Start Up No.1823: our ubiquitous camera future, America’s conspiracy politics, bad news about fuel prices, polio in London?, and more


Creating an internet-connected hot tub was just asking for trouble, and trouble duly found it, along with its owners. CC-licensed photo by Andrew Bone on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Say cheese! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Why cameras are soon going to be everywhere • Pete Warden’s blog

The aforesaid Warden:

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A lot of people still share the expectation that cameras will be obvious, standalone components of a system. Even though phone cameras and webcams are smaller, they still have a noticeable physical presence, and often come with indicators like red lights that show when they’re recording. What is clear to me from my work is that these assumptions aren’t going to hold much longer. Soon imaging sensors will be so small, cheap, and energy efficient that they’ll be added to many more devices in our daily lives, and because they’re so tiny they won’t even be noticeable!

What am I basing this prediction on? The clearest indicator for me is that you can already buy devices like the Himax HM01B0 with an imaging sensor that’s less than 2mm by 2mm in size, low single-digit dollars in cost, and 2 milliwatts or less in power usage. Even more striking are the cameras that are emerging from research labs. At the TinyML Summit the University of Michigan presented a complete system that fits on the tip of a finger.

This video shows another project from Rice that is able to perform state of the art eye tracking at 253 FPS, using 23 milliwatts, in a lens-less system that lets it achieve a much smaller size than other solutions.

Hopefully this makes it clear that there’s a growing supply of these kinds of devices. Why do I think there will be enough demand to include them in appliances and other items around homes and offices? This is tricky to show as clearly because the applications aren’t deployed yet, but cameras can replace or augment lots of existing sensors, and enable entirely new features. Here are a few examples:

• Voice interfaces that use lip reading to improve accuracy in noisy situations
• Stovetops that turn themselves off if they don’t see anyone nearby for a while
• Water and other meters that share their data digitally with the cloud, without expensive replacements
• A toaster that pops out the toast when smoke starts billowing
• TVs that recognize when someone sits down, and who they are, to provide parental controls and personalized content
• Shades that automatically close when nobody’s around, to conserve energy
• Gesture recognition for controlling a lamp.

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Pete is very, very smart and if he says there are going to be cameras everywhere, then there are.
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Why conspiracy theories flourish in Trump’s America • The New York Times

Thomas Edsall:

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Consider Texas. On the campaign trail this year, the Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and 24 of the state’s congressional districts endorsed Trump’s claim that “the 2020 election was rigged and stolen.”

On June 18, the 5,000 delegates to the Texas Republican Party convention adopted a platform declaring, “We reject the certified results of the 2020 presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

The stolen election conspiracy theory has, in effect, become the adhesive holding the dominant Trump wing of the party in lock-step. This particular conspiracy theory joins the network of sub-theories that unite Trump loyalists, who allege that an alliance of Democratic elites and urban political machines have secretly joined forces to deny the will of the people, corralling the votes of illegal immigrants and the dead, while votes cast by Trump supporters are tossed into the trash.

In a 2017 essay, “How conspiracy theories helped power Trump’s disruptive politics,” Joseph Uscinski, of the University of Miami, Matthew D. Atkinson of Miami University and Darin DeWitt of California State University, Long Beach, recognized the central role of conspiracy theories in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

In the 2016 primaries, “Trump, as a disruptive candidate, could not compete on the party establishment’s playing field,” they write. “Trump’s solution is what we call ‘conspiracy theory politics.’”

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It’s certainly the way he makes things happen. And astonishing as it is to consider, there really are large swathes which truly are “Trump’s America”.
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Fuel prices may inch down — but that’s not all good news • CNN

Allison Morrow:

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There’s good news and bad news on the gas prices front. Good news: some price relief could be on the way. The bad news: it’s because traders are betting on a recession.

In simple terms, there are two ways to bring down prices: Increase supply or reduce demand. The former is costly and complicated. The latter happens when consumers start pulling back because prices have risen too much and individual budgets are strained. That’s what appears to have happened this spring, as Americans watched gas prices soar above $5 a gallon and overall inflation top four-decade highs.

Although that might spell relief at the fuel pump, it may also signal a different kind of economic pain on the horizon.

“This morning’s market action has recession worries written all over it,” wrote Peter Boockvar, the chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. He put the odds of a recession this year at 99% because “nothing is 100%.”

Prices of oil spiked to $122.11 on June 8, their highest since March and about a dollar off its highest level since 2008.

In just two weeks since that spike, oil prices have fallen 16%. Why? It’s inflation, yet again, and the Federal Reserve’s campaign to fight it.

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Prices of petrol in the UK have gone up about 25% since January. They’re at historic highs in absolute terms.
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A tale of two Facebook whistleblowers • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia:

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In recent years, the social media giant has faced a series of allegations about its harmful impact on society and democracy, including from whistleblowers who risked their careers and reputations to speak out. Most, like Haugen, have been Silicon Valley engineers who helped build the company’s algorithms and moderation systems, and speak from a position of relative privilege.

But it is rarer to see whistleblowers from the company’s other, invisible workforce of about 15,000 people, often located in developing countries. Content moderators such as Motaung are often required to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from sharing details of their work even with their families.

For work confronting imagery of human sacrifice, beheadings, hate speech and child abuse, Motaung and his colleagues at Sama, an outsourcing firm in Nairobi where he worked, were reportedly paid about $2.20 (£1.80) per hour. “When I went to Kenya, I was fine. I went to [work for] Facebook… I came back broken,” he told the London audience.

The event highlighted several stark differences in Haugen and Motaung’s experiences taking on one of the world’s most powerful companies. As Haugen acknowledged, “I got the benefits of the race and gender issues. I think it would be very difficult for Facebook to come after me at this point because it would be a huge PR liability for them.”

By contrast, Motaung was fired from Sama after demanding better pay, working conditions and mental health support. Sama claims Motaung violated company policy. He returned home to South Africa due to his visa status, and has struggled to find another job since. Meta says it did not employ Motaung and denies that it operates in Kenya at all. His lawyer, Cori Crider, who had joined Motaung on stage, said Facebook had not reached out. “It’s just silence,” she said.

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Tesla ‘spontaneously’ catches fire in junkyard weeks after collision • The Washington Post

Julian Mark:

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A white Tesla Model S was sitting in a Rancho Cordova, Calif., wrecking yard earlier this month — having been severely damaged in a collision three weeks earlier — when it suddenly erupted in flames, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

When firefighters arrived, the electric car was engulfed. Every time the blaze was momentarily extinguished, the car’s battery compartment reignited, the fire department wrote in an Instagram post. Firefighters and wrecking yard workers tried turning the car on its side to aim water directly onto the battery pack. But “the vehicle would still re-ignite due to the residual heat,” the department wrote.

So they tried something else: they used a tractor to create a pit in the dirt, managed to get the car inside, then filled the hole with water. That allowed the firefighters to submerge the battery pack and ultimately extinguish the fire, which burned hotter than 3,000 degrees, Capt. Parker Wilbourn, a fire department spokesman, told The Washington Post.

All told, it took more than an hour and 4,500 gallons of water for the dozen firefighters to extinguish the blaze, Wilbourn said — about the same amount of water used to put out a building fire.

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Lithium-ion batteries sure are a fire risk. And a complicated fire at that. Junkyards are going to have to change., most likely by learning to remove those batteries first.
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Security flaws in internet-connected hot tubs exposed owners’ personal data • TechCrunch

Carly Page:

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A security researcher found vulnerabilities in Jacuzzi’s SmartTub interface that allowed access to the personal data of every hot tub owner.

Jacuzzi’s SmartTub feature, like most Internet of Things (IoT) systems, lets users connect to their hot tub remotely via a companion Android or iPhone app. Marketed as a “personal hot tub assistant,” users can make use of the app to control water temperature, switch on and off jets, and change the lights.

But as documented by hacker Eaton Zveare, this functionality could also be abused by threat actors to access the personal information of hot tub owners worldwide, including their names and email addresses. It’s unclear how many users are potentially impacted, but the SmartTub app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times on Google Play.

“The main concern is their name and email being leaked,” Zveare told TechCrunch, adding that attackers could also potentially heat up someone else’s hot tub or change the filtration cycles. “That would make things unpleasant the next time the person checked their tub,” he said. “But I don’t think there is anything truly dangerous that could have been done — you have to do all chemicals by hand.“

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Small mercies indeed. Though one can feel sure that there will soon be a system which let you add chemicals over the internet, and then the Bad Things happen.
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Traces of polio virus found in London sewage as health officials declare national incident • Sky News

Ashish Joshi:

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Traces of the polio virus have been found during a routine sewage inspection in London, leading the UK Health Security Agency to declare a national incident.

Health officials are now concerned about the community spread of the virus after samples were collected from the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works in London, but have stressed the risk to the public is extremely low.

Several closely-related polio viruses were found in sewage samples taken between February and May. It has continued to evolve and has now been classified as a ‘vaccine-derived’ poliovirus type 2 (VDPV2).

Officials believe there has been some spread between closely linked individuals in northeast London – probably extended family members – and that these people are now shedding the type 2 poliovirus strain in their faeces.

Urgent investigations will try to establish the extent of community transmission and to identify where it may be occurring.

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Covid. Monkeypox. Polio. What a time.

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Drought scorches western Kansas wheat just as the world needs it most • High Plains Public Radio

David Condos:

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This time of year, the wheat growing in this part of western Kansas should be thigh-high and lush green.

But as a months-long drought continues to parch the region, many fields tell a different story.

“There’s nothing out there. It’s dead,” farmer Vance Ehmke said, surveying a wheat field near his land in Lane County. “It’s just ankle-high straw.”

Across western Kansas, many fields planted with wheat months ago now look like barren wastelands. The gaping spaces between rows of brown, shriveled plants reveal hardened dirt that’s scarred with deep cracks from baking in the sun.

Of all the years for drought to hit western Kansas wheat farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Even with wheat selling for near-record-high prices as the war in Ukraine disrupts the world’s food supplies, a lot of farmers in western Kansas won’t have any to sell. And those who made it through the drought with enough crop to harvest will likely end up with far fewer bushels than they had last year, a downturn that limits the state’s ability to help ease the global food crisis.

…Part of the problem is an increase in costs. Farmers face higher expenses across the board this season, largely thanks to supply chain issues caused by the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

The price of diesel — the fuel required to run the tractors and trucks that keep farms going — reached an all-time high last month and remains more than $5.50 per gallon. Nitrogen fertilizer prices also soared to record levels this spring, peaking above $1,500 per ton — more than twice what it cost one year ago.

“It’ll be a very difficult year,” Rejeana Gvillo with Farmers Business Network said. “Just because commodity prices are high, it does not mean that producers are better off.”

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Still trying to find a story about absolutely everything going perfectly. 2022 is really not delivering.
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Is Google dying? Or did the web grow up? • The Atlantic

Charlie Warzel:

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Google is still useful for many, but the harder question is why its results feel more sterile than they did five years ago. [SEO expert Marie] Haynes’s theory is that this is the result of Google trying to crack down on misinformation and low-quality content—especially around consequential search topics. In 2017, the company started talking publicly about a Search initiative called EAT, which stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” The company has rolled out numerous quality rater guidelines, which help judge content to determine authenticity. One such effort, titled Your Money or Your Life, applies rigorous standards to any pages that show up when users search for medical or financial information.

“Take crypto,” Haynes explained. “It’s an area with a lot of fraud, so unless a site has a big presence around the web and Google gets the sense they’re known for expertise on that topic, it’ll be difficult to get them to rank.” What this means, though, is that Google’s results on any topic deemed sensitive enough will likely be from established sources. Medical queries are far more likely to return WebMD or Mayo Clinic pages, instead of personal testimonials. This, Haynes said, is especially challenging for people looking for homeopathic or alternative-medicine remedies.

There’s a strange irony to all of this. For years, researchers, technologists, politicians, and journalists have agonized and cautioned against the wildness of the internet and its penchant for amplifying conspiracy theories, divisive subject matter, and flat-out false information. Many people, myself included, have argued for platforms to surface quality, authoritative information above all else, even at the expense of profit. And it’s possible that Google has, in some sense, listened (albeit after far too much inaction) and, maybe, partly succeeded in showing higher-quality results in a number of contentious categories. But instead of ushering in an era of perfect information, the changes might be behind the complainers’ sense that Google Search has stopped delivering interesting results.

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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

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