that treats its users with the same level of affection The Matrix treats its meat tubes. The only thing their communications team emphasizes in updates are abstractions — connection, local networks, value, etc. And Instagram is basically a mall, with most of their announcements and features focused on the financial impact for the platforms’ many business and influencers. But Twitter, the company, still seems to think that their website is a website used by people who enjoy it. Which is bizarre! It’s 2022. People don’t enjoy websites anymore because there’s only 5 left and they all realized that it’s more profitable to piss people off. And this is especially true for Twitter!

Twitter has ruined more lives than any other website that has maybe ever existed, including 4chan.

«

I’ve never wanted an edit button, but maybe that’s from having lived in a business where once the presses roll, there’s no undo. (Sometimes this has not worked to my advantage, but you live with it.) And as he points out, Twitter’s way of announcing the introduction is just weird.
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Twitter edits you(r website) • Kevin Marks

Marks has worked for all the big names (Apple, Google, BBC, BT) and done all the things, and knows all the problems that come from trying to do crowdpleasing things without thought:

»

With all the fuss about Twitter’s promised edit button, and how they might design it, we’re missing a disturbing development — Twitter is using its embedded javascript to edit other people‘s sites.

«

You need to read the post, but in the past when someone deleted a tweet (or the user was removed from Twitter *cough*Trump*cough*) any site that had embedded that tweet would still have a sort of shadow of it, without the Javascript that made clear it was from a live Twitter user. In that way, deleted tweets (and users) lived on. Twitter, however, feels that people who delete tweets want to remove them from view – so now those sites have empty spaces with a Twitter brand.

Marks objects. You can see the logic from Twitter’s (and the deleting user’s) perspective, though: isn’t control of what appears on their account up to them, not to the website that wants to include them?

The obvious result is going to be a lot more embedded screenshots of tweets, of course. Less readable, and essentially makes all the work by Twitter’s engineers to write code allowing embedding pointless.

(Next stage in the arms race: Twitter tries to stop people screenshotting tweets.)
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UK start-up achieves ‘projectile fusion’ breakthrough • Financial Times

Tom Wilson:

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A British start-up pioneering a new approach to fusion energy has successfully combined atomic nuclei, in what the UK regulator described as an important step in the decades-long effort to generate electricity from the reaction that powers the sun.

Oxford-based First Light Fusion, which has been developing an approach called projectile fusion since 2011, said it had produced energy in the form of neutrons by forcing deuterium isotopes to fuse, validating years of research.

While other fusion experiments have generated more power for longer, either by using “tokamak” machines or high-powered lasers, First Light says its approach, which involves firing a projectile at a target containing the fuel, could offer a faster route to commercial fusion power.

“The value of this [result] is that it offers potentially a much cheaper, a much easier path to power production,” said chief executive Nicholas Hawker.

To achieve fusion, First Light used a hyper-velocity gas gun to launch a projectile at a speed of 6.5km per second — about 10 times faster than a rifle bullet — at a tiny target designed to amplify the energy of the impact and force the deuterium fuel to fuse.

The design of the target — a clear cube, a little over a centimetre wide, enclosing two spherical fuel capsules — is the key technology and is closely guarded by the company. “It is the ultimate espresso capsule,” Hawker told the Financial Times last year.

…First Light, which is one of several private fusion companies currently pursuing commercial power, said its next aim was to demonstrate net energy gain from a reaction, before developing a 150MW pilot plant at a cost of less than $1bn in the 2030s.

It has spent about $60m to date and raised a further $45m in funding in February from investors, including Tencent.

«

At least it’s cheap. As always, the trick is scaling up and getting it to happen continuously.

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Black market SIM cards turned a Zimbabwean border town into a remote work hub • Rest of World

Nyasha Bhobo:

»

the high cost of running a telecomms business in Zimbabwe — due to import tariffs on communications equipment, foreign currency risk, and weak infrastructure — has kept prices high for consumers. “Poor collateral infrastructure, like electricity, dissuades telecomms investment and [means] fewer players, which leads to higher costs,” Arthur Gwagwa, a leading Zimbabwe telecomms expert and lawyer, told Rest of World.

The cripplingly high cost of internet access has slowed adoption of digital services by individuals and businesses and prevented Zimbabweans from accessing educational materials and health services online, Gwagwa said.

But for people living near the border with Mozambique, there is a workaround. Enterprising traders cross over on foot or on motorbikes, bulk-buy Movitel SIM cards, and return to Chimanimani, where they distribute the SIMs to supermarkets and corner shops, where they are sold with a markup of more than 50%. 

The availability of affordable internet has made the unfashionable rural district into an attractive destination for people who need to be online for work. The area was hit by a tropical cyclone in 2019, which displaced more than 11,000 people in Chimanimani alone, bringing hundreds of NGO and health workers to the area to work on the relief. Many have stayed, taking advantage of the cheap internet access to work remotely. 

…Nollen Singo, founder of NGO Orphans Dreams, which gives free math lessons to children orphaned by the cyclone, said that he’s been able to stay in the region because the cheap internet allows him to connect to free education apps that can be used in the classroom. “It’s so helpful being able to access Khan Academy maths app or Buzzmath app online and tutor local orphaned kids,” Singo said.

«

Anyone who gets internet access always wants to retain it. The better you’ve had it, the less you’ll accept anything less. The ratchet effect is crucial.

(And in passing, ROW continues to show that the world is so very much bigger and more fascinating than Silicon Valley.)
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Realme won’t ship a charging brick with the upcoming Narzo 50A Prime • XDA Developers

Pranob Mehrotra:

»

An increasing number of Android OEMs are following Apple’s move to remove charging bricks from smartphone retail boxes. Samsung was the first to follow suit with its Galaxy S21 series last year, and now Realme has announced that it won’t offer a charging brick with the upcoming Narzo 50A Prime.

In a recent post on the Realme community forums, the company said that it will not include a wall charger with its next Narzo smartphone — the Narzo 50A Prime. The move is part of Realme’s newfound sustainability initiative and the goal to “achieve Double Zero targets like net-zero carbon emissions by 2025.”

In addition, Realme says that its decision to not ship a charging brick with the Narzo 50A Prime has given the company enough wiggle room to offer a couple of additional features on the device. The post states: “The decision to remove the charger from the box aided us in many ways. The narzo 50A Prime is a big leap in terms of chipset performance & screen revolution. It will also help us to add more upgrades to the device with the best price and offers in the same class!”

«

The significance is that Realme is not a premium brand. I think the dominoes will start to fall here: the environmental story is an easy one to tell, not shipping a charger cuts costs and packing weight and complication (need as many chargers as phones, got to get them together to pack, need to be sure they work), and people will shrug and use the charger they have.
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Ukraine Post #8: risk of nuclear war • Don’t Worry About The Vase

Zvi Mowshowitz considers The Bad Thing:

»

Russia still might choose to use a nuclear weapon, either to escalate-to-deescalate because Ukraine (or being able to claim a symbolic victory) was sufficiently existential, or because Putin thinks the West will simply fold.

Then there is the question of further escalation. Suppose Russia has used at least one nuclear weapon. Will [the conflict] go strategic?

That depends on a lot of things, most obviously what we do in response. Even then, assuming the use by Russia was tactical and does not threaten to turn the tide of battle, I presume that we almost certainly don’t use our nukes on them at all nor do we conventionally strike at Russian territory.

Using a nuclear weapon in response, or even conventionally striking Russia, is not necessary. We can win a conventional war even if Russia uses some number of tactical nuclear weapons, and the diplomatic fallout would be immense, especially if we did not answer in kind. Instead, I expect Russia to face additional conventional firepower combined with complete diplomatic and economic isolation, losing all the friends it has left with the possible exception of Iran. Our current sanctions may or may not pack sufficient punch, but the ultimate version of them really, really would pack quite a ton of punch. Russia would also be facing vastly superior conventional firepower, but we would have no desire to go to Moscow.

The logic of nuclear escalation is completely different when one side has zero interest in escalation even in the face of extreme provocation, because they have faith that they don’t need to do it and would not benefit from it.

«

“Tactical” nukes can go down to very, very low yields, in the single-digits-kiloton range; a use by Russia would essentially be an awful form of showing off, but would have been preceded by withdrawal of its troops to a very safe distance – which is part of why there’s some lingering unease about what’s happened in the north of the country. But with all the signs being that it’s instead trying to gird up to consolidate in the Donbas, maybe this branch of terrible outcomes has been avoided. At least for now.
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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

Start Up No.1772: Musk gets Twitter board seat, Musk v the SEC, your lost photo masterpieces, Yandex’s Russian data questions, and more


Moon-faced sunblocker Steven Seagal has appeared in a number of junky films known in the trade as “geezer teasers”, which offer easy work for past-it action stars. CC-licensed photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Unboarded. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Musk joins Twitter board in deal that prevents him from buying majority stake • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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Elon Musk is joining Twitter’s board of directors in a deal that prohibits him from buying more than 14.9% of the company’s stock, Twitter announced today. The news of Musk joining the board comes one day after the Tesla and SpaceX CEO revealed that he had purchased 9.2% of Twitter shares.

Musk said he’s looking forward to helping Twitter make “significant improvements” and asked Twitter users in a poll if they want an edit button. After about 3.4 million votes, 73.4% of respondents had voted yes—or rather, they voted “yse” instead of “on” because Musk misspelled both options. [Gee, wonder if that was a jkoe – Overspill Ed.]

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal suggested that Musk’s poll on an edit button might influence Twitter policy. “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully,” Agrawal wrote in a retweet of the poll.

Though a potential downside of an edit button is that users could significantly change tweets that are going viral, Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth wrote, “We solved this on Facebook a long time ago. You just include an indicator that it has been edited along with a change log. If you are really worried about embeds, they can point to a specific revision in that history but with a link to the latest edit. Not a real issue.” Musk’s response to Bosworth said only that “Facebook gives me the willies.”

Musk’s agreement to join the board prevents him from taking a controlling stake in Twitter. “For so long as Mr. Musk is serving on the Board and for 90 days thereafter, Mr. Musk will not, either alone or as a member of a group, become the beneficial owner of more than 14.9% of the Company’s common stock outstanding at such time, including for these purposes economic exposure through derivative securities, swaps, or hedging transactions,” Twitter wrote in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing submitted today.

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That’s if you think Musk sets any store by SEC filings – see the next link. Clearly the board seat is the quid pro quo for not buying a majority stake; it’s also a smart way for Musk of not getting thrown off Twitter. (“Imagine if Trump was actually a billionaire,” someone commented.) But really, it’s not good news. What expertise is he going to bring? They’re not making cars, solar panels or rockets. Will it be his knowledge of shitposting?
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9.2% and the Master of Twitter • Margins

Ranjan Roy:

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I’m sure most of you have followed Elon [Musk] vs. the SEC in some capacity. But I think the timeline context is important to understand where we are today.

The most important question for me – Why did Musk start escalating in February?

The SEC had treated the 2018 settlement with kid gloves so why force their hand? Yes, there was a new insider trading investigation and some subpoenas, but why push this fight? Since the 2018 settlement, amidst that status quo detente, TSLA is up nearly 1750% and Tesla, the business, feels like it’s at its most stable operating performance ever. Why choose this moment to mess with the very circumstances that drove some of the greatest wealth creation in human history?

I had the chance to speak about this entire drama on March 10th on TechCheck – around the 3:05 mark in the video I laid three potential ways this could play out.

• The SEC could fight tooth and nail just to maintain the status quo where they were not really regulating him. This seemed unlikely.

• The SEC could agree the original settlement is void and then go after him over every single tweet since (even the original 420 tweet). This seemed most likely.

• The most extreme possibility I saw was the SEC could try to get Elon Musk kicked off of Twitter.

I know, it sounds ridiculous that the SEC could try to stop Musk from tweeting at all.

But if someone uses their personal Twitter account to repeatedly break securities laws, it doesn’t seem too crazy that the SEC could force that person to stop tweeting. If someone specifically created a legally binding arrangement with the SEC, and then repeatedly violated that arrangement in order to break securities laws, it doesn’t seem like a 1st amendment issue if they lose their privilege to tweet.

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He has plenty more. Roy is always worth reading. Effectively Musk is shortcircuiting the SEC’s power.
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Jeff Bezos and Amazon just hired everybody but SpaceX for Project Kuiper • Ars Technica

Eric Berger:

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Amazon on Tuesday announced the largest commercial launch deal ever. The company said it has finalized agreements with three different rocket companies for a total of 83 launches. The rockets will deploy a majority of Amazon’s low-Earth-orbit constellation of broadband satellites.

With this deal, Amazon has acquired an extraordinary amount of medium- and heavy-lift launch capacity over the next five years, procuring launches from every major Western provider except for its direct satellite competitor, SpaceX. Aside from SpaceX, this purchase represents the vast majority of any “spare” launch capacity for larger rockets in the United States or Europe over the next half-decade.

Amazon announced launch agreements with the following companies as it seeks to build out its constellation of 3,236 satellites:
• Arianespace: 18 launches of Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket
• Blue Origin: 12 launches of the company’s New Glenn rocket, with options for 15 additional launches
• United Launch Alliance: 38 launches of the company’s Vulcan rocket

Additionally, Amazon previously announced that it has purchased the final nine Atlas V rocket launches from United Launch Alliance before that vehicle, which is powered by Russian engines, is retired.

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So that’ll be Amazon, and Starlink, and there’s the Inmarsat one. Is there really room for three commercial satellite broadband providers? If there’s consolidation, then as many as two in three of those satellites will be surplus. Let’s hope they can be deorbited cleanly.
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Your camera roll contains a masterpiece • The New Yorker

Michael Johnston:

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The late Erich Hartmann, a past president of Magnum, once showed me his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson’s negatives and contact sheets, stored at the famous photo agency’s New York offices in rows of three-ring binders lined up on shelves. Sheet after sheet contained not a single photograph I recognized. Some worked, most didn’t—not even for H.C.B.

Happily, there’s another side to the equation. If you take enough photographs, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually get an extraordinary one, for reasons you might not understand. Cartier-Bresson was a hunter in his youth, and photographers have often described his brand of street photography as a kind of “hunting,” but it might be more accurate to say that it was like fishing—a sport in which you can do a lot to optimize your chances but still can’t know for sure what you’re going to get. Chance is pretty much always in play. Sometimes everything comes together before the lens, and the visual world sorts itself within the frame, and you get a little gift. None of us really knows for sure if or when the magic’s going to happen.

Today, of course, we’re in the age of digital photography. Back in the eighties, I remember reading that six billion photographs were taken each year, a number that seemed as big as the ocean; currently, although exact numbers can’t be known, the world probably collects that many images every three and a half days. There’s a new way in which we can miss out on great photographs: they can be buried forever in the digital tsunami.

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Statistically, of course this must be true. He advises that you should “scroll your roll”. I think we should leave it to AI to have a stab at finding the very best ones. That happens already on the iPhone to some extent – it produces “memories” – but I think it offers far too many. And of course it can’t know about emotional impact. Maybe it could be trained on the few photos we pick as “favourites”?
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Russian–Ukrainian war • OpenStreetMap Wiki

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On behalf of the OSM Ukraine in connection with Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine we are turning to people who are contributing to the development and improvement of the OSM data.

We urge everyone to refrain from any mapping of the territory of Ukraine at the moment!

The Russo-Ukrainian War is unfolding on many fronts including the information one. The possible use of open data by Russian invaders to plan attacks on military and civilian objects is one of the most important reasons why we ask you not to perform any mapping of objects in Ukraine.

We shall take action to amend (delete, modify, revert to the previous state etc.) any found cases of mapping related to military or critical social infrastructure facilities as well as contact the DWG and other OSMF working groups to ban the users who systematically make similar changes (more than one).

Such a request (demand) echoes the provisions of the Article 114-2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine according to which “Dissemination of information on redeployment, movement or location of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or other military formations established in accordance with the laws of Ukraine, if it is possible to identify them on the ground, if such information is not published by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, committed under martial law or state of emergency, shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to eight years”

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Fast, the one-click payments service, is shutting down • Protocol

Veronica Irwin and Benjamin Pimentel:

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Online payments service Fast announced Tuesday that it is closing its doors, a sudden, stunning end to a seemingly fast-growing ecommerce venture once considered a pandemic darling.

The one-click-checkout software maker will discontinue service of its Fast Checkout on Friday, CEO and co-founder Domm Holland said in a statement. “Sometimes trailblazers don’t make it all the way to the mountaintop,” he said.

Fast ran out of funds after failing to secure additional investment fast enough in what had become a tough fundraising environment, a Fast employee told Protocol.

“We waited too long and we ran out of money,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation. Fast “misjudged significantly” the mood in the VC community, he added: “What was acceptable revenue and burn and prospects for growth in the summer of 2021 looks looks very different in April of 2022.”

…The pandemic greatly accelerated innovation in online shopping, and several other companies created their own one-click-checkout systems, including Shopify and Bold Commerce. PayPal was always considered a direct competitor to Fast, while Amazon invented one-click online checkout so long ago that its patent has expired. Apple auto-fills payment information on Macs and iPhones, as does Google’s Chrome browser.

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Yeah, really wouldn’t have thought this was a market where – Amazon’s patent having expired – there’s much space for making one-click checkout products. A week ago it claimed it was about to raise $100m. Guess there wasn’t a one-click for that.
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How Randall Emmett found success in Hollywood • Vulture

Joshua Hunt:

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I first heard of [multiple producer and two-times director] Randall Emmett last September, while speaking with Adam Champ, an executive at Daro Film Distribution in Monaco. From his office in Côte d’Azur’s sun-drenched tax haven, Champ explained an inglorious but profitable slice of the film industry that is built around a certain category of actor — the kind of action stars and leading men who once ruled Hollywood and now make very good money appearing in very bad movies, most of them relegated to streaming services, video on demand (VOD), and late-night television in Europe and South America.

Among these actors are John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, and Sylvester Stallone. But perched atop the ignominious heap is Bruce Willis, whose prolific partnership with EFO Films, one of the biggest players in this niche of the industry, results in as many as four or five movies each year.

“With Bruce Willis, there’s almost a model for how he features in these movies,” Champ theorized. “One of my clients calls it a ‘geezer teaser’: You have Bruce Willis at the intro of the movie, so people are like, Great, this is a Bruce Willis movie. But he’s actually a secondary character who shows up sporadically.”

In most of Willis’s movies for EFO, “sporadic” would be a generous appraisal of his presence. The actor clocks just seven minutes of screen time in Hard Kill, and in Extraction, he spends less than nine minutes onscreen. In the home-invasion thriller Survive the Night, audiences get almost ten minutes out of the actor, even if they aren’t his best.

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Willis’s brief appearances, of course, are now explicable as due to his aphasia. Travolta, Cage, Stallone and others such as Steven Seagal will have to find their own reasons. But the “geezer teaser” is a brilliant description for these films, which in a previous life would have been straight-to-DVD; now they’re straight-to-streaming. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)

Also perfect for this paragraph:

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“If you throw Randy out the door, he comes in the window,” Lerner told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “If you throw him from the window, he comes down the chimney.”

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Russian tech giant Yandex’s data harvesting raises security concerns • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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Yandex has acknowledged its software collects “device, network and IP address” information that is stored “both in Finland and in Russia”, but it called this data “non-personalised and very limited”. It added: “Although theoretically possible, in practice it is extremely hard to identify users based solely on such information collected. Yandex definitely cannot do this.”

The revelations come at a critical time for Yandex, often referred to as “Russia’s Google”, which has long attempted to chart an independent path without falling foul of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s desire for greater control of the internet.

The company said it followed “a very strict” internal process when dealing with governments: “Any requests that fail to comply with all relevant procedural and legal requirements are turned down.”

But Cher Scarlett, formerly a principal software engineer in global security at Apple, said once user information was collected on Russian servers, Yandex could be obliged to submit it to the government under local laws. Other experts said that the metadata of the sort collected by Yandex could be used to identify users.

…Yandex has software in the form of a software development kit, or SDK, called “AppMetrica”. SDKs are building blocks used by developers to create apps. The Google Maps SDK, for instance, allows apps to embed mapping functions rather than build that functionality from scratch. Many SDKs are offered for “free” in exchange for access to user data that aids targeted advertising.

Among the apps with AppMetrica installed are games, messaging apps, location-sharing tools and hundreds of virtual private networks — tools designed to allow people to browse the web without being tracked. Seven of the VPNs are made specifically for a Ukrainian audience. Total installs of apps that include the AppMetrica SDK are in the hundreds of millions, according to Appfigures, an app intelligence group.

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Embedded SDKs really are both a necessity and a blight.
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Stop saying Ukraine is winning the information war • The Atlantic

Carl Miller:

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we compiled a roster of randomly selected accounts from across our new map [of tweets saying #IstandwithPutin and #IstandwithRussia] and delved into them, to try to draw out what set each of the different clusters of accounts apart. What struck us immediately was how clearly each cluster seemed to relate to geography—to the purported national identities and languages that the accounts used.

There was a dense knot of accounts identified as Indian that largely retweeted a stream of messaging in English and Hindi supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Another group used Urdu, Sindhi, and Farsi, with users primarily identifying as Iranian or Pakistani. One node was ostensibly from South Africa but included Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Kenyan users talking about public health, fuel shortages in Nigeria, and former South African President Jacob Zuma. A final cluster was the only one not characterized by language or geography. Accounts in this grouping sent the fewest tweets and had the fewest followers; many had been created either on the day of Russia’s invasion or on March 2, the day of a key United Nations vote condemning the invasion—and when I saw those hashtags suddenly trend.

…the early data are revealing, the activity suspicious. These accounts came alive for UN votes on the invasion, propelled in part, I suspect, by one or more “paid to engage” networks—groups of accounts that will shift their Twitter usage en masse to deliver retweets for a fee. But real people (we are unsure precisely how many) are also helping the hashtags trend. That interplay between organic and inauthentic activity is the most important subtlety of this research. It also gives us our most important conclusion.

Insofar as this was a coordinated campaign, we saw little attempt to address (or impersonate) Western social-media users. To the extent that we saw real people using the hashtag, very few were from the West.

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I Was a Facebook content moderator. I am now living in a horror movie • Business Insider

Daniel Moutang:

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I come from a large family in South Africa.

Shortly after graduating, around March 2019, I came across a content-moderation position at a company called Samasource (now Sama). The company and the profession was unknown to me at the time, but the company claimed its focus was on training poor people and lifting them out of poverty — so I applied.

I was quickly on the journey of a lifetime to work as a Facebook content moderator in Nairobi, Kenya.

It was an adventure that would change my life forever — especially because in my family, and village by extension, I was breaking records. I was the first one to go to a so-called prestigious university, travel in a plane and work abroad.

On that flight to Nairobi, I had no idea I would be working on social media — let alone on Facebook. Neither did I know that, while breaking those records, I would actually destroy my mental stability and physical health.

The job of content moderators is to try to make Facebook safe for everyone who uses it. Sadly, some of the billions of users on Facebook post horrible things every day — and our job is to sift through these posts and take down ones that violate Facebook’s rules so ordinary people don’t have to see them.

It’s gruelling work. Imagine long shifts in an office looking at a constant stream of videos and images of graphic violence, animals being tortured, and the sexual exploitation of children.

The first video I remember seeing was a livestream of someone being beheaded. I believe my mental health began to fray from that first video, and over time it got worse.

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“We just want to connect everyone in the world.” But this becomes incredibly problematic. You have to have rules on a social media site. Yet equally, sometimes those rules flip too far: the atrocities in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities were being automatically flagged and their hashtags blocked on Facebook and Instagram because there was “graphic content” associated with it. AIs don’t know there’s a war on. They don’t know which side has the moral merit. They don’t know that we sometimes need to be shown the graphic content – or at least have the option of looking away.
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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

Start Up No.1771: climate catastrophe deadline, old video meets new music, how ByteDance scraped a leg up, battery prices up, and more


Are you ready for advertising on Netflix? There’s a relentless logic that implies it’s coming at some point. CC-licensed photo by irina slutsky on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Doom, gloom, some levity. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


‘Now or never’ to avoid climate catastrophe, warns UN • Phys.org

Kelly MacNamara and Marlowe Hood:

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Humanity has less than three years to halt the rise of planet-warming carbon emissions and less than a decade to slash them by nearly half, UN climate experts said Monday, warning the world faced a last-gasp race to ensure a “liveable future”.

That daunting task is still—only just—possible, but current policies are leading the planet towards catastrophic temperature rises, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear.

The world’s nations, they said, are taking our future right to the wire.

The 2,800-page report—by far the most comprehensive assessment of how to halt global heating ever produced—documents “a litany of broken climate promises”, said UN chief Antonio Guterres in a blistering judgement of governments and industry.

“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic,” Guterres said.

In recent months, the IPCC has published the first two instalments in a trilogy of mammoth scientific assessments covering how greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet and what that means for life on Earth.

This third report outlines what we can do about it.

“We are at a crossroads,” said IPCC chief Hoesung Lee. “The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

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We’re screwed. OK, absent someone coming up with a brilliant scheme to extract carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere. Make the best accommodation you can plan for.
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How to make a timeless music video • Status-Q

Quentin Stafford-Fraser:

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I always liked the song-and-dance routines in the great old movies, and have mourned their almost total disappearance (while acknowledging that having people break spontaneously into orchestra-accompanied melodies doesn’t, in most cases, tend to improve the realism of your plot!)

Well, it turns out that there’s a fun genre of YouTube creations, taking footage from the old masters and remixing it with more modern music, with some clever editing and retiming. For me, somehow, divorcing the dance from its original music and showing it in a new context only emphasises how good the performers were.

Here’s a very nicely-done favourite; did you know that Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth liked Led Zeppelin?

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Press the button. Absolutely guaranteed to pep up your day. As he points out, there’s another from 2015, which does much the same with Uptown Funk.
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Why Netflix should sell ads • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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Netflix’s biggest advantage is the sheer size of its subscriber base: Netflix can, on an absolute basis, pay more than its streaming competitors for the content it wants, even as its per-subscriber cost basis is lower. This advantage is only accentuated the larger Netflix’s subscriber base gets, and the more revenue it makes per subscriber; the user experience of getting to that unique content doesn’t really matter.

All of these factors make a compelling case for Netflix to start building an advertising business.

First, an advertising-supported or subsidized tier [being cheaper] would expand Netflix’s subscriber base, which is not only good for the company’s long-term growth prospects, but also its competitive position when it comes to acquiring content. This also applies to the company’s recent attempts to crack down on password sharing, and struggles in the developing world: an advertising-based tier is a much more accessible alternative.

Second, advertising would make it easier for Netflix to continue to raise prices: on one hand, it would provide an alternative for marginal customers who might otherwise churn, and on the other hand, it would create a new benefit for those willing to pay (i.e. no advertising for the highest tiers).

Third, advertising is a natural fit for the jobs Netflix does. Sure, customers enjoy watching shows without ads — and again, they can continue to pay for that — but filler TV, which Netflix also specializes in, is just as easily filled with ads.

Above all, though, is the fact that advertising is a great opportunity that aligns with Netflix’s business: while the company once won with a differentiated user experience worth paying for, today Netflix demands scarce attention because of its investment in unique content. That attention can be sold, and should be, particularly as it increases Netflix’s ability to invest in more unique content, and/or charge higher prices to its user base.

This, I will note, is an about face for me; I’ve long been skeptical that Netflix would ever sell advertising, or that they should.

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Unfortunately, he’s right. The challenge of building an even vaguely targeted advertising business for all its viewers would be hugely costly: we’ll get plenty of warning because the expense will show up in the accounting. If it works, though, it could pull in huge amounts of money.
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ByteDance made fake accounts with content scraped from Instagram and Snapchat, former employees say • Buzzfeed News

Emily Baker-White:

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BuzzFeed News spoke with the four former ByteDance employees, all of whom worked on Flipagram (later renamed Vigo Video), and viewed internal documents that indicate the scraping was run by an engineering team in China and began soon after ByteDance acquired Flipagram in January 2017. The former employees described the project as one of several “growth hacks” — including the manipulation of like and video view statistics — employed by the company. One of the former employees said the scraping affected hundreds of thousands of accounts, and a document viewed by BuzzFeed News detailed plans to “crawl video > 10k/day in P0 countries” — according to the former employee, this meant the team’s goal was to scrape more than 10,000 videos a day in the highest priority countries.

…the scraped content was used to train ByteDance’s powerful “For You” personalization algorithm on US-based content so that it would better reflect the preferences of US users. Today, the “For You” algorithm powers both TikTok and its Chinese equivalent, Douyin. (Disclosure: In a previous life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)

BuzzFeed News sent ByteDance a comprehensive list of the allegations we intended to print in this article as well as a detailed set of questions, including if data sets from Flipagram were ever used to train the “For You” algorithm that powers TikTok today or to train any other algorithms currently in use by ByteDance.

…Instagram’s and Snap’s terms of service forbade scraping in 2017, as they do today. At the time, Musical.ly’s terms of service prohibited users from “mak[ing] unauthorized copies of any content made available on or through” the platform.

Jason Grosse, a representative for Instagram’s parent company Meta, said the company would not comment at this time.

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Pretty smart tactic; sure, probably not particularly legal but that’s how these companies roll. Meta could sue, but why bother? Would it really be able to turn the clock back?
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Dead lay out in Bucha for weeks, refuting Russian claim, satellite images show • The New York Times

Malachy Browne, David Botti and Haley Willis:

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An analysis of satellite images by The New York Times rebuts claims by Russia that the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, occurred after its soldiers had left the town.

When images emerged over the weekend of the bodies of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha — some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head — Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied responsibility. In a Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry suggested that the bodies had been recently placed on the streets after “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30.

Russia claimed that the images were “another hoax” and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on what it called “provocations of Ukrainian radicals” in Bucha.

But a review of videos and satellite imagery by The Times shows that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.

One video filmed by a local council member on April 2 shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to The Times by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11, when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town.

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Next step: the Russians will say the images have been altered. Other images will emerge showing the soldiers doing it (possibly from the soldiers’ own phones). The lies will go on. But Ukraine is not going to forgive. (Thanks G for the link.)
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As Russia plots its next move, an AI listens to the chatter • WIRED

Will Knight:

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A radio transmission between several Russian soldiers in Ukraine in early March, captured from an unencrypted channel, reveals panicked and confused comrades retreating after coming under artillery fire. “Vostok, I am Sneg 02. On the highway we have to turn left, fuck,” one of the soldiers says in Russian using code names meaning “East” and “Snow 02.”

“Got it. No need to move further. Switch to defense. Over,” another responds.

Later, a third soldier tries to make contact with another codenamed “South 95”: “Yug 95, do you have contact with a senior? Warn him on the highway artillery fire. On the highway artillery fire. Don’t go by column. Move carefully.”

The third Russian soldier continues, becoming increasingly agitated: “Get on the radio. Tell me your situation and the artillery location, approximately what weapon they are firing.” Later, the third soldier speaks again: “Name your square. Yug 95, answer my questions. Name the name of your square!”

As the soldiers spoke, an AI was listening. Their words were automatically captured, transcribed, translated, and analyzed using several artificial intelligence algorithms developed by Primer, a US company that provides AI services for intelligence analysts. While it isn’t clear whether Ukrainian troops also intercepted the communication, the use of AI systems to surveil Russia’s army at scale shows the growing importance of sophisticated open source intelligence in military conflicts.

…Calder Walton, a historian of espionage at Harvard, says the invasion of Ukraine shows how valuable open source information has become for intelligence operatives. Facial recognition software has been used to identify some individuals in videos of the conflict. “We are at an absolute watershed in terms of the nature of intelligence collection and what’s available,” Walton says. The conflict has highlighted the importance of mining different sources of intelligence. For instance, Ukrainian troops may have successfully targeted a number of Russian generals by looking for gray-haired individuals near antennas in satellite, drone, or other imagery. Russian troops have also taken to using cellphones, sometimes revealing their location and details of missions, as well as their frustrations and low morale.

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Rishi Sunak asks Royal Mint to create NFT • The Guardian

Richard Partington:

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The Treasury has asked the Royal Mint to create a non-fungible token, or NFT, as it attempts to show Britain is at the cutting edge for new technologies by launching its own cryptoasset.

It said the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had asked the 1,136-year-old institution to create the NFT – a type of unique digital asset stored on a blockchain, the same decentralised ledger of transactions used to buy and sell cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin – so it could be issued by the summer.

“This decision shows the forward-looking approach we are determined to take towards cryptoassets in the UK,” the Treasury said on Twitter, posting a picture of the royal coat of arms on a blue background.

NFTs use the unique blockchain value to confer ownership of something – whether tangible or virtual – with pieces of digital art, photographs or music increasingly popular. Typically bought and sold by collectors, some NFTs have soared in value and are worth millions of pounds, as buyers use them to flaunt their taste or wealth, or speculate on the price gyrations to make money.

The Treasury’s announcement did not specify what image or object the Royal Mint’s NFT would confer ownership of, whether more would be created, nor whether NFTs would be used to generate funds for the exchequer. A Treasury spokesman said more details would be announced “soon”.

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My guess is that it’s going to be something related to the Queen’s platinum (70-year) jubilee. There’s a four-day weekend from June 2; it could be timed to coincide.

It’s also tone deaf, for many reasons. There’s a huge cost of living crunch, at a time when taxes are the highest they’ve been since the second world war. So if this has a huge price tag, who’s it for? Why not sell crockery? Plus royalists tend not to have crypto expertise, and crypto nerds tend not to be royalists. And what would be the point in just minting one? A bad idea from start to finish.
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New Amazon worker chat app to ban words like “union” • The Intercept

Ken Klippenstein:

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In November 2021, Amazon convened a high-level meeting in which top executives discussed plans to create an internal social media program that would let employees recognize co-workers’ performance with posts called “Shout-Outs,” according to a source with direct knowledge.

The major goal of the program, Amazon’s head of worldwide consumer business, Dave Clark, said, was to reduce employee attrition by fostering happiness among workers — and also productivity. Shout-Outs would be part of a gamified rewards system in which employees are awarded virtual stars and badges for activities that “add direct business value,” documents state. At the meeting, Clark remarked that “some people are insane star collectors.”

But company officials also warned of what they called “the dark side of social media” and decided to actively monitor posts in order to ensure a “positive community.” At the meeting, Clark suggested that the program should resemble an online dating app like Bumble, which allows individuals to engage one on one, rather than a more forum-like platform like Facebook.

Following the meeting, an “auto bad word monitor” was devised, constituting a blacklist that would flag and automatically block employees from sending a message that contains any profane or inappropriate keywords. In addition to profanities, however, the terms include many relevant to organized labor, including “union,” “grievance,” “pay raise,” and “compensation.” Other banned keywords include terms like “ethics,” “unfair,” “slave,” “master,” “freedom,” “diversity,” “injustice,” and “fairness.” Even some phrases like “This is concerning” will be banned.

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Does that mean a sentence beginning “This is concerning the incident that happened last night” will be blocked? Very strange; people will figure their way around any block. They always do.
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Elon Musk is now Twitter’s largest shareholder; and that’s probably not a good thing • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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It’s unclear, in the short term, what [Musk buying 9.2% of Twitter] will mean for the company. It’s not clear, for example, that Musk will get a board seat or become a particularly active board member, but given his agitating, and the way he’s handled some of his other companies, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he does end up becoming quite active.

Quoting the NY Times:

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It is unclear what Mr. Musk’s plans are beyond the large shareholder position and whether he’ll ask — or be invited — to join Twitter’s board. Mr. Musk filed a securities document indicating that he planned for the investment to be passive, meaning he does not intend to pursue control of the company. But there was also speculation Monday that he could change the status of his investment, continue buying shares or even try to acquire the company outright, today’s DealBook newsletter reported.

“We would expect this passive stake as just the start of broader conversations with the Twitter board/management that could ultimately lead to an active stake and a potential more aggressive ownership role of Twitter,” Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said Monday morning.

«

Again, I think Musk deserves praise for driving some innovations forward, and having a unique vision on how to execute on big, challenging scientific problems — like sending rockets into space and building electric cars, among other things. But managing speech is not a scientific or engineering problem. It’s a human challenge. And Musk does not exactly have the greatest of track records in showing empathy, or, frankly, common decency.

When the initial rumors were that Musk might start a competing social network, I was at least intrigued to see how that might compete with something like Twitter. But I do wonder how much his naïve take on speech might do serious harm to Twitter.

Honestly, I hope this drives the Bluesky team to focus that much more on its efforts, because if Musk is intent on ruining Twitter, which may actually come to pass, having an easy offramp to building a better Twitter would be important.

«

As some have speculated, it would certainly be a brilliant hedge against being banned from Twitter. If only Trump had had the money (and foresight). Speaking of which…
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Exclusive: two key tech execs quit Truth Social after troubled app launch • Reuters

Helen Coster and Julia Love:

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Truth Social is part of a growing sector of tech firms catering to conservatives and marketing themselves as free-speech champions. The platform promised to give Trump unfettered communication with the American public more than a year after he was kicked off Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for allegedly inciting or glorifying violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the US Capitol.

The exit of two executives [Josh Adams and Billy Boozer, respectively chief technology officer and product development chief] critical to the app-launch efforts could imperil the company’s progress as it tries to prove it can compete with mainstream platforms such as Twitter, said two people familiar with the company. Like Twitter, Trump’s platform offers users the chance to connect and share their thoughts.

“If Josh has left… all bets are off,” one of those sources said of tech chief Adams, calling him the “brains” behind Truth Social’s technology.

Another source familiar with the venture said that Boozer also had a major leadership role as product chief, running management across technology infrastructure, design and development teams.

Reuters could not determine the specific circumstances behind the executives’ resignations, or whether they have been replaced or their duties reassigned. It also remains unclear whether Adams and Boozer still work on the venture in a different capacity after quitting their executive posts.

Their resignations came before their key roles in the closely watched company were even publicly known outside of Truth Social’s secretive culture.

Adams and Boozer worked at a level just below Wes Moss and Andy Litinsky, both former castmates on “The Apprentice,” Trump’s hit reality TV show, according to a source familiar with the venture.

«

“Troubled” app launch as in “hasn’t launched despite a firm promise in February that it would launch by the end of March”. There isn’t an Android app (which is 40% of installed base in the US). The BBC says it’s “branded a disaster“. It uses the Mastodon protocol, yet even so they can’t make it work.
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Surging price of battery materials complicates carmakers’ electric plans • Financial Times

Peter Campbell, Joe Miller and Song Jung-a:

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The car industry’s multibillion-dollar bet on electric vehicles was built on a single premise: that batteries would carry on getting cheaper.

In 2019, Volkswagen executives even brandished charts predicting a steady decline in battery costs, as they laid out their ambition to consign the combustion engine to history.

For years the industry was proved right: battery costs fell from $1,000 per KWH for the first models more than a decade ago to about $130 in 2021, paving the way to making them affordable for middle income families. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to halt the slide.

Prices of nickel, lithium and cobalt — key raw materials for battery manufacturing — were already rising because of global demand. But with Russia accounting for 11% of the world’s nickel, and supply chains already stretched, the war has sent the cost of such commodities skyrocketing.

The price of these three metals required in a 60KWh battery, enough for a large family sport utility vehicle, has risen from $1,395 a year ago to more than $7,400 in early March, according to battery group Farasis Energy.

Battery companies, carmakers and suppliers are now grappling with the prospect that electric cars may be less profitable, or require cheaper materials, if they are to remain financially competitive.

«

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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: SpaceX first docked with the ISS in 2012, not 2021. Makes the Russian threat not to send rockets look even more feeble.

Start Up No.1770: next-day delivery in the Pacific, overestimating Russia’s army, save with cooler kettles and washing, and more


The Russian space agency chief threatened to pull the plug on the International Space Station if sanctions weren’t ended. The West called his bluff. CC-licensed photo by NASA on The CommonsNASA on The Commons on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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


No Amazon, no problem: how a remote island community built its own online shopping service • Rest of World

Tiare Tuuhia:

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Turoa Faura lives in Manihi, a remote coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of 118 atolls and islands that make up French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France that has its own government and is considered semi-autonomous. The islands are scattered over more than 3,500 square kilometers of ocean — an area five times as large as the French mainland. 

From the air, Manihi looks ephemeral: a tiny ring of sand that might be washed away at any moment, surrounded by endless shades of blue. The atoll, itself made up of many small islands arranged around a lagoon, is just 27 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide, with its highest point 9 meters above sea level. It has a population of less than 1,000, with most inhabitants, including Faura, living in the main village of Turipaoa. Life here can be difficult. Well-paying jobs are few and far between, and residents are reliant on cargo ships from Tahiti, French Polynesia’s largest island, to bring necessities.  

The luxury of online shopping and home delivery, considered indispensable by many in the West, has long been out of reach for remote islanders like Faura. There’s no Amazon same-day delivery or Alibaba shipping to Manihi, and Turipaoa has only three small shops, which mostly sell food and essentials. There are no restaurants, hardware stores, or clothing shops that sell sought-after brands like Adidas.

Until recently, huge distances, a scattered population, and lack of internet access have made e-commerce unviable in French Polynesia. In the last few years, however, a nascent courier scene has taken off, making it possible for islanders to access an ocean of e-commerce products that were previously unavailable. As the global online shopping market continues to grow — a trend that has been augmented by the Covid-19 pandemic — local services are closing the last gaps for those living in some of the world’s most remote places.

«

Fascinating tale of DIY systems: orders are taken via Facebook Messenger, sent to drivers via Apple’s Notes app on iPhones using a shared note. Spread over a colossal area. Not a short read, but amazing.
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February 2022: Putin has never lost a war. Here is how he’ll win in Ukraine • Newsweek

Bill Powell and Naveed Jamali, writing in February, just as the invasion had got underway:

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As the invasion unfolded, a member of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Alexey Goncharenko, begged NATO to impose a no-fly zone, to allow his countrymen to have a fairer fight on the ground. There was zero chance of that happening, because Kyiv wasn’t in the club.

Soon now, its desire to be part of the West will be moot, as Putin’s Russia takes control—little more than 24 hours after the invasion began, Russian forces were already entering the the capital and Kyiv was hit with Russian “cruise or ballistic missiles.” Success is inevitable because Biden and the allies have made it clear that Moscow will not meet military resistance from the West. Over and over Biden has told the American people the US will not fight on the ground in Ukraine. He knows the public has no stomach for it.

If events play out as military analysts now expect, the conflict will end relatively quickly with a negotiated settlement that may cede some territory to Russia, the installation of a new Russia-friendly regime in Kyiv and a partial withdrawal of troops that allows Putin to avoid the quagmire the West so badly wants him sucked into. In doing so, Putin will be able to claim that he dealt a devastating setback to NATO, the main goal of his aggression.

For Putin, the sack of Ukraine will likely mark the endgame in his desire to restore the empire. If it doesn’t, it will mean at some point the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be in a shooting war, with all the risk that entails.

«

This was the featured story on the cover. Whoever the “military analysts” they used as sources were, I hope they’ve deleted their numbers from their phones. Bits and pieces of this analysis are right, but huge chunks are just wrong – particularly in expecting Ukraine to roll over. (To be fair, lots of non-specialists did.) One can this expect this means they’re miles wrong about a shooting war between the US and Russia.
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How the West got Russia’s military so, so wrong • The Atlantic

Phillips Payson O’Brien, much more recently:

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Having good equipment and good doctrine reveals little about how an army will perform in a war. To predict that, you must analyze not only its equipment and doctrine but also its ability to undertake complex operations, its unglamorous but crucial logistical needs and structure, and the commitment of its soldiers to fight and die in the specific war being waged. Most important, you have to think about how it will perform when a competent enemy fires back. As Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth.”

What we are seeing today in Ukraine is the result of a purportedly great military being punched in the mouth. The resilience of Ukrainian resistance is embarrassing for a Western think-tank and military community that had confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days. For years, Western “experts” prattled on about the Russian military’s expensive, high-tech “modernization.” The Russians, we were told, had the better tanks and aircraft, including cutting-edge SU-34 fighter bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the finest technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganized their army into a more professional, mostly voluntary force. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created battalion tactical groups, flexible, heavily armored formations that were meant to be key to overwhelming the Ukrainians. Basically, many people had relied on the glamour of war, a sort of war pornography, to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.

Those predictions, based on alluring but fundamentally flawed criteria, have now proved false. Western analysts took basic metrics (such as numbers and types of tanks and aircraft), imagined those measured forces executing Russian military doctrine, then concluded that the Ukrainians had no chance. But counting tanks and planes and rhapsodizing over their technical specifications is not a useful way to analyze modern militaries. As The Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen has argued, the systems that the West used to evaluate the Russian military have failed nearly as comprehensively as that military has.

«

I’d have expected that analysts would have used satellite observation of Russian exercises to figure some of this out, at the very least. Clearly the US military has good intelligence about what’s going on, possibly from very close to the Russian side. But they were all surprised by this, despite months of manoeuvres ahead of time?
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What a 1994 Bill Gates keynote tells us about the metaverse • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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In Gates’ 1994 COMDEX mini-movie, the technology of 2005 is the star. Everybody uses pocketable wireless devices, which, among other things, can be used to pay for items such as coffee. A couple of plainclothes cops have an SUV equipped with a giant screen that displays maps and video calls; one uses a tablet computer that can transcribe interviews on the fly. A woman watching TV pulls up David Letterman and Oprah on demand, not when their shows happen to be broadcast. Her teenage son researches pre-Columbian art using a graphical browser and then gives a multimedia presentation on the subject at school. After he’s struck by a car while evading bad guys—apologies for the spoiler—a remote doctor uses a video call to diagnose his injuries while he’s still in an ambulance.

In 1994, all of this was gee-whiz stuff—even the flat-screen displays depicted in the film would have felt like a glimpse of tomorrow. But as I experienced Gates’ imagined 2005 today, I had to keep reminding myself that it was supposed to be full of wonders. What it shows looks an awful lot like smartphones, Google Maps, Zoom, Apple Pay, the iPad and Surface, Otter, Hulu, telehealth, and other tools of everyday living circa 2022.

And yet, all the ways in which Gates’ next-generation tech failed to line up with what we actually got are also fascinating. For instance, the pocketable devices are “Wallet PCs,” a class of gadget that Gates describes as “a grown-up pager.” People don’t make voice calls on them or use them to snap photos—but they do wield them as remote controls for larger screens in a way that never became commonplace in the real world. It’s unclear how big a role the internet and web play in the movie’s scenarios; Gates mentioned them only briefly. And he was overly optimistic about how quickly some of the innovations he predicted would come to pass—in many cases, they weren’t fully baked until well after 2005.

«

Sounds like Gates (and/or his team) got it all pretty much right, and they were only wrong by five or ten years, which compared to their timescale isn’t.. terrible? If you get there in the end, that’s the thing. But of course there’s strong survivor bias in this: we find the clever talks that predicted things correctly, rather than the zillions that got it wrong.
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Electricity • Little Green Tips

Sarah is “a busy mum of two” trying to reduce her energy use:

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here are a few more ideas I have discovered that will help reduce electricity usage.

One of the main changes I have made which has had an impact has been with the washing machine. Using our eco egg, I have lowered the temperature to 20ºC and reduced spin speed to reduce energy consumption. I’m washing my laundry at 20ºC now… down from 30ºC …..down from 40ºC. I don’t wash towels or bedding at 60ºC regularly either.

Instead of spinning at 1400rpm I drop to 1200 or 1000 or 800 depending on what I’m washing and where I’m drying it. I am also regularly descaling the washing machine (about once a month) so it works more efficiently and uses less energy.

Don’t assume eco settings on washing machine and dish washers use the least amount of electricity. They normally refer to using less water per load. Look up energy usage per program on the internet for your make/model if you can find it. Or just choose a shorter cycle time. I’ve gone from 2hr40 to 45 mins on our washing machine and our washing is just as clean.

Another things to do is when you need a new appliance make sure it’s as energy efficient as possible.

Since we have moved into our house we have gradually increased our insulation levels as well as getting thermal lined curtains, using a draught excluder at doors and closing curtains as soon as it gets dark to keep the heat in. You can make good use of passive solar gain from windows to help heat your house. Open up curtains in the day and when the sun sets close the close those curtains to hold in the heat.

Kettles are very very electricity hungry and take more energy to heat the water the hotter you want it to be. You can now get kettles that boil to either 80/90/100ºC. You don’t need 100ºC for tea or coffee. I don’t have a fancy kettle so I just flick the off switch before it finishes boiling when I remember.

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Assume the washing water starts at 7ºC (typical in the UK). This says it’s 1.53kWh to heat to 40ºC, v 1.07kWh for 30ºC. If you’re doing a wash every day, that could mount up. A kettle uses about 0.1kWh. If you have a lot of cups of tea, that’ll mount up faster than the washing.
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Web3 is supposed to be secure. What about all these hacks? • Decrypt

Jeff John Roberts:

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it took six days for the Axie team to notice that $630m worth of Ethereum had been looted and to tell users, whose money is now gone.

If a security team at a bank or a Web2 company behaved this way, they would be fired and face charges of civil or even criminal negligence. But since it’s Web3, Axie leadership has offered only vague mumbles to the effect of what a shame this is. (Axie founder Jeff Zirlin tweeted on Tuesday, “It’s a hard day,” and two hours later, “This is when we show what we’re made of.”) As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine archly observed, “Nobody cares less about information security than the builders of cryptocurrency projects.”

The Axie debacle is hardly a one-off. Two months ago, hackers robbed Wormhole, a popular bridge to the Solana blockchain, to the tune of $320m. Fortunately for users, the venture capitalists beyond Wormhole, recognizing the terrible optics, decided to backstop the losses even as the engineers responsible all but shrugged their shoulders. Last week, $28m was drained from Solana stablecoin protocol Cashio. Last August, Poly Network was hacked for over $600m.

There are numerous other examples of Web3 users being robbed because the platforms they use are full of gaping security holes.

Meanwhile, more than two dozen Web3 companies, including Circle and BlockFi, revealed last month that they had been hit by a Web2-style attack. In that case, hackers compromised one of their marketing vendors and made off with a trove of customer data that is already being used to conduct phishing campaigns and other scams.

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Levine’s comment hits the nail completely on the head. If it were actually their houses or cars or real money in their bank accounts – not the funny money they generate on their PCs – then they’d take a lot more care. But it isn’t. That alone tells you all you need to know, I think.
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UK ministers quietly approve Chinese microchip factory takeover • POLITICO

Eleni Courea:

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The UK government has quietly approved the controversial sale of a Welsh microchip factory to a Chinese-owned firm.

Ministers have decided not to intervene in the takeover of Newport Wafer Fab, which makes semiconductors, following a review by the government’s national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove.

More than six months after he was asked to examine the sale, Lovegrove concluded there were not enough security concerns to block it, according to two government officials.

The decision has already caused alarm among security experts and backlash from Tory MPs who believe the government is employing too narrow a definition of national security.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said: “It’s not clear why we haven’t used our new powers under the National Security and Investment Act to fully review the takeover of one of our leading compound semiconductor companies.”

He added: “This is an area where China is sinking billions to compete. The government has no clear strategy to protect what’s left of our semiconductor industry.”

Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader and a long-standing critic of the Chinese government, said the decision was “ridiculous.” “Kwasi Kwarteng [the Business minister] needs to stand up for access to key technologies in the West which China is determined to get control over,” he said.

Duncan Smith warned: “If the government goes down this road, it will become yet another step in the pathetic process of appeasing China who right now is supporting Russia and plans to pose a direct and deliberate threat to the West’s access to microchips and other key components for electronic equipment.”

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Duncan Smith is reliably an idiot, but it’s strange that there are “not enough” security concerns. So there are some security concerns, just not enough of them?
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Russia asked NASA to end sanctions to save the ISS, but the West didn’t blink • Ars Technica

Eric Berger:

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[chief of Russian’s spaceflight activities, Dmitry] Rogozin has been blustering about pulling the plug on the International Space Station almost since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. However he and the thousands of employees at Roscosmos have taken precisely zero concrete actions that would actually initiate that process. Indeed, earlier this week, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth on a Soyuz spacecraft. The operations were entirely nominal, and the relations between Russian and NASA officials professional.

It is possibly that Vladimir Putin could decide, at any moment, that it no longer suits him to participate on the space station. His decision-making process is opaque to Western observers. But this seems improbable, because walking away from the space station would be the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to Russia’s civil space program. And Russians take enormous pride in their space program, going back more than six decades to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. Without active cooperation with Western nations, however, Russia would almost certainly no longer be a space power—it would be the world’s first former space power.

As part of his Twitter message, Rogozin shared letters he had received from the chiefs of other space agencies in response to his demands for an end to sanctions. Of note is a March 30 letter from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, pledging his ongoing support for the space station, but reiterating that the sanctions will not end. Nelson is not negotiating from a point of weakness here. The United States has a vibrant commercial space industry, which will prosper even without the space station. Nelson, too, knows that NASA likely could take steps to save the US segment of the space station and keep it flying even if Russia abruptly pulls out.

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So0, basically, it’s all posturing and noise, and it’s hardly as if the West would abruptly end sanctions because they were worried about the ISS. Though it’s fortunate timing that Elon Musk’s SpaceX system proved it could dock with the ISS last year.

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How to jump to a folder on your Mac with a single keystroke • Macworld

Michael Simon:

»

We’ve all experienced this: You’re saving a file in Pages or Garageband or Microsoft Word and the dialog box starts in the completely wrong place. Then you need to go to your mouse or trackpad, click the arrow to expand and hope the destination you want is there. If it’s not—and it almost always isn’t—you need to click through folders and places until you land on the one you’re looking for.

But here’s the trick iOS engineer Zach Waugh shared: Type the forward slash (/) on your keyboard when the save dialog box pops up and you’ll go straight to a “Go to Folder” window that lets you quickly navigate to anywhere on your Mac. You’ll need to know the path, but it’ll also save your recent places so you don’t have to retype lengthy strings of folders. It even works with the user shortcut using the ~ symbol.

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Presumably because it’s actually running a terminal command underneath, so the / or ~ takes you to the root folder that you can access. A reminder that mac OS is actually a pretty face on top of texty Unix. Neat trick!
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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