Start Up No.1888: Amazon kills Glow for kids, how the Ukraine-Russia war could (will?) end, police try DNA phenotyping, and more

Clocks on the internet showing the same time, by DIffusion Bee
Getting clocks on the internet to agree on what the time is has been a problem right back to the network’s origins. One man essentially solved it.

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On Friday, there’s another post due at the Social Warming Substack at about 0845 UK time.

A selection of 10 links for you. Bright and bushy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The thorny problem of keeping the internet’s time • The New Yorker

Nate Hopper:


To solve the problem of time synchronization on the Arpanet, Mills built what programmers call a protocol—a collection of rules and procedures that creates a lingua franca for disparate devices. The Arpanet was experimental and capricious: electronics failed regularly, and technological misbehaviour was common. His protocol sought to detect and correct for those misdeeds, creating a consensus about the time through an ingenious system of suspicion.

Mills prided himself on puckish nomenclature, and so his clock-synchronizing system distinguished reliable “truechimers” from misleading “falsetickers.” An operating system named Fuzzball, which he designed, facilitated the early work. Mills called his creation the Network Time Protocol, and NTP soon became a key component of the nascent Internet. Programmers followed its instructions when they wrote timekeeping code for their computers. By 1988, Mills had refined NTP to the point where it could synchronize the clocks of connected computers that had been telling vastly differing times to within tens of milliseconds—a fraction of a blink of an eye. “I always thought that was sort of black magic,” Vint Cerf, a pioneer of Internet infrastructure, told me.

Today, we take global time synchronization for granted. It is critical to the Internet, and therefore to civilization. Vital systems—power grids, financial markets, telecommunications networks—rely on it to keep records and sort cause from effect. NTP works in partnership with satellite systems, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), and other technologies to synchronize time on our many online devices.

The time kept by precise and closely aligned atomic clocks, for instance, can be broadcast via GPS to numerous receivers, including those in cell towers; those receivers can be attached to NTP servers that then distribute the time across devices linked together by the Internet, almost all of which run NTP. (Atomic clocks can also directly feed the time to NTP servers.) The protocol operates on billions of devices, coördinating the time on every continent. Society has never been more synchronized.


Wonderful, in-depth reporting. By the way, if you think the current British government has a monopoly on mad ideas about the internet, don’t forget Greenwich Electronic Time, the brainchild of someone in Tony Blair’s team, back in 2000. It didn’t survive contact with the internet.
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Amazon’s Glow goes the way of the Fire Phone and dodo • Ars Technica

Scharon Harding:


The Glow allowed children to video chat, draw, and play games with family members remotely via the 8-inch display. It also projected onto a 19in mat that children could interact with. One obvious downside was the requirement of an Amazon Kids+ subscription for playing games and accessing other content, like books and art. The service is $5 per month. Glow came from Amazon’s Grand Challenge lab, which makes experimental products.

Some reviewers praised Glow’s innovation, but some, like PCMag, also lamented Glow’s reliance on a subscription and phone or tablet, considering the high price. And some reviewers, including CNET and The Verge, noted glitchy behavior.

Amazon workers who had been focused on Glow are being moved elsewhere within the company, Bloomberg reported.

As the publication noted, other recently reported moves by Amazon seemingly aimed at keeping costs low amid slowing retail sales include closing warehouses and, according to a Bloomberg report yesterday, a hiring freeze on retail corporate jobs.

Amazon’s Glow device will meet other Amazon devices sent to product hell, including the Amazon Smart Oven convection oven/air fryer/microwave announced in 2019 and the FireOS-based Fire Phone, which Amazon killed off in 2015.


The hardest thing to make in hardware remains a profit.
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How does the Russo-Ukrainian War end? • Thinking about…

Timothy Snyder:


The Ukrainians, let’s face it, have turned out to be stunningly good warriors.  They have carried out a series of defensive and now offensive operations that one would like to call “textbook,” but the truth is that those textbooks have not yet been written; and when they are written, the Ukrainian campaign will provide the examples.  The have done so with admirable calm and sang-froid, even as their enemy perpetrates horrible crimes and openly campaigns for their destruction as a nation.

Right now, though, we have a certain difficulty seeing how Ukraine gets to victory, even as the Ukrainians advance.  This is because many of our imaginations are trapped by a single and rather unlikely variant of how the war ends: with a nuclear detonation.  I think we are drawn to this scenario, in part, because we seem to lack other variants, and it feels like an ending. 

Using the mushroom cloud for narrative closure, though, generates anxiety and hinders clear thinking.  Focusing on that scenario rather than on the more probable ones prevents us from seeing what is actually happening, and from preparing for the more likely possible futures.  Indeed, we should never lose sight of how much a Ukrainian victory will improve the world we live in.

But how do we get there?  The war could end in a number of ways.  Here I would like to suggest just one plausible scenario that could emerge in the next few weeks and months.  Of course there are others.  It is important, though, to start directing our thoughts towards some of the more probable variants.  The scenario that I will propose here is that a Russian conventional defeat in Ukraine is merging imperceptibly into a Russian power struggle, which in turn will require a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. This is, historically speaking, a very familiar chain of events.


I’m very dubious about the possibility of a tactical nuke being used (even though writing this feels like a hostage to fortune at any time of the day), which is why this deconstructionist approach is attractive.
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Elon Musk’s texts shatter the myth of the tech genius • The Atlantic

Charlie Warzel, last week:


Whoever said there are no bad ideas in brainstorming never had access to Elon Musk’s phone.

In no time, the texts [released via legal discovery in Twitter’s case against Musk in Delaware] were the central subject of discussion among tech workers and watchers. “The dominant reaction from all the threads I’m in is Everyone looks fucking dumb,” one former social-media executive, whom I’ve granted anonymity because they have relationships with many of the people in Musk’s texts, told me. “It’s been a general Is this really how business is done? There’s no real strategic thought or analysis. It’s just emotional and done without any real care for consequence.”

Appearing in the document is, I suppose, a perverse kind of status symbol (some people I spoke with in tech and media circles copped to searching through it for their own names). And what is immediately apparent upon reading the messages is that many of the same people the media couldn’t stop talking about this year were also the ones inserting themselves into Musk’s texts. There’s Joe Rogan; William MacAskill, the effective altruist, getting in touch on behalf of the crypto billionaire and Democratic donor Sam Bankman-Fried; Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer (and the subject of a recent, unflattering profile); Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, NIMBY, and prolific blocker on Twitter; Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, who was recently revealed to have joined a November 2020 call about contesting Donald Trump’s election loss; and, of course, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and former CEO. Musk, arguably the most covered and exhausting of them all, has an inbox that doubles as a power ranking of semi- to fully polarizing people who have been in the news the past year.

Few of the men in Musk’s phone consider themselves his equal. Many of the messages come off as fawning, although they’re possibly more opportunistic than earnest. Whatever the case, the intentions are unmistakable: Musk is perceived to have power, and these pillars of the tech industry want to be close to it. “I love your ‘Twitter algorithms should be open source’ tweet,” Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir, said, before suggesting that he was going to mention the idea to members of Congress at an upcoming GOP policy retreat. Antonio Gracias, the CEO of Valor Partners, cheered on the same tweet, telling the billionaire, “I am 100% with you Elon. To the mattresses no matter what.”


It’s equally alarming, hilarious and depressing that these people have so much money and power, but they think they need to abase themselves to someone who they view as having more money, and hence power.
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iPhone not migrating to USB-C or getting Touch ID on power button any time soon • AppleInsider

William Gallagher:


Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes that market and financial benefits will mean Apple skips USB-C for iPhones, and will also not move Touch ID to the power button at any time in the near future.

Despite moving the iPad Pro to USB-C charging instead of Lightning, back in 2018, Apple has kept the iPhone on the older technology. Now the analyst says it appears Apple will neither adopt USB-C nor Touch ID on the iPhone.

“The market expects the iPhone to abandon Lightning in favor of USB-C and equip the power button with the Touch ID sensor,” writes Kuo in a note seen by AppleInsider. “Our latest survey indicates that there is no visibility on the current schedule for the iPhone to adopt these two new specifications.”

Kuo understands that there are technical issues around waterproofing, but says he believes there are market pressures involved. Specifically, Apple’s Made for iPhone (MFi) program is a profitable business that would be affected.

“We believe that USB-C is detrimental to the MFi business’s profitability, and its waterproof specification is lower than Lightning and MagSafe,” continues Kuo. “Therefore, if the iPhone abandons Lightning in the future, it may directly adopt the portless design with MagSafe support instead of using a USB-C port.”

“At present, the MagSafe ecosystem is not mature enough, so the iPhone will continue to use the Lightning port in the foreseeable future,” he says.


“No visibility on the current schedule” is a careful choice of words. The 2023 iPhone has been designed and prototypes will be coming off early lines. But the 2024 version, which will have to comply (unless I’ve missed something) with the EU’s USB-C charger ruling, is – if these things are going on the schedule I’d expect – has only just emerged from design, and has yet to start being templated in factories. (I’d expect that to start being visible early next year, perhaps.) So this story could be completely accurate and yet completely misleading about what’s further out.
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Global electricity mid-year insights 2022 • Ember

Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka:


• 1: Renewables met all growth in global electricity demand
Global electricity demand rose 3% in the first half of 2022 compared to the same period last year; this was in line with the historic average. Wind and solar met 77% of this demand growth, and hydro more than met the remainder. In China, the rise in wind and solar generation met 92% of its electricity demand rise; in the US it was 81%, while in India it was 23%.

2: Coal and gas generation remained almost unchanged
Because renewables growth met all the demand growth, fossil generation was almost unchanged. Coal declined by 1% and gas declined by 0.05%; these were offset by a slight rise in oil. Consequently, global CO2 power sector emissions were unchanged, despite the rise in electricity demand. Coal in the EU rose 15% only to cover a temporary shortfall in nuclear and hydro generation. Coal in India rose 10% because of a sharp rebound in electricity demand from the lows early last year when the Covid-19 pandemic struck hardest. These rises were offset against falls of 3% in China and 7% in the US.

3: Wind and solar growth delivered tangible cost and climate benefits
The growth in wind and solar in the first half of 2022 prevented a 4% increase in fossil generation. This avoided $40bn in fuel costs and 230 Mt CO2 in emissions. In China, the growth in wind and solar enabled fossil fuel power to fall 3%, rather than rise by 1%. In India, it slowed down the rise in fossil fuel power from 12% to 9%. In the US, it slowed down the rise in fossil fuel power from 7% to 1%. In the EU, it prevented a major rise in fossil fuel power – without wind and solar, fossil generation would have risen by 16% instead of 6%.


So basically we’re treading water: renewables come onstream, energy use expands to fill the gap. Ember warns that things could get worse in the rest of the year, but adds:


We are getting closer to a tipping point, where clean electricity – led by wind and solar – will meet all future electricity demand growth, and thus fossil fuel power generation peaks.


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Police use DNA phenotyping in unsolved sexual assault • Edmonton Police


After a bus stopped at the shelter and picked up the people waiting, the unknown male followed the complainant as she continued to walk by. The male assaulted her, then pulled her into the field surrounding St. Basil and Spruce Avenue schools, where he violently sexually assaulted her.

After the assault, the woman reportedly regained consciousness and made her way to 103 Street and 114 Avenue, where a resident found her at approximately 5:45 a.m. and called 911.

An April 18, 2019 news release issued by the Edmonton Police Service outlined the details above and sought information about the suspect, describing him as 5’4”, with a black toque [“a small hat with a closely turned up brim” – dictionary], pants [trousers] and sweater or hoodie. He was described as having an accent. He was believed to have fled west from the scene.

Following a long investigation where no witnesses, CCTV, public tips or DNA matches were found, detectives took the step of enlisting Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia that specializes in advanced DNA analysis services. The service used in this case was DNA phenotyping, the process of predicting physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence. Law enforcement agencies use the company’s Snapshot ® DNA Phenotyping Service to narrow suspect lists and generate leads in criminal investigations.

Using DNA evidence from this investigation, Parabon produced trait predictions for the associated person of interest (POI). Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape. By combining these attributes of appearance, a “Snapshot” composite was produced depicting what the POI may have looked like at 25 years old and with an average body-mass index (BMI) of 22. These default values were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA.


This is extremely dodgy. Parabon Nanolabs has generated what looks basically like glammed-up Identikit, which you’d hope the victim could do anyway. The company says its “snapshot” division has helped agencies in North America solve 230 violent crime cases. I’d really like to know how well those solved cases have stood up.
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How to identify that light in the sky • Nasa Astronomy Picture Of The Day


What is that light in the sky? Perhaps one of humanity’s more common questions, an answer may result from a few quick observations. For example – is it moving or blinking? If so, and if you live near a city, the answer is typically an airplane, since planes are so numerous and so few stars and satellites are bright enough to be seen over the din of artificial city lights.

If not, and if you live far from a city, that bright light is likely a planet such as Venus or Mars – the former of which is constrained to appear near the horizon just before dawn or after dusk. Sometimes the low apparent motion of a distant airplane near the horizon makes it hard to tell from a bright planet, but even this can usually be discerned by the plane’s motion over a few minutes. Still unsure? The featured chart gives a sometimes-humorous but mostly-accurate assessment.


Please note that in no circumstance is the answer “damn, it’s an alien spaceship”.
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The ever-expanding job of preserving the internet’s backpages • Financial Times

Dave Lee:


Walled gardens like Facebook are a source of great frustration to [the Internet Archive’s founder, Brewster] Kahle, who worries that much of the political activity that has taken place on the platform could be lost to history if not properly captured. In the name of privacy and security, Facebook (and others) make scraping difficult.

News organisations’ paywalls (such as the FT’s) are also “problematic”, Kahle says. News archiving used to be taken extremely seriously, but changes in ownership or even just a site redesign can mean disappearing content. The technology journalist Kara Swisher recently lamented that some of her early work at The Wall Street Journal has “gone poof”, after the paper declined to sell the material to her several years ago.

As we start to explore the possibilities of the metaverse, the Internet Archive’s work is only going to get even more complex. Its mission is to “provide universal access to all knowledge”, by archiving audio, video, video games, books, magazines and software. Currently, it is working to preserve the work of independent news organisations in Iran and is storing Russian TV news broadcasts. Sometimes keeping things online can be an act of justice, protest or accountability.

Yet some challenge whether the Internet Archive has the right to provide the material at all. It is currently being sued by several major book publishers over its “OpenLibrary” lending platform for ebooks, which allows users to borrow a limited number of ebooks for up to 14 days. The publishers argue it is hurting revenue.

Kahle says that’s ludicrous. He likes to describe the task of the archive as being no different from a traditional library. But while a book doesn’t disappear from a shelf if the publisher goes out of business, digital content is more vulnerable. You can’t own a Netflix show. News articles are there for only as long as publishers want them to be. Even songs we pay to download are rarely ours, they’re simply licensed.


Now up to about 100 petabytes, costing only $25m to run annually, compared to $170m for San Francisco’s libraries (though those allow people in – the old high street shop/online shop difference). Evanescence is becoming the internet’s byword.
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Exclusive: Brands blast Twitter for ads next to child sexual abuse accounts • Reuters via Yahoo

Sheila Dang and Katie Paul:


Some major advertisers including Dyson, Mazda, Forbes and PBS Kids have suspended their marketing campaigns or removed their ads from parts of Twitter because their promotions appeared alongside tweets soliciting child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the companies told Reuters.

DIRECTV and Thoughtworks also told Reuters late on Wednesday they have paused their advertising on Twitter.

Brands ranging from Walt Disney Co, NBCUniversal and Coca-Cola Co to a children’s hospital were among more than 30 advertisers that appeared on the profile pages of Twitter accounts peddling links to the exploitative material, according to a Reuters review of accounts identified in new research about child sex abuse online from cybersecurity group Ghost Data.

Some of tweets include key words related to “rape” and “teens,” and appeared alongside promoted tweets from corporate advertisers, the Reuters review found. In one example, a promoted tweet for shoe and accessories brand Cole Haan appeared next to a tweet in which a user said they were “trading teen/child” content.

“We’re horrified,” David Maddocks, brand president at Cole Haan, told Reuters after being notified that the company’s ads appeared alongside such tweets. “Either Twitter is going to fix this, or we’ll fix it by any means we can, which includes not buying Twitter ads.”


I’m sure Elon will sort this all out really quickly – perhaps by getting rid of advertising.
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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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