Start Up No.1866: KiwiFarms really gone this time?, AI houses, who needs Apple’s Pro Watch?, Saudis use app to snitch, and more


The superconducting magnets at CERN use about a quarter of its peak of 200MW of power use – and might get turned off due to Russia’s war with Ukraine. CC-licensed photo by Ryan Bodenstein on Flickr.

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


Europe’s energy crunch squeezes world’s largest particle collider • WSJ

Matthew Dalton:

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Europe’s energy crisis is threatening to slow experiments into the fundamental forces of nature.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is drafting plans to shut down some of its particle accelerators at periods of peak demand, said Serge Claudet, chair of the center’s energy management panel. CERN is also considering how it could idle the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest accelerator, if necessary, Mr. Claudet said.

“Our concern is really grid stability, because we do all we can to prevent a blackout in our region,” Mr. Claudet said.

…CERN sits on a sprawling complex that straddles the French-Swiss border and is one of France’s largest electricity consumers. At peak operation, it consumes nearly 200 megawatts of power, a third as much as the nearby city of Geneva.

…CERN is in discussions with its electricity supplier, state-controlled French power giant EDF SA, to receive a day’s warning that the center would need to consume less electricity, Mr. Claudet said. CERN would give priority to shutting down other accelerators besides the LHC, lowering the center’s electricity consumption by as much as 25%.

…Shutting down the LHC would save another 25%, with a catch: The collider relies on superconducting magnets cooled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit to bend the particle beam, requiring a significant amount of power even when the beam is turned off. Allowing the magnets to warm up could set back experiments at the LHC for weeks.

“It’s a voluntary action,” Mr. Claudet said. “You don’t want to break your toy.”

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Except it’s not a toy. Quite how useful what it finds out, and what we will learn from it, is unknown; but if it never finds anything out because it isn’t running, we definitely can’t learn from it. The energy war has many casualties.
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Second web-hosting provider drops harassment site Kiwi Farms • Associated Press via The Independent

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Web-hosting provider DDoS-Guard said Monday that it had stopped providing its services to Kiwi Farms, becoming the second provider in two days to abandon the stalking and harassment site and leaving it inaccessible on the public internet.

DDoS-Guard said it doesn’t have to decide whether sites violate laws, and it normally only restricts access to a site in cases such as receiving a court order to do so. The company said it acted this time, however, after receiving “multiple” complaints.

“Having analyzed the content of the site, we decided on the termination of DDoS protection services” for a version of the Kiwi Farms site with a Russian .ru domain name, the company said. The .ru site had been running intermittently after Cloudfare cut off services.

Kiwi Farms was previously cut off from services by Cloudfare. Both firms acted after Canadian transgender Twitch streamer Clara Sorrenti launched an online campaign against the site.

Cloudfare CEO Matthew Prince said he was troubled by the decision, but that escalating targeted threats on the site created an “immediate threat to human life” that his company had never seen.

The site was created and operated by Joshua Conner Moon, 29, and became a forum for harassment of social media figures, especially transgender people, feminists and people of color.

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So now it’s off the internet… isn’t it? Is this chapter of the internet finally over?

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This House Does Not Exist (by @levelsio)

You know the routine by now: AI-generated houses that look like the real thing, but aren’t. The ones I looked at seemed to mostly lean to minimalist angularity (in one case including a swimming pool in the living room).
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Thousands of Xcel customers locked out of thermostats during ‘energy emergency’ • Denver7 News

Jaclyn Allen:

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During the dog days of summer, it’s important to keep your home cool. But when thousands of Xcel customers in Colorado tried adjusting their thermostats Tuesday, they learned they had no control over the temperatures in their own homes.

Temperatures climbed into the 90s Tuesday, which is why Tony Talarico tried to crank up the air conditioning in his partner’s Arvada home. “I mean, it was 90 [32ºC] out, and it was right during the peak period,” Talarico said. “It was hot.” That’s when he saw a message on the thermostat stating the temperature was locked due to an “energy emergency.”

“Normally, when we see a message like that, we’re able to override it,” Talarico said. “In this case, we weren’t. So, our thermostat was locked in at 78 or 79.” On social media, dozens of Xcel customers complained of similar experiences — some reporting home temperatures as high as 88º [31ºC].

Xcel confirmed to Denver7 that 22,000 customers who had signed up for the Colorado AC Rewards program were locked out of their smart thermostats for hours on Tuesday. “It’s a voluntary program. Let’s remember that this is something that customers choose to be a part of based on the incentives,” said Emmett Romine, vice president of customer solutions and innovation at Xcel.

Customers receive a $100 credit for enrolling in the program and $25 annually, but Romine said customers also agree to give up some control to save energy and money and make the system more reliable. “So, it helps everybody for people to participate in these programs. It is a bit uncomfortable for a short period of time, but it’s very, very helpful,” said Romine.

This is the first time in the program’s six year span that customers could not override their smart thermostats, Romine said. He said the “energy emergency” was due to an unexpected outage in Pueblo combined with hot weather and heavy air conditioner usage.

But Talarico said he had no idea that he could be locked out of the thermostat. While he has solar panels and a smart thermostat to save energy, he says he did not sign up to have this much control taken away.

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This does seem to come out of the same place as complaints about the outcome of voting for the Leopards Eating Your Face party. OK, so you get the money, but they get to do the thing they said they might do? How unfair is that?
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Apple Watch Pro: an increasingly niche product • 9to5Mac.com

Chance Miller:

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Over the last several days, we’ve seen a barrage of new details leak on Apple’s rumored Apple Watch Pro. The Apple Watch Pro will be officially unveiled during Apple’s “Far out” event on Wednesday, alongside the iPhone 14 lineup.

These new leaks, including our first look at the new design, show that Apple is sparing no expense on the Apple Watch Pro. With some exceptions, however, it’s becoming clear that the Apple Watch Pro isn’t for most people.

Earlier today, CAD images of the Apple Watch Pro leaked to give us our best look yet at the new design. These renders appear to have emerged from Apple’s supply chain, and they were also corroborated by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman.

There are several important things that we can glean from these images ahead of seeing the official design on Wednesday.

First and foremost, the Apple Watch Pro is going to be big. Like, really big. We knew it would feature a larger 47mm casing and 1.99-inch screen, but these renders put those numbers into perspective. They also show another way the Apple Watch Pro will one even bigger.

On the right-hand side, the Apple Watch Pro appears to feature a bulge that houses a new Digital Crown as well as a side button similar to existing Apple Watch model. We’ll likely learn more about the reasoning for this design change on Wednesday, but the way the button and crown are now raised out of the edge has a significant impact on the size and appearance of the watch.

For context, most of the people in the so-called “watch industry” say that the existing Apple Watch Series 7 models are already pushing it in terms of size. This is particularly true of the 45mm model, which features a 1.77in screen.

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Other watches – not smartwatches, though certainly Garmin watches – are hardly shrinking violets. The real question is how long the battery life will be, and how long is actually enough for whatever the target market is. (Also: “increasingly niche” is an odd phrase to use about a product that hasn’t actually launched yet.)
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Instagram owner Meta fined €405m over handling of teens’ data • The Guardian

Dan Milmo:

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Instagram owner Meta has been fined €405m (£349m) by the Irish data watchdog for letting teenagers set up accounts that publicly displayed their phone numbers and email addresses.

The Data Protection Commission confirmed the penalty after a two-year investigation into potential breaches of the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR).

Instagram had allowed users aged between 13 and 17 to operate business accounts on the platform, which showed the users’ phone numbers and email addresses. The DPC also found the platform had operated a user registration system whereby the accounts of 13-to-17-year-old users were set to “public” by default.

The DPC regulates Meta – which is also the owner of Facebook and WhatsApp – on behalf of the entire EU because the company’s European headquarters are in Ireland.

The penalty is the highest imposed on Meta by the watchdog, after a €225m fine imposed in September 2021 for “severe” and “serious” infringements of GDPR at WhatsApp and a €17m fine in March this year.

The fine is the second largest under GDPR, behind the €746m levied on Amazon in July 2021.

A DPC spokesperson said: “We adopted our final decision last Friday and it does contain a fine of €405m. Full details of the decision will be published next week.”

Caroline Carruthers, a UK data consultancy owner, said Instagram had not thought through its privacy responsibilities when letting teenagers set up business accounts and had shown an “obvious lack of care” in users’ privacy settings.

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Is it a sort of indifference in setting up the software to handle this, or such complicated systems that they just can’t do two things correctly at once? Account creation seems like the most basic thing to police correctly.
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Saudi citizens are using an app to rat out activists • Business Insider

Peter Guest:

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For “Real,” a Saudi Arabian women’s-rights activist, anonymity is all that keeps her safe. Under that alias, she uses Twitter to advocate for victims of domestic violence in the kingdom, sending their stories trending in the country and overseas. Her work is fraught with risk.

“Every day we wake up to hear news, somebody has been arrested, or somebody has been taken,” Real told Insider, using a voice modulator to disguise her voice. “Today I’m here with you, sharing my story. Tomorrow I might be caught.”

Real, like other activists, is on edge after the price of speaking out online in Saudi Arabia was made clear this August. The academic Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was accused of “using the internet to tear Saudi Arabia’s social fabric” and sentenced to 45 years in prison. On August 16, Salma el-Shabab, a Ph.D. student, was sentenced to 34 years in jail for a handful of tweets in support of activists and members of the kingdom’s political opposition in exile.

El-Shabab was reported to the authorities via Kollona Amn, a mobile app available to download from the Apple App store and the Google Play store, which empowers ordinary citizens to snitch on their compatriots.

The Saudi regime has often encouraged citizens to inform on one another, but Kollona Amn, launched by the Saudi interior ministry in 2017, has made it possible to report comments critical of the regime or behavior deemed offensive by the conservative theocracy with a few clicks. Legal-rights activists say that over the past few years, they’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in court cases that reference the app, as the country’s current leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan — widely known by his acronym MBS — expands the use of technology to surveil, intimidate, and control its citizens at home and abroad.

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East Germany would have loved this technology. The models of dictatorship remain the same; only the tools change.
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Liz Truss’ (net) zero sum game • POLITICO

Karl Mathiesen, Esther Webber and Noah Keate:

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[Newly appointed Tory leader, not quite yet PM, Liz] Truss has indicated her desire to embrace home-grown supplies of all energy sources — except perhaps solar, which is currently nine times cheaper than gas, having plummeted in cost over the past decade to become, alongside wind, the cheapest form of power. Her proposals include ending a U.K.-wide moratorium on fracking — albeit with requirements for local community buy-in — which party insiders suggest could be one of her early moves in No. 10.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a shot across the bows of his would-be successor last week, warning fracking was “not going to be the panacea that some people suggest.”

According to reporting from the Times, Truss also wants to issue new licensing rounds for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. That prospect was immediately slammed by Greenpeace U.K.’s chief scientist Doug Parr as a “gift to the fossil fuel giants already making billions from this crisis.” 

These new licenses will be of limited assistance to the U.K.’s broader energy needs, however. The additional supply from new projects would take years to hit the market and be “relatively small in comparison to the overall level of energy demand,” said Josh Buckland, a former energy policy adviser to recent Conservative governments in No. 10 Downing Street, the Treasury and the business department.

“The biggest driver of the current energy challenge is obviously the availability of gas, and the price of gas,” he said. “So really, the key medium term question for the government is: how do you reduce your reliance on gas?”

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How indeed. As the story points out later, a lot of rightwing wingnuts are pushing Truss to disown net zero, blaming it (incredibly) for the rise in energy bills. Turning climate action into a culture war issue is deeply stupid, and weird.
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An environmentalist gets lunch • Works in Progress

Hannah Ritchie:

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My charts [for Our World In Data, where Ritchie works] might be plastered across posters about the environment, but I’ll never be a poster girl for environmental action.

Watching me make a meal looks like an environmental travesty. I almost exclusively use the microwave. I don’t take time to savour the process: a meal that takes longer than ten minutes is one that’s not worth having. It nearly always comes from a packet. My avocados are shipped over from Mexico, and bananas transported from Angola. It’s rare that my food is produced locally. Or if it is, I don’t check the label enough to notice.

This is the opposite of what seems sustainable. The image we have in our head of the ‘environmentally-friendly meal’ is one that’s sourced from the local market; produced on an organic farm without nasty chemicals; and brought home in a paper bag, not a plastic wrapper. Forget the processed junk: it’s meat and vegetables, as fresh as they come. We set aside time to cook them properly, in the oven. 

I know that my way of eating is low-carbon. I’ve spent years poring over the data. Microwaves are the most efficient way to cook. Local food is often no better than food shipped from continents away. Organic food often has a higher carbon footprint. And packaging is a tiny fraction of a food’s environmental footprint, and often lengthens its shelf-life.

Yet it still feels wrong. I know I’m doing the right thing for the environment, but there’s still a part of me that feels like a traitor. I can see the confusion on peoples’ faces when they hear about some of my decisions. I feel embarrassed that people might think that I’m being a ‘bad’ environmentalist.

This problem stems from the fact that what is ‘good’ for the environment often doesn’t line up with our intuitions. Ask people about what behaviours are most effective in reducing their carbon footprint, and they talk about recycling; replacing old lightbulbs; and eating local. They often miss the things that really do help. Surveys have shown this disconnect over and over.

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How Russia relies on old tech in weapons aimed at Ukraine • The New York Times

John Ismay:

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The weapons are top of the line in the Russian arsenal. But they contained fairly low-tech components, analysts who examined them said, including a unique but basic satellite navigation system that was also found in other captured munitions.

Those findings are detailed in a new report issued Saturday by Conflict Armament Research, an independent group based in Britain that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars around the world. The research team examined the Russian matériel in July at the invitation of the Ukrainian government.

The report undercuts Moscow’s narrative of having a domestically rebuilt military that again rivals that of its Western adversaries.

But it also shows that the weapons Russia is using to destroy Ukrainian towns and cities are often powered by Western innovation, despite sanctions imposed against Russia after it invaded Crimea in 2014. Those restrictions were intended to stop the shipment of high-tech items that could help Russia’s military abilities.

“We saw that Russia reuses the same electronic components across multiple weapons, including their newest cruise missiles and attack helicopters, and we didn’t expect to see that,” said Damien Spleeters, an investigator for the group who contributed to the report. “Russian guided weapons are full of non-Russian technology and components, and most of the computer chips we documented were made by Western countries after 2014.”

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Which does make it easier to target the (western) manufacturers and restrict the supply. But this is all going to take a long time to work through the system. (Thanks G for the link.)
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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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