About charlesarthur

Freelance journalist - technology, science, and so on. Author of "Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the internet".

Start Up No.1575: the G7 superspreaders, hacking USB sticks for cryptowallets, GPU prices ease, social media soft power, and more

Everyone’s saying that… Joni Mitchell’s album Blue is 50 years old. And still amazing. CC-licensed photo by Elyse on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Should not have got on this flight without a PCR test. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

G7 summit was ‘super spreading’ event for Cornwall as cases rocket after Johnson and Biden visit • i

David Parsley:


Britain’s recent G7 summit of world leaders was a superspreader event that has led to a sharp increase in Covid-19 infections in the surrounding communities, according to the latest data.

Cornwall business leaders, politicians and residents are calling for the Government to “save the summer” following a huge rise in Covid-19 infections following the visit from world leaders, their entourages, the world’s media and thousands of police last weekend. 

Areas of Cornwall where G7 events were focused saw infections rise more than 2,000% in the seven days leading up to the end of the meeting between global leaders .

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One concerned local told i: “It looks like a superspreader event to me, and now it’s spreading.” 

The area around Carbis Bay, where the summit took place, and Falmouth, where the world’s media were based along with many of the 6,000 of officers policing the event and protesters, are now suffering some of the highest rates of infection in the country. 

The rate of Covid-19 infections in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly during the week to, and including, 13 June has risen from 2.8 per 100,000 people on the Sunday before G7 began to 81.7 per 100,000. This compares to a national average of 77.4 per 100,000. 

But it is in the areas most closely linked to G7 events where rates are of particular concern to local health chiefs.

The rate of infection in St Ives and Halsetown has risen 2,450% in the seven day period to 733.2 per 100,000 people in the seven days to 13 June, when the summit came to an end. In the council ward of St Ives East, Lelant & Carbis Bay the rate has risen by 800% to 294.9 per 100,000 people in the same period. 


Bet it all comes down to time spent indoors in big groups, one way or the other. Covid really loves them. Quite a contrast to open-air events such as football matches or gigs, which haven’t shown any evidence of contributing to spread.
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Criminals are mailing altered Ledger devices to steal cryptocurrency • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:


Scammers are sending fake replacement devices to Ledger customers exposed in a recent data breach that are used to steal cryptocurrency wallets.

Ledger has been a popular target by scammers lately with rising cryptocurrency prices and the popularity of hardware wallets to secure cryptofunds.

In a post on Reddit, a Ledger user shared a devious scam after receiving what looks like a Ledger Nano X device in the mail.

As you can see from the pictures [in the article], the device came in an authentic looking packaging, with a poorly written letter explaining that the device was sent to replace their existing one as their customer information was leaked online on the RaidForum hacking forum.

“For this reason for security purposes, we have sent you a new device you must switch to a new device to stay safe. There is a manual inside your new box you can read that to learn how to set up your new device,” read the fake letter from Ledger.

“For this reason, we have changed our device structure. We now guarantee that this kinda breach will never happen again.”

Even though the letter was filled with grammatical and spelling errors, the data for 272,853 people who purchased a Ledger device was actually published on the RaidForums hacking forum in December 2020. This made for a slightly convincing explanation for the sending of the new device.

…Based on the photos, security researcher and offensive USB cable/implant expert Mike Grover, aka _MG_, told BleepingComputer that the threat actors added a flash drive and wired it to the USB connector.

“This seems to be a simply flash drive strapped on to the Ledger with the purpose to be for some sort of malware delivery,” Grover told BleepingComputer in a chat about the photos.


That’s quite a bit of sneaky. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an operation with such detail outside a state-sponsored attack. (Maybe I’ve just overlooked a few?)
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Falling Europe GPU pricing suggests shortage is easing • Tom’s Hardware

Aaron Klotz:


According to ComputerBase, graphics card prices have begun to drop as much as 50% in Europe. Availability has also improved significantly, with sales of most GPU models from both AMD and Nvidia doubling month-over-month. This report comes on the heels of ASRock, a GPU maker, noting that GPU pricing is easing as demand from Chinese cryptocurrency miners wanes. 

More budget-oriented cards like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 and AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT are seeing the most positive results, with a near 50% drop in price compared to last month. For flagship cards like the RTX 3080 and RX 6800 XT, however, prices haven’t moved as much. They have dipped a respectable 10-15% which is still a very positive change considering the shortage issues plaguing the technology industry.

In the United States, GPU pricing is slowly catching up to Europe, but it’s still going down nonetheless. A Redditor named ‘u/xclm’ has created a chart comparing GPU prices of cards sold on eBay with the amount of mining horsepower it’s capable of, over the course of the past month.

He found that prices are dropping reasonably well with a 20% average price drop for all cards this month compared to May, and the higher-performing cards like the RTX 3090 have seen an even higher drop of 32% in price.

This change in market behavior is mostly attributed to China regulating crypto mining, and the big drop in the value of large cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Bitcoin.


Everything’s connected. The bitcoin hashrate chart is half what it was at its high in May.
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Why PCs are turning into giant phones • WSJ

Christopher Mims:


Perhaps the single most useful feature of our phones is their near-constant connection to the internet through a cellular network. That missing piece might not come to our laptops as quickly as other elements of mobile computing.

The challenge isn’t getting LTE and 5G modems into our PCs—that has been possible for years. It’s that carriers have yet to figure out their end, says Patrick Moorhead, president of the technology consulting firm Moor Insights & Strategy. They’re concerned about potentially data-hungry devices like PCs overwhelming their networks, he adds. (Imagine a cell tower designed to handle occasional bursts of data traffic lighting up with a few dozen laptops streaming “The Avengers” in 4K.)

The good news is that 5G represents a chance to align incentives so that it is easier for individual buyers of laptops to easily get data plans. “All these carriers are making all these capital expenditures, and they need to make a return on their investment in spectrum and equipment,” adds Mr. Moorhead. “We’re going to be in an oversupply of connectivity.”

Windows laptops for some time have had the ability to connect to cellular networks without consumers having to buy the kind of physical SIM card that smartphones rely on, says a Qualcomm spokesman. Currently, the Microsoft Surface Pro X supports such “e-SIM” technology, and allows purchase of data plans through an app, he adds.

Despite the connectivity challenge, analysts predict that the recent uptick in sales of PCs will persist. Reasons for this include unfilled demand in the education market, a shift to people buying new PCs every four to five years instead of the usual six to seven, and the way that “work from home” has meant employees need their own devices, rather just sharing them as they have in some workplaces such as call centers, says Jitesh Ubrani, an analyst at IDC covering smartphones, tablets and PCs.


The revival of the PC has been quite the surprise: we didn’t think our home PCs were good enough for the job, so we replaced them? Companies splurged lots of money making sure that people could Zoom contentedly? Sure would be good to know who, precisely, splashed the cash. Corporate or consumer?
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Big tech, startups race to cool data centres around the world • Bloomberg

Ivan Levingston and Will Mathis:


All those videos, emails, bank statements, photos, shopping carts, airline reservations, and so, so, so much more sluicing around the internet eventually end up in the millions of data centers scattered across the globe. With all that stuff coming and going, those places are getting crowded—and hot. David Craig can’t do much about the congestion, but he says he’s got a fix for the heat: A liquid that bathes the cores of processors to keep things at a relatively chilly 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). “As we process much more data, the chips are becoming three, four, five times hotter,” says Craig, chief executive officer of Iceotope Technologies Ltd., a U.K. startup focused on cooling strategies for computing.

Data centers consume 2% to 4% of the world’s electricity, and almost half of that power goes to cooling, according to the Uptime Institute, a consulting firm in Seattle. Early on, most data was kept on-site at the banks, universities, or corporations that generated it, where cooling often meant little more than opening the window. Today, a growing share of the world’s data is consolidated in megacenters with thousands of processors, and the vast majority of them use traditional air conditioning. While some heat is good for computers, too much can cause systems to crash, and with each generation of computer chips running faster and hotter, the systems will soon be too hot for even the most efficient air conditioner. Finding better ways to keep temperatures down could save the industry some $10 billion a year on electricity alone, according to Uptime. “Air just isn’t a very effective medium for transferring heat,” says Rabih Bashroush, global head of IT advisory services at Uptime.


So we should use water, or at least liquid? Got it.
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Drought-stricken communities push back against data centers • NBC News

Olivia Solon:


On May 17, the City Council of Mesa, Arizona, approved the $800 million development of an enormous data center — a warehouse filled with computers storing all of the photos, documents and other information we store “in the cloud” — on an arid plot of land in the eastern part of the city.

But keeping the rows of powerful computers inside the data center from overheating will require up to 1.25 million gallons of water each day, a price that Vice Mayor Jenn Duff believes is too high. “This has been the driest 12 months in 126 years,” she said, citing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We are on red alert, and I think data centers are an irresponsible use of our water.”

Duff was the only Mesa City Council member to vote against the development. But she’s one of a growing number of people nationwide raising concerns about the proliferation of data centers, which guzzle electricity and water while creating relatively few jobs, particularly in drought-stricken parts of the United States.


OK, so don’t use water. Got it.
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Social media are turbocharging the export of America’s political culture • The Economist


Take Brazil. Its political scene is full of YouTubers and Facebook influencers. These include supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the president; critics of the government such as Felipe Neto, who rose to fame making videos for young people; and a vast market of political content-makers in between. “There is a lot of influence, even unconscious, of the [American] discourse. What’s happening there, comes here,” says Mr do Val, citing debates on face masks or race. This is not as simple as copying and pasting American arguments, he cautions. Rather, America provides the templates that anyone anywhere can apply.

According to Whitney Phillips, a media researcher at Syracuse University in New York, America’s role in shaping political debates comes not just from the norms it promotes. It also “flows from its cultural production—the actual stuff of media and memes”, she writes in “You Are Here”, a new book examining global information flows. One reason America’s influence is greater now, she says, is that “social media is global. And there are way more people outside the United States who use Facebook than in the United States.”

Consider the Black Lives Matter (blm) protests which erupted in America in 2020. They inspired local versions everywhere from South Korea, where there are very few people of African descent, to Nigeria, where there are very few people who are not. In Britain, where the police typically do not carry firearms, one protester held aloft a sign that read, “demilitarise the police”. In Hungary, where Africans make up less than 0.1% of the population, a local council tried to install a work of art in support of the blm movement, only to earn a rebuke from the prime minister’s office. Last year the Hungarian government released a video declaring, “All lives matter.”


Social media has enabled more spread of “soft power” than ever before. In that context, the rise of TikTok (and its suppression of Hong Kong-related and Uighur-related content) is significant.
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My life in the Apple ecosystem (and more): 6FPS • Chuq von Rospach

Chuq worked at Apple (on mailing lists, from what I used to see) and then at Palm on developer relations:


when I talk about App Stores and developer programs and how developers should be treated, I point all this out to show that it’s not exactly theoretical for me, it’s personal. I’ve lived that life, fought those wars (and at Palm, more or less lost at every opportunity, but that’s a sad story for another time). And to a degree, it’s why I’ve always hesitated talking about Apple and their developer programs and App Store. 

Because to me, Apple does an absolute crap job of taking care of their developers. The defining word that comes to mind to me is “arrogance”. An expectation that the developers need Apple, so Apple doesn’t have to reciprocate. 

And with the IOS App store, Apple is absolutely correct. Developers need to be on IOS. It’s far less true on MacOS, and if you’ve ever taken a look at the Apple TV App Store, you can easily see how ludicrously poorly that platform is considered by developers. 

Apple has never been that interested or great at relationships with developers, and I say that with great respect for many members of Apple’s DTS/Devrel teams, some of whom are friends and who have spent years fighting the good fight internally as well.

It’s gotten worse over the years, and while I will cut Apple some slack — I don’t think people remotely understand the complexity and difficulty of doing things at the scale Apple has to do them — but where Apple has over the years had opportunities to improve things for developers and make these platforms more appealing, they have consistently chosen to not take those opportunities. There’s zero reason the App Store cut is still 30%, other than Apple believing it can get away with it. 

…Apple drove its developer relationship for decades based on attitudes of entitlement and arrogance, and never invested in creating a developer community that wanted to work with Apple, and instead just expected them to always have to work with it.

We are now at the start of a time where I think Apple will come to regret doing that, but it’s far too late to fix or to stop what I see as the inevitable shift towards regulations aimed at Apple’s App store policies. And because Apple has spent so long believing it can bully and bluster those around it — and mostly succeeding because of its size and scale, I think the next few years as the regulators gear up adn get going it’s going to be interesting, and ultimately, Apple will learn some hard lessons.


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June 2020: Beware! iCloud backups are deleted after 180 days • TidBITS

Adam Engst:


TidBITS reader Walter Ian Kaye had a simple question: “Did you know Apple deletes iCloud backups over 180 days old? I didn’t. 😭”

I’m always bemused when I discover myself adopting one of my son’s expressions, and my immediate reaction was a teen-speak refrain from his high school years: “Wait, what?”

I had no idea that Apple deleted iCloud backups after 180 days, and a quick poll in the TidBITS Slack channel showed that it wasn’t common knowledge among other TidBITS staffers and contributing editors.

But a quick Google search revealed that the policy is far from new—I see perturbed iCloud users complaining as far back as 2014, and Take Control author Kirk McElhearn mentioned the fact in a 2013 Macworld article.

Apple does document this fact in various places, including in the iCloud User Guide, the Manage Your iCloud Storage support document, and the iCloud Terms and Conditions. But if you were expecting that you might be warned about such a limitation in the iOS interface, such as on the screen where you enable iCloud Backup or learn more about what’s backed up, you’d be disappointed.

Apple’s acknowledgment of the deletion policy is not quite as hidden as the plans for demolishing Arthur Dent’s house in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the effect is roughly the same if you were planning on restoring from your iCloud backup, only to discover that Apple had deleted it, with the only warning being in support documents you’ve never read.


That’s not iCloud documents, but whole-device backups. Resurfaced on Twitter this weekend, as someone had backed up their iPad with their drawings on it to iCloud, then tried to restore it more than six months later. No backup. As Engst pointed out, it might make sense for Apple to warn people that a backup is about to be deleted. Hasn’t happened. (If this might happen, back it up on your computer.)
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Joni Mitchell talks with Cameron Crowe about health, ‘Blue’ • Los Angeles Times

Cameron Crowe on Mitchell’s wonderful album, 50 years old this week:


Q: You take off for Greece in early 1970, and thus begins your adventure of living in the Matala caves. Matala becomes the setting for some of the most beloved songs on “Blue.” Why Greece?
JM: I was ready for an adventure. Penelope was a girl I knew and she was going, and I asked if I could tag along. We were both friends of Leonard (Cohen), so we wanted to see his island (Hydra). I brought a flute and my dulcimer. In Hydra, I climbed to the top of a mountain and played among the goats and sheep with my flute. In Athens we went to this place where the poets hung out, it was like a moving crap game because the Junta were busting up public meetings. There was a kind of an apple-crate guitar there that some of the poets played. I bought it off them for $50. I was so missing my guitar. We went into the Athens underground and I sat on the ground down there, like a busker. I played, and people threw money at me.

Q: Was anybody keeping tabs on you? Had you cut ties with everybody back home?
JM: Nobody knew where I was back home, or how to get hold of me. Eventually I found a phone to let everyone know that I was still alive and kicking. [Laughs.] But everywhere we went in Greece, people would say to us, “Sheepy, Sheepy, Matala Matala!” We didn’t know what that meant. It meant, “Hippie, hippie, go to the caves of Matala! That’s where your kind are!” So we rented a car and took a ferry boat and we arrived there. It was dark. We went down to the water’s edge. And when we were looking out towards Turkey, Penelope started thinking about her namesake, you know, Penelope, the wife of Ulysses. Just as we were talking, we heard an explosion, and when we turned around we saw Cary (Raditz) being blown out the door of a restaurant. He was a cook, and he had been lighting the stove and it exploded. I said to Penelope, “What an entrance! I’ve got to go and meet him.” So we walked over there and he was dressed in a white turban and white shirt and white baggy pants like gauze. He’d come from the city of Banaras, in India. The explosion had singed all the hair on his arms and legs. It went right through his clothes. And that’s how I met Cary. He exploded into my life, just like that.


I love knowing the stories that go with the songs: that Cary is a real person. And of course little Green was too. And Blue is on a par with a Picasso masterpiece. (I’m told the article is behind a paywall, but the Javascript on my browser broke so I couldn’t see it. Same when I tried to read it on Apple’s Reader.)
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Out this week:

preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1574: half of ads on fake news via Google, the ‘green vortex’ saving the US, airlines may drop a pilot on long-haul, and more

Groundskeepers are the unseen force in football, able to alter how quickly or slowly a pitch plays, to the home team’s advantage. CC-licensed photo by Daniel Novta on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. It’s Friday, after all. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Less than a week to preorder Social Warming, my next book.

Nearly half of all ads on fake news sites come from Google, study finds • Morning Brew

Ryan Barwick:


Fake news is a problem. Yet the sites that publish it keep surviving because ad servers keep sending them advertisements.

According to a white paper published last month by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Information, 48% of ad traffic on “fake” news publishers is served by Google. Nearly a third (32%) of “low credibility sites” like Breitbart, Drudge Report, and Sputnik News were delivered by Google.

The researchers analyzed more than 1,700 publishers, identifying 545 as either “fake” (sites filled with pseudoscience and straight-up lies) or “low credibility” (hyper-partisan), using a data set compiled by Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor at Merrimack College.

Additionally, the researchers found that the “top-10 credible ad servers,” like Lockerdome and Outbrain, make up 66.7% of fake and 55.6% of low-quality ad traffic. Even so, the researchers said that the dollars these firms make from such placements represents a “negligible fraction” of their overall revenue.

Using digital emulators that mimicked browsing behaviour on the sites, the researchers could identify which ad servers were supporting misinformation sites.

The researchers didn’t reach out to Google, but the search engine told Marketing Brew in a statement that the company removed ads from “more than 1.3 billion pages that breached” its policies in 2020.


They’re not a problem for Google. It’s in the position of not caring what adverts appear where; it just wants those that appear to be served by it, so it gets paid. One of the key elements of social warming: indifference caused by a conflict of broader ethics with corporate aims. (Corporate aims pretty much always win.)
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China isn’t the issue. Big Tech is • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:


Here’s what an official at NetChoice, a group that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, told The Washington Post about the crop of Big Tech regulation bills: “At the same time Congress is looking to boost American innovation and cybersecurity, lawmakers should not pass legislation that would cede ground to foreign competitors and open up American data to dangerous and untrustworthy actors.”

And this is what the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy group that gets funding from telecommunications and tech companies, said this week about the appointment of Khan as FTC chair: “In a time of increased global competition, antitrust populism will cause lasting self-inflicted damage that benefits foreign, less meritorious rivals.”

Sounds bad! You might notice that these statements don’t name China, which is the magic word to make stuff happen in Washington. But that’s what they mean by referencing unnamed foreign rivals.

Yes, it’s reasonable for Americans to want strong US companies in a competitive global economy. But making a handful of tech kings play fair isn’t likely to break them.

As for the security arguments, the logic doesn’t work if you think about it for more than two seconds. Does preventing Amazon from selling its own brand of batteries — as one congressional bill might do — hold America back from fighting foreign cyberattacks? Nope. How do proposals that might restrain giant companies from doing whatever they want with our personal information weaken America on the world stage? They do not.


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The ‘green vortex’ is saving America’s climate-change future • The Atlantic

Robinson Meyer:


That 2009 climate bill, the one that President Barack Obama couldn’t pass? It required the US to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% by 2020 as compared with their all-time high. Yet last year, our emissions were down 21%. The same bill said that the US had to generate 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Last year, we met that target. We will surpass it in 2021.

These numbers are not a mere fluke. Last year was a singular, awful moment in economic history, but even accounting for the effects of the COVID-19 recession, America’s real-world emissions last decade outperformed the Obama bill’s targets. From 2012 to 2020, real-world U.S. emissions were more than 1 billion tons below what the bill would have required, according to my analysis of data from Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm. (Of course, had the bill passed, the U.S. might have done even better.)

Meanwhile, across the economy, companies are learning how to decarbonize. Ford is already producing more electric Mustang Mach-Es than gas-powered Mustangs; General Motors, Honda, Volvo, and Jaguar have promised to stop selling gas cars altogether by 2040. Royal Dutch Shell was court-ordered last month to cut its emissions, and shareholders just forced Exxon to replace a quarter of its board with climate-concerned activist investors. Most important of all, the costs of solar and batteries have declined in the United States by a factor of 10 over the past decade, and the cost of wind has fallen 70%. Ten years ago, virtually no analyst thought they would fall so low. The International Energy Agency made headlines this year when it called solar “the cheapest electricity in history,” but the entire apparatus of renewable energy has seen cost declines.

What gives? America is supposed to be doing nothing right. Yet we’re making progress anyway. How? Why?


Meyer’s argument is that there’s a virtuous cycle (though he calls it the “green vortex”). I’m not sure I buy it. (Also: why do subs allows phrases like “declined by a factor of 10” through? “Fell by 90%”, they mean.)(Thanks G for the link.)
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Amazon is blocking Google’s FLoC — and that could seriously weaken the system • Digiday

Kate Kaye:


Most of Amazon’s properties including Amazon.com, WholeFoods.com and Zappos.com are preventing Google’s tracking system FLoC — or Federated Learning of Cohorts — from gathering valuable data reflecting the products people research in Amazon’s vast e-commerce universe, according to website code analyzed by Digiday and three technology experts who helped Digiday review the code.

Amazon declined to comment on this story.

As Google’s system gathers data about people’s web travels to inform how it categorizes them, Amazon’s under-the-radar move could not only be a significant blow to Google’s mission to guide the future of digital ad tracking after cookies die — it could give Amazon a leg up in its own efforts to sell advertising across what’s left of the open web.

“This move is in direct correlation with Google’s attempt to provide an alternative to the third-party cookie,” said Amanda Martin, vp of enterprise partnerships at digital agency Goodway Group. She called Amazon’s choice to block FLoC on most of its sites another example of the chess moves Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are making as data privacy pressures force the destruction of the foundation of data tracking across the internet: the third party cookie.

With the help of three technologists, Digiday watched last week as Amazon added code to its digital properties to block FLoC from tracking visitors using Google’s Chrome browser.


The post-cookie world is getting so, so complicated. Though one could always hope it will mean the end of those bloody cookie consent popups.
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Nuclear energy: fusion plant backed by Jeff Bezos to be built in UK • BBC News

Matt McGrath:


A company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is set to build a large-scale nuclear fusion demonstration plant in Oxfordshire.

Canada’s General Fusion is one of the leading private firms aiming to turn the promise of fusion into a commercially viable energy source.

The new facility will be built at Culham, home to the UK’s national fusion research programme.
It won’t generate power, but will be 70% the size of a commercial reactor.

General Fusion will enter into a long-term commercial lease with the UK Atomic Energy Authority following the construction of the facility at the Culham campus.

While commercial details have not been disclosed, the development is said to cost around $400m.
It aims to be operational by 2025.

…A major international effort to build a fusion reactor is underway in the south of France with the Iter project. But this $20bn venture has been hampered by delays and isn’t likely to be working effectively until after 2035.

Frustrated by the slow progress, private companies across the world have been following their own approaches, and General Fusion’s effort is seen as one of the most advanced.


“Significant” amounts of government money supplied to make Culham attractive. Good way to keep those who used to work there re-employed.
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Airbus, Cathay ‘Project Connect’ plan to ditch two pilots in cockpit for long-haul flights • Traveller.com


The programme, known within Airbus as Project Connect, aims to certify its A350 jet for single-pilot operations during high-altitude cruise, starting in 2025 on Cathay passenger flights, the sources said.

High hurdles remain on the path to international acceptance. Once cleared, longer flights would become possible with a pair of pilots alternating rest breaks, instead of the three or four currently needed to maintain at least two in the cockpit.

That promises savings for airlines, amid uncertainty over the post-pandemic economics of intercontinental flying. But it is likely to encounter resistance from pilots already hit by mass layoffs, and safety concerns about aircraft automation.

…Proponents suggest single-pilot operations may be accepted by a flying public used to crew leaving the cockpit for bathroom breaks. They also point to higher error rates from human pilots than automated systems.

Both arguments miss the point, according to a source close to Lufthansa – who said the airline’s executives were advised last year that the programme could not meet safety goals.

Flying solo for hours is a “completely different story”, the source said, citing the 2009 AF447 disaster as an example of malfunctions occurring in cruise. The Air France A330’s copilots lost control after its speed sensors failed over the Atlantic, while the captain was resting.

“Airbus would have had to make sure every situation can be handled autonomously without any pilot input for 15 minutes,” the source said. “And that couldn’t be guaranteed.”


But the AF447 crash was caused by too many pilots, or one too many. It’s not an argument against having fewer (better than the unfortunate one who triggered the crash) pilots.
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Aliens wouldn’t need warp drives to take over an entire galaxy, simulation suggests • Gizmodo

George Dvorsky on a study from Columbia University:


Things start off slow in the simulation, but the civilization’s rate of spread really picks up once the power of exponential growth kicks in. But that’s only part of the story; the expansion rate is heavily influenced by the increased density of stars near the galactic center and a patient policy, in which the settlers wait for the stars to come to them, a result of the galaxy spinning on its axis.

The whole process, in which the entire inner galaxy is settled, takes one billion years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s only somewhere between 7% and 9% the total age of the Milky Way galaxy.

Another neat aspect of the video is that it shows a civilization transitioning from Kardashev II status—in which it harnesses the power of entire star systems—to a full-blown Kardashev III civilization, which has tapped into the energy output of the entire galaxy (more about the Kardashev scale here).

That a civilization might want to embark on such an ambitious enterprise might seem implausible, but it’s important to remember Steven J. Dick’s Intelligence Principle, which states that the “maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved,” as the science historian wrote in his 2003 paper, “Cultural Evolution, the Postbiological Universe and SETI.” Our civilization keeps pushing the envelope of what’s possible, and we have no reason to believe this urge will cease any time soon. Hence the assumption that advanced civilizations will eventually seek to occupy every corner of the galaxy and set up camp around precious energy sources, namely stars.


Don’t know whether to be worried or not now. Are they just about to arrive? After all, we’re near the edge of the spiral arm. Or are we being overlooked intentionally or by accident?
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Players take turns to select and color a tile. At the end of a turn, each tile will influence its neighbors by imparting some of its color.

If a tile gains enough color to pass the threshold, it can no longer be selected and will have a dark border. Conversely, a tile can lose its dark border and become selectable if it loses enough color.

The game ends when all tiles pass the color threshold. The player with the most colored tiles wins!


Like a watered-down version of Go, but it’s Friday, enjoy yourself!
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‘The Silicon Valley of turf’: how the UK’s pursuit of the perfect pitch changed football • The Guardian

William Ralston:


When it comes to sports-turf management, the UK is a talent factory like no other. “We’re 10 years more advanced than anywhere else in the world,” Richard Hayden, author of Fifa’s official handbook on pitch maintenance, told me. “If you want to work in technology, you go to Silicon Valley. Well, the UK is the Silicon Valley of turf!”

The English grounds-management sector alone is valued at more than £1bn and employs more than 27,000 people, with specialists in every area, from seed enthusiasts who can breed grasses that grow in the shade to scientists who develop chemicals to make grass greener. In West Yorkshire, the Sports Turf Research Institute is an R&D powerhouse, studying everything from how quickly water passes through different types of sand to how the fineness of a stem of grass influences the roll of a golf ball. In hardware, too, the UK has no rival. Bernhard and Company in Warwickshire make the world’s best sharpening systems for mower blades; Allett, in Staffordshire, provides elite mowing and maintenance equipment, as does Dennis, based in Derbyshire. Dennis mowers are used across the world’s top sports arenas, from Wimbledon to Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. Calderwood uses them at PSG, too.

The turf-care techniques developed in the UK have been applied in tennis, golf, rugby and just about any professional sport that takes place on grass. But it is football, with its vast wealth and global fanbase, that has powered the revolution. No groundskeeper would claim their work was the main reason for any team’s success, but, just as Olympic swimmers don’t compete in beach shorts and professional cyclists shave their legs, top football teams obsess over tiny details that can be the difference between winning or losing. When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, he asked for the grass to be cut to just 19mm, in line with the ultra-fast pitches he had demanded at his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. (In the end he had to settle with 23mm, because short grass is more vulnerable to wear and Manchester’s cold climate means it can’t recover quickly.


Now I really want to know the grass length of each of the pitches that each Euros match is played on. The speed of playing surfaces matters in every sport (that has a playing surface…), yet it’s so overlooked.
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In token crash postmortem, Iron Finance says it suffered crypto’s ‘first large-scale bank run’ • Yahoo Finance

Kevin Reynolds:


A near-total collapse in the price of a share token of a decentralized finance (DeFi) protocol was “the world’s first large-scale crypto bank run,” the people behind Iron Finance said in a blog post providing a postmortem. The run brought the worth of the protocol down from $2bn to near zero on Wednesday.

A “negative feedback loop” was created when a series of large holders tried to redeem their IRON tokens and sell their iron titanium (TITAN), the token of the Iron Protocol, the post said. That, in turn, caused more TITAN holders to run for the virtual hills, leading to what the team labeled “a classic bank run.”

“What we just experienced is the worst thing that could happen to the protocol, a historical bank run in the modern high-tech crypto space,” the post said.

The run was enabled by the fact that Iron Finance is only partly collateralized. It had enough for normal day-to-day operations, but just like in the bank run depicted in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” if everyone wants their money all at once, the bank can’t pay up. Unfortunately for Iron Finance, there was no George Bailey around on Wednesday.


The blogpost itself is pretty much incomprehensible. In essence, as they say, it’s like the bank in Wonderful Life, and the trigger was an arbitrage opportunity – if you sold the token when it was below a certain price, you’d get more than that price in real money. So of course everyone did, which drove the price lower, which increased the arbitrage opportunity. (There’s another writeup here.)

*First* large-scale bank run, demonstrating that cryptoassets have zero inherent value. The folk at Tether, which essentially underpins most crypto exchanges but it only 3% backed by real funds, might be worried.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1573: antitrust laws would stall Apple apps, Facebook plans ads inside Oculus VR, Spotify copies Clubhouse, and more

Under a new rule, the Associated Press won’t name people arrested for minor offences. You may be able to think of one. CC-licensed photo by Andrew Feinberg on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Face the camera. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Obligatory book promo for
Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Out June 24. (Premature bookjaculations still welcomed.)

Apple pre-installed apps would be banned under antitrust package • Bloomberg

Rebecca Kern:


Apple Inc. would be prohibited from pre-installing its own apps on Apple devices under antitrust reform legislation introduced last week, said Democratic Representative David Cicilline, who is leading a push to pass new regulations for U.S. technology companies.

Cicilline told reporters Wednesday that a proposal prohibiting tech platforms from giving an advantage to their own products over those of competitors would mean Apple can’t ship devices with pre-installed apps on its iOS operating platform.

“It would be equally easy to download the other five apps as the Apple one so they’re not using their market dominance to favor their own products and services,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.

The proposal is part of a package of bipartisan bills that would impose significant new constraints on how tech companies operate, restricting acquisitions and forcing them to exit some businesses. The House Judiciary Committee will mark up the five bills in a hearing next week, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s chairman, said.

Cicilline said the self-preferencing prohibition would also apply to Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime subscription service because it disadvantages some sellers who rely on the e-commerce platform.

When asked whether Microsoft Corp., which was subject to an epic antitrust case in the 1990s, would be subject to the measures, Cicilline said it would be up to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to make that determination.


Totally bonkers. Here’s what would actually happen: you’d go to buy a phone in a carrier store (as many people do) and they’d preload their own App Store and a ton of intrusive tracking junk apps.

Is there any evidence that people who are not developers are dissatisfied with how Google and Apple set things up right now? If so, I haven’t seen it.
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Facebook to begin testing ads inside Oculus virtual reality headsets • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


Facebook on Wednesday announced that it will begin testing advertisements that will appear within the company’s Oculus virtual reality headsets.

In May, the company said that it would begin running ads within the Oculus mobile app, but the announcement on Wednesday is the first time the social media company says it will show ads within its VR headsets.

The Oculus headset ads will first appear in the shooter game Blaston from Resolution Games. Ads will also begin appearing in two other Oculus apps over the coming weeks, Facebook said.

Oculus headset ads could be a significant step for Facebook, which derives more than 97% of its overall revenue from advertisements. Currently, those ads are primarily shown to users within the company’s Facebook and Instagram social networks.

Facebook also said these ads could provide new ways for software developers to generate revenue.

The ads will follow Facebook’s advertising principles and give users the same controls they have on Facebook. This includes the ability to hide specific ads or hide those from specific advertisers. Users can also select “Why am I seeing this ad?” to access more information about the ads they are shown.


Why are you seeing this ad? Because, Smith, if you want a picture of the future, imagine an ad being shown on two screens inches from your eyes – forever. Definitely, as Aaron Levie of Box noted wryly, “what VR was missing for mass adoption.”
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Covid doom predictions that never happened • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:


Unfortunately, many of the bad predictions about COVID-19 came true. The people who saw cases ramping up exponentially, and warned that this was going to be a mass death event, were right, while the people who minimized the threat and waved it away were wrong. And a lot of people are dead because we didn’t listen to the former.

But economic predictions are a different story. When unemployment spiked to Great Depression levels in the early days of lockdown, it seemed to me — and to many, many others — like this downturn was destined to turn into a decade of mass economic hardship. Fortunately, that was completely off the mark! I got it very wrong and Paul Krugman got it right — with no financial crisis and no big overhang of debt, the economy simply wasn’t destined for a repeat of 2008-12. Though the recovery has proven bumpy thus far, but most economists still forecast a relatively swift return to the pre-pandemic growth trend.


Pretty much everything that was feared economically didn’t happen – except for (only US?) universities, where roughly 1 in 8 jobs vanished and enrollments for next year are down. Smith admits that Paul Krugman called it correctly, perceiving that this wasn’t a financial crisis, and there was no debt overhang, so things could snap back quickly.
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AP says it will no longer name suspects in minor crimes • Associated Press

David Bauder:


The Associated Press said Tuesday it will no longer run the names of people charged with minor crimes, out of concern that such stories can have a long, damaging afterlife on the internet that can make it hard for individuals to move on with their lives.

In so doing, one of the world’s biggest newsgathering organizations has waded into a debate over an issue that wasn’t of much concern before the rise of search engines, when finding information on people often required going through yellowed newspaper clippings.

Often, the AP will publish a minor story — say, about a person arrested for stripping naked and dancing drunkenly atop a bar — that will hold some brief interest regionally or even nationally and be forgotten the next day.

But the name of the person arrested will live on forever online, even if the charges are dropped or the person is acquitted, said John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards. And that can hurt someone’s ability to get a job, join a club or run for office years later.

The AP, in a directive sent out to its journalists across the country, said it will no longer name suspects or transmit photographs of them in brief stories about minor crimes when there is little chance the organization will cover the case beyond the initial arrest.


A form of the “right to be forgotten”, which has been implemented in Europe since May 2014. Good to see that the AP has finally realised how this “internet” thing works, though.
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Creating a trustworthy reviews experience • About Amazon

Amazon says it blocked more than 200 million fake reviews before they even got onto its sites, but:


Due to our continued improvements in detection of fake reviews and connections between bad-actor buying and selling accounts, we have seen an increasing trend of bad actors attempting to solicit fake reviews outside Amazon, particularly via social media services. Some use social media services on their own; in other cases, they hire a third-party service provider to perpetrate this activity on their behalf. However, bad actors regularly try to take this transaction outside Amazon to obscure our ability to detect their activity and the relationship between the multiple accounts committing or benefiting from this abuse. As a result, we use a number of techniques, including advanced machine learning, to try to detect groups of connected entities—customer accounts, selling accounts, products, brands, and more. However, it’s also clear that this is an industry-wide battle, and we need to work together to make faster progress.

When we detect fake reviews that may have been perpetrated outside Amazon, we regularly report the activity to the social media company where it occurred. In the first three months of 2020, we reported more than 300 groups to social media companies, who then took a median time of 45 days to shut down those groups from using their service to perpetrate abuse. In the first three months of 2021, we reported more than 1,000 such groups, with social media services taking a median time of five days to take them down. While we appreciate that some social media companies have become much faster at responding, to address this problem at scale, it is imperative for social media companies to invest adequately in proactive controls to detect and enforce fake reviews ahead of our reporting the issue to them.


Basically blaming Facebook, without naming Facebook. Part of the big problem is that the “fake” reviews often come from people who have effectively been bribed to give a good review. (Possibly the motive behind the removal of a few brands from Amazon recently.)
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The COVID-19 lab leak theory is short on evidence and long on guesswork • Foreign Policy

Justin Ling:


The lab leak theory says the furin cleavage site, a tiny enzyme dangling from the virus, is key to understanding the novel coronavirus’s origin.

Goldstein agrees. But, he said, that cleavage site actually points toward the virus’s natural origin.

“You cannot, in a normal cell culture, maintain the furin cleavage site,” he told me. When the COVID-19 virus is replicated in a cell culture in a lab, he said, the furin cleavage tends to delete itself. A peer-reviewed paper, published in late April in Nature, noted that habit and identified seven other papers that found a similar deletion.

So if researchers were using traditional methods and their preferred cell lines to try to force the virus to replicate, mutate, and change, the furin cleavage site would likely disappear.

The gain-of-function proponents say this furin site is too well adapted for humans to be an accident. But Goldstein said the opposite is true. The cleavage site is imperfect, so odd, that it could have only been a freak of nature. “No virologist would use that cleavage site,” he said.

It is possible to replicate the virus in a lab while preserving the cleavage site, Goldstein added, but it would “require doing things differently than everyone does them.” And, crucially, it would require them choosing cell cultures that replicate the virus more slowly.

So the researchers would have had to make a series of inefficient and strange decisions to preserve a tiny, novel, odd enzyme. Indeed, the researchers at Imperial College London behind the April Nature article found that the addition of four amino acids in the virus’s spike protein “occurred during its emergence from an animal reservoir and created a suboptimal furin [cleavage site].” Another study published in January in Stem Cell Research demonstrated how these furin sites naturally evolve in many coronaviruses.


Sure that we’re going to see the Daily Mail and NY Post and WSJ write up that research real soon now. (Thanks G for the link.) We all became epidemiologists, and now we’re all becoming virology genomic experts.
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Segmentation faults: how machine learning trains us to appear insane to one another • doxa

Jon Stokes:


Imagine a world where the following things are true:

1. Big Tech platforms make money by micro-targeting ads to their users, so that ads that are more accurately and narrowly tailored are more valuable to platforms and advertisers than ads that are more general.
2. Following on the above, the more fine-grained segments you can slice your audience into, the better you can service the long tail of advertisers. So there’s an ad-driven market for audience segmentation that the platforms want to meet.
3. Advertising works, and in general, a human’s behaviors, preferences, values, and even basic tenets of their worldview can be modified by the media they’re exposed to.
4. Our society is getting more fragmented and polarized, as existing groups splinter apart online and new, often smaller groups and clusters form around different ideas, claims, worldviews, and identity characteristics.

I understand there are legitimate objections to each point above, but just go with it for a moment. Imagine that the above accurately describes our present social reality in 2021.

If I’m right, then it seems quite possible that the first items in the list above — i.e., tech platforms have created a lucrative advertising market for an atomized, segmented audience — is leading directly to the last item in the list — i.e, to our increasingly atomized, segmented public.


In the “great minds thinking alike” category, I’d offer this as Jon coming up with the same realisation about how (some elements of) social warming emerge as me. Though he chose a different name for the phenomenon.
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Spotify’s Clubhouse competitor Greenroom is here • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Spotify’s live audio app, Greenroom, formally launched on Wednesday on iOS and Android, marking the company’s first real attempt at creating a social media platform. The social audio app, which is similar to Clubhouse, allows users to host live conversations about sports, music, and culture.

Today’s launch doesn’t come with a marquee creator announcement or specific event planned, but instead, the company is taking the opportunity to encourage people to sign up and figure out how they’ll want to use the app. Some of its core functionality, a person close to the situation says, will eventually make its way to the actual Spotify app, so the team will monitor what happens in Greenroom closely.

The app is built on Locker Room, which Betty Labs created and Spotify acquired in March. That app focused solely on sports content, so users who have been logged on since the start will have to get used to seeing more than just sports talk, which is likely the biggest change. Other noticeable changes to the app are mostly visual. It now has a Spotify green-and-black color scheme, as well as a new logo and font. Functionality-wise, it also now features native recording, which will allow users to save their shows and distribute them as podcasts. (Of course, Spotify owns Anchor, so one could easily imagine shows eventually being natively moved to the creation software for further editing and publishing.)


This seems like a better idea than Clubhouse, inasmuch as it’s about sports – and people like talking about sports, which also gives it a structure by default, based on the time of events.

Anyway, remember Clubhouse? If these Statista figures are reliable, it’s not quite dead. Interest is biggest in Asia, while in the US it’s totally fizzled.
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Cryptocurrency miners bought 700,000 GPUs in Q1 2021 • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


According to JPR, component prices for GPUs have increased by as much as 70%. I’m perfectly willing to believe that board manufacturers have boosted their own prices to compensate for that, but the current GPU market remains ludicrously inflated. Component prices may be up 70%, but GPU prices have been up 2.5x – 4x.

The data below does not include the notebook market. “DT PC w/o WS” means “Desktop PC without workstations,” meaning Quadro and Radeon Pro shipments are not included here.

Attach rates — the percentage of PCs that ship with a discrete graphics card — have trended downwards in the desktop market, with a very clear bump towards the end of 2020. Note, however, that even as the graphics attach rate has dropped once more, the total number of AIB (Add-In Boards) being sold has skyrocketed. In other words: we’re not seeing a huge demand spike because OEMs like Dell, HP, and Lenovo are suddenly selling lots of systems with high-end graphics cards. We’re seeing a huge spike in AIB shipments because of cryptocurrency mining. The last time AIB shipments sparked like this was 2017-2018. That time period corresponds to the second cryptocurrency bubble.

JPR estimates that miners bought 700,000 midrange and high-end GPUs in Q1 2021, accounting for about 25% of the AIB market and roughly half a billion dollars in cash. None of that revenue flows to Nvidia or AMD; it’s all being captured by the channel partners. JPR notes that electricity prices in Mongolia are around 4.5 cents per kW, explaining how these farms remain profitable (and why it’s impossible to compete with them if you have to pay residential rates for electricity).


Compared to the PC market, of around 70m units per quarter, that… doesn’t feel that big?
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Now the UK is investigating the Apple and Google duopoly • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:


The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has announced that it’s investigating both Apple and Google over its smartphone operating systems, app stores, and web browsers (h/t: Android Central). More specifically, the authority says it’s checking whether the two companies are stifling competition across a variety of digital markets.

“The CMA is concerned this could lead to reduced innovation across the sector and consumers paying higher prices for devices and apps, or for other goods and services due to higher advertising prices,” read an excerpt of the announcement. This investigation will also look at the power Apple and Google have over businesses like app developers.

This announcement doesn’t name any specific third-party apps or companies, but the likes of Spotify, Tinder owner Match, and Tile have all criticized Apple and Google’s business practices in recent months. These criticisms center on the app store holder’s cut of sales, changes to app store rules, and competing products by platform holders.

Google has already been slapped on the wrist over its Android-related practices. The firm was previously slapped with a $5bn fine by the EU in 2018 for requiring OEMs to bundle specific apps, incentivizing the use of its products, and preventing OEMs from running Android forks. Meanwhile, Apple is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Epic that could have major ramifications for its App Store and iPhone business practices.


Views from anyone welcome to July 26, and the CMA would particularly like to hear from app developers. CMA is giving itself 12 months to conclude the study.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1572: AirBnB’s hush-money team, Lina Khan to chair FTC, US gets antitrust-y, PGP turns 30, China’s (radiation) leak, and more

The NeXTStep code that built the first web browser at Cern: now you can buy an authorised copy of this free software. CC-licensed photo by United States Mission Geneva on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. In antitrust we trust. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Contains no football:
Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Available in all formats. Except film.

Inside Airbnb’s ‘black box’ safety team: company spends millions on payouts • Bloomberg

Olivia Carville:


That team is made up of about 100 agents in Dublin, Montreal, Singapore, and other cities. Some have emergency-services or military backgrounds. Team members have the autonomy to spend whatever it takes to make a victim feel supported, including paying for flights, accommodation, food, counseling, health costs, and sexually transmitted disease testing for rape survivors. A former agent who was at Airbnb for five years describes the approach as shooting “the money cannon.” The team has relocated guests to hotel rooms at 10 times the cost of their booking, paid for round-the-world vacations, and even signed checks for dog-counseling sessions. “We go the extra mile to ensure anyone impacted on our platform is taken care of,” Bunch says. “We don’t really worry about the brand and image component. That stuff will take care of itself as long as you do the right thing.”

Former agents recall cases where they had to counsel guests hiding in wardrobes or running from secluded cabins after being assaulted by hosts. Sometimes the guests were the perpetrators, as with an incident when one was found in bed, naked, with his host’s 7-year-old daughter. Agents have had to hire body-fluid crews to clean blood off carpets, arrange for contractors to cover bullet holes in walls, and deal with hosts who discover dismembered human remains.

The work can be so stressful that agents have access to cool-down rooms with dimmed lighting to create a soothing atmosphere for answering harrowing calls. And it can take a heavy toll. Some former agents say they suffer from vicarious trauma. On the job they tried to remember that everything that happens in life can happen in an Airbnb. That perspective was drilled into new recruits during 12-week training sessions: Just as nightclubs can’t eliminate sexual assaults and hotels can’t stop human trafficking, Airbnb can’t prevent bad actors from using its platform.


Well, sort of, except for the quote from Chris Sacca, who turned down the chance to invest at an early stage because he could see problems were inevitable.
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Web inventor Berners-Lee to auction original code as NFT • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:


Sir Tim Berners-Lee is auctioning his original source code for the web in the form of a “non-fungible token”, as digital collectibles continue to fetch millions of dollars despite the recent sell-off in cryptocurrencies.

The auction at Sotheby’s will be the first time that Berners-Lee has been able to raise money directly from one of the greatest inventions of the modern era, with the proceeds benefiting initiatives that he and his wife Rosemary support.

“The idea is somebody might like a digitally signed version of the code, a bit like plenty of people have asked for physically autographed copies of the book,” Berners-Lee said.

Auctioneers hope that the one-of-a-kind digital artefact will ignite interest in NFTs beyond their mainstay of artworks, games and sports memorabilia. Investment in NFTs has waned since March’s record-breaking $69.3m sale of Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Berners-Lee, 66, said the auction was an “opportunity to look back . . . 30 years on from the initial code, which was very, very simple, to the state [of the web] now, which has some wonderfully simple aspects to it but also has a lot of issues of various sorts”.


Written in NeXTStep, and he was at a NeXTStep developers’ conference ready to show the code to Steve Jobs – it was Jobs’s NeXT boxes that the code ran on – when Jobs was pulled away by an aide to catch his plane back to the US. One of those amazing meetings that didn’t happen.

Whether this will successfully goose the market for NFTs, who knows. I’d rather have a signed printout of the code. A bit 20th century, perhaps.
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Ikea and Sonos want you to hang your speakers on a wall • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:


According to Ikea, a major problem with home speakers is that people don’t know exactly where to put them without sticking out like a sore thumb. The benefit of the picture frame form factor is that it makes use of vertical wall space, and is meant to be showcased as opposed to hidden. This tracks with the first two Symfonisk speakers [with Sonos], which launched in 2019. One doubled as a table lamp, while the other could work as a bookshelf.

“We’re making it possible to furnish with sound, rather than speakers,” said Stjepan Begic, product developer at Ikea, during the launch event.

There will be two versions that come in white or black and can be mounted or placed on the floor against a wall. It comes with a 3.5-meter cable, and the extraneous cord can be spooled in a cavity in the back. If you buy two, you can also create a daisy chain to power them with a single cable. The buttons are on the backside, and the frame itself only extends 6 cm from the wall. For connectivity, the speakers support AirPlay 2 and Wi-Fi, but not Bluetooth.


Seems to me the big problem here is the power cord. Either you actually plaster it into the walls, which isn’t a trivial task (chiselling! Plastering/filling! Painting, possibly a whole chunk of wall!), or you just let it dangle, which is going to be unsightly. However, you can just rest it – like any other speaker – on a table or similar.

Smart of Sonos to get in with Ikea like this: a smart way to expand its business without having to build gigantic stores.
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Pandemic push: tablet shipments up 53% YoY in Q1 2021 • Counterpoint Research


The global tablet market saw a big revival during the pandemic, emerging from a long slump. The market grew by 19% YoY in 2020 due to the increasing demand for large-screen mobile devices spurred by remote work, online education and extended stay-at-home orders. Continuing the growth trajectory, the market grew 53% YoY in Q1 2021 after reaching a five-year high in Q4 2020, according to Counterpoint Research’s latest Global Tablet Market Report. However, in QoQ terms, it came down by 22% due to the quarter being an off-season period.

…The top tablet makers seem to have benefited from less competition in the growing market. Many [smaller] tablet players had earlier downsized or closed the business, while Huawei sharply lost its share due to the US ban.

…Apple sold 33% more iPad units worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, and continued to lead the market, expanding its share to 37% in Q1 2021. Despite the off-season effect, Apple improved its performance in all major regions, particularly in Japan, where its sales continued to hit all-time highs. Senior Analyst Liz Lee said, “The basic iPad models accounted for 56% of the overall iPad shipments in Q1 2021. The iPad Air and iPad Pro series came next with 19% and 18% shares, respectively.


The tablet market still belongs, essentially, to Apple. But the rise in demand is remarkable. Work, or leisure? I don’t think the analysts know.
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The Cicilline salvo • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:


[Each of the four antitrust bills introduced in the US Congress] is obviously targeting the aforementioned big four consumer tech companies, but Microsoft, despite not being a target of the subcommittee, clearly falls under the definition. There may be more covered companies as well, if not now then in the near future:

• Visa has a market cap of $515bn, and processes $11 trillion in payments. Obviously the vast majority of those payments go to merchants, and the largest portion of credit card fees go to banks, but “net annual sales” is not clearly limited to a company’s actual revenue; meanwhile, the company is clearly covered under the second definition of an online platform (Mastercard has a market cap of $363bn).
• JPMorgan Chase has a market cap of $477bn and total assets of $3.7 trillion. Obviously the bank would argue it is not an “online platform” and that “net annual sales” is different than assets, but the former in particular seems like a questionable distinction.
• Walmart has a market cap of $394bn and a gross merchandise volume (GMV) of around $439bn and is estimated to have 80,000 marketplace sellers, up from 50,000 a year ago.
• PayPal has a market cap of $323bn and total payment volume of $277bn, up 39% year-over-year.
• Shopify has a market cap of $162bn and GMV of $119bn, which nearly doubled year-over-year.

At a minimum “net annual sales” needs to be more clearly defined: is it total payment volume, gross merchandise value, or company revenue? And what specifically makes something an online platform — and why do we care about the difference?


It’s clearly something of a mess, and not very clear how it will play out. Are they going to offer “theme park” exceptions where if you have retail stores (Walmart) or offer process credit card payments (Visa, Mastercard) you’re OK? Except that would get Apple and, well, the other companies off.
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Tech antitrust pioneer Lina Khan will lead FTC, reports say • The Verge

Russell Brandom and Makena Kelly:


“The Biden administration’s designation of Lina Khan as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission is tremendous news,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who championed breaking up Big Tech in her 2020 presidential campaign, said in a statement Tuesday. “Lina brings deep knowledge and expertise to this role and will be a fearless champion for consumers.”

The news broke during a Senate Judiciary antitrust hearing on smart home tech Tuesday, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that Khan would act as chairwoman of the FTC, surprising many in the audience. Multiple news outlets have gone on to confirm Klobuchar’s statements. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Verge.

First nominated in March, Khan will give Democrats a majority on the commission, filling a vacancy left by Republican appointee and chair Joseph Simons who resigned in January. Khan’s appointment signals an increased focus on antitrust regulation against major tech companies, which has been a focus of her legal scholarship. Khan rose to prominence after a 2017 paper, titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” arguing that new antitrust statutes were necessary to prevent anti-competitive behavior from online platforms like Amazon. More recently, Khan played a significant staff role in assembling the House Antitrust report on competition in digital markets.


Looks like it’s antitrust season in the US.
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I saw millions compromise their Facebook accounts to fuel fake engagement • Rest of World

Sophie Zhang:


While my work at Facebook protecting elections and civic discourse has been widely reported on, that was conducted in my spare time. My actual job and team focused on stopping the use of inauthentic accounts to create engagement through likes, comments, shares, fans, and more. Such accounts are rare in the West, but common in the Global South. 

During my time at Facebook, I saw compromised accounts functioning in droves in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. Most of these accounts were commandeered through autolikers: online programs which promise users automatic likes and other engagement for their posts. Signing up for the autoliker, however, requires the user to hand over account access. Then, these accounts join a bot farm, where their likes and comments are delivered to other autoliker users, or sold en masse, even while the original user maintains ownership of the account. Although motivated by money rather than politics — and far less sophisticated than government-run human troll farms — the sheer quantity of these autoliker programs can be dangerous. 

Self-compromise was a widespread problem, and possibly the largest single source of existing inauthentic activity on Facebook during my time there. While actual fake accounts can be banned, Facebook is unwilling to disable the accounts of real users who share their accounts with a bot farm. 


Well that explains a lot.
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How software is eating the car • IEEE Spectrum

Robert Charette:


Ten years ago, only premium cars contained 100 microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) networked throughout the body of a car, executing 100 million lines of code or more. Today, high-end cars like the BMW 7-series with advanced technology like advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) may contain 150 ECUs or more, while pick-up trucks like Ford’s F-150 top 150 million lines of code. Even low-end vehicles are quickly approaching 100 ECUs and 100 million of lines of code as more features that were once considered luxury options, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, are becoming standard.

…Vard Antinyan, a software quality expert at Volvo Cars who has written extensively about software and system complexity, explains that as of 2020, “Volvo has a superset of about 120 ECUs from which it selects to create a system architecture present within every Volvo vehicle. Altogether, they comprise a total of 100 million lines of source code.” This source code, Antinyan says, “contains 10 million conditional statements as well as 3 million functions, which are invoked some 30 million places in the source code.”

How much and what types of software resides in each ECU varies greatly, depending on, among other things, the computing capability of the ECU, the functions the ECU controls, the internal and external information and communications required to be processed and whether they are event or time triggered, along with mandated safety and other regulatory requirements. Over the past decade, more ECU software has been dedicated to ensuring operational quality, reliability, safety and security.

“The amount of software written to detect misbehavior to ensure quality and safety is increasing,” says Nico Hartmann, Vice President of ZF’s Software Solutions & Global Software Center at ZF Friedrichshafen AG, one of the world’s largest suppliers of automotive components. Where perhaps a third of an ECU’s software was dedicated to ensuring quality operations ten years ago, it is now often more than half or more, especially in safety critical systems, Hartmann states.


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PGP’s 30th Anniversary • Phil Zimmermann

Earlier this month marked the 30th anniversary of Zimmermann uploading the code to the internet:


In 2004, Robert Morris Sr., who had retired from NSA, told me that when PGP first appeared on the scene along with its source code, the NSA was particularly worried that the source code would show a lot of people how to develop strong public key crypto software, and the skills would proliferate.

Here we are, three decades later, and strong crypto is everywhere. What was glamorous in the 1990s is now mundane. So much has changed in those decades. That’s a long time in dog years and technology years. My own work shifted to end-to-end secure telephony and text messaging. We now have ubiquitous strong crypto in our browsers, in VPNs, in e-commerce and banking apps, in IoT products, in disk encryption, in the TOR network, in cryptocurrencies. And in a resurgence of implementations of the OpenPGP protocol. It would seem impossible to put this toothpaste back in the tube.

Yet we now see a number of governments trying to do exactly that. Pushing back against end-to-end encryption. We see it in Australia, the UK, the US, and other liberal democracies. Twenty years after we all thought we won the Crypto Wars. Do we have to mobilize again? Veterans of the Crypto Wars may have trouble fitting into their old uniforms. Remember that scene in The Incredibles when Mr. Incredible tries to squeeze into his old costume? We are going to need fresh troops.

The need for protecting our right to a private conversation has never been stronger. Many democracies are sliding into populist autocracies. Ordinary citizens and grassroots political opposition groups need to protect themselves against these emerging autocracies as best as they can. If an autocracy inherits or builds a pervasive surveillance infrastructure, it becomes nearly impossible for political opposition to organize, as we can see in China. Secure communication is necessary for grassroots political opposition in those societies.

It’s not only personal freedom at stake. It’s national security. The reckless deployment of Huawei 5G infrastructure across Europe has created easy opportunities for Chinese SIGINT. End-to-end encryption products are essential for European national security, to counter a hostile SIGINT environment controlled by China. We must push back hard in policy space to preserve the right to end-to-end encryption.


The point of weakness now isn’t getting E2EE out there; it’s the app stores for phones, which have become our primary means of communicating. (Sending encrypted email is a guaranteed way of getting a visit from the security services in a country where you’re a suspect, of course.)
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How serious is the nuclear power plant radiation leak in China? • New Scientist

Adam Vaughan:


Do we know what’s causing the problem?

Framatome parent firm EDF, which has a 30% stake in the company that owns the plant, said yesterday that the problem appears to be an issue with the casing of one or more fuel rods. Rods contain the uranium used to create a fission reaction. In a statement, EDF said there had been an “increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit” in reactor number one at the power station. The primary circuit is the part of the plant that transfers heat from the reactor to water, generating steam and producing electricity. The noble gases include krypton and xenon.

Has there been a radiation leak?

Yes. New Scientist understands there has been a radiation leak at the plant. However, it is solely within the primary circuit, which is within multiple layers of containment. The radiation leak doesn’t extend beyond the circuit and no radioactive material has been detected outside the plant. “If the inert gases are in the primary coolant then it is unlikely that any radioactivity will be released outside of the reactor,” says Claire Corkhill of the University of Sheffield, UK.

How long has this been going on for?

EDF first received reports of increases in contamination in the primary circuit in October 2020. The government of Hong Kong, which is 130 kilometres from the plant, has said there was an “operational event” at the plant on 5 April, which involved the release of a “very small amount of gas”. The gas wasn’t named.


Watching brief on this one. Anyway, finally we can all agree there has been a leak in China.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1571: valuing our content-driven lives, fake chips boom, the shipping container crisis, how graphs got started, and more

A few days ago, Mark Zuckerberg offered Roger Waters a lot of money to use Another Brick in The Wall in an advert. The response, was, well… CC-licensed photo by AleBoSS on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. That’s not how you play Breakout. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Still a few days to preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Apparently WH Smith has had at least one premature bookjaculation, with one reader (👋 JoeOC) receiving theirs. Other reports welcome.

How memes become money • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:


What counts as user content—and is thus for sale—can be defined more broadly still: Some of the biggest IP disputes on the social audio app Clubhouse, for example, have been over general premises for interaction. In February 2021, a group of friends who’d been gathering in an Asian-diaspora chat set up a new chat room where people pretended to moan like whales. Then a bunch of influencers heard how popular it was and made rip-offs. Around the same time, a group of white NYU students were accused of stealing the idea of a “shoot your shot” dating-show room from the many Black creators who had been hosting similar rooms for months. The students have now signed on with a major talent agency, with the goal of creating a “cross-platform franchise.”

At this point, when most of our interactions happen in this handful of highly commodified spaces, who could be blamed for feeling like everything they do is—or at least feels like—commerce? “I’m actually very torn on this,” says Stacey Lantagne, a law professor at the University of Mississippi who researches copyright in the digital age. She’s seen white influencers steal ideas from people of color who never see any compensation, and she wants this to be corrected somehow. Yet it’s difficult to advocate for fairness without perpetuating the logic that all human expression can and should be for sale. “I’m really resistant to the idea that everything we do needs to be owned,” Lantagne told me.

…Selling an NFT of a tweet isn’t about fostering an audience or creating a sustainable source of income to support a creative life. It’s the newest, most direct way of converting attention into money, and of plucking a unit of content out of its cultural context—the conversation it was part of, the historical moment that made it significant, the people who saw it and got excited about it—and presenting it for purchase.

It’s appropriate to give credit to people for their creativity and compensate them for their labor. It’s empowering to siphon value from the social-media companies that have been making billions off our personal lives. But it’s also a kind of giving up.


(Thanks G for the link.)
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Heatwave scorches the Middle East • NASA Earth Observatory


With meteorological summer just underway, some parts of the Northern Hemisphere were already feeling the heat in early June 2021. In particular, the early-season heat has been scorching countries across the Middle East.

The map above shows air temperatures in the region on June 6, 2021. The map was derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model and depicts air temperatures at 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) above the ground. The darkest red areas are where the model shows temperatures around 50°C (122°F).

The GEOS model, like all weather and climate models, uses mathematical equations that represent physical processes (such as precipitation and cloud processes) to calculate what the atmosphere will do. Actual measurements of physical properties, like temperature, moisture, and winds, are routinely folded into the model to keep the simulation as close to observed reality as possible.

Indeed, local ground stations recorded temperatures that climbed above the 50°C mark in at least four Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to news reports, Sweihan in the UAE hit 51.8°C (125.2°F) on June 6, 2021, which was the country’s highest temperature on record for the month of June. Countries in Central and South Asia were also reported to have seen extraordinarily high temperatures for the time of year.


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YouTube is ground zero for fraudulent election audit advocacy • Media Matters for America

Olivia Little and Kellie Levine:


YouTube has become the epicentre of fraudulent election audit advocacy, even though this content seems to violate the platform’s election misinformation guidelines. Fifteen right-wing YouTube channels are spreading videos that promote the Arizona audit — and sometimes advocate for more such audits in other states — in a push to justify the illegitimate process. 

By housing this extremist election misinformation (which is reliant on the debunked claim that the 2020 election was stolen, an idea that led to the January 6 Capitol insurrection), YouTube has become complicit in its rapid spread. Some of these videos also run ads, meaning both the creator and YouTube are benefiting financially.

Arizona is conducting an audit of ballots in Maricopa County in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The Arizona audit is rooted in baseless conspiracy theories about the outcome of the presidential election and has sparked interest in similar efforts in other states, including Michigan, Georgia, and New Hampshire. 

There are at least 15 active YouTube channels that are sharing videos and livestreams with “updates” on the right-wing push for election audits, sometimes relying on right-wing media sources known for spreading misinformation. This content appears to violate YouTube’s election misinformation policy, which prohibits “content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of any past U.S. presidential election.” Despite this policy, the 15 channels had accumulated over 54 million combined views as of June 10.


Faintly related, from Reuters:


YouTube will no longer allow political or election ads in its coveted masthead spot at the top of the site’s homepage nor ads for alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs, it said on Monday.

In an email to advertisers, seen by Reuters, YouTube said the change built on its move last year to retire all full-day masthead ads.


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ERCOT calls on Texans to conserve power amid high summer demand, forced outages • KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR Station

Mose Buchele:


The Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Monday asked people to conserve energy throughout the week as the supply of electricity on the Texas grid ran the risk of falling short of demand.

Texans should reduce their electricity use through Friday, ERCOT said.

It is the second time the state’s grid operator has made such a request since devastating blackouts gripped Texas in February.

In a media release, ERCOT blamed the tight grid conditions on more electric generators than usual being shut down for repairs. The grid operator said 11,000 megawatts of generation capacity — about the amount of energy it takes to power 2.2 million homes on a summer day — is unavailable due to those forced outages. One megawatt of electricity can usually power about 200 homes on a summer day.

According to ERCOT, about 73% of that unavailable power comes from “thermal” generators, typically gas and coal plants, being offline.

…At a signing ceremony last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”

But grid experts have warned that the risk of big blackouts remains unless the state does more to overhaul its deregulated energy market and provide more backup power in times of emergency. They say that risk will only increase as the temperature rises, unless more electric generators are brought back online.

“I shudder to think what things would be [like] if we were actually having a heat wave,” said Dan Cohan, a civil engineering professor at Rice University.


This isn’t caused by a heat wave? And they still haven’t confronted the problem.
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Why we are in a shipping crisis that’s sparking shortages • Business Insider

Rachel Premack with a deep look at the many moving (not fast enough, not in the right place) parts in the global supply chain:


By late January 2021, some 55 vessels were crowded around the LA and Long Beach ports, reportedly sitting in the ocean for up to two weeks. FreightWaves noted that it took longer for some of these ships just to get unloaded than it was for them to cross the Pacific. 

Why is there a delay to unload these ships? The boom in demand is, of course, one leading reason. American ports are also seeing a shortage of labor. There’s an ongoing shortage of the longshoremen who who undertake the critical task of getting these containers off the ship and onto trucks or trains. Dozens were quarantined due to the coronavirus at varying points last year.

Above all, when something goes astray with ocean shipping, there’s a major butterfly effect. A ship that’s unloaded two weeks late in Los Angeles is also going to be two weeks late when it arrives back in, say, Chittagong, Bangladesh to load up on IKEA furniture. The ship before that may have been two weeks late, too, so the carrier might just cancel the ship IKEA was expecting space on, Sundboell said. Then IKEA will have to scramble for another way to move your nightstand — and potentially every order they had after that, which will now be pushed down the road.

Halfway into 2021, the situation has not improved.

There’s another shortage giving rise to our shortages: A lack of shipping containers. Or rather, a lack of containers where they need to be.


The thing to watch apparently is the Drewry World Container Index: prices per container have risen more than threefold since June last year.
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Five new bills aim to break up Big Tech platforms, force them to play nice • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:


“Right now, unregulated tech monopolies have too much power over our economy,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who introduced one of the bills. “They are in a unique position to pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers, and put folks out of work. Our agenda will level the playing field and ensure the wealthiest, most powerful tech monopolies play by the same rules as the rest of us.”

“Big Tech companies are stifling American innovation with their monopolistic behavior,” said Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.), who co-sponsored two of the bills. “By acquiring their competition and eliminating alternatives in the marketplace, they are denying fair access to the free market for small businesses across the country.”

While the legislation would not ban the platforms outright, it would subject companies to new regulations that would constrain their ability to provide certain products and services, while leveling the playing field for competitors.


The analysis of the bills that I’ve seen suggests they’re so far over the top that they’d effectively ban platforms from offering any sort of useful services at all. Don’t expect the bills to survive in this form, but it’s going to be a concern for the companies.
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When graphs are a matter of life and death • The New Yorker

Hannah Fry:


auto race of the season is looming; it will be broadcast live on national television and could bring major prize money. If his team wins, it will get a sponsorship deal and a chance to start making some real profits for a change.

There’s just one problem. In seven of the past twenty-four races, the engine in the Carter Racing car has blown out. An engine failure live on TV will jeopardize sponsorships—and the driver’s life. But withdrawing has consequences, too. The wasted entry fee means finishing the season in debt, and the team won’t be happy about the missed opportunity for glory. As Burns’s First Law of Racing says, “Nobody ever won a race sitting in the pits.”

One of the engine mechanics has a hunch about what’s causing the blowouts. He thinks that the engine’s head gasket might be breaking in cooler weather. To help Carter decide what to do, a graph is devised that shows the conditions during each of the blowouts: the outdoor temperature at the time of the race plotted against the number of breaks in the head gasket. The dots are scattered into a sort of crooked smile across a range of temperatures from about fifty-five degrees to seventy-five degrees.

The upcoming race is forecast to be especially cold, just forty degrees, well below anything the cars have experienced before. So: race or withdraw?

This case study, based on real data, and devised by a pair of clever business professors, has been shown to students around the world for more than three decades. Most groups presented with the Carter Racing story look at the scattered dots on the graph and decide that the relationship between temperature and engine failure is inconclusive. Almost everyone chooses to race. Almost no one looks at that chart and asks to see the seventeen missing data points—the data from those races which did not end in engine failure.


I too fell into the cognitive trap. You get shown the proper graph. Then Fry hits you with the real punch: that data isn’t from car racing. A fascinating read – especially if you’ve never seen an Ibry graph of train lines.
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The global chip shortage is creating a new problem: more fake components • ZDNet

Daphne Leprince-Ringuet:


the current times are opening up a golden opportunity for electronic component counterfeiters and fraudsters to step in.  

“If next week, you need to get 5,000 parts or your line will shut down, you will be in a situation of distress purchase and you will put your guard down,” Diganta Das, a researcher in counterfeit electronics at the Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE), tells ZDNet. “You won’t keep to your rules of verifying the vendor or going through test processes. This is likely to become a big problem.” 

As part of his research, Das regularly monitors counterfeit reporting databases like ERAI, and although it is too early to notice a surge, he is confident that the number of reports will start growing in the next six months as companies realize they have been sold illegal parts. 

The problem, of course, is unlikely to affect tech giants whose reliance on semiconductors is such that they have implemented robust supply chains, and will typically only purchase components directly from chip manufacturers. 

Those at risk rather include low-volume manufacturers whose supply chain for semiconductors is less established – but it could include companies in sectors that are as critical as defence, healthcare and even automotive.


The last time counterfeiting was a big problem in chips was when cheap capacitors screwed up various PC manufacturers from 2002.
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Facebook asked Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters for “Another Brick in the Wall II” to promote Instagram. He told Zuckerberg… • Boing Boing

Mark Frauenfelder reports what Roger Waters said (at a meeting seeking to get Julian Assange freed):


This is something that I actually put in my folder when I came out here today, you have no idea what it is. Nobody does because it arrived on the internet to me this morning. It’s a request for the rights to use my song, “Another Brick in the Wall II” in the making of a film to promote Instagram.

So it’s a missive. It’s a missive from Mark Zuckerberg, to me, right? Arrived this morning with an offer of a huge, huge amount of money. And the answer is, “Fuck you. No fucking way.”

And I only mention that because this is insidious. It’s the insidious movement of them to take over absolutely everything you know. So those of us who do have any power, and I do have a little bit in terms of the control of the publishing of my songs I do anyways, so I will not be a party to this bullshit, Zuckerberg.

[Quoting email]: We want to thank you for considering this project, we feel that the core sentiment of this song is still so prevalent and necessary today, which speaks to how timeless the work…”

It’s true. And yet they want us, they want us to join it. They want to use it to make Facebook and Instagram even bigger and more powerful than it already is. So that it can continue to censor all of us in this room and prevent this story about Julian Assange getting out to the general public so the general public could go “What? What? No, no more.”


What I like about Waters is that even at 77 years old, he’s still a moody teenager who sees the world in black and white. (I bet he doesn’t tidy his room either.) That’s an asset for creativity: always something to grind against.

Also, wanting to use “Brick in the Wall” is the most unimaginative choice. (Yes, OK, it was their biggest single.) Wouldn’t “Money” work better for Instagram? Or maybe “One Of These Days” – the lyrics certainly fit what Facebook’s effects are.
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pOrtal, a seamless sci-fi video link between cities ª Kottke


pOrtal is a project that allows for people in two different locations to interact via circular video screens. Right now, the link is between Vilnius, Lithuania and Lublin, Poland but there are plans to add more cities (Reykjavik/Vilnius and Vilnius/London to start). The production is a bit over-the-top (e.g. the video), but the idea of fun, seamless, sci-fi presence between two locations is a good one.


The concept is rather like a Doctor Who or other SF trope: you can see the people through there, but you can’t touch them. It’s simultaneously great and frustrating. (That link goes to the equal best Doctor Who episode ever. The other equal best is Blink. Don’t @ me.)
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AT&T graciously offers free device downgrades for customers affected by 3G shutdown • Android Police

Jules Wang:


AT&T is shutting down its 3G network next February and is prepared to give its customers a new phone for free lest their current one becomes useless —that is, they can’t place calls over LTE. Just don’t expect the carrier to go to great costs for your replacement.

Mobile subscribers recently received the latest in a string of emails about the 3G shutdown telling them about the free phone offer. All they have to do is head to att.com/AcceptMyPhone, verify their phone number, and then they’ll be able to arrange for the new phone to arrive in a few weeks.

The new phone customers will get is the AT&T RADIANT Core. It was introduced as an option for the comapny’s prepaid customers in October of 2019 with an MSRP of $70 (though it’s half off at the moment) and comes with a 480p display, a single 5MP rear camera, 16GB of storage (it takes a 64GB microSD card, though), 1GB of RAM, a removable 2,500mAh battery, and Android 9 Pie (Go edition). Hey, at least it has VoLTE.


The word “graciously” here isn’t meant entirely seriously. This is the deal for Android users; for iPhone users (and you’d need to be using an iPhone 4S from 2011; the iPhone 5 introduced 4G) they get the new iPhone SE. Not a bad reward if you’ve managed to survive using a ten-year-old phone, I’d say.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1570: goodbye camera bumps?, how rightwing firms fooled Facebook, El Salvador’s payment problem, and more

Installing plexiglass was a big business in 2020 – but there’s zero evidence it stops the spread of Covid. CC-licensed photo by International Monetary Fund on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Try to focus. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Not much time left to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Out June 24 and already on sale in some overexcited bookshops (looking at you, Waterstone’s in Cambridge. Other reports of premature bookjaculation welcome.)

Say goodbye to your camera bump: miniaturized optics through new counterpart to lens • Phys.org


Can you describe the new optical element your team [at the University of Ottowa] developed, the spaceplate?

Orad Reshef: Light naturally “spreads out” when it is traveling, and every optical device we know of relies on this spread; we wouldn’t know how to design cameras without it. For example, in every telescope, there is a large gap between the eyepiece and the objective lens to give light room to spread.

A spaceplate simulates the same spreading that light would experience traveling a large distance in a small device. To light, a spaceplate looks like more space than it occupies. In a way, the spaceplate is a counterpart to the lens, doing things the lens can’t do to shrink down entire imaging systems.

We introduced the idea of a spaceplate in our paper, experimentally demonstrating it and showing it is compatible with broadband light in the visible spectrum that we use to see.

Jeff Lundeen: We considered what would happen if you manipulated light based on the angle rather than the position of a light ray. Lenses act via the position of the ray. Angle is a completely novel domain, and no one had shown that it could be used to make something particularly useful. We identified a useful application, compressing space. And then we showed that we could actually design and experimentally demonstrate plates that do exactly that.

…How could this technology be used? What are the applications of the spaceplate in our daily lives?

Orad Reshef: A spaceplate can be used to miniaturize many optical systems, be it a display or a sensor. For example, an advanced spaceplate can enable paper-thin telescopes or cameras; it could be used to remove the camera bump on the back of your smartphone.

Jeff Lundeen: People lug around large cameras with huge telephoto lenses. If we can sufficiently improve the spaceplate’s performance, I envision the possibility of building smaller, lighter cameras with much better performance. In particular, the spaceplate combined with metalenses would allow us to make the entire back surface of, say, an iPhone Max, into a flat and thin camera. It would have as much as 14 times better resolution and low-light performance than those large and heavy cameras.


I honestly don’t understand how this works – I think it needs much better explanation. But the potential seems amazing. (Thanks Richard B for the link.)
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Revealed: rightwing firm posed as leftist group on Facebook to divide Democrats •The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:


A digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA was responsible for a series of deceptive Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections, the Guardian can reveal.

In an apparent attempt to split the Democratic vote in a number of close races, the ads purported to come from an organization called America Progress Now (APN) and used socialist memes and rhetoric to urge leftwing voters to support Green party candidates.

Facebook was aware of the true identity of the advertiser – the conservative marketing firm Rally Forge – and the deceptive nature of the ads, documents seen by the Guardian show, but the company determined that they did not violate its policies.

Rally Forge would go on to set up a pro-Trump domestic “troll farm” for Turning Point Action, a “sister” organization of Turning Point USA, in 2020, earning a permanent ban from Facebook.

“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.

She added: “The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”

…“These admins are connected to Turning Point USA,” one staffer from the civic integrity team said, according to internal task management documents seen by the Guardian. “This is very inauthentic. I don’t know what the policy here is but this seems very sketchy.”


A story as old as.. Facebook. And also seems to violate US campaign finance laws.
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Can Bitcoin become a real currency? Here’s what’s wrong with El Salvador’s crypto plan • The Conversation

John Hawkins is a senior lecturer in politics and economics at the University of Canberra:


having two legal tenders will complicate matters – particularly when one of those currencies is subject to wild swings in its value.

Consider the provision in the new law that “all obligations in money expressed in USD, existing before the effective date of this law, may be paid in bitcoin”.

Even that is complicated. How, and by whom, will the amount of bitcoins necessary to pay a debt be determined? Will it be based on the Bitcoin price at the time the debt was incurred, or when the debt falls due?

The difference of even a few days could be significant.

If the expectation is the price of Bitcoin is going to rise, why would you want to buy things with it? Why not wait? If the expectation is the price is going to fall, why would you want to accept it? For most transactions, using US dollars will still make the most sense.

…A second reason given by Bukele is that Bitcoin “will have 10 million potential new users” and is “the fastest growing way to transfer 6 billion dollars a year in remittances”.

This apparently refers to both the population of El Salvador (about 6.5 million) and Salvadorans living abroad, many of whom send money home to help their families. In 2020 these remittances totalled US$5.9 billion, or 23% of El Salvador’s GDP.

While any cryptocurrency can well facilitate more efficient transfers (without the charges banks impose), the significance of remittances to the Salvadoran economy points to another issue. El Salvador is a poor country, with one of the lowest rates of internet use in the Americas – 33% in 2017, according to World Bank data.

How many vendors, street hawkers or farmers are equipped to handle cryptocurrency transactions? US dollars will more than likely remain the default currency.


I want to know: 1) what are the criteria by which we should measure success or failure of this experiment? 2) How long should we allow before making that decision? Nobody yet seems to have set this out.
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I now own the Coinhive domain. Here’s how i’m fighting cryptojacking and doing good things with content security policies • Troy Hunt

Hunt of course runs Have I Been Pwned, but this is about a cryptomining ad called Coinhive:


in Feb 2018 I wrote about The JavaScript Supply Chain Paradox: SRI, CSP and Trust in Third Party Libraries wherein someone had compromised a JS file on the Browsealoud service and injected the Coinhive script into it. In that blog post I included the code Scott Helme had de-obfuscated which showed a very simple bit of JavaScript, really just the inclusion of a .js file from coinhive.com and the setting of a 32-byte key. And that’s all an attacker needed to do – include the Coinhive JS, add their key and if they wished, toggle a few configurations. That’s it, job done, instant crypto!

And then Coinhive was gone [in March 2019]. (Also – “the company was making in an estimated $250,000 per month” – crikey!) The site disappeared and the domain stopped resolving. Every site that had Coinhive running on it, either by the design of the site owner or at the whim of a cryptojacker, stopped mining Monero. However, it was still making requests to the domain but without the name resolving anywhere, the only signs of Coinhive being gone were errors in the browser’s developer tools.

In May 2020, I obtained both the primary coinhive.com domain and a few other ancillary ones related to the service, for example cnhv.co which was used for their link shortener (which also caused browsers to mine Monero). I’m not sure how much the person who made these available to me wants to share so the only thing I’ll say for now is that they were provided to me for free to do something useful with. 2020 got kinda busy and it was only very recently that I was finally able to come back to Coinhive. I stood up a website and just logged requests. Every request resulted in a 404, but every request also went into a standard Azure App Service log. And that’s where things got a lot more interesting.


Millions of compromised machines out there, and Russia and China are key suspects for the source.
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Plexiglass is everywhere, with no proof it keeps Covid at bay • Bloomberg

Carey Goldberg:


Sales of plexiglass tripled to roughly $750 million in the U.S. after the pandemic hit, as offices, schools, restaurants and retail stores sought protection from the droplets that health authorities suspected were spreading the coronavirus.

There was just one hitch. Not a single study has shown that the clear plastic barriers actually control the virus, said Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We spent a lot of time and money focused on hygiene theater,” said Allen, an indoor-air researcher. “The danger is that we didn’t deploy the resources to address the real threat, which was airborne transmission — both real dollars, but also time and attention.”

“The tide has turned,” he said. “The problem is, it took a year.”

For the first months of Covid-19, top health authorities pointed to larger droplets as the key transmission culprits, despite a chorus of protests from researchers like Allen. Tinier floating droplets can also spread the virus, they warned, meaning plastic shields can’t stop them. Not until last month did the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fully affirm airborne transmission.

That meant plastic shielding had created “a false sense of security,” said building scientist Marwa Zaatari, a pandemic task force member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

“Especially when we use it in offices or in schools specifically, plexiglass does not help,” Zaatari said. “If you have plexiglass, you’re still breathing the same shared air of another person.”


So blindingly obvious if anyone thought about it. The irony is that so many other NPIs – non-pharmaceutical interventions – were taken, and yet improving ventilation by opening windows wasn’t.
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Fresh Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia disrupt global shipping, chip supply chain • WSJ

Stella Yifan Xie in Hong Kong, Costas Paris in New York and Stephanie Yang in Taipei:


An outbreak at one of the world’s busiest ports in southern China has led to global shipping delays, while infections at key points in the semiconductor supply chain in Taiwan and Malaysia are worsening a global chip shortage that has hindered production in the auto and technology industries.

The new headaches add to inflation concerns, after China and the U.S. this week recorded their biggest annual jumps in factory-gate prices and consumer prices, respectively, in more than a decade. If such problems continue—and get worse—they could weigh on global growth.

For much of last year, China, Taiwan and many other parts of Asia kept the pandemic in check better than the U.S. and Europe and limited some of the economic damage. But as vaccination rates have risen in the West, governments have started rolling back restrictions and economies are revving up.

Immunization efforts in Asia, meanwhile, have lagged behind and authorities have largely kept in place tougher border controls to keep the virus out. Still, Covid-19 has spread. Thailand has been battered over the past two months by its worst ever surge of new cases, while Vietnam—an increasingly popular manufacturing hub that largely avoided earlier infection waves—has also suffered.

Low vaccination rates across Asia could keep in place social distancing rules and travel bans, which would disrupt manufacturing and suppress consumer spending.


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Don’t fall for these three lab-leak logical traps • The Atlantic

Daniel Engber on “ways to think (and not think) about the possible scenarios”:


The lab-leak theory isn’t singular; rather, it’s a catchall for a continuum of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the diabolical. At one end, a researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have gone out to sample bat guano, become infected with a novel pathogen while in the field, and then seeded it back home in a crowded city. Or maybe researchers brought a specimen of a wild-bat virus back into the lab without becoming infected, only to set it free via someone’s clothes or through a leaky sewage pipe.

The microbiologists Michael Imperiale and David Relman, both former members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me several weeks ago that lab-leak scenarios of this rather more innocent variety—involving the collection and accidental release of a naturally occuring pathogen—were the most probable of all the non-natural possibilities. Yet the most prominent opinionating on this topic has clustered at the other end of the continuum, at first around the dark-side theory of a bioweapon gone awry, and then around the idea that a harmless virus had been deliberately transformed into SARS-CoV-2 (and released by accident) after a reckless series of tabletop experiments.

That’s another pitfall in this debate: a tendency to focus only on the most disturbing and improbable versions of the lab-leak hypothesis, and to downplay the rest. The mad-scientist trap sprays a mist across the facts by presuming scientific motivations; it posits that researchers could have caused the pandemic only if they’d been trying to create infectious pathogens.


I’m not sure I’d call it a “lab leak” if a researcher goes to Yunnan and catches it and brings it back in a zoonotic infection – how is that a “leak”? We don’t call it a “farm leak” and call for an end to farming when people catch avian flu or swine flu, despite their proven roles in causing pandemics.

There’s also former US State Dept assistant secretary Christopher Ford, who’s pretty annoyed at the discourse and the lack of evidence around it. We’re no closer to any answers, but maybe we’ll get better questions.
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How an Alzheimer’s ‘cabal’ thwarted progress toward a cure • STAT

Sharon Begley:


Ruth Itzhaki often felt like she was in a house of mirrors. A molecular neurobiologist at England’s University of Manchester, in 1991 she discovered pathogens — herpes simplex virus type 1 — in the brains of elderly people who had died with Alzheimer’s and carried the most common gene for the disease. It was the first indication that infectious agents might play a role in Alzheimer’s, raising the possibility that eliminating them (and the resulting immune response, including inflammation) might stop or even reverse it.

Nearly half a dozen journals rejected Itzhaki’s paper before it was accepted by the Journal of Medical Virology, not a bad journal but not a leading one. A frequent reason top journals declined to publish her papers, as they did those of other amyloid skeptics, was previous rejections. As one peer reviewer wrote about a funding proposal Itzhaki submitted in 2010, “very few [of your] papers have appeared in the most highly regarded journals.”

“And here I thought research should be judged on its own merits,” Itzhaki said.

Like other doubters, Itzhaki wasn’t dismissing the idea that amyloid has a role in Alzheimer’s; she was questioning whether it was the cause, and therefore a good drug target. She saw it as a consequence of the true cause — making amyloid the gravestones of brain neurons killed by something else and not their assassins. In that case, targeting amyloid would no more revive dead neurons than removing headstones would resurrect bodies in a cemetery.

Funders did not beat a path to her laboratory door. When Itzhaki was an advisor on a proposed clinical trial of an antiviral drug for Alzheimer’s, one scientist who assessed it for a private foundation wrote, “The novelty of this approach appears to be quite lacking,” according to documents she shared with STAT. To which Itzhaki wondered, the thousands of clinical trials based on eliminating amyloid, which keep getting funded, are novel?


It may be time to rethink the “amyloid plaques are the cause rather than the effect” model of Alzheimer’s. This article seems to show that modern science struggles to turn the supertanker on such topics.
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Why I’m not worried about GB News • Odds and Ends of History

James O’Malley:


When the channel [GB News] launches on June 13th, it will inevitably attract a huge amount of attention. It will be the top trending topic, and everyone will be watching.

Except, in reality, everyone won’t be. It’ll feel that way on Politics and Media Twitter, and we’ll no doubt see viral clips of hosts railing against pulling down statues or woke mobs or whatever. But the reality is that the vast majority of people will not notice a new channel appearing listed on the bottom of the programme guide.

I think it’s completely plausible to imagine that when the viewing figures come in they are roughly in line with those of Russia Today or Al Jazeera. Some shows might have so few people watching that they will register as “zero” viewers with BARB, the agency that collates the figures. Then we’d see negative stories and the high profile initial talent jumping ship after their contracts run out, leading to the funders getting cold feet about the whole endeavour. A few months in, the channel could be starved of cash and enthusiasm, before the plug is unceremoniously pulled.

But on the other hand, what about Fox News? Doesn’t its success in the US, and the fact that GBN reportedly has a £60m war chest to launch with suggest that it is going to be a hit? I think the problem with this comparison is that the economics of television in this country are very different.

For example, unlike in the US, where Fox News and CNN are paid by cable companies to carry them, in this country the deal tends to work the other way around. Here, broadcasters pay hefty fees to get listed in the Sky Guide, and on Freesat’s EPG, and so on. This is important as one of the reasons Fox News has continued to survive despite losing stacks of major advertisers is because it can always rely on the carriage fees. GB News won’t have this and will need to find advertisers if it wants to be self-sustainable.

Similarly when it comes to bringing in cash, the channel will be limited by regulation. In the US, news programmes are often sponsored. The hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have Starbucks cups displayed prominently on their desk. This isn’t allowed on news programming by Ofcom in the UK. So GBN will instead have to rely on the largesse of the manufacturers of walk-in baths, funeral insurance and whatever other companies like to advertise on obscure channels on daytime television.


Let’s regroup in a year and see what we think. Commercial breakfast TV wasn’t given much chance, and commercial TV news hardly washes its face, yet they survive. It might pull through.
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Rupert Murdoch writes down value of The Sun to zero • Financial Times

Alex Barker:


The bleak year left News Group Newspapers, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s NewsCorp that operates The Sun and The Sun on Sunday, nursing a pre-tax loss of £201m, even after slashing its costs and marketing. 

The grim medium-term outlook for the print revenues, which carried the business through its heyday, forced the company to write down the asset by £84m, an impairment that left The Sun brand with zero carrying value. 

The estimate of The Sun’s asset value was based on the assumption that the titles, according to management estimates in the accounts, would not return to positive growth.

Other one-off charges included £80m of legal costs relating to the phone hacking scandal, including £52m of fees and damages paid to civil claimants. Total legal charges amounted to £54m in 2019. 

The accounts mark one of the worst years in the history of The Sun, which under Murdoch became Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper, with formidable political sway and a circulation that peaked at close to 5m in the mid-1990s. 

After 42 years as the UK’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun lost its title to the Daily Mail last year, with its circulation — which is no longer made public — falling below 1m daily copies on average. NewsUK said The Sun’s brands reached 36.5m adults in the UK via its print titles and website.

The Sun has experimented with various digital business models to try to make up for the decline of its core business, including an online paywall that it introduced for two years and then dropped in 2015. NewsUK, the operating company for Murdoch’s UK businesses, has tried to expand The Sun brand into audio, betting and gaming.


Does anyone actually believe that print revenues will ever rise? Hard to believe that The Sun will ever actually die. There’s sure to be a megalomaniac billionaire here or there who will buy it and try to “restore it to its former glory”, which will of course fail (looks significantly at Newsweek).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1569: Twitter plans easy newsletter signup, the right laws for algorithms, Apple plans no-password secure logon, and more

Under the hood, the layout of microprocessor elements is incredibly complex – but now Google is revolutionising it by using AI to do that task. CC-licensed photo by el frijole on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Do you like my tight layout? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Still a few days to preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. After that you’ll have to buy it post-publication, like an animal.

AI system outperforms humans in designing floorplans for microchips • Nature

Andrew Kahng:


Modern chips are a miracle of technology and economics, with billions of transistors laid out and interconnected on a piece of silicon the size of a fingernail. Each chip can contain tens of millions of logic gates, called standard cells, along with thousands of memory blocks, known as macro blocks, or macros. The cells and macro blocks are interconnected by tens of kilometres of wiring to achieve the designed functionality. Given this staggering complexity, the chip-design process itself is another miracle — in which the efforts of engineers, aided by specialized software tools, keep the complexity in check.

The locations of cells and macro blocks in the chip are crucial to the design outcome. Their placement determines the distances that wires must span, and thus affects whether the wiring can be successfully routed between components and how quickly signals can be transmitted between logic gates. Optimization of chip placement has been extensively studied for at least six decades. Seminal innovations in the mathematical field of applied optimization, such as a method known as simulated annealing, have been motivated by the challenge of chip placement.

Because macro blocks can be thousands or even millions of times larger than standard cells, placing cells and blocks simultaneously is extremely challenging. Modern chip-design methods therefore place the macro blocks first, in a step called floorplanning. Standard cells are then placed in the remaining layout area. Just placing the macro blocks is incredibly complicated: Mirhoseini et al. estimate that the number of possible configurations (the state space) of macro blocks in the floorplanning problems solved in their study is about 10^2,500. By comparison, the state space of the black and white stones used in the board game Go is just 10^360.


And now a Google team has trained a “superhuman” system which is able to produce layouts much more quickly which are more effective. You can read the paper without needing a subscription.

Chip layout by humans v AI
Chip layout by humans, on left, and by Google AI, on right. Source: Nature. Bet the humans wouldn’t have thought of the latter.

This is epochal – Google is using this to build its AI chips. And remember how it went with Go: from beating the best player in Europe to beating the best in the world in an even match. I suspect a lot of chip designers will be suspicious about this for a long time (does the system know everything that it should about the criteria for each block? How is it optimised?) And can everyone make use of the code to use this, or does Google have an unbeatable advantage here?
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Twitter brings Revue newsletter subscriptions right into user profiles • Mashable

Jack Morse:


Newsletters are coming to a Twitter profile near you. Or, at least the chance to sign up for them is.

Twitter is set to continue its ongoing reinvention of the most sacred of social-media spaces — the user profile — in the next few weeks with the addition of a newsletter subscription button. The goal, as the company explained to Mashable, is to help newsletter writers better leverage their existing Twitter followers in an effort to grow their subscriber bases. 

The “subscribe” button, which will live prominently on the profile pages of those who choose to turn on the feature, will be available to anyone with a Revue account (sorry, Substackers). The move shows the continued emphasis Twitter is placing on newsletters following its January acquisition of the subscription newsletter service.

Writers can use Revue to generate free or paid subscription newsletters. Twitter takes a 5% cut of the latter.  

According to a mockup, Twitter users will be able to both subscribe to newsletters and read a “sample issue” directly on a writer’s Twitter profile page. 

“Folks who have Revue newsletters will be able to enable this feature directly in Revue, and people who visit the writer’s profile on Twitter can subscribe directly,” explained a company spokesperson.


I guess that a single Subscribe button means a lot less friction than clicking a link in a bio and then signing up. Newsletters feel like the thing that are having their moment, rather like blogging in the early 2000s. That didn’t last, of course.
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Identification of novel bat coronaviruses sheds light on the evolutionary origins of SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses • Cell

Hong Zhou et al:


the spike protein sequences of three of the novel coronaviruses described here (RsYN04, RmYN05, and RmYN08) formed an independent lineage separated from known sarbecoviruses by a relatively long branch.

In this context, it is interesting that the recently identified bat coronavirus from Thailand carried a three-amino acid-insertion (PVA) at the S1/S2 cleavage site (Wacharapluesadee et al., 2021). Although this motif is different to that seen in SARS-CoV-2 (PRRA) and RmYN02 (PAA), this once again reveals the frequent occurrence of indel events in the spike proteins of naturally sampled betacoronaviruses (Garry et al., 2021; Holmes et al., 2021). Strikingly, RpYN06, RsYN04, RmYN05, and RmYN08 that only possessed one deletion in the RBD were able to bind to hACE2, albeit very weakly.

Accordingly, it is possible that there might be another lineage of naturally circulating coronaviruses with spike gene sequences that confer a greater potential to infect humans. Collectively, these results highlight the high and underestimated genetic diversity of sarbecovirus spike proteins, and which likely underpins their adaptive flexibility.


This article is still in preprint, but what they’re describing is that (1) they haven’t found SARS-Cov-2 in bats, yet (2) they’ve found other coronaviruses in bats in Yunnan that have different spike protein sequences. (“RBD” is “receptor binding domain” – what’s usually known as the spike.) Their conclusion is that the source is almost surely horseshoe bats, and that there’s a rich source of coronaviruses there.

Of course this won’t shift the discussion about “lab leaks” at all, even though it builds up the strength of the hypothesis that it’s a natural spillover.
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Amplification and its discontents • Knight First Amendment Institute

Daphne Keller on proposals to have some sort of legislation that holds companies responsible for the effects of the algorithmic manipulation they use:


Some versions of amplification law would be flatly unconstitutional in the U.S., and face serious hurdles based on human or fundamental rights law in other countries. Others might have a narrow path to constitutionality, but would require a lot more work than anyone has put into them so far. Perhaps after doing that work, we will arrive at wise and nuanced laws regulating amplification. For now, I am largely a skeptic.

In this essay, I will lay out why “regulating amplification” to restrict distribution of harmful or illegal content is hard. My goal in doing so is to keep smart people from wasting their time devising bad laws, and speed the day when we can figure out good ones. I will draw in part on novel regulatory models that are more developed in Europe. My analysis, though, will primarily use U.S. First Amendment law. I will conclude that many models for regulating amplification face serious constitutional hurdles, but that a few—grounded in content-neutral goals, including privacy or competition—may offer paths forward.

This assessment draws in part on my own experiences with both manual and algorithmic management of content at Google, where I was associate general counsel until 2015. In that capacity, I advised on compliance with many content-restriction laws around the world, and spent a great deal of time with the engineers who build the company’s ranking algorithms.


This is not, you should know, a short piece. Also, she seems to conflate “moderation” with “amplification”. They’re not quite opposite sides of a coin. You can moderate without amplifying – forums have done it for absolutely ages.
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Chia demand is driving HDD sales, keeping Seagate’s factories full • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


The cryptocurrency Chia has had a significant impact on the [spinning] hard drive market. SSD demand doesn’t seem to have risen the same way, but both Western Digital and Seagate are reporting significantly higher demand. That’s according to executives from both companies, who spoke at a pair of separate events. Seagate CFO Gianluca Romano presented at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2021 Global Technology Conference, while Western Digital CFO Bob Eulau and VP Peter Andrew attended the Stifel 2021 Virtual Cross Sector Insight Conference (transcripts linked via SeekingAlpha).

According to Seagate, the boom in demand has helped it keep its factories full. Apparently, the hard drive industry added too much capacity in the last few years and the increased demand is filling manufacturing lines that would otherwise go idle.

Folks, we’ve finally done it. Nine months into the semiconductor shortage, we’ve managed to identify two top-tier hardware companies with manufacturing capacity to spare. According to Seagate, it is evaluating the likely long-term impact of Chia and planning additional CapEx spending to meet demand and fill product needs. The company expects overall hard drive prices to improve.

Eulau provided additional information on how WD sees these trends at the Stifel event. According to him, the Chia network was roughly 1EB (Exabyte) at launch. It’s currently 20EB. Both Western Digital and Seagate are seeing increased demand and revenue as a result; Seagate specifically mentions that this is an industry-wide uplift.


Chia is bonkers, but I guess the delta between the cost of a spinning drive and the potential “profit” is a hell of a lot bigger than with SSDs. The waste of resources is ridiculous. I’m constantly reminded of the closing scene of episode 6 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the world’s forests are set on fire because leaves are now currency, and they don’t want inflation.
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Apple says its new logon tech is as easy as passwords but far more secure • CNET

Stephen Shankland:


Apple has begun testing passkeys, a new authentication technology it says are as easy to use as passwords but vastly more secure. Part of iCloud Keychains, a test version of the technology will come with iPhones, iPads and Macs later this year.

To set up an account on a website or app using a passkey, you first choose a username for the new account, then use FaceID or Touch ID to confirm that it’s really you who’s using the device. You don’t ever pick a password. Your device handles generation and storage of the passkey, which iCloud Keychain synchronizes across all your Apple devices.

To use the passkey for authentication later, you’ll be prompted to confirm your username and verify yourself with FaceID or Touch ID. Developers must update their login procedures to support passkeys, but it’s an adaptation of the existing WebAuthn technology.

“Because it’s just a single tap to sign in, it’s simultaneously easier, faster and more secure than almost all common forms of authentication today,” Garrett Davidson, an Apple authentication experience engineer, said Wednesday at the company’s annual WWDC developer conference.

Passkeys are the latest example of growing interest in passwordless logon technology that’s designed to be more secure than the list of passwords you’ve taped to the side of your monitor. Conventional passwords are plagued with security shortcomings, chiefly our inability to create and remember unique ones. That’s why Apple, along with Microsoft, Google and other companies, are working to come up with alternatives.


Already in use for Microsoft services, where there are 200 million accounts with it. My query: what if you’re using a device that isn’t part of your chosen ecosystem?
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Rep. Gohmert’s question about the Forest Service changing Earth’s orbit was dumb, but not for the reason you think • The Washington Post

Philip Bump:


“I was informed by the immediate past director of NASA that they have found that the moon’s orbit is changing slightly and so is the Earth’s orbit around the sun,” he continued. “And we know there’s been significant solar flare activity. And so is there anything that the National Forest Service or BLM can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun? Obviously, that would have profound effects on our climate.”

It took Eberlien a moment to reply. “I would have to follow up with you on that one, Mr. Gohmert,” she said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, well, if you figure out a way that you in the Forest Service can make that change,” Gohmert replied, “I’d like to know.”

When it’s written out, as above, this appears to be a member of Congress earnestly asking a person in charge of the nation’s forests whether her agency could alter how the Earth rotates around the sun. It’s an obviously ludicrous idea for several reasons. One: It’s not clear how any agency might change the Earth’s orbit, much less one whose heaviest equipment includes big chain saws. Two: There’s an obvious risk posed by shifting how the Earth rotates around the sun. I, for one, would prefer not to cause that orbit to decay to the extent that our planet is pulled directly into the star. No wonder Eberlien could only marvel.

…In reality, though, Gohmert was embracing a different goofy theory. Gohmert was being ironic. He wasn’t actually suggesting that the Earth’s orbit be shifted but, instead, suggesting that, since climate change is a function of those orbits and solar flares, altering the orbit would be what those agencies need to do to combat climate change.

He wasn’t asking a dumb question. He was trying to suggest that it was the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service that was being dumb by thinking they could affect climate change in some way short of figuring out how to shift the moon around in the sky. And that’s how Gohmert was wrong.


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The best features of iOS, iPadOS, and macOS that Apple didn’t announce onstage • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:


Apple had its WWDC keynote on Monday, where it showed off the big new features coming to its platforms, but it didn’t have time to show off everything coming to the new versions of iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. So we’ve combed through the preview pages, Twitter, and a good chunk of the internet to see what interesting features got left out of the presentation.


Lots of tasty things (and it seems like a solid update). Plus it will be on hundreds of millions of devices come September/October, which makes it a little different from the Android 12 beta that was announced last month.
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iOS 4 has been lovingly recreated as an iPhone app • The Verge

Tom Warren:


iOS 4 originally appeared nearly 10 years ago as Apple’s first mobile operating system to drop the iPhone OS naming convention. An 18-year-old developer has now lovingly recreated iOS 4 as an iPhone app, and it’s a beautiful blast from the past. If you never got the chance to use iOS 4, or you’re a fan of the iPhone 3G, OldOS almost flawlessly pulls off the experience of using an iPhone from a decade ago.

OldOS is “designed to be as close to pixel-perfect as possible,” says Zane, the developer behind the app. It’s all built using Apple’s SwiftUI, so it includes buttery smooth animations and even the old iPhone home button that vibrates with haptic feedback to make it feel like a real button.

Apple’s built-in iOS 4 apps have also been recreated here, and it’s a real flashback to the skeuomorphic days of the iPhone whenever they launch. Photos lets you view your existing camera roll as you would have 10 years ago, while Notes transports you back to the yellow post-it notes of yesteryear.

The only apps that don’t work as you might expect are Messages and YouTube. Apple used to bundle YouTube directly into its operating system, and the developer behind OldOS says there are “still some major issues with YouTube” and Messages that they’re working to fix.


Only available on Testflight (the service for betas), and Apple might nuke it, but the code has been published so people with developer accounts can compile it. At least computers let you realise that oh, it actually wasn’t better before.
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Several macOS Monterey features unavailable on Intel-based Macs • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


On the macOS Monterey features page, fine print indicates that the following features require a Mac with the M1 chip, including any MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac model released since November 2020:

Portrait Mode blurred backgrounds in FaceTime videos
• Live Text for copying and pasting, looking up, or translating text within photos
• An interactive 3D globe of Earth in the Maps app
• More detailed maps in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London in the Maps app
• Text-to-speech in more languages, including Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish
• On-device keyboard dictation that performs all processing completely offline
• Unlimited keyboard dictation (previously limited to 60 seconds per instance)

…Google Earth has long offered an interactive 3D globe of the Earth on Intel-based Macs both on the web and in an app.


I was puzzled by this, because having an M1 chip isn’t a necessity on an iPad – I’ve installed the iOS 15 iPad OS beta and Live Text works fine. Turns out, according to Rene Ritchie, that it’s because you need the “neural engine” that first came with Apple’s proprietary A11 chip in 2017. Intel’s chips, of course, don’t have that. So that’s how newer (but Intel-based) Macs won’t have those facilities, but older (A11+) iOS devices will.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start Up No.1568: India’s WhatsApp misinformation problem, Pipeline bitcoin redux, creators hit burnout (and Apple tax), and more

After the Fastly outage dumped people on perplexing error pages, could we get better error messages to inform people what’s going on?CC-licensed photo by Nick Webb on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not an error. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

There’s still time to preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

When Covid misinformation comes for the family WhatsApp • Rest of World

Meghna Rao’s 80-year-old grandfather in India caught Covid, which gave him “brain fog”:


Although the doctors had diagnosed my grandfather with Covid-19, they didn’t have a cure for his memory loss. Days into his hospitalization, he remained confused, and pandemic numbers continued to increase. An uncle who lives in a small, coastal town in Karnataka sent a lengthy message to my family group quoting an article by “Joseph Hope, editor-in-chief of The New York Times.” Hope praised Modi’s strategic management of India, painting him as a mastermind who would steer the country into the 21st century.

Neither the article — nor its supposed author — mentioned in the message exist, but WhatsApp only flagged that the message has been “forwarded many times.”

…In the 2000s, over an AOL connection in Queens, my grandfather was reading a range of international publications and forming his own opinions. He was one of the first people I had known to purchase a cellphone. He kept up with the technology’s evolution, downloading apps when they became available, and teaching himself how to change language settings on his phone so he could read things in Kannada.

But this new person [post-Covid] was unrecognizable. Like many other Indians, his main portal into the internet had become Facebook and WhatsApp. His viewpoints morphed into a hodgepodge of viral WhatsApp messages.

As I watched him change, I couldn’t help but accept the obvious conclusion: Facebook does not care to fix its misinformation problem. Instead, it only wants to keep people glued to the platform.

My grandfather’s cognitive abilities have now deteriorated, and the brief spell of clarity he returned to over the summer has passed. He often experiences “sundowning,” where he spirals into a deep confusion each evening. He’s off WhatsApp now, less focused on the material and the political, his brain set on some far-out horizon.


WhatsApp’s deleterious effect in India is one of the topics I cover in my forthcoming book Social Warming, because it tells us that you don’t need algorithmic amplification for a social network to spread misinformation. Fake news travels further, faster than truth.

There’s also the lack of understanding by designers of how their work will be understood. In India, many people see the “Forwarded” symbol and think it’s an instruction, not a denotation.
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Bitcoin is actually traceable, Pipeline investigation shows • The New York Times

Nicole Perlroth, Erin Griffith and Katie Benner:


Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi declined to say more about how the FBI seized DarkSide’s private key. According to court documents, investigators accessed the password for one of the hackers’ Bitcoin wallets, though they did not detail how.

The FBI did not appear to rely on any underlying vulnerability in blockchain technology, cryptocurrency experts said. The likelier culprit was good old-fashioned police work.
Federal agents could have seized DarkSide’s private keys by planting a human spy inside DarkSide’s network, hacking the computers where their private keys and passwords were stored, or compelling the service that holds their private wallet to turn them over via search warrant or other means.

“If they can get their hands on the keys, it’s seizable,” said Jesse Proudman, founder of Makara, a cryptocurrency investment site. “Just putting it on a blockchain doesn’t absolve that fact.”

…Mr. Raimondi of the Justice Department said the Colonial Pipeline ransom seizure was the latest sting operation by federal prosecutors to recoup illicitly gained cryptocurrency. He said the department has made “many seizures, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, from unhosted cryptocurrency wallets” used for criminal activity.

In January, the Justice Department disrupted another ransomware group, NetWalker, which used ransomware to extort money from municipalities, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and schools.

As part of that sting, the department obtained about $500,000 of NetWalker’s cryptocurrency that had been collected from victims of their ransomware.


We’re not going to find out how they did it, are we. Though it feels like “compelling the service” is the front runner for me.
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The creator economy is running into the Apple Tax — this startup is fighting back • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:


Founders of Fanhouse — which is basically OnlyFans without the nudity — say the platform will be kicked out of the App Store in August if it doesn’t start forking over 30% of the fees people pay creators when purchases are made through the iPhone app. One of Fanhouse’s creators, the streamer Breadwitchery, says that cut would mean losing two months of rent from her earnings to date. The company doesn’t have a lot of options to push back, but it’s launching a campaign today to pressure Apple into easing its rules around payments to creators.

Fanhouse is only the latest company to clash with Apple over App Store terms that are increasingly viewed as steep and domineering. Sure, it’s a small app, and its disappearance won’t necessarily cause problems for Apple, but the situation speaks to the challenges creator-focused apps face in the App Store. As the creator economy continues to grow, the rules mean Apple will be taking more money from not just businesses, but individuals.

“People are using this platform to survive, starting with me, our very first creator,” Jasmine Rice, a Fanhouse creator and one of the platform’s co-founders, tells The Verge. “I use this to pay the bills for my family. I use this to pay my mom’s medical expenses.”

Fanhouse, which launched in 2020, initially slipped past the App Store bouncers and offered payments on the web without issue. Now that Apple has spotted the potential for profit, it’s given Fanhouse the same ultimatum it gives (almost) everyone else: Fanhouse either needs to pay up or get booted from the store.


It’s complicated, isn’t it? Apple doesn’t demand 30% of Uber’s or AirBnB’s fees. But for “virtual” products, it does. I think Apple’s argument would be – will be – that the in-app purchase method will greatly expand the number of people who will be willing to buy, and so Fanhouse can make it up in volume. One problem: Patreon, another “creator” app, gets a special dispensation that allows third-party payments. The dam may be cracking.
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A mystery cube, a secret identity, and a puzzle solved after 15 years • WIRED UK

Will Coldwell:


On Sunday February 4, 2007, as the sun rose over Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire, Andy Darley trudged into the ancient forest with a map and a spade, and began to dig. The clock was ticking – others were closing in. Darley, a web designer from Middlesex, near London, had made three trips here in as many days. The previous night he had caught a glimpse of a torch in the darkness – if he didn’t find what he was looking for soon, someone else would.

He dug one hole after another. Nothing. It was getting light and he was running out of ideas. Darley sighed and looked at his feet. The surface of the ground beside him seemed different; the topsoil was mixed with clay. Someone had disturbed the earth in the recent past… or perhaps buried something? He dropped to his knees, grabbed a trowel and plunged the metal into the dirt. Six inches deep it struck a solid object. “That was when it hit me,” he recounted later on his website. “That was when I knew I’d found the Cube.”


It’s an entertaining story, well told, about the hunt for Satoshi (no, not that one) in the game Perplex City. Though you could listen to it, as the story was told very effectively by Aleks Krotoski in the episode “Find” of her series “The Digital Human” in March. And she also wrote up the story over at Science Focus two weeks ago. So, take your pick.
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Facebook plans first smartwatch for next summer with two cameras • The Verge

Alex Heath:


Facebook is taking a novel approach to its first smartwatch, which the company hasn’t confirmed publicly but currently plans to debut next summer. The device will feature a display with two cameras that can be detached from the wrist for taking pictures and videos that can be shared across Facebook’s suite of apps, including Instagram, The Verge has learned.

A camera on the front of the watch display exists primarily for video calling, while a 1080p, auto-focus camera on the back can be used for capturing footage when detached from the stainless steel frame on the wrist. Facebook is tapping other companies to create accessories for attaching the camera hub to things like backpacks, according to two people familiar with the project, both of whom requested anonymity to speak without Facebook’s permission.

The idea is to encourage owners of the watch to use it in ways that smartphones are used now. It’s part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to build more consumer devices that circumvent Apple and Google, the two dominant mobile phone platform creators that largely control Facebook’s ability to reach people.

…Facebook is working with the top wireless carriers in the US to support LTE connectivity in the watch, meaning it won’t need to be paired with a phone to work, and sell it in their stores, the people familiar with the matter said. The watch will come in white, black, and gold, and Facebook hopes to initially sell volume in the low six figures. That’s a tiny sliver of the overall smartwatch market — Apple sold 34 million watches last year by comparison, according to Counterpoint Research..


Heath recently joined The Verge from The Information, where he got lots of scoops about Facebook, so this is probably reliable. It’s also a bit mad: does it connect to a phone at all? (If not, how do you get the notifications that make a smartwatch so useful?) How can it compete on price with the Apple Watch, which will be available at a lot of price ranges? Most of all, what is its USP – unique selling point – over the Apple Watch or whatever the Google/Samsung/Fitbit combination offer? Facebook tried before a long time ago to do its own phone, with HTC. It flopped badly.
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Apple’s Eddy Cue on spatial audio, future of music • Billboard

Micah Singleton:


We saw some of your competitors launch their own versions of immersive music, which have had varying levels of success. What makes Spatial Audio different?

I’ve been waiting for something in music that was a real game-changer. The quality of audio has not been able to really rise because there hasn’t been anything out there that when you listen to it, it truly is differentiated to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eight years old or 80 years old, everyone can tell the difference and everyone knows this one sounds better than the other one.

And the analogy to that is obviously the first time you ever saw HD on television: you knew which one was better because it was obvious. And we’ve been missing that in audio for a long time. There really hasn’t been anything that’s been substantial. We’ll talk about lossless and other things, but ultimately, there’s not enough difference.

But when you listen for the first time and you see what’s possible with Dolby Atmos with music, it’s a true game-changer. And so, when we listened to it for the first time, we realized this is a big, big deal. It makes you feel like you’re onstage, standing right next to the singer, it makes you feel like you might be to the left of the drummer, to the right of the guitarist. It creates this experience that, almost in some ways, you’ve never really had, unless you’re lucky enough to be really close to somebody playing music.


Cue also says about lossless that if you take 100 people and play them lossless content, probably only 1 or 2 will be able to tell the difference. So spatial audio is where the focus (aha) is going to be.

If you can’t get onto Billboard (the piece is behind a paywall), you can also read this piece on Apple News – no subscription to Billboard or Apple News+ needed.
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What the Fastly outage can teach us about writing error messages • OnlineOrNot

Max Rozen on the meaninglessness (to most users) of the “Error 503 Service Unavailable” message that greeted people who were trying to view sites that had vanished because Fastly had fallen over:


The majority of internet users aren’t developers, so just writing the error code and its name (503 Service Unavailable) just isn’t good enough.

The Norman Nielsen Group (back in 1998!) provided us with some basic guiding principles for writing better error messages:

• Write in plain English (or whichever language you’re supporting)
• Tell the user exactly what went wrong
• Tell the user how the problem can be fixed
• More concretely, we can write better error messages by answering the following four questions:

– Who caused the error?
– What happened, and why?
– When will it be fixed?
– How can the user respond to the error?

If your error message covers those four points, then you can think about adding humour and some brand identity.


The intended-to-be-reassuraing but actually annoying (to users) messages such as “Uh-oh!” really don’t cut it. (Google’s 404 message: “That’s an error. The requested URL xxxx was not found on this server. That’s all we know” seems unhelpful: it doesn’t for example suggest you may have mistyped the URL.)
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Young creators are burning out and breaking down • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:


Lately, it’s been hard for Jack Innanen, a 22-year-old TikTok star from Toronto, to create content. “I feel like I’m tapping a keg that’s been empty for a year,” he said.

Spending hours shooting, editing, storyboarding, engaging with fans, setting up brand deals and balancing the many other responsibilities that come with being a successful content creator have taken a toll. Mr. Innanen, like so many Gen Z influencers who found fame in the last year, is burned out.

“I get to the point where I’m like, ‘I have to make a video today,’ and I spend the entire day dreading the process,” he said.

He’s hardly the only one. “This app used to be so fun,” a TikTok creator known as Sha Crow said in a video from February, “and now your favorite creator is depressed.” He went on to explain how his friends are struggling with mental health problems and the stresses of public life.

The video went viral, and in the comments, dozens of creators echoed his sentiment. “Say it louder bro,” wrote one with 1.7 million followers. “Mood,” commented another creator with nearly five million followers.

…According to a recent report by the venture firm SignalFire, more than 50 million people consider themselves creators (also known as influencers), and the industry is the fastest-growing small-business segment, thanks in part to a year where life migrated online and many found themselves stuck at home or out of work. Throughout 2020, social media minted a new generation of young stars.

Now, however, many of them say they have reached a breaking point.


Sisyphus had it easy: at least he didn’t have to create the rock anew each day. I’m sure there will be much playing of tiny violins over this, but continually creating content takes real effort.
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Google kills Measure, its AR-based measurement-taking app • Android Police

Ryne Hager:


Google’s AR plans have changed over the years, from the standalone Project Tango to modern web-based efforts. But it’s the AR-based Measure app that’s the subject of today’s eulogy. The app leveraged your camera on ARCore-supported devices to (as the name suggests) measure the dimensions of stuff, and now it’s being retired. Google has suspended both support and updates for Measure.

Measure started life back in 2016 as a Tango-exclusive app. (You remember Google’s now dead experiment regarding AR-specialized devices, right?) In 2018, after Google wrote that effort off, Measure was broken out into its own standalone app for ARCore-supported devices — ARCore itself basically obviating the need for Project Tango to be a thing.

In 2018, the app was updated to work on vertical surfaces. In 2019, Google even toyed with the idea of bundling it into the camera, though that didn’t pan out. Last year it picked up a new surface animation and more unit conversions — all signs of active (if slow) development.

The app worked sort of like magic, allowing you to point your phone’s camera at stuff, draw some lines on your screen, and get measurements regarding the dimensions depicted. Sadly, Measure didn’t always work very accurately and had some stability problems, as reviews on the Play Store listing pretty clearly indicate. (Apple later did its own version on the concept, which works a little better — probably at least in part thanks to the lidar hardware on some of its phones)


The app seems to have had between 5m and 10m downloads, which in Android-world is essentially invisible. So that isn’t surprising. Google still has an ARCore framework which OEMs can use. Yet after the demise of Cardboard, this still feels like a retreat from the AR/VR space by Google.
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El Salvador’s bitcoin bill is still keen on king dollar • Financial Times

Jemima Kelly:


The US dollar — a fiat currency — will remain the reference currency. So prices in dollars. You can just imagine customers waiting at tills watching their phones waiting for the bitcoin price to climb a bit to get more for their money’s worth can’t you? What a great idea.

And who would actually want to pay in bitcoin rather than dollars, we hear you ask? Well, usually converting real money into bitcoin carries a hefty fee. And also what happens with returns? Do you get refunded at the original exchange rate or the one that happens to coincide with your return? Isn’t there a huge risk for both merchants and buyers when using such a volatile instrument? The bill, unfortunately, doesn’t say.

But despite the obvious flaws, might there be a grander plan being hatched here? OK probably not, but hear us out.

In our FT Alphaville Clubhouse discussion this morning an alternative theory was floated as to why El Salvador may want bitcoin, and therefore ultimately dollar, flows. The Central American country is seeking $1bn from the IMF, yet the discussions got complicated after Bukele fired its five Supreme Court judges in early May, following a landslide election victory. The Biden administration was not best pleased.

If the IMF funding is looking in doubt, then what better way to generate inflows than by letting international hodlers purchase your goods and services with their favourite coin? Seeing as refunds will likely have to be in dollars, you’d imagine merchants will be instantly selling their bitcoin for greenbacks on their exchange of choice to avoid volatility, creating a form of indirect dollar funding for the country. FT Alphaville friend Frances Coppola had even more radical thought which she posted on Twitter: perhaps the move is to help El Salvador to break away from the dollar system all together?


I wonder if this move by El Salvador will act as a damper on the bigger swings in bitcoin’s price (measured in dollars). The other big problem, unmentioned here, is the incredibly slow, by comparison, processing of bitcoin transactions. I think El Salvador can easily overwhelm the six-per-second limit.
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Some bitcoin miners in Xinjiang have been ordered to shut down • The Block

Wolfie Zhao:


Bitcoin miners in one of the major economic and technological development zones in China’s Xinjiang province have been ordered to shut down their operations immediately.

The Reform and Development Commission in the Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang issued a notice on Wednesday to its subordinate government officials in the Zhundong Economic Technological Development Park. According to the notice seen and verified by The Block, officials in the development park have been instructed to shut down all crypto mining activities under their administration by 2:00 pm China time on Wednesday.

The park is a 15,500 square km area home to a variety of coal production industries including coal-based power plants and industrial factories. It also houses some of the largest bitcoin mining facilities in the country due to the high capacity of fossil fuel energy.

The instruction was based on the high-level bitcoin trading and mining crackdown comment brought up during the China State Council meeting last month, the notice said.


The significance is that bitcoin mining in Xinjiang is reckoned to contribute 40% of the hash rate.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1567: the FBI’s huge app sting, Facebook’s flawed “Discover” app, machine learning’s medical problem, and more

The arrival of Uber drove down the value of a “medallion” to drive a New York cab by about 75% – but now Uber is raising its ride prices towards those of cabs. CC-licensed photo by joiseyshowaa on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Trojan shield: how the FBI secretly ran a phone network for criminals • Vice

Joseph Cox:


In 2018, the FBI arrested Vincent Ramos, the CEO of Phantom Secure, which provided custom, privacy-focused devices to organized criminals. In the wake of that arrest, a confidential human source (CHS) who previously sold phones on behalf of Phantom and another firm called Sky Global, was developing their own encrypted communications product. This CHS then “offered this next generation device, named ‘Anom,’ to the FBI to use in ongoing and new investigations,” the court document reads. While criminals left Phantom, they flocked to other offerings. One of those was Anom; the FBI started what it called Operation Trojan Shield, in which it effectively operated a communications network targeted to criminals and intercepted messages running across it.

The FBI, AFP, and CHS built the Anom system in such a way that a master key silently attached itself to every message set through the app, enabling “law enforcement to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted,” the document reads.

“A user of Anom is unaware of this capability,” it adds.

But first the FBI and their source needed to establish Anom as an option in the criminal underworld. As Motherboard showed in a years-long investigation, using sources around Phantom as well as FBI files, Phantom was particularly popular in Australia. The CHS introduced Anom to his already trusted distributors of mobile devices, who were in turn trusted by criminal organizations, the document reads. Three people in Australia who had previously distributed Phantom, “seeing a huge payday,” agreed to then sell these Anom devices, the document adds. With this, “the FBI aimed to grow the use of Anom organically through these networks,” it reads.

Earlier on Monday before obtaining the court record, Motherboard reviewed Anom’s social media presence. The company’s Reddit account first announced the existence of the company two years ago, according to a since deleted but cached Reddit post that Motherboard found.

“Introducing Anom—a Ultra-Secure Mobile-Cell-Phone Messaging App for Android,” the announcement read. “Your Confidentiality, Assured. Software hardened against targeted surveillance and intrusion—Anom Secure. Keep Secrets Safe!”


They were certainly safe, but not with the people that perhaps the criminals would have wanted them to be.
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Massive internet outage hits websites including Amazon, gov.uk and Guardian • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


As well as bringing down some websites entirely, the failure also broke specific sections of other services, such as the servers for Twitter that host the social network’s emojis.

The failure was not geographically universal. Users in some locations, such as Berlin, reported no problems, while others experienced massive failures across the internet. Outages were reported in locations as varied as London, Texas and New Zealand.

Within minutes of the outage starting, Fastly, a cloud computing services provider, acknowledged that its content distribution network was the cause of the problem. The company runs an “edge cloud”, which is designed to speed up loading times for websites, protect them from denial-of-service attacks, and help them deal with bursts of traffic.

The technology requires Fastly to sit between most of its clients and their users. That means that if the service suffers a catastrophic failure, it can prevent those companies from operating on the net at all.

In an error message posted at 10.58 UK time, Fastly said: “We’re currently investigating potential impact to performance with our CDN services.” It was not until 11.57 UK time, almost an hour later, that Fastly declared the incident over. “The issue has been identified and a fix has been applied. Customers may experience increased origin load as global services return,” the company said in a status update.


Before yesterday, hardly anyone had heard of Fastly. After yesterday, the company fervently hopes that will once more be the case, and that Tuesday was just a blip.
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How Facebook Discover replicated many of Free Basics’ mistakes • Rest of World

Meaghan Tobin:


[Facebook’s connectivity app] Discover lets users scroll through a text-only version of any website for free, up to a certain daily data cap set by their mobile provider. But unlike Free Basics, Discover supposedly allows people to view the entire internet, instead of only a handful of preselected resources. Users don’t need a Facebook account to get started, and the company said it doesn’t collect user data for advertising.

The research was conducted in July and August last year by scholars at the University of California, Irvine and the University of the Philippines, and focused specifically on how Discover functions in the Philippines — a country with high levels of internet usage and where Facebook is already enormously popular. Facebook told Rest of World that Discover has now replaced Free Basics there entirely. 

To save data, Discover routes all traffic through a proxy server, which strips features like video and audio streaming, as well as some images. It essentially gives users free access to a pared-down version of any website. But the researchers found that when they accessed Facebook through Discover, it wasn’t redacted at all — and just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites like YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. In other words, the study found that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its own competitors. 


This was set out in a research paper that was just published. Discover is just the same as Free Basics: it makes it harder for people to find out the truth by checking reliable sites, but intensifies the experience of using Facebook.

Free Basics was a big cause of problems in Philippines and Brazil. (It’s in my book!) India’s decision to ban it there was probably one of the wisest moves it could have made.
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Farewell, millennial lifestyle subsidy • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


“Today my Uber ride from Midtown to JFK cost me as much as my flight from JFK to SFO,” Sunny Madra, a vice president at Ford’s venture incubator, recently tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.

“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”

Some of these companies have been tightening their belts for years. But the pandemic seems to have emptied what was left of the bargain bin. The average Uber and Lyft ride costs 40% more than it did a year ago, according to Rakuten Intelligence, and food delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub have been steadily increasing their fees over the past year. The average daily rate of an Airbnb rental increased 35% in the first quarter of 2021, compared with the same quarter the year before, according to the company’s financial filings.

Part of what’s happening is that as demand for these services soars, companies that once had to compete for customers are now dealing with an overabundance of them. Uber and Lyft have been struggling with a driver shortage, and Airbnb rates reflect surging demand for summer getaways and a shortage of available listings.


The days of huge subsidies through venture capitalists are over, my friends. Nice while it lasted, right? Apart from the New York taxi drivers who saw their medallions (the badges that allowed them to drive) reduced in value from a million dollars to a quarter of that.
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Machine learning is booming in medicine. It’s also facing a credibility crisis • Stat News

Casey Ross:


Machine learning, a subset of AI driving billions of dollars of investment in the field of medicine, is facing a credibility crisis. An ever-growing list of papers rely on limited or low-quality data, fail to specify their training approach and statistical methods, and don’t test whether they will work for people of different races, genders, ages, and geographies.

These shortcomings arise from an array of systematic challenges in machine learning research. Intense competition results in tighter publishing deadlines, and heavily cited preprint articles may not always undergo rigorous peer review. In some cases, as was the situation with Covid-19 models, the demand for speedy solutions may also limit the rigor of the experiments.

By far the biggest problem — and the trickiest to solve — points to machine learning’s Catch-22: There are few large, diverse data sets to train and validate a new tool on, and many of those that do exist are kept confidential for legal or business reasons. But that means that outside researchers have no data to turn to test a paper’s claims or compare it to similar work, a key step in vetting any scientific research.

The failure to test AI models on data from different sources — a process known as external validation — is common in studies published on preprint servers and in leading medical journals. It often results in an algorithm that looks highly accurate in a study, but fails to perform at the same level when exposed to the variables of the real world, such as different types of patients or imaging scans obtained with different devices.

“If the performance results are not reproduced in clinical care to the standard that was used during [a study], then we risk approving algorithms that we can’t trust,” said Matthew McDermott, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-authored a recent paper on these problems. “They may actually end up worsening patient care.”


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Exclusive: Apple’s Craig Federighi on WWDC’s new privacy features • Fast Company

Michael Grothaus:


I asked Federighi if he feels that Apple must pick up the ball because governments haven’t enacted laws that would guarantee privacy. “I’d certainly like to believe that we’re doing good and play a constructive role here, for sure,” he says. “[But] I do think Apple has a set of different tools, naturally, than governments have. We have certain technology skills and a certain access to an end-to-end technology platform where we can innovate.”

Federighi explains that governments are often reactive when it comes to technology–and there’s no way for them to get around that. At least on the consumer front, companies do most of the innovating. They’re also the ones who find new ways to exploit data. So governments can put rules around technologies or processes only after they’ve become a problem. Those rules often lag far behind the speed of such innovations. That’s why even if governments were more proactive, it would still fall on companies such as Apple to develop new privacy-enhancing technologies.

That being said, Federighi believes that “there’s absolutely a role where government can look at what companies like Apple are doing and say, ‘You know, that thing is such a universal good–such an important recognition of customer rights–and Apple has proven it’s possible. So maybe it should be something that becomes a more of a requirement.’ But that may tend to lag [Apple’s privacy] innovation and creation of some new thing that they can evaluate and decide to make essentially the law.”


The new iCloud Private Relay is essentially Tor, but without the dark web, offering a dual-hop structure so that none of the nodes on the network can see where traffic is coming from or going to – the “Tor exit node problem”. It’s going to be part of “Apple+”, yet another paid-for add-on to the Services group.
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How the superforecasters do it • The Commoncog Blog

Cedric Chin:


The general question that we’re trying to answer here, the one that’s sort of hanging out in the background over everything is: ‘is this nature or nurture?’ And [superforecasting progenitor Philip] Tetlock believes that it’s both. Superforecasters have higher-than-average fluid intelligence. They score higher on tests of open-mindedness. They possess an above-average level of tested general knowledge. But all three of the GJP’s [Good Judgement Project, a competition to find superforecasters] interventions have resulted in sustained performance improvements: over time, the correlation between intelligence and forecasting results dropped (which Tetlock took to mean that continued practice was having an effect, even on average forecasters).

…Superforecasters perform so well because they think in a very particular way. This method of thinking is learnable. I’ll admit that exposure to this style of thinking has had an unforeseen side-effect in the years since I read Superforecasting: I find myself comparing the rigour of any analytical argument against the ideal examples presented by Tetlock and Gardner. As you’ll soon see, the superforecasters of the GJP set a high bar for analysis indeed.

Superforecasters break stated forecasting problems into smaller subproblems for investigation. The term that Tetlock uses is to ‘Fermi-ize’ a problem — aka ‘do a Fermi estimation’ — which is a fancy name for the method with which physicist Enrico Fermi used to perform educated guesses.

The canonical example for ‘Fermi estimation’ is the question: “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” — a brainteaser Fermi reportedly enjoyed giving to his students.


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US authorities seize the affiliate’s share of the DarkSide ransom paid by Colonial Pipeline • Elliptic

Dr. Tom Robinson:


DarkSide is an example of “Ransomware as a Service” (RaaS). In this operating model, the malware is created by the ransomware developer, while the ransomware affiliate is responsible for infecting the target computer system and negotiating the ransom payment with the victim organisation. This new business model has revolutionised ransomware, opening it up to those who do not have the technical capability to create malware, but are willing and able to infiltrate a target organisation.

Any ransom payment made by a victim is then split between the affiliate and the developer. In the case of the Colonial Pipeline ransom payment, 85% (63.75 BTC) went to the affiliate and 15% went to the DarkSide developer.

It appears to be the majority of the affiliate’s share of this ransom – 63.7 BTC – that has been seized by US authorities today. Using blockchain analysis we can trace the affiliate’s share of the Colonial ransom transaction (previously identified by Elliptic) to the Bitcoin address bc1qq2euq8pw950klpjcawuy4uj39ym43hs6cfsegq – the same address mentioned in the seizure affidavit.

This address was emptied at around 1.40pm (Eastern Time) today – presumably by US authorities. (There was also the movement of an additional 5.9 BTC not mentioned in the affidavit).


The more that emerges about this, the more questions there are. Why hit the affiliate and not Darkside? (If you had Darkside’s private key, wouldn’t that give you more leverage over Darkside?) Should we suspect that Darkside somehow handed over the affiliate’s private key to the wallet because it created such a level of threat? Most of all, how did the FBI get hold of the private key? That question is going to mildly obsess me until we get a good answer.
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How to negotiate with ransomware hackers • The New Yorker

Rachel Monroe:


Last November, Fowler was the designated negotiator for the construction-engineering firm. When he logged on to the dark-Web site, he noticed that the timer showed that three days had already elapsed in the negotiations. In the chat box, a conversation was in progress. “It was shocking for me,” Fowler said. “This is a whole negotiation—poorly done, but a whole negotiation—that I’m looking at.”

Whoever had been chatting on behalf of the engineering firm was confrontational and aggressive. When the hackers demanded two hundred thousand dollars to unlock the company’s files, the negotiator initially counteroffered ten thousand dollars, and then quickly went up to fourteen thousand, then twenty-five thousand. “What that communicates to the threat actor is: there’s more money here,” Fowler said. The hackers grew frustrated. “You have reported an annual income of $4 million,” they wrote. “We are not expect small money from you.” The final message in the chat had arrived from the hackers two days earlier: “Are you ready to close with a cost of 65k?”

Fowler and Minder tried to piece together what had happened. The clients insisted that they had never gone to the dark-Web site, much less interacted with the hacker. Then Fowler reminded Minder about a recent post on REvil’s blog, warning about fraudulent middlemen who said that they could decrypt files; instead, the middlemen would secretly negotiate with the hackers before offering the decrypted files at a markup. At the time, it had amused Minder that a cybercrime syndicate was issuing a warning about scammers. But now the clients acknowledged that they had reached out to MonsterCloud, a Florida company that advertises itself as “the world’s leading experts in Cyber Terrorism & Ransomware Recovery.” MonsterCloud’s Web site encouraged victims to use its ransomware-removal services instead of paying a ransom. That pitch likely appealed to the heads of the engineering firm, who were “very, very patriotic,” Minder told me. “It didn’t surprise me at all that they’d rather pay a software company in Florida” than send a ransom to a foreign criminal syndicate.

Minder soon learned that, shortly after the REvil hacker demanded sixty-five thousand dollars, a MonsterCloud representative told the engineering firm that it could recover the files for a hundred and forty-five thousand dollars. (MonsterCloud declined to comment.)


So ransomware has created not just affiliates for the ransomware companies, but companies that negotiate with the ransomware people, and companies that try to skim off companies hit by ransomware companies.
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Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1566: FBI recovers Pipeline ransom bitcoin, writing celebrity apologies, why software’s so noisy, US drought, and more

soon, Jeff Bezos will take off in a Blue Origin rocket. But at what point will he be “in space” rather than “on Earth”? And where’s the dividing line, exactly? CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. I don’t know what you’re personally in orbit around. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ransomware: US recovers millions in cryptocurrency paid to Colonial Pipeline hackers • CNN Politics

Evan Perez, Zachary Cohen and Alex Marquardt:


US investigators have recovered millions of dollars in cryptocurrency paid in ransom to hackers whose attack prompted the shutdown of the key East Coast pipeline last month, according to people briefed on the matter.

The Justice Department on Monday is expected to announce details of the operation led by the FBI with the cooperation of the Colonial Pipeline operator, the people briefed on the matter said.
The ransom recovery is a rare outcome for a company that has fallen victim to a debilitating cyberattack in the booming criminal business of ransomware.

Colonial Pipeline Co. CEO Joseph Blount told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published last month that the company complied with the $4.4m ransom demand because officials didn’t know the extent of the intrusion by hackers and how long it would take to restore operations.

But behind the scenes, the company had taken early steps to notify the FBI and followed instructions that helped investigators track the payment to a cryptocurrency wallet used by the hackers, believed to be based in Russia. US officials have linked the Colonial attack to a criminal hacking group known as Darkside that is said to share its malware tools with other criminal hackers.


The 64 bitcoin (out of 75 paid) that they recovered is now worth about $2.3m, so someone (a crypto exchange?) has done quite nicely on the arbitrage here. The big puzzle is how the FBI got the private key for the wallet(s) into which the bitcoin were being moved – something which the Dept of Justice press release and the affidavit happily swerves away from answering.

Something of a turnaround for the criminals though.
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The science suggests a Wuhan lab leak • WSJ

Steven Quay and Richard Muller:


In gain-of-function research, a microbiologist can increase the lethality of a coronavirus enormously by splicing a special sequence into its genome at a prime location. Doing this leaves no trace of manipulation. But it alters the virus spike protein, rendering it easier for the virus to inject genetic material into the victim cell. Since 1992 there have been at least 11 separate experiments adding a special sequence to the same location. The end result has always been supercharged viruses.

…In the case of the gain-of-function supercharge, other sequences could have been spliced into this same site. Instead of a CGG-CGG (known as “double CGG”) that tells the protein factory to make two arginine amino acids in a row, you’ll obtain equal lethality by splicing any one of 35 of the other two-word combinations for double arginine. If the insertion takes place naturally, say through recombination, then one of those 35 other sequences is far more likely to appear; CGG is rarely used in the class of coronaviruses that can recombine with CoV-2.

In fact, in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes CoV-2, the CGG-CGG combination has never been found naturally. That means the common method of viruses picking up new skills, called recombination, cannot operate here. A virus simply cannot pick up a sequence from another virus if that sequence isn’t present in any other virus.

Although the double CGG is suppressed naturally, the opposite is true in laboratory work. The insertion sequence of choice is the double CGG. That’s because it is readily available and convenient, and scientists have a great deal of experience inserting it. An additional advantage of the double CGG sequence compared with the other 35 possible choices: It creates a useful beacon that permits the scientists to track the insertion in the laboratory.

Now the damning fact. It was this exact sequence that appears in CoV-2. Proponents of zoonotic origin must explain why the novel coronavirus, when it mutated or recombined, happened to pick its least favorite combination, the double CGG. Why did it replicate the choice the lab’s gain-of-function researchers would have made?


I spend a long time on Monday trying to assess this claim. It took me down a very, very deep rabbit hole. A few of the claims are simply wrong, such as “a virus cannot pick up a sequence from another virus if that sequence isn’t present in any other virus”: that’s what mutation is, and how new sequences appear. (The SARS-Cov-2 variants are mutations, which then get selected preferentially.)

The pro-lab-leak group has been insisting for a long time that the way the coronavirus spike protein works is new, and hence engineered. Biologists, however, say that simply isn’t true. (There are examples of the CGGCGG sequence in other coronaviruses.) Also, when the WIV team wanted to have a beacon, they used a literal one – the insertion of the “luciferase” gene, which makes copies of the virus glow, and thus easier to measure growth. (SARS-Cov-2 doesn’t have it.)

Here’s a thread (on a single page) by Amy Maxmen, who has a PhD in evolutionary biology. To say that she isn’t convinced is putting it mildly.
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The making of a perfect celebrity apology • Vice

Hunter Harris spoke to a PR person who has worked multiple times on celebrity apologies:


There are a lot of drafts. The ones I’ve done have probably seen at least ten drafts in a 48-hour span. Doing that many edits in 48 hours is really a lot of work. I have the client write completely authentically from their heart first, so that I know on paper how they’re feeling. Looking at that, we can work through if there are places where they’re still defensive, or seeing it wrong, or if we need to have more internal conversations about where their heart is. Taking the talent’s words that they’ve sent to you and then editing them for public consumption is always hard. You’re challenging very specific words: Why did you pick that word versus this word? Do you understand if you say this word versus that word, it means two different things? It becomes your full day.

It takes a while to get to that place where [the statement] is as straightforward, authentic, and impactful as it needs to be. We all know that when you put an apology up on Instagram and you have to scroll sideways a couple of times through the slides, you lose people as you’re scrolling. Not everyone’s going to keep reading. So it’s about getting it as short as it can be, but still saying everything you need to. If it needs to be longer, how do you arrange what you’re saying so the apology itself isn’t buried? Sometimes a draft will come in where the “I’m sorry” is in the last paragraph, as opposed to in the first paragraph. Then the question is how do we reframe the whole thing so that if we get people to read two sentences, and that’s all they read, how do they at least see that you are saying sorry for this specific thing and owning it up front?


But drafting the apology isn’t all of it, as the publicist explains: there’s then the aftermath once you’ve actually made it public.
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What happened when Trump was banned on Facebook and Twitter • The New York Times

Davey Alba, Ella Koeze and Jacob Silver:


One topic from Mr. Trump that has not spread far: claims of widespread election fraud.

The Times analysis looked at the 10 most popular posts with election misinformation — judged by likes and shares — from Mr. Trump before the social media bans, and compared them with his 10 most popular written statements containing election misinformation after the ban. All the posts included falsehoods about the election – that the process had been “rigged,” for instance, or that there had been extensive voter fraud.

Before the ban, Mr. Trump’s posts garnered 22.1 million likes and shares; after the ban, his posts earned 1.3 million likes and shares across Twitter and Facebook.

Disinformation researchers say the difference points to the enormous power the social media companies have in curbing political misinformation, if they choose to wield it. Facebook and Twitter curb the spread of false statements about the November election, though Twitter has loosened its enforcement since March to dedicate more resources to fact-checking in other parts of the world.

“As the Trump case shows, deplatforming doesn’t ‘solve’ disinformation, but it does disrupt harmful networks and blunt the influence of harmful individuals,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation.

Mr. Trump’s statements that got the most engagement after his ban included topics like his commentary on the culture wars (as when he urged his followers to boycott baseball), praise for particular individuals (like for the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who recently died) and attacks on President Biden’s policies on issues like the border crisis and taxes.

Now that Mr. Trump has lost both the Oval Office and his Twitter account, he has become a kind of digital leader-in-exile, Mr. Brooking said.


Says it all, really. Running your own site, even if you have a name everyone has heard of, avails you nothing.
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Sound design for software: why software makes noise and how it’s made • CNBC

Jordan Novet:


The coronavirus pandemic brought new attention to the sound of software.

During the online meetings we’ve been holding and the television interviews we’ve been watching, sounds from other people are spilling over into our ears. Sometimes, that’s by design.

Imagine that a start-up is trying to sell its software to a bank. People from both sides on a briefing call will hear the start-up CEO’s phone playing a melody every few minutes to signify that an email has come in. To the start-up’s salesperson on the call alongside the CEO, the sounds are nothing unusual. But the chief information officer from the bank might perceive that the start-up CEO has considerable inbound communication, and that could assure the person that the start-up’s wares are in demand.

“It makes audible your network,” said Meredith Ward, director of film and media studies at Johns Hopkins University.

For Ward, reminders of events starting soon have become more important than ever. No longer is she seeing visual cues of what to do next because she’s no longer visiting different places on campus. Everything happens in front of a screen now, and sounds are the symbols of transition.

But the sounds can also blend together and become confusing. That can even apply to a single app, such as the communication app Discord. Users can participate in text and voice chats in a variety of groups, known as servers, and the “boop-beep” sound of a new message doesn’t tell them if it’s coming from a relative on one private server or a stranger in a server where thousands gather to discuss a game.

Sounds can also distract people, even for just a few seconds. As the pandemic continues, Day at Microsoft said he’s been thinking about the role that sound plays during meetings. “I want to be a really good active listener, and I want other people to practice that as well,” he said.


This got me thinking that it would be a good idea to turn off all the sound and, perhaps, visual notifications (the latter is slightly harder) on my laptop. That is a noticeable difference about working on an iPad: far fewer interruptions from apps that aren’t in focus.
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“Mega-drought” takes dramatic toll on Colorado River system that provides water to 40 million people • CBS News

Ben Tracy:


Since 2000, Lake Mead has dropped 130 feet, about the height of a 13-story building. Islands in the lake that used to be completely submerged are now visible.

Back in 2014 CBS News had visited the dam, and asked Mulroy about water levels at Lake Mead, which she described as being at “a pretty critical point.”

Today, with the water level 30 feet lower, “We’re at a tipping point,” said Mulroy. “It’s an existential issue for Arizona, for California, for Nevada. It is just that simple.”

For the first time ever, the federal government is expected to declare a water shortage on the lower Colorado River later this summer. That will force automatic cuts to the water supply for Nevada and Arizona starting in 2022. Homeowners have higher priority and, at first, won’t feel the pain as badly as farmers.

Dan Thelander is a second-generation family farmer in Arizona’s Pinal County. The water to grow his corn and alfalfa fields comes from Lake Mead. “If we don’t have irrigation water, we can’t farm,” he said. “So, next year we are going to get about 25% less water, means we’re going to have to fallow or not plant 25% of our land.”

In 2023 Thelander and other farmers in this part of Arizona are expected to lose nearly all of their water from Lake Mead, so they are rushing to dig wells to pump groundwater to try to save their farms.

“The future here is, honestly I hate to say it, pretty cloudy,” Thelander said.

Back at Hoover Dam, facility manager Mark Cook has his own concerns. Lake Mead has dropped so much that it has cut the dam’s hydropower output by nearly 25%.

Cook wanted to show Tracy the brand-new turbine blades they just installed, designed to keep power flowing efficiently at rapidly-dropping lake levels. At some point, the dam could stop producing electricity altogether.


The US southwest is suffering a gigantic drought this year; climate change is thought to be the cause.
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Facebook will show creators how much money Apple and Google take from them – The Verge

Jay Peters:


Less than two hours before Apple’s big Worldwide Developers Conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be launching a new interface for creators that shows how different fees affect their earnings on the platform. The announcement comes as Apple is under intense scrutiny for its App Store fees.

Here’s a preview of what the new interface will look like. This example breaks down exactly how taxes and fees are taken away from a creator’s event revenue:

Zuckerberg wasn’t clear as to when the new interface would be launching beyond saying that there’d be “more to come soon.”

Zuckerberg also says the company will keep paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges, and “our upcoming independent news products” free for creators until 2023. This is an extension of a policy announced in August. When Facebook introduced the events feature last year, it had promised that it wouldn’t collect fees until “at least” 2021.

The company eventually plans to introduce a revenue share, Zuckerberg says — but when it does, it will be “less than the 30% that Apple and others take.”


This could be portrayed as the Cold War between Facebook and the others (including Google) getting nastier, but you can’t fault transparency.
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Flu virus became less diverse, simplifying task of making flu shots • STAT

Helen Branswell:


The greater the genetic distance between the clades, the bigger the cost of making the wrong choice. Vaccine that protects reasonably well against one might perform poorly if the other turned out to be the dominant strain in a given winter. In fact, that’s precisely what happened in the 2017-18 season, when the flu shot failed to protect three-quarters of vaccinated people in the U.S. against the H3N2 strain in circulation.

But an unexpected upside of the Covid-19 pandemic may have solved this problem for us — or at least made flu’s diversity more manageable.

With Covid suppression measures like mask wearing, school closures, and travel restrictions driving flu transmission rates to historically low levels around the world, it appears that one of the H3N2 clades may have disappeared — gone extinct. The same phenomenon may also have occurred with one of the two lineages of influenza B viruses, known as B/Yamagata.

Neither has been spotted in over a year. In fact, March of 2020 was the last time viral sequences from B/Yamagata or the H3N2 clade known as 3c3.A were uploaded into the international databases used to monitor flu virus evolution, Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told STAT.

If the global pool of flu viruses has truly shrunk to this degree, it would be a welcome outcome, flu experts say, making the twice-a-year selection of viruses to be included in flu vaccines for the Northern and Southern hemispheres much easier work.


The numbers of deaths from actual flu in the past year has been amazingly low. Eliminating one of its lineages would, at least, be a faint silver lining among the many clouds.
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Fall of Huawei: what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:


Without fail, the two annual major Huawei smartphones — the P series and Mate series — have ended up being some of the best of the year. Whether it’s the top-end specs, the incredible design prowess, or the stellar photography experience, a Huawei flagship has traditionally been easy to recommend for any smartphone buyer. Now, though, we’d be remiss to recommend anyone outside of China buy a Huawei phone. It’s a damn shame.

That loss will have a ripple effect across the entire industry. Without Huawei pushing other companies — most specifically Samsung — to innovate, it’s likely we’ll see less boundary-pushing and more incremental iteration from the big players. Granted, Samsung still needs to contend with Apple and the litany of Chinese manufacturers, so it can’t exactly rest on its laurels. But for the past five years, Huawei was its biggest competitor in the Android world. Now that competition is gone.

…there is a gnawing feeling that what the industry really needs is a Huawei. For the time being, Samsung and Apple don’t need to worry about a third company sitting at their table. While Huawei’s lack of a footprint in the US prevented it from ever truly being on the same level in the premium space as Samsung and Apple, at least there was a threat that that day could come. In fact, that was a threat that was very real just a year prior to the trade ban, when Huawei was preparing to enter the market in partnership with AT&T. Now a different company making that day reality is years off — if it ever comes at all.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: what happened to Huawei wasn’t fair play. It’s not like Huawei failed to innovate or made too many fumbles like LG. It’s not like it botched its own long-term development like Motorola. Huawei is no longer in the game because the United States government decided that’s what needed to happen.


That the Biden administration hasn’t been minded to help, and the Xi administration doesn’t seem particularly bothered about pushing Huawei up the agenda, is telling. Possibly they’re using it on agendas in discussion we don’t know about, a bargaining chip of undisclosed value.
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Jeff Bezos to go into space on first crewed flight of New Shepard rocket • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Jeff Bezos will no longer be the richest person on Earth on 20 July because the Amazon founder will be blasting off into space on the first crewed flight of his New Shepard rocket ship.


It’s a terrific intro (as we call it in the news trade), with the most perfect unexpected hook to make it stick in your mind. (I do hope that the Morning Star, Britain’s communist newspaper, will write about it, ideally with the headline “Billionaire fired into space, hopefully first of many”.)

The result, of course, was a long discussion on Twitter about whether Bezos would be “on Earth”, and if not at which point he would stop being “on Earth” and instead “in space”, and what part of “space” isn’t “Earth”, and vice-versa. (Definitionally, most people – that is, most people who think about the topic, which is not most people – delineate it by the Kármán line.
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Why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Minesweeper was introduced in Windows 3.1, not Windows 95. (Read more!) Thanks, Peter Lee.