Start Up No.1840: censoring novels in the cloud, the Channel migrant supply chain, Celsius hits zero, Fahrenheit passes 100, and more

The James Webb Space Telescope is a marvel of engineering – and also of communication reliability, with 57GB of daily data to store and send. CC-licensed photo by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. How many fingers am I holding up? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. Now Chinese users want answers • MIT Technology Review

Zeyi Yang:


Imagine you are working on your novel on your home computer. It’s nearly finished; you have already written approximately one million words. All of a sudden, the online word processing software tells you that you can no longer open the draft because it contains illegal information. Within an instant, all your words are lost.

This is what happened in June to a Chinese novelist writing under the alias Mitu. She had been working with WPS, a domestic version of cloud-based word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365. In the Chinese literature forum Lkong on June 25, Mitu accused WPS of “spying on and locking my draft,” citing the presence of illegal content. 

The news blew up on social media on July 11 after a few prominent influencer accounts belatedly picked it up. It became the top trending topic on Weibo that day, with users questioning whether WPS is infringing on their privacy. Since then, The Economic Observer, a Chinese publication, has reported that several other online novelists have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past. 

Mitu’s complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government. “This is a case where perhaps we are seeing that these two things indeed might collide,” says Tom Nunlist, an analyst on China’s cyber and data policy at the Beijing-based research group Trivium China 

While Mitu’s document has been saved online and was previously shared with an editor in 2021, she says she had been the only person editing it this year, when it was suddenly locked. “The content is all clean and can even be published on a [literature] website, but WPS decided it should be locked. Who gave it the right to look into users’ private documents and decide what to do with them arbitrarily?” she wrote.


Appalling, awful, bad Chinese censors, etc. Also: precisely the same thing happens for Google Docs users, though for different reasons. People have found access to their documents blocked, with no reason given. Of course you could get it reversed by contacting Google customer service. Hahahaa.

Cloud documents: good in some ways, terrible in others. (Related, obliquely: have you noticed how rare it now is for authors to come onto Twitter in a panic saying they’ve lost their novel because of a disk crash? Disks are better. And possibly people are backing up more, or writing in the cloud. As here.)
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The Webb Space Telescope’s profound data challenges • IEEE Spectrum

Michael Koziol on the James Webb Space Telescope, which can generate 57GB of data per day, compared to Hubble which generates 1-2GB daily, but which is also too far away for any sort of maintenance mission:


Any scientific data the JWST collects during its lifetime will need to be stored on board, because the spacecraft doesn’t maintain round-the-clock contact with Earth. Data gathered from its scientific instruments, once collected, is stored within the spacecraft’s 68GB solid-state drive (3% is reserved for engineering and telemetry data). Alex Hunter, also a flight systems engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, says that by the end of JWST’s 10-year mission life, they expect to be down to about 60 GB because of deep-space radiation and wear and tear.

The onboard storage is enough to collect data for about 24 hours before it runs out of room. Well before that becomes an issue, JWST will have scheduled opportunities to beam that invaluable data to Earth.

JWST will stay connected via the Deep Space Network (DSN)—a resource it shares with the Parker Solar Probe, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, the Voyager probes, and the entire ensemble of Mars rovers and orbiters, to name just a few of the other heavyweights. The DSN consists of three antenna complexes: Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Barstow, Calif. JWST needs to share finite antenna time with plenty of other deep-space missions, each with unique communications needs and schedules.

Sandy Kwan, a DSN systems engineer, says that contact windows with spacecraft are scheduled 12 to 20 weeks in advance. JWST had a greater number of scheduled contact windows during its commissioning phase, as instruments were brought on line, checked, and calibrated. Most of that process required real-time communication with Earth.

All of the communications channels use the Reed-Solomonerror-correction protocol—the same error-correction standard as used in DVDs and Blu-ray discs as well as QR codes. The lower data-rate S-band channels use binary phase-shift key modulation—involving phase shifting of a signal’s carrier wave. The K-band channel, however, uses a quadrature phase-shift key modulation. Quadrature phase-shift keying can double a channel’s data rate, at the cost of more complicated transmitters and receivers.


If you find this both awe-inspiring and mind-numbing, you’re not alone. The amazing technical challenges of the JWST are set out in a series of posts. They’ve already benefited earthbound life by making far more precise medical procedures possible. And it’s the culmination of a 20-year project. Sometimes, humans are pretty good at things: the JWST is a cause for optimism in itself.
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A migrant smuggling clan is broken up in Germany: “The hydra is alive” • DER SPIEGEL

Hannes Schrader, Roman Lehberger, Hubert Gude and Jürgen Dahlkamp:


“With this blow, we have broken up one of the most powerful migrant smuggling groups that Europe has ever seen,” says Helgo Martens, head of operations for the German Federal Police. The ring is thought to have funneled up to 10,000 migrants through the dangerous route to England since the beginning of 2021. At an estimated profit of at least 15 million euros, though officers involved say the true sum is likely twice that amount.

The shots fired in Osnabrück [when a gang member was shot six times, and subsequently informed police] and the raids provided a pathway into the secretive world of the traffickers. A world in which a new life in Britain can be had for between €1,500 and €8,000 – if the money is accompanied by a bit of luck and the refugees in the rubber rafts are actually successful in crossing the English Channel. If not, their money buys them a ticket to death. Like in November 2021, when 27 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, drowned when their boat foundered.

The international raid, the primary focus of which was in the German state of Lower Saxony, clearly demonstrates that Germany plays a decisive role in one of the greatest human dramas currently playing out on the European stage. Virtually unnoticed by the public, human smuggling groups based largely in Germany have developed, pursuing an unholy business in which they apparently don’t care if their freight ends up in England or in the afterworld.

And its not just the migrants themselves who make stopovers in Germany on their way to the Atlantic coast. The country is also considered to be the most important hub for small boats, primarily inflatable rafts, that are delivered on demand to the seaside, where they are then filled with migrants. Some 80% of the boats and the motors, French investigators estimate, come through Germany.


Detailed look at precisely what the smuggling chain actually looks like, for which the UK government’s answer seems to be to try to empty the bath with a thimble by sending asylum seekers arriving by those boats to Rwanda (and accepting Rwandan asylum seekers in return 🤷‍♂️). The obvious solution is to follow it back up to the source, as this article explains.

In 2021, just over 28,000 people arrived in the UK by the small boats/Channel route. (The number in the article from the French interior ministry says more than 36,000 were “intercepted at the English Channel”, which suggests about 8,000 were stopped on the French side.)

So taking out a group sending 10,000 is significant. Even more effective would be offering locations outside the UK where people could apply for asylum.
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Why Celsius Network’s depositors won’t get their money back • Coppola Comment

Frances Coppola dives into the bankruptcy filing from the “asset manager” which, as she points out, was actually a “shadow bank” – a bank in everything but name and, oh, asset guarantees:


The crypto lender Celsius has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, though the grief and pain on Twitter and Reddit suggests that quite a few “Celsians” didn’t want to believe what was staring them in the face. Celsius suspended withdrawals nearly a month ago. So far, every crypto lender that has suspended withdrawals has turned out to be insolvent. There was no reason to suppose that Celsius would be different.  

Celsius’s bankruptcy filing says the company has assets of $1bn – $10bn and a similar quantity of liabilities.

This doesn’t tell us much about the extent of the company’s insolvency. But rumours have been circulating of a $2bn hole in its balance sheet. In May, according to Coindesk, the company said it had $12bn of what Celsius calls “customer assets” and Coindesk calls “assets under management”, and $8bn lent out to clients. So “assets under management” seem to have fallen by $2bn. Could this be the missing $2bn?

No, it couldn’t. It’s the wrong side of the balance sheet. What Celsius calls “customer assets” are its own liabilities.


Quite the category error there. And her recommendations:


Inevitably, there are calls for tougher regulation of crypto shadow banks like Celsius. To some extent, I agree. At the very least, misleading marketing should be stamped on: no way was Celsius ever a safer alternative to a traditional bank. And crypto lenders should be held to the same standards of disclosure as other financial institutions. It should not be possible for a crypto lender to produce no accounts for over two years and scrub all mention of its current financial position from its website.


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Cryptomining capacity in US rivals energy use of Houston, findings show • The New York Times

Hiroko Tabuchi:


Seven of the largest bitcoin mining companies in the United States are set up to use nearly as much electricity as the homes in Houston, according to data disclosed Friday as part of an investigation by congressional Democrats who say miners should be required to report their energy use.

The United States has seen an influx of cryptocurrency miners, who use powerful, energy-intensive computers to create and track the virtual currencies, after China cracked down on the practice last year. Democrats led by Senator Elizabeth Warren are also calling for the companies to report their emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is the main driver of climate change.

“This limited data alone reveals that cryptominers are large energy users that account for a significant — and rapidly growing — amount of carbon emissions,” Sen. Warren and five other members of Congress wrote in a letter to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. “But little is known about the full scope of cryptomining activity,” they wrote.

Research has shown that a surge in cryptomining is also significantly raising energy costs for local residents and small businesses, and has added to the strain on the power grid in states like Texas, the letter noted.

…That data showed that the seven companies alone had set up to tap as much as 1,045 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to power all the residences in a city the size of Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city with 2.3 million residents. The companies also said that they plan to expand their capacity at an eye-popping rate.

One of the largest cryptomining companies in the United States, Marathon Digital Holdings, told the probe that it operated almost 33,000 highly specialized, power-intensive computers, known as “mining rigs,” as of February, up from just over 2,000 at the start of 2021. By early next year, it intends to get that number up to 199,000 rigs, an almost hundredfold increase in two years, it said.


Tricky one for politicians: are they going to legislate how people should use power? Crypto is absolutely a waste of energy, yet is it moreso than a million people playing games on PCs using a kilowatt per hour? Obviously you’d charge more for electricity provided to commercial users, and that should include bitcoin miners.
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Elon Musk opposes Twitter’s request for expedited trial over stalled deal • WSJ

Sarah E. Needleman and Erin Mulvaney:


Elon Musk filed a motion Friday opposing Twitter’s request to expedite a trial over his intention to terminate his $44bn takeover.

Lawyers for Mr. Musk filed papers with the Delaware Chancery Court, their first public response to the lawsuit filed earlier this week by the social-media company seeking to enforce the terms of their merger agreement. The court should reject Twitter’s “unjustifiable request to rush this,” they said in their filing.

Twitter has asked the court to expedite the proceedings, citing risks from the recent economic downturn and being held in limbo by a buyer. The company requested a trial by mid-September “to protect Twitter and its stockholders from the continuing market risk and operational harm resulting from Musk’s attempt to bully his way out of an airtight merger agreement.”

…In Friday’s filing, Mr. Musk’s lawyers said: “The core dispute over false and spam accounts is fundamental to Twitter’s value. It is also extremely fact and expert intensive, requiring substantial time for discovery.”

Mr. Musk’s lawyers argued that “it is unnecessary to resolve these weighty considerations on a breakneck schedule” and asked for a trial date on or after Feb. 13 of next year, adding that the debt financing was valid until April 25, 2023.

…“With the sense of humor of a bot, Twitter claims that Musk is damaging the company with tweets like a Chuck Norris meme and a poop emoji. Twitter ignores that Musk is its second largest shareholder with a far greater economic stake than the entire Twitter board,” the filing states.


February 2023? We might all die of excitement, or boredom. Meanwhile, that shareholding is going to be a leaden weight in his pocket.
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Facebook advertisers are starting to shift spending for the first time • Business Insider

Claire Atkinson, Lucia Moses, and Lara O’Reilly:


Digital ad sellers are having a bad year. But for Facebook parent Meta Platforms, the problem is worse — and it may be one it doesn’t recover from.

Already, analysts expect the social giant to record zero growth in the second quarter, in a first for the company. Mark Zuckerberg himself called the situation “one of the worst downturns that we’ve seen in recent history,” according to Reuters. The rest of the digital ad sector, made up of Google, Twitter, Snap and others, is also facing a slowdown in growth.

What’s different is that Meta is in a perfect storm. As a result, more advertisers are not just increasingly willing to diversify away from Meta, but doing so for the first time. It’s a big shift for a company that historically could always count on their dollars, scandal after scandal, as long as their ads performed.

One top exec at a major holding company agency said the economic downturn would affect everyone in the second half but that significantly, Meta would lose share of client spending as well, saying, “This is a first.”

The major ad forecasters have cut their overall ad spending outlooks for the year, and other agency execs say Meta, long considered a “must-buy,” is now at the top of clients’ lists of places to cut.

Analysts, too, say Meta is coming down to Earth after years of explosive growth. Needham analyst Laura Martin on Monday downgraded Meta’s stock from “hold” to “underperform,” given its guidance for slower revenue growth and huge investment in its vision for the metaverse.


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How Joe Manchin doomed the Democrats’ climate plan • The New York Times

Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman:


First, he killed a plan that would have forced power plants to clean up their climate-warming pollution. Then, he shattered an effort to help consumers pay for electric vehicles. And, finally, he said he could not support government incentives for solar and wind companies or any of the other provisions that the rest of his party and his president say are vital to ensure a livable planet.

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who took more campaign cash from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, and who became a millionaire from his family coal business, independently blew up the Democratic Party’s legislative plans to fight climate change. The swing Democratic vote in an evenly divided Senate, Mr. Manchin led his party through months of tortured negotiations that collapsed on Thursday night, a yearlong wild goose chase that produced nothing as the Earth warms to dangerous levels.

“It seems odd that Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity,” said John Podesta, a former senior counselor to President Barack Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Privately, Senate Democratic staff members seethed and sobbed on Thursday night, after more than a year of working nights and weekends to scale back, water down, trim and tailor the climate legislation to Mr. Manchin’s exact specifications, only to have it rejected inches from the finish line.


You are requested to start building a time machine and to go back and persuade Manchin, as a teenager, not to bother with that politics nonsense.

More seriously: the US’s flawed approach to democratic representation has taken 200 years to show its real failure, but we’ll all have to suffer for it. Well, perhaps not all. Manchin is 74 years old.
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Deadly heatwaves show why India needs to get serious on climate adaptation • Climate Change News

Skand Agarwal:


This March was India’s hottest since records began 122 years ago. The temperature hit 49C in several states of India by the end of May.

The increasing frequency of heatwaves and their early arrival have had enormous economic and health impacts, especially on agricultural communities and daily wage labourers. People employed in the informal sectors such as rickshaw pullers, domestic helpers and daily contractors risked heat stroke if they worked during the hottest hours and lost critical income if they rested instead.

Sporadic and prolonged summers are making monsoon season unpredictable, forcing farmers to adapt their production cycle every season. This year’s harsh summer has resulted in sudden pressure on power demand and coal shortages, pushing the country into a severe electricity crisis.

As if unprecedented heat was not enough to deal with, the northeastern state of Assam has witnessed torrential pre-monsoon rainfall causing floods all over the state. The overflowing of Brahmaputra River, one of the major rivers passing through India, has overrun close to 1,500 villages and affected nearly 500,000 people.

While the National Disaster Management Authority of India (NDMA) has started to rehabilitate the affected people, a sudden migration to nearby cities has put pressure on the local administrations.

All this shows why adapting to the impacts of climate change deserves equal attention to cutting emissions.


In the UK, everyone is falling about at the prospect of a 40ºC (104ºF) day, which will almost surely be record-breaking. 49ºF is 120ºF.
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Ev Williams gives up • Platformer

Casey Newton:


[Blogger, Twitter and then Medium founder Ev] Williams went back and forth on whether Medium should host its own publications or serve as a platform for others to build on. And while he dithered, Medium got caught in the middle.

On the high end, well funded digital publishers from BuzzFeed to Vice to the Atlantic excelled at publishing high-quality journalism. And on the low end, Substack emerged to let solo creators develop thriving, sustainable careers by offering individual subscriptions. (See my ethics disclosure about Substack.) In such a world, Medium had no obvious advantage. With its owned and operated publications gone, it became a general-interest web magazine staffed by freelancers and dependent on Google.

Another former employee noted that, for all the pivots over the years, Williams always seemed a step behind.

“I’d say you could describe the Ev era of Medium as a series of digital publishing experiments that often felt of the zeitgeist without ever defining it,” the employee said. “A lot of the work Medium did over the years genuinely had an impact, but it often felt, for whatever reason, like Ev made it a point not to lean into this work. he meandered and never seemed satisfied. And eventually Twitter evolved to support more of the kind of publishing that had originally been native to Medium, and Substack came along and ate the platform’s lunch.”

“He’s a little bit of a mystery to me,” the employee aded. “I hope a leadership shakeup is good for the company and the people who work there.”

A third former employee told me my assessment of Williams — essentially, a callous dilettante — was unfair.

“I think he was trying to solve a really hard problem, it kept not working, and he screwed a lot of people over to varying degrees by continually changing his approach,” the employee said. “But he really did try a lot of things, and it wasn’t necessarily obvious that they’d fail until somebody with a ton of money tried it.”


In short: Williams has left Medium. Doubtless this means the paywall will get harder and charges will be higher (or ads will invade). Between Substack and actual publications, it’s hard to see where Medium fits.
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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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