Start Up No.1876: Russia’s trolls v Women’s March, ‘Serial’ conviction quashed, Apple’s satellite cost, nukes or no?, and more

Shock as midjourney is credited as illustrator
The slow creep of AI illustration into mainstream publications has begun, with Midjourney being credited at The Bulwark for illustrating a story about a former president. (Pic: Diffusion Bee*.)

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


How Russian trolls helped keep the Women’s March out of lock step • The New York Times

Ellen Barry:

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There was a routine: Arriving for a shift, workers would scan news outlets on the ideological fringes, far left and far right, mining for extreme content that they could publish and amplify on the platforms, feeding extreme views into mainstream conversations.

Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money, indifferent to the themes they were asked to write on.

“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said Mr. Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities. But instead of refrigerators and nails, it was “Putin, Putin, then Putin, and then about Navalny,” referring to Aleksei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.

The job was not to put forward arguments, but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Mr. Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.

When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, he said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart. “It wasn’t on the level of discussing facts or giving new arguments,” he said. “It’s always a way of digging into dirty laundry.”

Feminism was an obvious target, because it was viewed as a “Western agenda,” and hostile to the traditional values that Russia represented, said Mr. Baranov, who spoke about his work in hopes of warning the public to be more skeptical of material online. Already, for months, Russian accounts purporting to belong to Black women had been drilling down on racial rifts within American feminism:

“White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend”
“Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance”
“Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit”
“Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support”
“A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK”

«

Fascinating account of what now feels like ancient history, but of course is still going on – just somewhere different. Also, notice how they didn’t necessarily create the indignant content from scratch: they scanned the ideological fringes. They reflected America back on itself, like a mirror intensifying the sun.
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Midjourney solely credited as article illustrator in major news publication • New World Notes

Wagner James Au:

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The Bulwark, a major US news analysis publication, is using Midjourney to create illustrations for their articles – and crediting Midjourney as the image source. (As opposed to, say, an actual human illustrator.) From a cursory search, this seems to be the first example of Midjourney used for a non-tech, non-grassroots illustration by a professional publication that would normally pay a graphic artist and/or image bank like GettyImages or Shutterstock for work like this. 

So this is notable! Also notable: It’s not very good. Meant to illustrate Trump’s questionable legal defense fund, the image doesn’t convey any of that context at all, and actually looks more like a pro-Trump graphic. (Except, that is, the “Save America” slogan is washed out by the background – a sloppy look, whatever your political perspective.) In other words, a human illustrator would have done a much better job.

But then again, hiring a human is a lot more costly.

I’ve actually considered using Midjourney for images in New World Notes posts, rather than risking a nastygram from Getty Images or whoever. Fortunately Second Life and other metaverse platforms I usually cover are notably more chill about IP rights regarding screenshots.

Then again, as I’ve reported recently, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation where Midjourney and other AI image generators will replace human artists entirely.

«

New World Notes seems mostly to write about Second Life, which might explain why it thinks The Bulwark (an online-only publication aimed at America’s never-Trumpers) is a “major news publication”. However this is only going to become more prevalent. And the prompts will improve too.
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Judge vacates murder conviction of Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ • The New York Times

Michael Levenson:

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In a remarkable reversal, Adnan Syed walked out of prison on Monday for the first time since he was a teenager, having spent 23 years fighting his conviction on charges that he murdered his former high school girlfriend, a case that was chronicled in the first season of the hit podcast “Serial.”

Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated the conviction “in the interests of fairness and justice,” finding that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Mr. Syed at trial and discovered new evidence that could have affected the outcome of his case.

Prosecutors have 30 days to decide if they will proceed with a new trial or drop the charges against Mr. Syed, who was ordered to serve home detention until then. Prosecutors said that an investigation had pointed to two possible “alternative suspects,” although those individuals have not been named publicly or charged.

“At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed,” Judge Phinn declared after announcing her decision.

«

Serial began in 2014, 15 years after the death of Hae Min Lee, Syed’s former girlfriend. Justice very much delayed. Still, this will put a spring in the step of all the true crime and mystery investigation podcasters.
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Fix for iPhone 14 Pro camera vibration issue coming next week • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

»

Apple is aware of a bug that is causing the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max cameras to shake and vibrate, and a fix is set to come next week, according to an Apple spokesperson that spoke to MacRumors.

Following the release of the iPhone 14 Pro models, users noticed almost right away that there was a shaking issue with third-party camera apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. The bug causes the camera to vibrate uncontrollably, which results in noticeably shaky video.

The issue appears to be widespread given the number of complaints that we’ve seen so far. That Apple is able to address it in a software update confirms that it is indeed a software issue and isn’t something related to the hardware.

Apple’s own Camera app is not affected by the vibration bug, and it is a problem limited to third-party apps.

«

Amazing that a fault like this could get through; even more that it wasn’t picked up during reviews, which suggests some difference between the software running on those phones, and the release software.
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Is Apple’s iPhone satellite communications a game changer or a dud? • Fierce Wireless

Prakash Sangam:

»

The previous efforts to bring satcom to phones such as Iridium have failed because of two primary reasons: 1) Dedicated satcom modems in phones that affect its size and battery life; 2) Dedicated satellite networks for phone services, which are very expensive. Apple was smart enough to avoid both of these pitfalls.

As I had predicted, Apple is using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X65 modem for this purpose. It also has custom RF circuitry for the purpose. Most likely, Apple has some proprietary, very narrow band, rudimentary air interface, like GSM or NB-IoT, to connect to satellites. So, the whole thing can be implemented without compromising the device’s size or battery life. Any wideband solution will require a lot of development, and the standard-based solution requires licensing, etc., delaying implementation.

As widely discussed, Apple is utilizing the Globalstar satellite system. Apple will pay 95% of the CAPEX needed for this service, amounting to a couple of hundred million dollars. That is a lot of money but negligible compared to a dedicated satellite network. So, there you have it. Answer to all those naysayers, pointing out previous failures.

…The satcom connectivity on iPhones is free for the first two years. I feel Apple will keep the basic emergency services free forever and only charge for non-emergency connectivity, e.g., subscription plans for outdoor pros. It could also bundle this with its other slew of content and services, such as Apple One. There are many such upsell options. Additionally, since this will be unique to Apple for a considerable period, they could add this to iMessage and extend the “Blue bubble” differentiation and legacy.

«

Bundling some form of this into Apple One sounds like a very likely upsell.
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The iPhone 14 feature Apple didn’t tell you about • iFixit News

Kyle Wiens:

»

The best feature of the iPhone 14 is one that Apple didn’t tell you about. Forget satellite SOS and the larger camera, the headline is this: Apple has completely redesigned the internals of the iPhone 14 to make it easier to repair. It is not at all visible from the outside, but this is a big deal. It’s the most significant design change to the iPhone in a long time. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max models still have the old architecture, so if you’re thinking about buying a new phone, and you want an iPhone that really lasts, you should keep reading. 

If this surprises you, you’re not alone. It surprised us! The new features and external changes to the iPhone 14 are so slight that The Verge suggested it should have been called the iPhone 13S, saying “The iPhone 13, which came out a year ago and Apple is still selling, is nearly identical to the 14.” 

But that’s actually not true—though almost nobody had any way of knowing. Apple didn’t mention the secret redesign in their keynote. If reviewers had disassembled the phone, they would have discovered this: the iPhone 14 opens from the front and the back.

This is the iPhone 14 reborn as a beautiful butterfly—a midframe in the middle, accessible screen on the left, and removable rear glass on the right.

That’s no small feat. The new metal midframe that supports the structure required an entire internal redesign, as well as an RF rethink and an effective doubling of their ingress protection perimeter. In other words, Apple has gone back to the drawing board and reworked the iPhone’s internals to make repair easier.

«

Got to love how Wiens seems to think that Apple has improved the repairability of the phone for his benefit, or out of some altruistic desire to help everyone, when in fact the simplest answer is probably true: Apple repairs a lot of its own phones, and this is simpler both to assemble (sandwiches are much easier to form) and repair.

Also: LOL at the idea that reviewers would disassemble phones that Apple has lent to them on tight deadlines for review and return. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Britain’s jobs ‘miracle’ hides some uncomfortable truths • Financial Times

Camilla Cavendish:

»

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, astonishingly, despite the cost of living crisis, average weekly hours worked are still not back at their pre-pandemic levels. In the three months to July, there was a small fall in overall employment.

It turns out that the new low in unemployment is not because more 16- to-65-year-olds are in a job. It’s because more people are not seeking work. The rate of economic inactivity has hit a six-year high of 21.7%. That’s partly because some students have prolonged their education through the ravages of the pandemic. But it’s mainly because hundreds of thousands of people in their 50s and 60s now have a long-term illness, which, according to the ONS, is a record.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the NHS backlog must now be having a direct and devastating impact on the labour force. Long Covid is also afflicting what may be, according to some estimates, as many as 1.5m people in the UK, and between 10% and 20% of those who have had Covid.

…People who put off seeking medical help during the Covid crisis are now sicker than they should have been. Those whose operations keep being postponed are losing hope. The number of people paying to go private is soaring; others are trapped in quiet desperation.

This should worry ministers — not only because it is an absolute outrage, but also because 50-somethings rarely ever return to work once they have retired.

…[Furthermore] A detailed analysis last month, by the Migration Observatory at Oxford university, found that many low wage sectors — including social care, construction and hospitality — are struggling to adapt to the end of free movement from the EU. Even in sectors like construction, which are eligible for skilled work visas, there has been low take-up.

«

Brexit and Covid: two coinciding calamities. The queue for the NHS is 6.8 million people long.
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Carbon capture: Wyoming’s new plant could be a game changer in the race to slow global warming • Euronews

Charlotte Elton:

»

Project Bison – run by US company CarbonCapture Inc – will be a direct air capture (DAC) system, extracting CO2 straight from the atmosphere.

…First, a fan pulls air into an ‘air contactor,’ where it passes over thin plastic surfaces covered with potassium hydroxide solution. The solution chemically binds with the carbon dioxide molecules, trapping them in the liquid as carbonate salt. Through further chemical processes, the salt is turned into pellets and then into pure gas, ready to be stored deep underground.

In the case of Project Bison, carbon storage developer Frontier Carbon Solutions will inject the gas into ‘deep saline aquifers.’

To minimise the project’s energy footprint, the system will be electrified.

The project should start operating at the end of 2023. In its first year, it will suck 10,000 tonnes out of the atmosphere. However, the ‘modular’ design of the facility will allow it to scale up rapidly, the company claims. “Project Bison starts small, but grows fast,” a company press release declares. “By 2030, Project Bison is scheduled to have rolled out five megatons of annual capture and storage capacity. At that point, we expect it will be the largest single atmospheric carbon removal project in the world.”

DAC isn’t cheap. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere takes a lot of energy, and can cost up to $600 (€600) per tonne. However, Project Bison is aided by the recent Emissions Reductions Act passed by the US congress. The act increased the government subsidy for capturing CO2 from polluting sources from $50 to $85 per metric ton.

For every tonne of CO2 it traps, CarbonCapture will sell ‘carbon credits’ to companies looking to offset their emissions.

«

There’s so much wrong with this story. Where to start? As another part says, humans emit 43.1 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. Bison hopes to get up to 5m per plant, which would mean that 8,620 of them would counterbalance output. Amazing!

But: how much energy to capture that? Ah, “a lot”, not specified. “Electrified”? As opposed to what?

And the terrible payoff: selling carbon credits. In other words, for every tonne removed, you let someone emit a tonne. (Priced at $600?) This doesn’t improve things. Arggggh.
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Armageddon: the odds of nuclear war • Julian.com

Julian Shapiro:

»

I’m going to lay out a series of fascinating facts and let you decide whether the world is likely to end within, say, 100 years.

The first thing to know is that the power of a nuclear bomb is greater than what most people imagine. One American B53 bomb generates 425 times more energy than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. There are 10,000+ warheads in the world today. ‍Source.

The second thing to understand is the nuclear pressure cooker:

• It takes one bomb to end the world—due to domino effects I’ll explain
• Bombs often come close to accidentally being launched. These accidents aren’t well-known, and I’ll share examples
• More nuclear powers are emerging with erratic leaders whose political bodies allow them to launch nuclear strikes without approval
• It’s unlikely we’ll solve these problems. Society seems structured to fail.

«

This is not what you’d call light, or even uplifting, reading. Shapiro makes the point that we’ve come alarmingly close to MAD (mutually assured destruction) multiple times, and that we now have more countries (Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan) which aren’t inside the normal US-UK-China-Russia tension group, which means you have more chances for things to go wrong. Horribly wrong.

I suspect this is the same fear pattern that Dominic Cummings subscribes to – he is absolutely petrified by the possibility of nuclear conflict. Personally, I find it difficult to get worked up about: we’ll either know nothing about it, or it won’t happen. (OK, minimal chance we eke out a gruesome survival before death.) I’m not sure that worrying about existential possibilities you really can’t change is a good use of time.
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AI can design new proteins unlock new cures materials • MIT Technology Review

Melissa Heikkilä:

»

Alphabet-owned AI lab DeepMind took the world by surprise in 2020 when it announced AlphaFold, an AI tool that used deep learning to solve one of the “grand challenges” of biology: accurately predicting the shapes of proteins. Proteins are fundamental to life, and understanding their shape is vital to working with them. Earlier this summer DeepMind announced that AlphaFold could now predict the shapes of all proteins known to science. 

The new tool, ProteinMPNN, described by a group of researchers from the University of Washington in two papers published in Science today (available here and here), offers a powerful complement to that technology. 

The papers are the latest example of how deep learning is revolutionizing protein design by giving scientists new research tools. Traditionally researchers engineer proteins by tweaking those that occur in nature, but ProteinMPNN will open an entire new universe of possible proteins for researchers to design from scratch. 

“In nature, proteins solve basically all the problems of life, ranging from harvesting energy from sunlight to making molecules. Everything in biology happens from proteins,” says David Baker, one of the scientists behind the paper and director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington. 

“They evolved over the course of evolution to solve the problems that organisms faced during evolution. But we face new problems today, like covid. If we could design proteins that were as good at solving new problems as the ones that evolved during evolution are at solving old problems, it would be really, really powerful.” 

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This stuff is moving very quickly on all sorts of fronts.
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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: Illustration above produced by Diffusion Bee from the prompt “shock as midjourney is credited as article illustrator”.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1876: Russia’s trolls v Women’s March, ‘Serial’ conviction quashed, Apple’s satellite cost, nukes or no?, and more

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