Start Up No.1882: Facebook zaps Chinese and Russian disinfo campaigns, who wants to be PM?, bitcoin among the bears, and more


Is the smart thermostat in your house really going to help you save energy and money? Or is its real purpose quite different? CC-licensed photo by Smart Home Perfected on Flickr.

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There’s another post coming this week at the Social Warming Substack on Friday at about 0845 UK time. Free signup.


A selection of 9 links for you. Despite everything. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook takes down Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns targeting US midterms and Europe • NBC News

Ken Dilanian:

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Facebook parent company Meta said Tuesday it took down a network of fake accounts from China and Russia that attempted to interfere in American and European politics ahead of this November’s midterm elections.

Meta said the Chinese operation set up fake accounts posing as Americans, attacking politicians from both parties and posting inflammatory material about divisive issues such as abortion and gun rights.  

The network was small — just 84 Facebook accounts — and did not have a chance to develop much of an audience, Meta said in a report released Tuesday.

A poll worker greets early voters in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 26, 2022.Andrew Harnik / AP
“What this operation was doing was targeting U.S. domestic politics, targeting both sides,” said Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead. “And it’s the first time we’ve seen that from a Chinese operation in this way. So even though it was small, even though we caught it early, it’s a significant change in what we’ve seen from Chinese operations.”

The announcement comes amid growing concerns about Facebook’s commitment to fighting misinformation and election interference. The New York Times reported in June that the company’s core election team was disbanded, and the company has remained relatively quiet about its election efforts.

And despite the ongoing threat of foreign election interference, many misinformation experts now say homegrown disinformation campaigns pose a great threat.

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The Chinese effort was pretty lackadaisacal – posting at times when Americans were asleep and taking long lunch breaks – while the Russian one was more focused, even setting up fake versions of the Guardian and Daily Mail websites.

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Is Putin weaponizing the Nord Stream pipelines? • Bloomberg

Javier Blas:

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As Ian Fleming, the British author who created James Bond, wrote: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

One does not need to be an avid reader of Cold War novels to see echoes of the adventures of 007 in the real-life events around the Nord Stream gas twin pipelines this week. In a single day, the conduits, which link Russia with Germany under the Baltic Sea, have suffered not one, not two, but three separate major leaks. The word sabotage springs to mind.

Like Fleming’s fictional spook, real Western spies in the Soviet Union operated under a set of principles known as “Moscow Rules” to stay alive under constant harassment from the Kremlin and the KGB. A key one was that “if it feels wrong, it is wrong.” Three leaks in one day feels very, very wrong.

Put aside the fact that neither the Nord Stream 1 nor the Nord Stream 2 pipelines is operational right now. The leaks are more likely a message: Russia is opening a new front on its energy war against Europe. First, it weaponized gas supply, halting shipments, including via the Nord Stream pipeline. Now, it may be attacking the energy infrastructure it once used to ship its energy.

The first step in the militarization of power supplies could have been easily reversed; it just needs a political decision to re-start the flow of gas. The second stage, though, is longer-term and, perhaps, even permanent. If anyone in Europe was expecting Germany would get any gas via the Nord Stream pipelines in 2023, this apparent attack ends those hopes. “The destruction that happened within one day at three lines of the Nord Stream pipeline system is unprecedented,” the operator of the pipeline said Tuesday in a statement. “It’s impossible now to estimate the timeframe for restoring operations.”

Can it be an accident? Maybe. An underwater mudslide could explain the breakage. Yet, geological institutes haven’t detected any earthquakes nearby recently, suggesting the problem is man-made. In the past, fishing nets from trawlers have damaged submarine cables, disrupting phone and internet services. But the depth of Nord Stream pipelines and their size compared to telecom cables make that possibility remote. A submarine could have collided with the sea-bottom, hitting the pipeline. But collide three times, in three different places? Unlikely, unless done on purpose. Foul play is the most likely explanation.

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To be picky, the Moscow Rules as recorded by Wikipedia (I added the link) don’t include “if it feels wrong, it is wrong”, but do have “Never go against your gut”, which is basically the same. Question, though: what does Putin get out of this? How does forever cutting off a buyer for your goods help?
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New skin cancer treatment trialled at King’s • King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

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During the single-session treatment a barrier material, similar to clingfilm, is placed on the cancerous lesion. Liquid radiotherapy is then applied, penetrating both the material and the cancerous skin beneath.

The standard treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is surgical removal, which can risk scarring or loss of function. Rhenium treatment uses a non-invasive paste containing ß-emitting particles directly to the lesion, which target cancer cells without the need for surgery and without damaging adjacent healthy tissue.

The targeted treatment will be used on patients with a recurrence of non-melanoma skin cancer or where conventional treatment is not suitable.

The patients at King’s are among 210 adults participating in this phase 4 international study. Their progress will be followed over the next 24 months to see how well the treatment works, and to note any associated side effects not detected in earlier trials.

One of the first patients at King’s to receive the new treatment was 77-year-old Finola Cronin from Chislehurst. Finola initially was concerned about an area of skin on her leg so she went to her GP. After being referred to King’s College Hospital, where other areas of her skin were checked, another lesion of concern on the upper middle part of her back was identified and biopsied. While the mark on Finola’s leg was benign, she was found to have non-melanoma skin cancer on her back.

Talking about her treatment, Finola said, “I was asked whether I wanted to trial this new treatment and I liked the idea of it being non-invasive so decided to give it go. I had the treatment two weeks ago – it wasn’t painful and I avoided the need for surgery.

“I’ve got an app on my phone where I can upload photos of the area so doctors can keep an eye on the healing process in between my two-week, six-month, 12-month and 24-month check-ups.”

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ß particles are electrons (produced by the decay of a neutron into a proton, positron and electron). Clever to target in this way, and so much simpler than surgery.
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Make Me Prime Minister: the inside story of Channel 4’s bizarre reality show • The Sunday Times

Tim Shipman:

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When Boris Johnson went to kiss hands with the Queen on becoming prime minister in July 2019, he incautiously let slip that the monarch had told him: “I don’t know why anyone wants the job.” Yet there are always people who look in the mirror and see a leader, just as there are slick young men in suits with no discernible skills beyond bullshitting who imagine themselves the perfect business partner for Alan Sugar — and that is the genius of Channel 4’s new show, Make Me Prime Minister, which begins on Tuesday.

The programme — The Apprentice meets The Thick of It — takes 12 power-hungry popinjays convinced that they can change the world (as long as they care enough and wish it hard enough) and pits them against each other in a battle for power. Frankly, it’s a more rigorous process than the Tory party put Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak through.

Each week they elect a prime minister (a “PM”, to echo the project managers of The Apprentice) and come up with a new policy, fully costed. They are guided by two mentor-judges: Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi. They hold a launch event to promote their new policy — cue much pratting about in costumes — and a press conference where members of the fourth estate quiz them. In three of the six episodes this was me.

In education week I was confronted with a team promoting an extra hour a week in schools for coding, promoted by a PM who turned up to take a primary school class dressed in the silver outfit of “a robot from your future”. Bemused about why the candidate would seek to model herself on Theresa May, I asked as my opening question: “Prime minister, why are you wearing a flame-retardant condom?” The answer is on the cutting room floor.

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Americans often struggle with how little respect British journalists show for those put in power above them. That question is the perfect example. I hope that Campbell was doing his best Malcolm Tucker with whoever came up with such a stupid costume idea.
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Cryptoverse: bitcoin miners get stuck in a bear pit • Reuters

Medha Singh and Lisa Pauline Mattackal:

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Global revenue from bitcoin mining has dropped to $17.2m a day amid a crypto winter and global energy crisis, down about 72% from last November when miners were racking up $62m a day, according to data from Blockchain.com.

“Bitcoin miners have continued to watch margins compress – the price of bitcoin has fallen, mining difficulty has risen and energy prices have soared,” said Joe Burnett, head analyst at Blockware Solutions.

That’s put serious pressure on some players who bought expensive mining machines, or rigs, banking on rising bitcoin prices to recoup their investment. Bitcoin is trading at around $19,000 and has failed to break above $25,000 since August, let alone regain November’s all-time high of $69,000.

At the same time, the process of solving puzzles to mine tokens has become more difficult as more miners have come online. This means they must devour more computing power, further upping operating costs, especially for those without long-term power pricing agreements.

Bitcoin miners’ profit for one terahash per second of computing power has fluctuated between $0.119 and $0.070 a day since July, down from $0.45 in November last year and around its lowest levels for two years. The grim state of affairs could be here to stay, too: Luxor’s Hashrate Index, which measures mining revenue potential, has fallen almost 70% so far this year.

…Yet mining is ultimately a long-term proposition – the last bitcoin is expected be mined in 2140, more than a century away – and some spy opportunity in the gloom.

“The best time to get in is when market’s low, the same mining rigs that went for $10,000 earlier this year you can get that for 50% to 75% off right now,” said William Szamosszegi, CEO of Sazmining Inc which is planning to open a renewable-energy powered bitcoin mining operation.

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Weird to think we’re basically stuck with this stuff beyond our lifetimes.
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Breitling Emergency watch • Cigar Aficionado

Mark Weissenberger:

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You’ve crash-landed your twin-engine airplane on an uncharted island. Panic is mounting as you recall Tom Hanks’s four-year-long quandary on that godforsaken island in Cast Away. Then you glance at your Breitling Emergency watch and the panic subsides. There’s time.

With a built-in rescue transmitter, the Breitling Emergency is equipped for exactly this situation. You turn the thick knob located just southeast from the watch face until it snaps. Running from the watch body to the unscrewed cap is a 43-cm, thin wire antenna. The signal is activated, and you can await rescue, pondering the inevitable hike to your insurance premiums.

Breitling engineered its Emergency watches with homing beacons that complement a downed aircraft’s own distress signal. When activated, the miniaturized transmitter broadcasts a signal on the 121.5 MHz aviation distress frequency at a range of approximately 100 miles. That frequency is monitored up by Cospas-Sarsat, an international search-and-rescue operation. The watch’s rescue signal will remain operational for 48 hours. (The batteries that operate the watch are separate from those that power the transmitter.)

If the emergency situation goes away, the beacon signal can be terminated. Use it wisely, however: the beacon needs to be rearmed at the factory after one use.

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The Emergency is still for sale if you don’t feel like springing for one of those new Apple iPhones with the satellite comms, or you’re going to crash-land outside the US and Canada. Yours for about $19,000.
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Your smart thermostat isn’t here to help you • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

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why is my electric company encouraging me to buy a smart thermostat, and even subsidizing it? In light of their findings, the aforementioned economists think those subsidies “would be better spent on more effective interventions.” (Michael Price, an economics professor at the University of Alabama and one of the authors of the NBER working paper [which found that smart thermostats make no difference to energy use; critics say it is out of date, being based on 10-year-old data], told me that insulation or energy-efficient appliances might be a better target for subsidies to reduce actual energy usage.) Maybe so. But the utilities don’t encourage adoption of smart thermostats to produce individual household energy or cost savings. They do so to encourage residences to allow the utility to control their air-conditioning.

That sounds like it could be scary—it is, after all, giving an outside entity permission to control the temperature of your house—but there may be reason to embrace the practice. “Peak-load reduction,” as it’s called, is meant to reduce strain and increase efficiency on the overall electrical grid during the most intense periods of energy use. Doing so can help make electricity generation cleaner and avert blackouts and brownouts, which occur when the grid can’t meet electrical demand.

This is an increasing concern for safety as much as convenience; people rely on power for medical equipment, but also to mitigate dangerous summer heat waves all across the country, made worse by climate change. To wit, faced with a major heat wave and record-high electricity demand earlier this month, California Governor Gavin Newsom asked residents to turn their thermostats to 78ºF or higher in the evenings. Heating and cooling use more energy than anything else in the average American home, so modulating your AC [air conditioning] can have a substantial impact.

Price told me that he and his colleagues didn’t investigate the benefits a smart thermostat could offer when controlled centrally by a utility, but he speculated that such control could help the devices operate “closer to what is assumed by the engineering models and would thus lead to greater savings than [those] observed in our study.” Ecobee also cited these programs as a benefit of its products, saying that 50,000 Ecobee customers voluntarily participated in peak-load reduction during the California heat wave this month. When carried out across a community, as peak-load programs aspire to be, reduced usage could be more significant, even if individual cost is not.

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My own smart thermostat, Hive, is only used like a normal one – maintain a temperature – but lets me know how the house is doing at whatever time. Generally, useful, though the NBER study found that people fiddle with them far more than they should.
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Google broke image search for Creative Commons and hardly anyone noticed/cares • CogDogBlog

Alan Levine:

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This all began with writing my last post where the title included the words “front door.” As my atypical method goes, I look for the featured image before writing anything else. I always seek open licensed images, and while many people have different sources they use, I still lean on Old Do Lots of Data Tracking Evil Google because (a) I can uses its advanced search features; (b) it hits a wide variety of sources than a single source (flickr and Wikimedia commons yeah, but also Pixabay, other public domain sources, etc; and (c) I have a honed set of bookmarklet tools and pre-rigged search engines.

For the latest iteration of my whacky methods see the Magic Box of Image Search tricks for the last Open Education Week, the latest is setting my main browser interface to not return anything BUT Creative Commons licensed images.

I was shocked a bit last week when I did a CC filtered Google image search for “door” returned a miserable seven results before the end of internet sign “Looks like you’ve reached the end”

These are not the open licensed door I was looking for (none are creative licensed, despite the setting)
In the interest of he post, I went for my fall back, searching my own flickr images for door, which yielded 440 results, and all open licensed. “Hey Google! You suck!” As it ended up, while opening new tabs for links I was seeking, the Free to Use browser extension yielded a perfect public domain photo from the Library of Congress.

I felt this evisceration of the commons by Google was strange, so I dug in a bit, hence a search on the word that is part of my name and tends to produce gobs of images- dog. A standard google image search with no restrictions yielded lots of pooches, pages and pages, but flipping open the Tools, selecting Creative Commons from the Usage rights menu, cut it down to three.

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It’s quite a mess. Personally I use a third-party app (Viewfinder) to search Flickr for CC-BY images, or more recently generate them with Diffusion Bee 😬. Levine also points to OpenVerse, which I hadn’t heard of before, but seems interesting. (Thanks Martin W for the link.)
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Want to bridge partisan divides? A Heineken ad has the key • Fast Company

Rob Walker:

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Last month, Robb Willer and Jan G. Voelkel of Stanford’s sociology department, in collaboration with scholars at a number of other universities, published a “megastudy” designed to identify “successful interventions to strengthen Americans’ democratic attitudes.” The resulting paper, running to more than 200 pages, covers a lot of ground, assessing 25 proposed online interventions like quizzes, interactive experiences, and videos (chosen from hundreds submitted), and comparing their effectiveness in a range of such categories as helping remedy antidemocratic attitudes and counter support for political violence.

Called the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, the project ran for three years and involved 32,000 American “partisan” participants. As Fast Company previously reported, the results varied, but showed flashes of promise. The research also drew some broader conclusions, noting how some strategies worked to address certain problems but not others, underscoring the need for further research.

But unexpectedly, as some observers on Twitter noticed, the top-scoring intervention in the category of reducing partisan animosity among study subjects was an exercise that involved watching a Heineken ad from 2017, titled “Worlds Apart.”

…In the Stanford megastudy, the ad shows up as part of an intervention proposed by Daniel Stone of Bowdoin College and colleagues. First, you choose whether you’re coming from a Democrat or Republican point of view. Then there’s a screen that describes the “echo chamber” problem—the concept that we only hear perspectives similar to our own. The idea of the project is to “trade” links: I send you something I think you ought to read, you send me something you think I should read. There’s a process for evaluating each other’s suggestions, designed to make the exchange as productive as possible. This plays off a link-swap project of Stone’s called Media Trades.

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The ad really is terrific. It’s four and a half minutes, but they pass effortlessly, and leave you feeling uplifted. (Ironically, as the story points out, the ad was criticised at the time by some activists. Hey ho.)


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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

1 thought on “Start Up No.1882: Facebook zaps Chinese and Russian disinfo campaigns, who wants to be PM?, bitcoin among the bears, and more

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