Start Up No.1974: Russia’s Vulkan cyberwar plans exposed, Buzzfeed’s hidden AI gems, UK hopes for carbon capture, and more

The Marshall amplifier brand, first to back Pete Townshend, has been bought by a Swedish maker of Bluetooth speakers. CC-licensed photo by i threw a guitar at him. on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Pardon? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

‘Vulkan files’ leak reveals Putin’s global and domestic cyberwarfare tactics • The Guardian

Luke Harding, Stiliyana Simeonova, Manisha Ganguly and Dan Sabbagh:


One document links a Vulkan cyber-attack tool with the notorious hacking group Sandworm, which the US government said twice caused blackouts in Ukraine, disrupted the Olympics in South Korea and launched NotPetya, the most economically destructive malware in history. Codenamed Scan-V, it scours the internet for vulnerabilities, which are then stored for use in future cyber-attacks.

Another system, known as Amezit, amounts to a blueprint for surveilling and controlling the internet in regions under Russia’s command, and also enables disinformation via fake social media profiles. A third Vulkan-built system – Crystal-2V – is a training program for cyber-operatives in the methods required to bring down rail, air and sea infrastructure. A file explaining the software states: “The level of secrecy of processed and stored information in the product is ‘Top Secret’.”

The Vulkan files, which date from 2016 to 2021, were leaked by an anonymous whistleblower angered by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Such leaks from Moscow are extremely rare. Days after the invasion in February last year, the source approached the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and said the GRU and FSB “hide behind” Vulkan.

“People should know the dangers of this,” the whistleblower said. “Because of the events in Ukraine, I decided to make this information public. The company is doing bad things and the Russian government is cowardly and wrong. I am angry about the invasion of Ukraine and the terrible things that are happening there. I hope you can use this information to show what is happening behind closed doors.”

The source later shared the data and further information with the Munich-based investigative startup Paper Trail Media. For several months, journalists working for 11 media outlets, including the Guardian, Washington Post and Le Monde, have investigated the files in a consortium led by Paper Trail Media and Der Spiegel.


Huge and important leak.
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BuzzFeed is quietly publishing whole AI-generated articles, not just quizzes • Futurism

Noor Al-Sibai and Jon Christian:


This month, we noticed that with none of the fanfare of Peretti’s multiple interviews about the quizzes, BuzzFeed quietly started publishing fully AI-generated articles that are produced by non-editorial staff — and they sound a lot like the content mill model that Peretti had promised to avoid.

The 40 or so articles, all of which appear to be SEO-driven travel guides, are comically bland and similar to one another. Check out these almost-copied lines:

• “Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘Cape May? What is that, some kind of mayonnaise brand?'” in an article about Cape May, in New Jersey.
• “Now I know what you’re thinking – ‘but Caribbean destinations are all just crowded resorts, right?'” in an article about St Maarten, in the Caribbean.
• “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Puerto Rico? Isn’t that where all the cruise ships go?” in an article about San Juan, in Puerto Rico.
• “Now, I know what you’re thinking- bigger isn’t always better,” in an article about Providence, in Rhode Island.
• “Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Nepal? The Himalayas? Haven’t we all heard of that already?” in an article about Khumbu, in Nepal.
• “Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Brewster? Never heard of it,” in an article about Brewster, in Massachusetts.
• “I know what you’re thinking: isn’t Stockholm that freezing, gloomy city up in the north that nobody cares about?” in an article about Stockholm, in Sweden.

That’s not the bot’s only lazy trope. On review, almost everything the bot has published contains at least one line about a “hidden gem.”


Apparently the people feeding the prompts into ChatGPT (one assumes) are “non-editorial employees who work in domains like client partnerships, account management, and product management.” Now, I know what you’re thinking – there must be some hidden gems among them.
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UK government gambles on carbon capture and storage tech despite scientists’ doubts • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey and Jillian Ambrose:


Grant Shapps, the energy and net zero secretary, will on Thursday unveil the “powering up Britain” strategy, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) at its heart, during a visit to a nuclear fusion development facility in Oxford.

Shapps said the continued production of oil and gas in the North Sea was still necessary, and that the UK had a geological advantage in being able to store most of the carbon likely to be produced in Europe for the next 250 years in the large caverns underneath the North Sea.

“Unless you can explain how we can transition [to net zero] without oil and gas, we need oil and gas,” he said. “I am very keen that we fill those cavities with storing carbon. I think there are huge opportunities for us to do that.”

…Scientists told the Guardian that an overdependence on CCS [carbon capture and storage] was ill-advised. More than 700 scientists have written to the prime minister asking him to grant no new oil and gas licences, describing CCS as “yet to be proved at scale”, and the UN secretary-general called on governments last week to stop developing oil and gas.

“CCS is not required if the government moves to renewables as quickly as possible – especially as I am unaware of any CCS that works,” added Mark Maslin, professor of earth science at UCL.


I liked the comments of Dr Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute:


“Carbon capture is currently ineffective and an extremely costly experiment, distracting from the measures that we know are effective and can implement today.

“The UK government should not be investing £20billion in a strategy that is essentially an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff when we could use the money to not go down the cliff in the first place.”


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America’s fossil fuel economy is heading for collapse, signalling the end of the oil age • Age Of Transformation

Nafeez Ahmed:


In the late 2020s, then, we will likely see oil demand begin to peak. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the global oil industry is going to become economically unsustainable by around 2030, when it will begin consuming a quarter of its own energy just to keep pumping out more oil.

Even the Journal of Petroleum Technology published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers is taking this prospect seriously. As oil demand declines, oil prices will also decline. At this point, assuming the accuracy of the latest EROI studies, the collapse of the global industry will begin to accelerate because once prices go below a certain point and with EROI levels already unsustainable, the industry will simply become impossible to sustain economically.


Ahmed’s argument is that the US shale oil industry is contracting, fast, and that there are all sorts of knock-on effects coming our way, including continuing food price inflation and, as suggested here, big problems in the oil industry, which will leave lots of stranded assets. Worth reading and digesting. (Via Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things.)
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British music brand Marshall sells to Zound Industries • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:


The British family-owned company behind Marshall amplifiers, which have appeared on stage beside musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Jay-Z, is selling to a Swedish maker of Bluetooth speakers, in a deal valuing the combined group at more than $400m.

Marshall Amplification has agreed to a takeover by Stockholm-based Zound Industries, which makes wireless speakers and headphones. The Marshall family will become the largest shareholder with a 24% stake in the company, which will be rebranded as Marshall Group, in addition to receiving an undisclosed cash payment.

Zound has been producing headphones and consumer speakers carrying the distinctive Marshall signature logo and textured black vinyl since the two companies struck a licensing deal in 2010. It also makes personal audio devices under the Adidas and Urbanears brands.

Jim Marshall, who died in 2012, founded the eponymous company in west London alongside his son Terry in 1962. They sold their first amps to young musicians such as The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.


There’s something deeply bathetic about the brands that has appeared on the amps and speakers behind some of the world’s LOUDEST musicians now being part of a Bluetooth speaker maker, the milquetoast beaker for noise.
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How did you help us change the way we report the news? • BBC News

Sally Taft:


While the BBC had always encouraged audience participation, from reading out letters on the wireless to the early days of radio phone-ins, it was the tsunami on 26 December 2004 which led to a significant shift in the way we dealt with these contributions. Eyewitness accounts told the story where we did not have correspondents on the ground.

On that day, the BBC received thousands of mostly unsolicited emails from people who had been in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and elsewhere when the tsunami had hit and had witnessed dreadful things. And then there were the emails from people who had been unable to contact loved ones.

The BBC’s user-generated content (UGC) hub came to life. Initially, it was for a three-month pilot, with three journalists from different areas of BBC News brought together to gather the best material sent in by the audience and share it across the BBC.

But just as the pilot’s success was being evaluated, suicide bombers targeted London’s transport network during the rush hour on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people. It was a moment which would demonstrate just how important and integral UGC had become to a breaking news story.

The BBC initially reported the police line that there had been power surges on the underground. But for those on the hub, the emails and text messages which soon began pouring in, were telling a very different story.

By piecing these emails together, a picture emerged of what was really going on and we knew the locations of all four devices by 09:58, just over an hour after the first bombs went off.


Looking now at these – the first two events (there are multiple ones) from a time when Twitter hadn’t begun – you realise what a colossal impact real-time messaging has had on us. The BBC is now on WhatsApp; whatever disaster befalls us next will be relayed in near-real-time to the news centre, always assuming we can get a data signal.
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Dumb phones are on the rise in the US as Gen Z limits screen time • CNBC

Liam Mays:


Dumb phones may be falling out of fashion on a global scale, but it’s a different story in the U.S.

Companies like HMD Global, the maker of Nokia phones, continue to sell millions of mobile devices similar to those used in the early 2000s. This includes what’s known as “feature phones” — traditional flip or slide phones that have additional features like GPS or a hotspot.

“I think you can see it with certain Gen Z populations — they’re tired of the screens,” said Jose Briones, dumb phone influencer and moderator of the subreddit, “r/dumbphones.” “They don’t know what is going on with mental health and they’re trying to make cutbacks.”

In the US, feature flip phone sales were up in 2022 for HMD Global, with tens of thousands sold each month. At the same time, HMD’s global feature phone sales were down, according to the company.

In 2022, almost 80% of feature phone sales in 2022 came from the Middle East, Africa and India, according to Counterpoint Research. But some see that number shifting, as a contingency of young people in the US revert back to dumb or minimalist phones.

“In North America, the market for dumb phones is pretty much flatlined,” said Moorhead. “But I could see it getting up to 5% increase in the next five years if nothing else, based on the public health concerns that are out there.”


So “dumb phone influencer” is now a thing? Hard to see a whole generation, or even a significant slice of it, choosing to cut themselves out of all the internet-based messaging services.
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Can a billionaire die without anyone noticing? • Quartz

Tim Fernholz:


Sometimes it seems like billionaires can dominate our lives—or at least the news. A mystery in US tax data, however, suggests at least one super-wealthy individual flew under the radar until the very end.

The US Treasury’s daily reports of government financial transactions turned up a surprising data point on Feb. 28, 2023: The deposit of $7bn in the category of “estate and gift” taxes. It was the highest collection of that kind of tax since at least 2005. It’s possible that more than one enormous tax bill happened to be processed on that day, but that would still be remarkable.

A Treasury spokesperson says this was not a reporting error, and a spokesperson for the Internal Revenue Service says it is unlikely this would be caused by processing a backlog of returns in one day. Privacy rules prevent government officials from discussing the specifics of any tax return.

The huge tax return was first spotted by John Ricco, the associate director of budget analysis at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a group at the University of Pennyslvania that tracks the impact of economic policy changes. Ricco has been tracking estate tax deposits because of a strange natural experiment: Though the estate tax was reduced in 2017 during president Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, collections have soared in recent years, likely due to excess deaths of the elderly during the pandemic.

…Based on the tax rate, that $7bn payment implies an estate or gift of some $17.5bn. However, the Tax Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C, has estimated that estates typically pay a 17% effective tax rate after exemptions and other forms of avoidance. Even if only 50% of the estate was taxable, that’s a potential value of $35bn. Even the lowest estimate would make the estate’s owner one of the 100 richest people in the world, according to Bloomberg News.


There’s one other possibility, Fernholz notes: that it’s an advance payment – that someone wealthy has given a huge amount of their estate to a relative or other ahead of their death, to avoid taxes. Sure would like to know who.
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Electric vehicle charge point target is ‘20 years behind schedule’

Ben Clatworthy:


Ministers are set to miss their target of installing 300,000 new electric car chargers by 2030 by 20 years, opposition leaders have claimed.

Labour accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” after it was revealed that fewer than 9,000 public electric vehicle charging devices were installed in the UK last year.

There are now 30 electric vehicles for every charge point, compared with 16 at the start of 2020, according to Times analysis, fuelling fears that infrastructure is failing to keep up with demand.

New figures from the Department for Transport (DfT) show there were 37,055 charging devices live at the start of the year. The figure represents a 31% increase in the past year, although critics say a gulf is emerging between the number of chargers compared with the number of electric vehicles.

It is estimated there are more than 1.3 million plug-in cars on the roads, according to registration data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Motoring groups are demanding that the government sets a mandate for installations in a bid to avert a charging crisis. So-called range anxiety is seen as one of the biggest barriers preventing motorists making the switch to electric – along with the price of vehicles.


The problem isn’t just the paucity of chargers; it’s that people only need to have a couple of bad experiences with broken ones (a surprisingly common problem) and their range anxiety is heightened even more, because they can’t be sure what awaits them.

The commercial incentives are clearly just not working here.
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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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