Start Up No.1981: where the Ukraine plan was leaked, Europe’s drought problem, Twitter screws up labels, Paris bans scooters, and more

The profusion of weather apps hasn’t led to a concomitant improvement in forecasts. Why not? CC-licensed photo by Markus Binzegger on Flickr.

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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. Wrap up warm, or not. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

Why are weather apps still so bad? • The Atlantic

Charlie Warzel:


Weather apps are not all the same. There are tens of thousands of them, from the simply designed Apple Weather to the expensive, complex, data-rich Windy.App. But all of these forecasts are working off of similar data, which are pulled from places such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

Traditional meteorologists interpret these models based on their training as well as their gut instinct and past regional weather patterns, and different weather apps and services tend to use their own secret sauce of algorithms to divine their predictions. On an average day, you’re probably going to see a similar forecast from app to app and on television. But when it comes to how people feel about weather apps, these edge cases—which usually take place during severe weather events—are what stick in a person’s mind. “Eighty% of the year, a weather app is going to work fine,” Matt Lanza, a forecaster who runs Houston’s Space City Weather, told me. “But it’s that 20% where people get burned that’s a problem.”

No people on the planet have a more tortured and conflicted relationship with weather apps than those who interpret forecasting models for a living. “My wife is married to a meteorologist, and she will straight up question me if her favorite weather app says something different than my forecast,” Lanza told me. “That’s how ingrained these services have become in most peoples’ lives.” The basic issue with weather apps, he argues, is that many of them remove a crucial component of a good, reliable forecast: a human interpreter who can relay caveats about models or offer a range of outcomes instead of a definitive forecast.

…What people seem to be looking for in a weather app is something they can justify blindly trusting and letting into their lives—after all, it’s often the first thing you check when you roll over in bed in the morning. According to the 56,400 ratings of Carrot in Apple’s App Store, its die-hard fans find the app entertaining and even endearing. “Love my psychotic, yet surprisingly accurate weather app,” one five-star review reads. Although many people need reliable forecasting, true loyalty comes from a weather app that makes people feel good when they open it.


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From Discord to 4chan: the improbable journey of a US intelligence leak • bellingcat

Aric Toler:


Bellingcat has seen evidence that some documents [detailing a planned Ukrainian offensive against Russian forces] dated to January could have been posted online even earlier, although it is unclear exactly when. Bellingcat also spoke to three members of the Discord community where the images had been posted who claimed that many more documents had been shared across other Discord servers in recent months.

As the channels were deleted following the controversy generated by the leaked documents, Bellingcat has not been able to confirm this claim. 

Bizarrely, the Discord channels in which the documents dated from March were posted focused on the Minecraft computer game and fandom for a Filipino YouTube celebrity. They then spread to other sites such as the imageboard 4Chan before appearing on Telegram, Twitter and then major media publishers around the world in recent days.

Ukrainian officials have cast doubt on the veracity of the documents, with Mykhailo Podolyak, the adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, stating on Telegram that he believes Russia is behind the purported leak. But US security officials quoted by the New York Times appeared to hint at their authenticity.

Russian Presidential spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told CNN that the documents showed the extent of US and NATO involvement in Ukraine. Yet one pro-Russian Telegram channel that has been providing updates on the conflict wasn’t convinced and said it was possible the documents could be Western disinformation.

The documents appear to detail events and offer analysis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up until March 2023.

None of the documents seen by Bellingcat had been scanned but rather had been photographed. Creases can be seen on the documents with items, such as a hunter’s scope box and some Gorilla Glue visible in the background of those dated from early March. This appears to indicate that at least some of the documents were photographed in the same location. 


With details like that, bellingcat will probably pin down precisely when and where they were photographed in a few days. There’s a suggestion that the documents were published as part of a row between two Minecraft participants about who knew the most about the Ukrainian conflict.
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Europe is bracing for (another) devastating drought • WIRED UK

Chris Baraniuk:


What happens during the next few months will really matter. Abundant rainfall could ease the situation and stave off the worst-case scenario. But Europe needs a lot. “We’re talking about a sea, a sea’s worth of water,” says Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading in the UK. In terms of volume, hundreds of millions of cubic liters of rain would have to fall across the continent to fill the deficit, she estimates. It would have to amount to higher-than-average rainfall for France and certain other places, including parts of the UK. The chances of that are, unfortunately, not high.

The UK’s weather agency, the Met Office, estimates there’s a 10% chance of a wetter-than-average March, April, and May. Conversely, there’s a 30% chance that this period will be drier than average—and that is 1.5x the normal chance at this time of year. The Met Office stresses that this is a “broad outlook,” and there might still be patches of very wet weather even if it remains dry overall.

Any rain that does fall also has to fall in the right way and in the right places. “There’s always this chance that if we do get it all in two days, we see some very serious floods,” says Cloke. “What we want is to see sustained, reasonably gentle rain over the next few months.” 

Another important factor is how hot it gets this summer, says Cammalleri. Heat waves push up water consumption and increase evaporation rates. He indicates that European forecasts do not suggest that temperatures will be quite as blisteringly hot as last year—though there is some uncertainty there too.


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Twitter fails to report some political ads after promising transparency • POLITICO

Jessica Piper:


Twitter has failed to disclose some political ads running on its site since early March, according to a review of its activity by POLITICO. At least three promoted fundraising tweets were not included in Twitter’s own data, seemingly contradicting the company’s policies and raising doubts about the integrity of the platform’s data and how many other political ads could go unreported.

The tweets identified by POLITICO spanned politicians from both parties, including the accounts of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and Adam Frisch, the Democrat who is again challenging Rep. Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd District this cycle.

Stefanik’s tweet, which promised the opportunity to win a signed MAGA hat, included a link to her joint fundraising committee’s WinRed page, where users could donate. The tweets from Fetterman and Frisch included links to their respective campaign’s ActBlue pages. All three were labeled as “promoted” in users’ feeds and would seem to fall under Twitter’s political content policy, which allows for political ads — defined to include several types of promoted political content, including tweets that “solicit financial support” — but says they will be subject to public disclosure.

The lack of disclosure casts doubt on all of the political advertising data released by the platform and makes it hard to assess which groups are using Twitter to fundraise or sway voters ahead of 2024. It also highlights the hodgepodge of voluntary transparency efforts that experts say falls short when it comes to informing voters about who is trying to influence them online.


Applying Hanlon’s Razor to the absolute mess that is Twitter, I’ll go with cockup over conspiracy.
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Twitter: BBC objects to ‘government funded media’ label • BBC News

James Clayton:


The BBC is objecting to a new label describing it as “government funded media” on its main Twitter account.

The corporation has contacted the social media giant over the designation on the @BBC account to resolve the issue “as soon as possible”.

“The BBC is, and always has been, independent. We are funded by the British public through the licence fee,” it said.

Elon Musk said he believed the BBC was one of the “least biased” outlets. When BBC News highlighted to the Twitter boss that the corporation was licence fee-funded, Mr Musk responded in an email, asking: “Is the Twitter label accurate?”

He also appeared to suggest he was considering providing a label that would link to “exact funding sources”. It is not clear whether this would apply to other media outlets too.

In a separate email seeking to clarify his earlier comments, Mr Musk wrote: “We are aiming for maximum transparency and accuracy. Linking to ownership and source of funds probably makes sense. I do think media organizations should be self-aware and not falsely claim the complete absence of bias. …All organizations have bias, some obviously much more than others. I should note that I follow BBC News on Twitter, because I think it is among the least biased.”

The level of the £159 ($197) annual licence fee – which is required by law to watch live TV broadcasts or live streaming in the UK – is set by the government, but paid for by individual UK households.

While the @BBC account, which has 2.2m followers, has been given the label, much larger accounts associated with the BBC’s news and sport output are not currently being described in the same way.


As ever, Musk can’t even screw things up well. Expect this row to rumble on: the BBC is annoyed.
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Researchers develop mRNA-based treatment for peanut allergy • Interesting Engineering

Mrigakshi Dixit:


Nearly three million Americans are said to be allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. Not just this, approximately one in every fifty children suffers from peanut allergies, which can sometimes result in a fatal immune reaction. 

However, there is some good news for you. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are developing the first mRNA-based medicine to treat peanut allergies. The treatment has been inspired by the way mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines function.

“As far as we can find, mRNA has never been used for an allergic disease. We’ve shown that our platform can work to calm peanut allergies, and we believe it may be able to do the same for other allergens, in food and drugs, as well as autoimmune conditions,” said Dr. André Nel, the paper’s co-corresponding author, in a statement. 

For this treatment, they delivered the mRNA inside a nanoparticle to the liver, where it targeted specific cells to tolerate peanut proteins. The nanoparticles were tested on mice, which demonstrated that the medicine not only reversed peanut allergies but also prevented the development of severe conditions.

Several trials on mice revealed that the nanoparticle treatment was able to improve the animal’s peanut tolerance. 

According to the authors, with a few more lab studies, the nanoparticle treatment could be ready for clinical trials within three years.


Mice get all the good stuff first. But: good to see mRNA applications expanding.
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Paris votes overwhelmingly to ban shared e-scooters • TechCrunch

Rebecca Bellan:


In a major blow to shared micromobility companies Lime, Dott and Tier, Paris has voted to ban rental e-scooters from its streets. Many in the industry fear the move in Paris, where free-floating scooters initially took off in 2018, will have ripple effects in other cities.

Paris has been one of the most heavily regulated e-scooter markets, something companies have pointed to as an example of how they can play nice with cities. Yet, despite limiting scooter top speeds to as slow as 10 kilometers per hour (about 6 miles per hour) and requiring riders to use dedicated parking areas or pay fines, Paris has become the first city to completely reverse its policy on offering contracts to shared micromobility companies.

In a referendum on Sunday organized by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris residents voted 89% against keeping shared e-scooters in the city. The three companies that pay for contracts to operate in the City of Light will have to pull their fleets — a total of 15,000 e-scooters — out of the city by September 1.


Brutal. But when you consider how lethal Paris’s roads and pavements are already, you wouldn’t want its residents (or visitors) careening around on those scooters as well.
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New Orleans teens’ Pythagorean proof gains compelling backing • The Guardian

Ramon Antonio Vargas:


As of Friday, [schoolgirls Calcea Rujean] Johnson and [Ne’Kiya] Jackson did not appear to have widely released their proof. The American Mathematical Society has only said it has encouraged the pair to submit their work to a peer-reviewed journal. But a YouTube account, MathTrain, reconstructed the proof using slides from Johnson and Jackson’s presentation visible in the WWL report.

Lozano-Robledo reviewed MathTrain’s reconstruction, broke it down in his own video and concluded that the students had done what they said.

In a follow-up video, he summarized how the proof involved “a fractal of similar triangles” as well as “infinite series” to compute the shapes’ sides.

“It’s so ingenious,” Lozano-Robledo said. “The proof itself is just so beautiful and so elegant.”

But Lozano-Robledo also said people who pointed to at least one other trigonometric, noncircular proof of Pythagoras’s theory were correct to do so.

Jason Zimba, then at Bennington College in Vermont, established in 2009 that sin2x+cos2x=1 could be derived independently of the Pythagorean theorem, though he took a different route.

In text under his video, Lozano-Robledo said it was not Johnson and Jackson’s fault that people had the impression they were claiming to have done something not done in more than 2,000 years. He said the students did not say that in their abstract.


Nice to see this progressing.
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Why movies today look so dark today, in theaters and at home • Polygon

A.B. Allen:


Take, for instance, Wes Craven’s 1996 horror classic Scream — a film often remarked on for just how lit everything in it is at all times. An early scene depicts protagonist Sidney Prescott embracing her boyfriend Billy Loomis in the wake of a terrifying home invasion and her near-death at the hands of a masked killer. After Sidney throws her arms around Billy, Craven cuts to a tight close-up on Billy’s face, which is illuminated by a harsh, ominous, icy-cool light that telegraphs his sinister intentions.

But where is that light coming from? The bedroom they’re in has no lamps switched on. Could it be the moon? Hard to justify, as the only windows in the space are behind Billy, and the light we’re staring at is so much brighter and closer than the moon could ever be. So what on Earth is that light?

The answer is, simply enough, nothing. Craven often didn’t feel any real need to rationalize why a bright light would suddenly appear one second before disappearing again in the following shot. It’s a purely stylistic choice, employed for that one moment to cast doubt on Billy’s trustworthiness in the audience’s mind. It’s an extremely stagey choice that fits neatly within the larger series’ heightened, melodramatic style. Scream wouldn’t really be Scream without it.

The hyper-lit style was a staple of cinematography in American films during the ’90s, and like all trends, it eventually fell out of fashion — in this case, a few years after Scream hit theaters. The 2000s saw filmmakers embracing more directional, shadowy lighting styles, evoking a grittier, more “grounded” aesthetic while retaining a sense of classic Hollywood polish. The 2010s featured another huge shift in style, this time toward hyper-naturalism. Even broad, big-budget blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 embraced a look torn straight from indie cinema. Not only are the lights in that film always motivated, they’re realistic.

Where earlier films might have used the presence of the moon or a table lamp to justify much brighter lighting, movies like Deathly Hallows, Interstellar, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes let the light of a lamp simply look like a lamp. That resulted in darker, more directionally lit sets.


Nice to have it explained so simply.
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How AI could disrupt video-gaming • The Economist


Gamemakers showed off their latest ai tricks at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month. Ubisoft, a French developer of blockbusters such as “Assassin’s Creed”, unveiled Ghostwriter, a tool that generates dialogue for in-game characters. Roblox, an American platform for diy games, launched one that draws materials from text commands, like “stained glass”, and an autocomplete helper for programmers. A few weeks earlier Straight4 Studios previewed a new driving game, “GTR Revival”, with personalised racing commentary delivered by ai.

AI represents an “explosion of opportunity”, believes Steve Collins, technology chief of King, which makes “Candy Crush Saga”, a hit mobile game. King, which bought an AI firm called Peltarion last year, uses AI to gauge levels’ difficulty. “It’s like having a million players at your disposal,” says Mr Collins. This year Electronic Arts, another big gamemaker, and Google both received patents for using AI in game testing. Unity, a game-development “engine”, plans a marketplace for developers to trade AI tools. Danny Lange, Unity’s head of AI, hopes it will “put creators of all resource levels on a more equal playing-field”.

Making a game is already easier than it was: nearly 13,000 titles were published last year on Steam, a games platform, almost double the number in 2017. Gaming may soon resemble the music and video industries, in which most new content on Spotify or YouTube is user-generated. One games executive predicts that small firms will be the quickest to work out what new genres are made possible by AI. Last month Raja Koduri, an executive at Intel, left the chipmaker to found an AI-gaming startup.


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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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