Start Up No.1525: Home Office plans encryption attack, India’s democratic decline, Facebook’s stony silence, the most 2021 thing ever, and more


There’s no shortage of most things, but the US is facing a shortage of ketchup. And, as it happens, routers. CC-licensed photo by Fred Inklaar 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.

The Home Office is preparing another attack on encryption • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:

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[UK Home Secretary Priti] Patel will headline an April 19 roundtable organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), according to a draft invitation seen by WIRED. The event is set to be deeply critical of the encryption standard, which makes it harder for investigators and technology companies to monitor communications between people and detect child grooming or illicit content, including terror or child abuse imagery.

…The Home Office’s move comes as Facebook plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across all its messaging platforms – including Messenger and Instagram – which has sparked a fierce debate in the UK and elsewhere over the supposed risks the technology poses to children.

During the event, the NSPCC will unveil a report on end-to-end encryption by PA Consulting, a UK firm that has advised the UK’s Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) on the forthcoming Online Safety regulation. An early draft of the report, seen by WIRED, says that increased usage of end-to-end encryption would protect adults’ privacy at the expense of children’s safety, and that any strategy adopted by technology companies to mitigate the effect of end-to-end encryption will “almost certainly be less effective than the current ability to scan for harmful content.”

…According to a person familiar with policy discussions, technology companies are now increasingly worried that the Home Office could issue a Technical Capability Notice (TCN) against Facebook – that is: an injunction forbidding the company from switching to end-to-end encryption.

A TCN would allow investigators with a warrant to keep obtaining decrypted conversations on Instagram and Facebook Messenger, the platforms of main concern because they potentially allow unsolicited messaging between adults and children. In December last year, Sky News reported, quoting Home Office policy advisors, that a TCN would have become an option if the Online Safety Bill did not demand that Facebook kept its ability to spot child abuse – a scenario that would arguably materialise if Facebook had its way with encryption.

Jim Killock, executive director at digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, says he is “worried that the Home Office will be considering using a secret order (TCN) to force Facebook to limit or circumvent their encryption.”

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So this wouldn’t be a *reversal* of existing E2E encryption; it’s a block on introducing *new* E2E. The problem for the government if it introduces a TCN would be that people would say, when bad things happen, “but why haven’t you prevented Facebook using E2E, given the big speech you made?” At which point you’d be able to figure out, from the evasiveness of the government’s answer, if there was a TCN in place.

Though if that’s Patel, famous for her word salads, you might not be able to.
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I thought my job was to report on tech in India. Instead, i’ve watched democracy decline • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:

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To friends in the country who write about crime and politics from the frontlines, I sent WhatsApp texts of admiration and solidarity. But I told myself that I didn’t need to get mixed up. I was a tech reporter, I reasoned, and the biggest news in my industry each September was new iPhones.

Separating what I cover from the horrors unfolding around me became my coping mechanism. But unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for a while. For years, I tried to live in the comforting fiction that what was happening in India and what was happening in the world of tech were separate things — but that isn’t true anymore.

For more than a year, India’s government first cut off and then throttled internet access to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir after unilaterally withdrawing the disputed region’s autonomy. Facebook executives reportedly shielded members of India’s ruling party from the platform’s hate speech rules to protect the company’s business interests. Right-wing trolls have used social media platforms to harass women who they say offended their religious sensibility.

Hindu nationalists have repeatedly taken offense to original shows that Netflix and Amazon have produced, claiming that the platforms were offending Hindu gods and promoting “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women. In 2020, rioters used Facebook Live to incite violence in Delhi. Last month, India’s government threatened to jail Twitter executives for not complying with an order to block hundreds of accounts, many of which were critical of the government, and Delhi police briefly threw a young climate activist in jail after charging her with sedition for editing a Google Doc.

I love tech. But watching it intersect with a Hindu nationalist government trying to crush dissent, choke a free press, and destroy a nation’s secular ethos doesn’t feel like something I bought a ticket to. Writing about technology from India now feels like having a front-row seat to the country’s rapid slide into authoritarianism. “It’s like watching a train wreck while you’re inside the train,” I Slacked my boss in November.

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Sixty-week delay on router orders shows scale of chip crisis • Bloomberg

Thomas Seal, Takashi Mochizuki and Debby Wu:

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Broadband providers are seeing delays of more than a year when ordering internet routers, becoming yet another victim of chip shortages choking global supply chains and adding challenges for millions still working from home.

Carriers have been quoted order times as long as 60 weeks, more than doubling previous waits, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Running out of the right router would prevent a carrier from being able to add new subscribers to its network, risking lost sales in the ever-competitive broadband market. Their supply chains have become a headache because sharp coronavirus manufacturing shutdowns a year ago were exacerbated by a prolonged surge in demand for better home broadband equipment, said Karsten Gewecke, head of European regional business for Zyxel Communications Corp, a Taiwan-based router-maker.

Since January, it’s asked customers to order products a year in advance, he said, because the lead time for components like chips from Broadcom Inc. doubled to a year or more since then. Zyxel is a major supplier of routers, with customers including Norway’s Telenor ASA and Britain’s Zen Internet.

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Alternative: ISPs hike prices because they know it will be tricky for customers to change provider. (Though that happens all the time anyway.)
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The new shortage: ketchup can’t catch up • WSJ

Heather Haddon and Annie Gasparro:

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Supply chain problems are reaching into a far corner of the business universe: ketchup packets.

After enduring a year of closures, employee safety fears and start-stop openings, many American restaurants are now facing a nationwide ketchup shortage. Restaurants are trying to secure the tabletop staple after Covid-19 upended the condiment world order. Managers are using generic versions, pouring out bulk ketchup into individual cups and hitting the aisles of Costco for substitutes.

“We’ve been hunting high and low,” said Chris Fuselier, owner of Denver-based Blake Street Tavern, who has struggled to keep ketchup in stock for much of this year.

The pandemic turned many sit-down restaurants into takeout specialists, making individual ketchup packets the primary condiment currency for both national chains and mom-and-pop restaurants. Packet prices are up 13% since January 2020, and their market share has exploded at the expense of tabletop bottles, according to restaurant-business platform Plate IQ.

Even fast-food giants are pleading for packets. Long John Silver’s LLC, a nearly 700-unit chain, had to seek ketchup from secondary suppliers because of the rush in demand. The industry’s pandemic shift to packets has pushed up prices, costing the Louisville, Ky.-based company an extra half-million dollars, executives said, since single-serve is pricier than bulk.

“Everyone out there is grabbing for ketchup,” chief marketing officer Stephanie Mattingly said.

The ketchup conundrum strikes at a cornerstone of American diets. The tomato spread is the most-consumed table sauce at US restaurants, with around 300,000 tons sold to food-service last year, according to research firm Euromonitor. Even more is eaten at home, and the pandemic helped push retail ketchup sales in the US over $1bn in 2020, around 15% higher than 2019, Euromonitor data showed.

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One of the greatest articles about a subject you never realised you could be interested in: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 piece about why there’s only one sort of ketchup, yet there are tons of different mustards.
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Facebook ran ads for a fake ‘Clubhouse for PC’ app planted with malware • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Cybercriminals have taken out a number of Facebook ads masquerading as a Clubhouse app for PC users in order to target unsuspecting victims with malware, TechCrunch has learned.

TechCrunch was alerted Wednesday to Facebook ads tied to several Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat app only available on iPhones. Clicking on the ad would open a fake Clubhouse website, including a mocked-up screenshot of what the non-existent PC app looks like, with a download link to the malicious app.

When opened, the malicious app tries to communicate with a command and control server to obtain instructions on what to do next. One sandbox analysis of the malware showed the malicious app tried to infect the isolated machine with ransomware.

But overnight, the fake Clubhouse websites — which were hosted in Russia — went offline. In doing so, the malware also stopped working.

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Ben Thompson made the very good point on a recent episode of the Dithering podcast that people sometimes give Apple (and to a lesser extent Google) a pass when bad things get onto the App Store, because it’s such a big job to monitor. But Facebook’s challenge trying to stop stuff like this among all the other adverts that get put on it is orders of magnitude bigger.

Also: Clubhouse achieves the status of being “worth faking to entrap people”.
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Facebook hopes tiny labels on posts will stop users confusing satire with reality • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Facebook is adding additional labels to posts from Pages that appear in users’ News Feeds in a bid to reduce confusion about their origin. These labels will include “public official,” “fan page,” and “satire page.” The company says it’s already started testing the deployment of these labels in the US, and will gradually add them to more posts.

Facebook hasn’t offered any explanation as to why it’s adding these labels, but identifying satire seems particularly important. Take a look at the social shares for any news articles written by well-known satirical sites like The Onion or The Babylon Bee and you’ll find plenty of people taking these stories at face value. In such a context these posts are essentially a type of misinformation, even if their creators did not intend this. Even high profile figures like former president Donald Trump have mistaken these stories for real reports.

This isn’t the first time the social network giant has tried to make the context of posts in the News Feed clearer. In June last year it began labeling media outlets which are “wholly or partially under the editorial control of their government.”

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Because we know everyone takes lots of notice of little labels on Facebook Pages. (Though even fact-checking sites have been caught out by things like this. And Twitter is still a minefield, if you want to screw up.)
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Another huge data breach, another stony silence from Facebook • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr:

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The news of the latest breach, of 533 million people’s data, dropped over a holiday weekend; Facebook responded only by saying it was “old data” and the problem had been “found and fixed in August 2019” – an absurd statement given that the data had only just been dumped on the internet, and clearly that hadn’t been fixed at all.

These are the actions of a company that knows it can get away with it. And repeatedly does. On Tuesday morning I submitted a set of questions to its press office: when was the issue first discovered? Did Facebook inform the regulators (as it is required to under US, UK and EU law)? If so, when? Had it informed users? But Facebook didn’t respond. It still hasn’t responded. It uses silence to throttle reporting, a strategy that works. It passes “exclusive” scoops to favourite reporters, and stonewalls the rest. Not just me. At an impromptu event on the data breach, journalists from Wired, Politico and Business Insider revealed that it refused to answer their questions too.

Instead it published a blogpost, The Facts on News Reports About Facebook Data, saying it wasn’t hacked, the data was “scraped”. It later confirmed that it had no intention of informing users because it wasn’t “confident” who they were, users “could not fix the issue”, and anyway, “the data was publicly available”. What do you do when a trillion-dollar company with 2.8 billion users treats the public with brazen contempt? When it won’t answer basic journalistic inquiries? When it ignores even the regulator? Ireland’s Data Protection Commission – its lead regulator in Europe – released a pointed statement saying that it received “no proactive communication” from Facebook.

It’s this culture of impunity that makes Facebook such a dangerous company. Even where there are laws, it operates above them.

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It turns out that it’s only the journalists who are holding Facebook to account, because it really has nothing to bargain with, whereas the politicians tend to be worried about its power. There’s nothing Facebook can hold over journalists; all it can do is block them.
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Instagraft: Covid conspiracy theorists selling silver spray and $50 seawater • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Jasper Jackson and Alexandra Heal:

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Despite claims from Instagram that it is taking more action on health misinformation, such as restricting the reach of videos like Baker’s, these channels are still growing. Over the first three months of this year the accounts gained almost a million followers between them, according to data from Facebook-owned service CrowdTangle.

Our investigation shows that Facebook, which owns Instagram, continues to be in breach of a commitment to the UK government last November to the principle that no one should profit from coronavirus vaccine misinformation online. The Bureau previously found hundreds of pages on Facebook itself using monetisation tools to profit from false claims about Covid-19 and vaccines. The Instagram accounts, many of which have received multiple flags from fact-checkers, are still posting two months after Facebook announced its latest tightening of rules.

Although neither Instagram nor Facebook profit directly from these money-making schemes, the company’s business model relies on keeping audiences engaged. Unfortunately, engaging with some of the content identified by the Bureau could potentially prove hazardous to people’s health.

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SO much grifting going on. You’d have to hand-curate Instagram to wipe it out, though.
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That Fyre Fest tweet with the sad sandwich will be auctioned as an NFT for medical expenses • The Verge

As Jeff Atwood observed of this headline, it’s as 2021 as it’s possible to get. (The layers of irony in paying for America’s mad health system using an even more mad system that doesn’t actually get you anything tangible would do an onion proud.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1524: Epic court papers sting App Store, Pfizer zaps Brazil’s P1 variant in study, YouTube Kids is ‘vapid wasteland’, and more


The worldwide squeeze on chip supply is affecting Apple’s Macbook and iPad production, a report in the Nikkei paper says. CC-licensed photo by Aaron Yoo 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. Mm, butter. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple engineer likened App Store security to ‘butter knife in gunfight’ • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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A senior Apple engineer compared the defences of its App Store against malicious actors to “bringing a plastic butter knife to a gunfight”, according to legal documents released on Thursday.

The anecdote, which was cited by Fortnite maker Epic Games ahead of a high-stakes antitrust trial in California next month, was based on internal Apple documents quoting Eric Friedman, head of the company’s Fraud Engineering Algorithms and Risk (Fear) unit.

In the papers, Friedman also likened Apple’s process of reviewing new apps for the App Store to “more like the pretty lady who greets you . . . at the Hawaiian airport than the drug-sniffing dog”. He added that Apple was ill-equipped to “deflect sophisticated attackers”.

The revelation could be a significant blow to Apple’s defence, which rests on its insistence that the contentious 30% “tax” it levies on digital purchases within apps downloaded from the App Store is necessary to fund curation of the store and protect consumers from malware.

The two companies have for months been locked in a feud over the fee, with Epic suing Apple last August after Fortnite was thrown out of the App Store for launching its own in-app payment mechanism, a workaround that deprived Apple of its commission.

Apple rejects any third-party payment tools for in-app purchases, arguing they could undermine the security of the iPhone.

In hundreds of pages of newly released arguments, for which each company has been allowed access to the other’s internal documents, Epic launched a stinging attack on Apple’s promise of App Store security. It argued that the Silicon Valley giant has “no evidence” that its app review process “screens for security issues better than other methods of app distribution”.

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Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine neutralizes Brazil variant in lab study • Reuters

Michael Erman:

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The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech was able to neutralize a new variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly in Brazil, according to a laboratory study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday.

Blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine neutralized an engineered version of the virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, the study conducted by scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch found.

The scientists said the neutralizing ability was roughly equivalent the vaccine’s effect on a previous less contagious version of the virus from last year.

The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.

In previously published studies, Pfizer had found that its vaccine neutralized other more contagious variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, although the South African variant may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the vaccine.

Pfizer has said it believes its current vaccine is highly likely to still protect against the South African variant.

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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is really turning out to be the gold medal winner: minimal side effects and beats the variants we’ve seen (so far). If only Brazil actually had an effective strategy for beating the P1 variant. But it doesn’t. Deaths are spiking there, and coming from a younger age group than before.
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YouTube Kids ‘a vapid wasteland’, say US lawmakers • BBC News

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A US government committee has described YouTube Kids as a “wasteland of vapid, consumerist content”.

In a letter to YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, the US sub-committee on economic and consumer policy said the platform was full of “inappropriate… highly commercial content”.

Google launched YouTube Kids in 2015 as a safe place for children to view appropriate content. YouTube said it had worked hard to provide “enriching content for kids”.

In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson said: “Over the last few years, we’ve worked hard to provide kids and families with protections and controls that enable them to view age-appropriate content.
“We’ve made significant investments in the YouTube Kids app to make it safer, and to serve more educational and enriching content for kids, based on principles developed with experts and parents.”

…According to the letter, some videos appeared to be “smuggling in hidden marketing and advertising with product placements by children’s influencers”.

The letter claimed that one research team, which it did not name, found only about 4% of videos had a high educational value. Much of the rest was low quality content such as toy unboxing and videos of people playing video games.

It also said that one mother had reported a video that contained advice on how to commit suicide. After the video was reported, the letter alleges YouTube failed to remove it for eight months.

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Hidden marketing and advertising with product placements? Sounds like they’re describing American network TV.
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Writing tools I learned from The Economist • Built By Words

Ahmed Soliman:

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I learned writing from The Economist. Back home, it wasn’t easy to learn English. No one in my social circle was fluent in the language and I couldn’t afford a private tutor. The best I could do was to create my own syllabus. The kiosk near my house had, to my surprise, the newspaper[1]. I’d save my allowance to buy whatever issue was on the stand. I’d divide each issue into two units: New Vocabulary and Writing Tools. I’d then memorize the novel words and apply the newly-discovered sentence structures to my essays. I kept doing this for three years.

I like the writing style of The Economist for many reasons: the most important is that it’s easy to understand their point. Writing to be understood might be an obvious requirement of a readable article, but often I find myself occupied with deciphering form instead of digesting content. Not so with the British newspaper: its writers understand that form exists only to serve content. It’s okay to internally admire one’s word choices and sentence structures, but writers should be a little less selfish in their writing, especially nonfiction.

These are six writing tools I learned from The Economist. As you’ll see, they exist to serve, not confuse, the reader.

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To professional journalists these will look pretty obvious, honed by years of work. But they’re excellent to learn from for all the people who don’t write for a living.
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How we found hints of new particles or forces of nature – and why it could change physics • The Conversation

Mark Lancaster:

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The muon’s behaviour is influenced by “virtual particles” that pop in and out of existence from the vacuum. These exist fleetingly, but for long enough to affect how the muon interacts with the magnetic field and change the measured magnetic moment, albeit by a tiny amount.

The standard model predicts very precisely, to better than one part in a million, what this effect is. As long as we know what particles are bubbling in and out of the vacuum, experiment and theory should match. But, if experiment and theory don’t match, our understanding of the soup of virtual particles may be incomplete.

The possibility of new particles existing is not idle speculation. Such particles might help in explaining several of the big problems in physics. Why, for example, does the universe have so much dark matter – causing the galaxies to rotate faster than we’d expect – and why has nearly all the anti-matter created in the Big Bang disappeared?

The problem to date has been that nobody has seen any of these proposed new particles. It was hoped the LHC at Cern would produce them in collisions between high energy protons, but they’ve not yet been observed.

…The Brookhaven experiment measured a discrepancy with the standard model that had a one in 5,000 chance of being a statistical fluke. This is approximately the same probability as throwing a coin 12 times in a row, all heads up.

This was tantalising, but way below the threshold for discovery, which is generally required to be better than one in 1.7 million – or 21 coin throws in a row. To determine whether new physics was in play, scientists would have to increase the sensitivity of the experiment by a factor of four.

…The new results, from the first year of data at Fermilab, are in line with the measurement from the Brookhaven experiment. Combining results reinforces the case for a disagreement between experimental measurement and the standard model. The chances now lie at about one in 40,000 of the discrepancy being a fluke – still shy of the gold standard discovery threshold.

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More experimentation! Though remember a while back that they thought they’d found faster-than-light neutrinos. Took nine months to correct. So there’s cautious optimism about this.
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App Tracking Transparency lets users opt out of all ad targeted tracking • AppleInsider

Mike Peterson:

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Apple’s new privacy mechanisms in its App Tracking Transparency feature will allow users to opt out of other types of tracking beyond the company’s IDFA tag.

The App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature, slated to launch in iOS 14.5 in early spring, will require apps to obtain permission from users before tracking them across other websites and apps. If a user opts out of tracking, developers are required to comply.

However, the ATT feature doesn’t just apply to a user’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) tracking tag. If a user opts out of tracking, Apple will expect developers to stop using any identifiers for ad targeting, including hashed email addresses or phone numbers, the company said Wednesday.

Asking an app not to track using other forms of identifiers differs slightly from the IDFA implementation. Since Apple controls the IDFA, it can stop an app from seeing the identifier using technical means. For other forms of tracking, it’s a policy. Apple will require developers to comply.

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More and more radical. Apple’s declaring war on the adtech business.
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MacBook and iPad production delayed as supply crunch hits Apple • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

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Production of some MacBooks and iPads has been postponed due to the global component shortage, Nikkei Asia has learned, in a sign that even Apple, with its massive procurement power, is not immune from the unprecedented supply crunch.

Chip shortages have caused delays in a key step in MacBook production — the mounting of components on printed circuit boards before final assembly — sources briefed on the matter told Nikkei Asia. Some iPad assembly, meanwhile, was postponed because of a shortage of displays and display components, sources said.

As a result of the delay, Apple has pushed back a portion of component orders for the two devices from the first half of this year to the second half, the people said. Industry sources and experts say the delays are a sign that the chip shortage is growing more serious and could impact smaller tech players even more heavily.

Apple is known for its expertise in managing one of the world’s most complicated supply chains, and for the speed with which it can mobilize suppliers. This has helped the company withstand a global component shortage that is already squeezing automakers and electronics makers alike.

Production plans for Apple’s iconic iPhones have so far not been affected by the supply shortage, although the supply of some components for the devices is “quite tight,” according to two sources. Overall, the component shortage remains a supply chain issue for Apple and has not yet had an impact on product availability for consumers, Nikkei has learned.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

Apple rival Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest smartphone maker, recently confirmed that the chip shortage could be problematic for the company in the April to June period, adding that it has teams of employees working around the clock to resolve the issue.

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The hysteresis from the supply chain delay is going to screw up a lot of companies, just when they thought they could make hay as everyone comes out of lockdown.
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A deep dive into the leaked data of 533 million Facebook users • Surfshark

null:

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Overall, the leak produced 2837793637 data points – meaning that the hackers, on average, exposed 5 types of data per user. “It includes their phone numbers, Facebook IDs, full names, locations, birthdates, bios, and — in some cases — email addresses,” said Vytautas Kaziukonis, CEO of Surfshark when talking about the breach. 

While the big worry online is about email addresses, this is not the part that should cause the most concern as a comparatively small 4,76% of the profiles had their email addresses exposed. However, 89.01% of affected users had their phone numbers leaked. 

Disclaimer: The data set for Facebook’s data breach was extremely large and complex to analyze; therefore, the probability of false positives and possible discrepancies should be taken into account.

All in all, 11 types of data points were exposed, with specifics varying from user to user. Below [in the post] is a chart that breaks it all down by type. Keep in mind that we’re counting the percentage of people affected by the breach.

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First and/or last name in more than 90% of leaks.

Facebook, meanwhile, doesn’t intend to tell people if their data has been leaked: a spokesman said that

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“the social media company was not confident it had full visibility on which users would need to be notified. He said it also took into account that users could not fix the issue and that the data was publicly available in deciding not to notify users.”

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Google illegally tracking Android users, according to new complaint • Ars Technica

Javier Espinosa:

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Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems has filed a complaint against Google in France alleging that the US tech giant is illegally tracking users on Android phones without their consent.

Android phones generate unique advertising codes, similar to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), that allow Google and third parties to track users’ browsing behavior in order to better target them with advertising.

In a complaint filed on Wednesday, Schrems’ campaign group Noyb argued that in creating and storing these codes without first obtaining explicit permission from users, Google was engaging in “illegal operations” that violate EU privacy laws.

Noyb urged France’s data privacy regulator to launch a probe into Google’s tracking practices and to force the company to comply with privacy rules. It argued that fines should be imposed on the tech giant if the watchdog finds evidence of wrongdoing.

“Through these hidden identifiers on your phone, Google and third parties can track users without their consent,” said Stefano Rossetti, privacy lawyer at Noyb. “It is like having powder on your hands and feet, leaving a trace of everything you do on your phone—from whether you swiped right or left to the song you downloaded.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint comes as Apple is set to bring in landmark changes to how it tracks users, asking them for the first time to opt in to the use of identifiers in its new iOS 14 operating system. The decision has stoked alarm among developers, who expect a majority of users to choose to block the use of IDFA.

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Schrems has a pretty good record against big companies with the EU, so don’t write this off. Equally, it could take years to come through.
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Road building is supposed to cut congestion and boost the economy – my research suggests otherwise • The Conversation

David Metz:

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Highways England, a Department for Transport-owned company responsible for the country’s motorways, published detailed traffic monitoring reports for the first three years after opening a smart motorway scheme between Junctions 23 and 27 of the M25 London orbital route. [Metz then analysed it.]

The road was enlarged from three to four lanes in each direction. While traffic flowed faster one year after opening, this advantage was lost by year two thanks to the increase in traffic volume, up 16% compared with 7% for other motorways in the region.

Road investment is supposed to benefit the economy by shaving precious minutes off travel time. Traffic models are used to estimate how big time savings are likely to be in order to justify each investment. The model used in the M25 case projected substantial travel time savings worth over £400 million to those travelling for business reasons – both cars and good vehicles.

There were also smaller time savings for local road users, both commuters and those taking short trips. But these were almost entirely offset by increased fuel costs. That’s because these local drivers rerouted to the motorway where there was less traffic to save a few minutes on their journey. Ultimately though, they ended up travelling a greater distance by departing from more direct routes.

The M25 traffic model used to justify the smart motorway investment substantially underestimated this increase in traffic volume, while overestimating the average increase in speed for most drivers, put at about 10 km per hour. The benefit-cost ratio was estimated to be 2.9, that is, £2.90 of economic benefit for every £1 invested. Since the travel time savings didn’t last beyond the first year after opening, the actual benefit-cost ratio was much lower.

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I think it’s been known for a long time that building more roads leads to more traffic. Good to have it confirmed so clearly, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1523: how Facebook’s data leaked out, Spotify buys ‘Clubhouse for sports’, Apple helps others find your stuff, and more


Computers really can’t interpret emotions – so why do companies keep trying to insist they can? And should we regulate them? CC-licensed photo by hydra arts 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. There they are! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What really caused Facebook’s leak of 500 million users’ data? • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

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One source of the confusion was that Facebook has had any number of breaches and exposures from which this data could have originated. Was it the 540 million records—including Facebook IDs, comments, likes, and reaction data—exposed by a third party and disclosed by the security firm UpGuard in April 2019? Or was it the 419 million Facebook user records, including hundreds of millions of phone numbers, names, and Facebook IDs, scraped from the social network by bad actors before a 2018 Facebook policy change, that were exposed publicly and reported by TechCrunch in September 2019? Did it have something to do with the Cambridge Analytica third-party data sharing scandal of 2018? Or was this somehow related to the massive 2018 Facebook data breach that compromised access tokens and virtually all personal data from about 30 million users?

In fact, the answer appears to be: none of the above. As Facebook eventually explained in background comments to WIRED and in its Tuesday blogpost, the recently public trove of 533 million records is an entirely different data set that attackers created by abusing a flaw in a Facebook address book contacts import feature. Facebook says it patched the vulnerability in August 2019, but it’s unclear how many times the bug was exploited before then. The information from more than 500 million Facebook users in more than 106 countries contains Facebook IDs, phone numbers, and other information about early Facebook users like Mark Zuckerburg and US secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, as well as the European Union commissioner for data protection, Didier Reynders. Other victims include 61 people who list the “Federal Trade Commission” and 651 people who list “Attorney General” in their details on Facebook.

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How surprising that Facebook should misdirect people about whether a data breach was novel.
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Spotify acquires sports-talk app Locker Room • WSJ

Anne Steele:

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Spotify Technology is making its move into live audio by acquiring the sports-talk app Locker Room and its maker Betty Labs.

The deal values the company, initially backed by Lightspeed Venture Partners, and more recently by Google Ventures and Precursor Ventures, at around $50m, according to a person familiar with the transaction. If certain targets are met the value could climb closer to $80m, this person said.

Locker Room has quickly become the spot for fan chatter around games and sports news, with the likes of Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala and Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry to podcaster Ant Wright and ESPN’s Jeff Darlington dropping in for conversations as well. It filled a real-time, interactive void for sports fans left by the inability to gather in arenas, stadiums and bars during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The purchase follows an explosion in demand for live audio apps amid the pandemic. Voice-based social networks, such as Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Water Cooler and Locker Room, allow users to converse spontaneously. They are an alternative to podcasts, but they are also a curated amalgamation of podcasts, live streams, conferences and radio. Comedians, artists and business leaders have flocked to these apps’ virtual rooms to perform, chat, debate and network across topics and industries.

For Spotify, which has expanded into podcasting to position itself as the world’s largest audio company—not just a music-streaming giant—the deal is a bet that live audio will last well beyond the pandemic.

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This is a smart acquisition: as Ben Thompson and John Gruber have discussed on their Dithering podcast. Unlike Clubhouse, which is “any old audio”, Locker Room knows (or tells you) that you’ve come to listen to/talk about sports, and can funnel towards your interest right when you sign up. Clubhouse, on the other hand, is wildly (over?) valued and trying to cover the entire waterfront. The focus will pay off for Spotify. For contrast: Bloomberg says “Twitter held discussions for $4bn takeover of Clubhouse.” Guess which of these two deals could actually create value.
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7% of Americans don’t use the internet. Who are they? • Pew Research Center

Andrew Perrin and Sara Atske:

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Internet non-adoption is linked to a number of demographic variables, but is strongly connected to age – with older Americans continuing to be one of the least likely groups to use the internet. Today, 25% of adults ages 65 and older report never going online, compared with much smaller shares of adults under the age of 65.

Educational attainment and household income are also indicators of a person’s likelihood to be offline. Some 14% of adults with a high school education or less do not use the internet, but that share falls as the level of educational attainment increases. Adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are far more likely than those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more to report not using the internet (14% vs. 1%).

There are no statistically significant differences in non-internet use by gender, race and ethnicity, or community type. 

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Have to assume that as the cohort ages and dies that this statistic will simply cease to be the case – or will become more and more marginal. For those aged 18-29, 1% aren’t online; aged 30-49 it’s 2%; aged 50-64, it’s 4%. It’s a matter of time – the opposite of people learning to type, which used to be a rare skill that no self-respecting CEO would be seen dead doing.
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Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities • The Conversation

Christian Brand:

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Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

The emission savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years. Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions.

…In new research, colleagues and I reveal that people who walk or cycle have lower carbon footprints from daily travel, including in cities where lots of people are already doing this. Despite the fact that some walking and cycling happens on top of motorised journeys instead of replacing them, more people switching to active travel [cycling, e-biking and walking] would equate to lower carbon emissions from transport on a daily and trip-by-trip basis.

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The handset industry is a flat circle • Digits to Dollars

Jonathan Goldberg:

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Today, there are six phone makers left at scale: Apple, Samsung, Huawei, BBK, Xiaomi and Transsion. Apple remains unassailable with the best customers and the majority of industry profits. Samsung survives through scale and integration with other parts of the Samsung chaebol. Xiaomi has built a loyal following through some very solid marketing. Huawei had pulled far ahead, but its future now is not bright. Transsion is mostly a feature phone business, with solid inroads in Africa and now India. And then there’s BBK Group.

As the LG news [that it’s shutting its mobile phone division] broke, we were struck by how many people think the handset market is still fragmented among a dozen vendors. Most people who say that do not realize that a third of the top brands on the market today are owned by a single company, namely BBK. They own Vivo, Oppo, RealMe and OnePlus as well as a few other brands. Depending on who’s counting BBK is now the second or third largest handset vendor on the market. There are a couple of other brands still out there – notably the legacy business of the one-time leaders – HMD (the brand owner of Nokia), Sony (Ericsson) and Lenovo (Motorola), but their collective share is small.

What really strikes us from this list is that we are almost back to the point where we started [over 20 years ago]. Take Huawei off the list because their status is so unclear, and take off Transsion because their smartphone share is tiny – and we are left with four companies.

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White House rejects COVID-19 vaccine passports • Poynter

Al Tompkins:

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the Biden administration does not support asking Americans to carry COVID-19 vaccine passports to prove they have been vaccinated.

“Let me be very clear on this. I know there’s been lots of questions,” Psaki said. “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”

Some sort of passport might make it easier to travel internationally or enter sports venues or concert halls. But opponents have raised privacy concerns and questioned whether it would penalize people with underlying health issues who cannot take the vaccines. But, Psaki said, “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

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That doesn’t, however, mean that individual states can’t do this – and New York looks pretty enthusiastic about the idea. The discussion about “Covid certificates” (passports are for passing through borders, people) is fascinating: there’s almost a horseshoe effect, where the two ends of the political spectrum bend around and meet in agreement against them, for entirely different reasons, while the less extreme (more centrist) ones generally like the idea.
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Apple opens up its Find My network to third-party devices—no AirTag needed • MacWorld

Michael Simon:

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While we’ve been waiting for the long-rumored AirTags to finally make an appearance, it appears that Apple might have pulled a head fake. Instead of a keychain that you can attach to things, Apple is partnering with third-party device manufacturers to use the Find My app to track down things they have lost.

Much like Apple’s own devices, third-party manufacturers who sign up for the Works with Apple Find My program will be able to tap into the Find My network to see where lost items are on a map, even if they can’t or don’t connect to the internet. The vast Find My network uses end-to-end encryption to crowdsource data from the hundreds of millions of Apple devices around the world to help locate missing items.

Additionally, Works with Apple Find My devices will be able to take advantage of ultra-wideband technology in the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and Apple Watch Series 6 to track products with greater precision. It’s not clear whether Apple will allow devices to be powered down or remotely wiped as you can with Apple devices.

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People have been expecting Apple to release “AirTags” – something you’d stick to an item which would let you track it down – since summer 2019, and in the meantime the antitrust noise, including from Tile (which makes a Bluetooth tag), has ramped up. Letting third-party companies make the hardware is a great way not to have to bear the costs (and potential losses), while reaping the benefits of tying people and third-party companies into your ecosystem to detect the things.
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New AI technique transforms any image into the style of famous artists • The Next Web

Thomas Macaulay:

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The system morphs an input image towards the suggestion of a text prompt, such as “Salvador Dalí Art.” Over repeated mutations and iterations of each frame, the AI gradually finds features and shapes that match the text description until it produces a final composition.

“The results were like nothing I’ve ever seen as a computer artist for over 30 years,” [computer artist Glenn] Marshall told TNW. “By using any image and any text, the combination of endless possibilities is mind-shattering. And no one else is doing anything like this.”

Each piece was generated with a modified version of the Aleph-Image notebook, which is itself powered by OpenAI’s DALL-E and CLIP models.

Marshall named the technique Chimera, after the mythical beast formed from various animal parts, which has become a byword for something that exists only in the imagination and isn’t possible in reality.

Marshall says the technique is closer to “style distortion” than style transfer. But would the artists he’s distorting appreciate his creations?

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AI cannot detect our emotions • OneZero

Evan Selinger talks to Prof Luke Stark, assistant professor in information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario:

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Stark: Emotions are simultaneously made up of physiological, mental, psychological, cultural, and individually subjective phenomenological components. No single measurable element of an emotional response is ever going to tell you the whole story. Philosopher Jesse Prinz calls this “the problem of parts.”

To a large degree, then, our emotional responses are inherently interpersonal. By definition, no third party, whether it’s a social media platform or education-technology software, can know for certain how you feel when you’re expressing an emotion. Humans have developed all sorts of culturally specific social conventions to make interpersonal emotional expression more predictable. But several millennia of art and literature make it clear we can’t, as they say, know what’s in someone else’s heart. Some find that fact actively comforting. Others evidently find it frustrating.

Salinger: That’s a fascinating comparison. In everyday life, miscommunication can be vexing, exasperating, and sometimes have deadly consequences. But when given literary expression, the same situations, which we can observe from a somewhat comfortable distance, become dramatically compelling. Misunderstanding is the basis of fascinating plot shifts and nuanced character studies. On the lighter side, it also drives lots of comedy.

Stark: Right, and the resolution of misunderstandings, or reflection on why those resolutions didn’t or couldn’t take place, drives catharsis — releasing and thus getting relief from strong or repressed emotions. I did quite a bit of theater in college. In later chatting about it with a well-known physical computing practitioner, I asked them to observe that theater direction and interaction design are very similar processes. Material media modulate the social expression of emotion, much like dramatic conventions in the theater, which long predate digital technologies.

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Time to regulate AI that interprets human emotions • Nature

Kate Crawford:

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The polygraph is a useful parallel. This ‘lie detector’ test was invented in the 1920s and used by the FBI and US military for decades, with inconsistent results that harmed thousands of people until its use was largely prohibited by federal law. It wasn’t until 1998 that the US Supreme Court concluded that “there was simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable”.

A formative figure behind the claim that there are universal facial expressions of emotion is the psychologist Paul Ekman. In the 1960s, he travelled the highlands of Papua New Guinea to test his controversial hypothesis that all humans exhibit a small number of ‘universal’ emotions that are innate, cross-cultural and consistent. Early on, anthropologist Margaret Mead disputed this idea, saying that it discounted context, culture and social factors.

But the six emotions Ekman described fit perfectly into the model of the emerging field of computer vision. As I write in my 2021 book Atlas of AI, his theory was adopted because it fit what the tools could do. Six consistent emotions could be standardized and automated at scale — as long as the more complex issues were ignored. Ekman sold his system to the US Transportation Security Administration after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, to assess which airline passengers were showing fear or stress, and so might be terrorists. It was strongly criticized for lacking credibility and for being racially biased. However, many of today’s tools, such as 4 Little Trees, are based on Ekman’s six-emotion categorization. (Ekman maintains that faces do convey universal emotions, but says he’s seen no evidence that automated technologies work.)

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Ebang: yet another crypto “China Hustle” absconding with US investor cash • Hindenburg Research

»

• Ebang is a China-based crypto company that has raised ~$374m from U.S. investors in four offerings since going public in June 2020.
• While the company represented that it would use the majority of its numerous capital proceeds to develop its business operations, our research discovered it instead directed much of the cash out of the company through a series of opaque deals with insiders and questionable counterparties.
• For example, the company directed $103 million, representing ~$11m more than its entire IPO proceeds, into bond purchases linked to its U.S. underwriter, AMTD, which has a track record including (a) fraud and self-dealing allegations levied against it by one of the largest private equity firms in China and (b) listings that have subsequently imploded.


• Ebang claims to be a “leading bitcoin mining machine producer”, yet our research indicates this extraordinary claim is backed by no evidence. Ebang released its final miner in May 2019 and has since seen its sales dwindle to near-zero, delivering only 6,000 total miners in 1H20.
• With its mining machine business failing, Ebang pivoted the story to a cryptocurrency exchange launch called “Ebonex”. Announcements about the exchange added as much as $922 million market capitalization to Ebang.
• We found that Ebang’s exchange appears to be purchased from a white-label crypto exchange provider called Blue Helix that offers out-of-the-box exchanges for as little as no money up-front.

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Totally normal, nothing to see here.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1522: how India used to message with missed calls, Sweden v Covid: who won?, see if your Facebook data was hacked, and more


A new music project has created a new Jimi Hendrix track (and some by other artists) using Google’s AI. They’re good!CC-licensed photo by Dana 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. Kiss the sky. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A booming industry based entirely on missed calls helped bring India online — and vanished overnight • Rest of World

Atul Bhattarai:

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just as the missed call [used to send an agreed message without actually spending any time on the call] became ubiquitous — The Times of India wrote in 2009 of Indians’ marked fondness “for hanging up swiftly” — a company in Bangalore called ZipDial took the tool and transformed it. With a couple of rings to the appropriate ZipDial hotline, customers received automated texts and callbacks that delivered live cricket scores for a big match, a deal on an affordable shampoo, rudimentary on-demand radio for Bollywood songs, or celebrity tweets — content supplied by brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. In exchange, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products.

At a time when less than a tenth of India’s population was online — smartphones were prohibitively expensive, and buying a gigabyte of mobile data, which was glitchy and agonizingly slow outside of major cities, cost the average rural Indian two to three days’ wages — missed calls made information from an otherwise unreachable digital world available with a single dial. Users needed only a feature phone: the kind with a number pad, preloaded with a game of Snake. “For many people, ZipDial was the first connection to the internet,” says Sanjay Swamy, one of the company’s founders and board members.

With the frantic pace of technological change over the past five years, the internet paywall in India has largely come down. Budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data rates have ensured that half of Indians are online. And missed calls are just about obsolete, their function better served by WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and a welter of e-commerce apps.

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In a similar vein: remember paid-for ringtones?
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Lost Tapes of the 27 Club • Over The Bridge

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As long as there’s been popular music, musicians and crews have struggled with mental health at a rate far exceeding the general adult population. And this issue hasn’t just been ignored. It’s been romanticized, by things like the 27 Club—a group of musicians whose lives were all lost at just 27 years old.

To show the world what’s been lost to this mental health crisis, we’ve used artificial intelligence to create the album the 27 Club never had the chance to. Through this album, we’re encouraging more music industry insiders to get the mental health support they need, so they can continue making the music we all love for years to come.

Because even AI will never replace the real thing.

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So they fed the music of, respectively, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Nirvana and Amy Winehouse into Google’s Magenta AI system, and it produced these songs. And they are really good. (I think the singing is by professional humans.) The set is also on Spotify.

The idea that AI can do this is utterly mindboggling.
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Sweden’s pandemic experiment • The New Yorker

Mallory Pickett:

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[Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders] Tegnell’s prediction of a tapering epidemic curve and quickly-attained immunity never came to pass. Sweden’s per-capita case counts and death rates have been many times higher than any of its Nordic neighbors, all of which imposed lockdowns, travel bans, and limited gatherings early on.

Overall in Sweden, 13,000 people have died from Covid-19. In Norway, which has a population that is half the size of Sweden’s, and where stricter lockdowns were enforced, about 700 people have died. It’s likely that some simple policy changes—especially shutting down visitations to nursing homes sooner, and providing more P.P.E. and testing to nursing-home staff—would have saved lives. And the strategy doesn’t seem to have helped the economy much: the Swedish G.D.P. fell by around 3%, better than the European average, but similar to the drop in other Nordic countries.

Fredrik Elgh, a virologist at Umeå University and one of Tegnell’s former bosses, wishes that Sweden had implemented restrictions like those used by other countries in the region. “Why don’t they go the same route as our neighbors that have been so successful?” he said. “We could have done that, too, if we had followed their path.” The fatalities in the elder homes, which account for about 50% of the Covid-19 deaths in Sweden, seem especially needless; if visits to these facilities had been banned sooner, if their workers had been advised to wear masks and get tested frequently, it’s possible that thousands of lives could have been saved.

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Sweden keeps being held up as the example of “doing it right”, but it clearly isn’t. Only in comparison to countries in Europe (and the UK) does it look like it did OK. The difference, though, may be down to how many people cross borders more than other approaches such as lockdowns.
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Google AI research manager quits after two ousted from group • Bloomberg

Nico Grant, Josh Eidelson and Dina Bass:

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Google research manager Samy Bengio, who oversaw the company’s AI ethics group until a controversy led to the ouster of two female leaders, resigned on Tuesday to pursue other opportunities.

Bengio, who managed hundreds of researchers in the Google Brain team, announced his departure in an email to staff that was obtained by Bloomberg. His last day will be April 28. An expert in a type of AI known as machine learning, Bengio joined Google in 2007.

Ousted Ethical AI co-leads Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell had reported to Bengio and considered him an ally. In February, Google reorganized the research unit, placing the remaining Ethical AI group members under Marian Croak, cutting Bengio’s responsibilities.

“While I am looking forward to my next challenge, there’s no doubt that leaving this wonderful team is really difficult,” Bengio wrote in the email. He did not refer to Gebru, Mitchell or the disagreements that led to their departures. Google declined to comment.

In November, Bengio’s then-manager Megan Kacholia met with Gebru to demand she retract a paper co-written with Mitchell and other Google researchers that criticized an AI technology powering some of Google’s search results. In early December, Google dismissed Gebru in what she termed a firing and Google has called an acceptance of her resignation. In February, the company fired Mitchell.

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Are there many more in Google who are frustrated like Bengio? Or is this just a small localised problem? Google’s so big now that it could have lots of small localised problems and they’d look like a conflagration.
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Five years after the Oculus Rift, where do VR and AR go next? • WIRED

Peter Rubin does a deep dive (with interviews) on Facebook’s efforts, so it’s really “where does Facebook think its AR and VR goes next?”:

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Two weeks ago, Facebook Reality Labs held a media briefing to show off its North Star. You’ve likely read the stories by now, but if not, the magic word is “wristband.” Specifically, it’s an electromyography (EMG) neural interface wrist device, meaning it translates the electrical signals your muscles make as you move. The hope is that it unlocks the ability to manipulate the interfaces of your decade-hence AR world with tiny movements of your fingers—or none at all. The FRL briefing also included footage of an employee playing a simple video game without moving his hands; the EMG device read the nearly imperceptible signals his brain sent when he thought about pressing the spacebar. (Before you ask: Yes, Mark Zuckerberg has tried it. “I talk to the people on the Labs team every week,” he says. “They send me pelican cases of different gear—I’m sitting in my office right now, and I have two on the floor next to me, and one has the wrist device.”)

That may not be invasive technology in the traditional sense—again, let’s just leave that whole brain-implant thing alone—but it’s yet another reminder that AR and VR’s power depends on data. Lots and lots of data. Where you’re looking, how you’re looking at it, what your face and others’ faces are doing. In VR, that’s a fount of psychographic information that has in the past proven very attractive to companies like Cambridge Analytica. And when you can identify people by their movement patterns alone, anonymity dies.

In AR, the proposition gets even more fraught. When you leave a party or a store, you’re likely to forget many more details than you remember; your glasses are picking up everything you are, and quite possibly much more. The result, Katitza Rodriguez and Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote last year, can all too easily become a “global panopticon society of constant surveillance in public or semi-public spaces.” And when the company that’s building those systems is the same company that hasn’t exactly inspired trust in the past, and tech-ethics bugaboos like facial recognition are still on the table, that’s all the more reason to cast a skeptic’s eye at the future.

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Clarence Thomas’ attack on social media companies’ First Amendment rights is a delusion • Slate

Mark Joseph Stern:

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According to [right-wing Supreme Court justice Clarence] Thomas, there is “a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner.” Why? Thomas gives several reasons: These platforms “carry” information between users, they “hold themselves out as organizations that focus on distributing the speech of the broader public,” and, through the much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they receive immunity from lawsuits based on third-party content. He added that control of digital platforms is “highly concentrated,” giving them “enormous control over speech.” As an example, he wrote that “Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing.” This case in point may be an allusion to Amazon’s recent delisting of Ryan Anderson’s anti-trans book. (Anderson and Thomas are friends.)

Thomas also put forth a second theory to justify a ban on content moderation: Digital platforms have become “places of public accommodation,” like a hotel or restaurant. The government can bar these businesses from discriminating against customers. Perhaps, Thomas theorized, it can also call digital platforms “public accommodations” and bar them from discriminating against users’ speech.

Most of the justices’ opinion is meant to “give legislators strong arguments” for “regulating digital platforms” like common carriers or public accommodations. But in an especially zany aside, Thomas suggests that users may be able to combat content moderation right now through the courts. This section of the opinion verges on incoherence, but Thomas seems to think that users could sue the government for pressuring social media companies to remove certain speech.

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He’s an absolute fruitcake. As I pointed out, his dissent on the Oracle-Google case was off the wall as well. I wonder if the other justices give each other side-eye when he expounds on stuff at their meetings.
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Tesla owners are having a meltdown about Full Self Driving (FSD) reality on Reddit • Jalopnik

Jason Torchinsky:

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I wouldn’t call what’s happening a meltdown exactly, maybe more of a collective moment of clarity. Right now on Reddit’s r/teslamotors forum there’s an intense and very serious conversation about the now-$10,000 level 2 driver assist package that Tesla calls “Full Self-Driving” (FSD)—specifically, whether the features Tesla and Elon Musk started promising back in 2016 will ever actually exist, and what kind of legal exposure Tesla has if it fails to deliver. People have put down real money and haven’t yet gotten what they were expecting, which has led to these difficult conversations.

The original poster said they were motivated to start the thread because of Ford PR rep Mike Levine’s description of Tesla’s “FSD” system as “vaporware,” which had sparked a lot of debate about “FSD’s” status as vaporware or not within the Tesla community.

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Tesla has put itself in quite a bind. Elon Musk says that FSD (which costs about $10,000 as a software upgrade, purchaseable any time before or after taking delivery of the car) would let you just get into the car and not touch anything and be taken to your destination. Ah, but government regulators haven’t approved it yet. Except the regulators don’t have to approve it.

Which means there’s a lot of people who have paid for FSD who don’t have it despite Tesla promising they can have it. As Torchinsky says: “There’s so much going on here, and so many questions raised. Is “FSD” a genuinely earnest project with real goals and deliverables, or an elaborate scam to get a lot of money while delivering nothing?”
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The Facebook phone numbers are now searchable in Have I Been Pwned • Troy Hunt

Troy runs the fabulous service that lets you find out whether your details have been exposed in a hack:

»

I’d never planned to make phone numbers searchable and indeed this idea sat there for over 5 and a half years without action. My position on this was that it didn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons:

• Phone numbers appear far less frequently than email addresses
• They’re much harder to parse out of most data sets (i.e. I can’t just regex them out like email addresses)
• They very often don’t adhere to a consistent format across breaches and countries of origin

Plus, when the whole modus operandi of HIBP is to literally answer that question – Have I Been Pwned? – so long as there are email addresses that can be searched, phone numbers don’t add a whole lot of additional value.

The Facebook data changed all that. There’s over 500m phone numbers but only a few million email addresses so >99% of people were getting a “miss” when they should have gotten a “hit”. The phone numbers were easy to parse out from (mostly) well-formatted files. They were also all normalised into a nice consistent format with a country code. In short, this data set completely turned all my reasons for not doing this on its head.

And finally, when I asked the masses, the responses were “for” rather than “against” by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.

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Facebook, meanwhile, has been very “nothing to see here” about the appearance of details about 500 million of its users in a hacking forum, saying that the leak actually happened in 2019. Not sure that’s very reassuring, really. (Fantastic news, though – my phone number’s not there. Not that it really needs to be leaked.)
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How much the [human] eye tells the brain • US NIH

Kristin Koch et al:

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In the classic “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain,” Lettvin and colleagues showed that different types of retinal ganglion cell send specific kinds of information. For example, one type responds best to a dark, convex form moving centripetally (a fly). Here we consider a complementary question: how much information does the retina send and how is it apportioned among different cell types?

Recording from guinea pig retina on a multi-electrode array and presenting various types of motion in natural scenes, we measured information rates for seven types of ganglion cell. Mean rates varied across cell types (6–13 bits/s) more than across stimuli. Sluggish cells transmitted information at lower rates than brisk cells, but because of trade-offs between noise and temporal correlation, all types had the same coding efficiency.

Calculating the proportions of each cell type from receptive field size and coverage factor, we conclude (assuming independence) that the approximately 105 ganglion cells transmit on the order of 875,000 bits/s.

Because sluggish cells are equally efficient but more numerous, they account for most of the information. With approximately 106 ganglion cells, the human retina would transmit data at roughly the rate of an Ethernet connection.

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So does that make our brain… a router?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1521: SCOTUS backs Google, LG’s phone biz is dead, Tim Cook hedges on App Store, Yahoo will have no more Answers, and more


Cosmic rays (which create the orange glow on the horizon in space photos) are being blamed for thousands of network malfunctions on Earth CC-licensed photo by NASA Johnson on Flickr.

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

Google v Oracle: US Supreme Court declares Google’s code copying fair • BBC News

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A decade-long battle over copied code in Google’s Android operating system has ended in the US Supreme Court.

Oracle, another tech titan, had sued Google in 2010 for copyright infringement over what it said was copied computer code.

Android is now used in an estimated 70% of global smartphones, and damages could have run into the billions.

But the Supreme Court let Google off the hook, overturning a lower court’s decision it had infringed copyright. The court ruled six to two in favour of Google
.
At issue was whether Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API – a widely-used “building block” for programmers – counted as “fair use” under US copyright law. If it was, the fact that Google was accused of copying more than 11,000 lines of code [0.4% of the total code – CA] would not matter.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in his written opinion, said that “to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public”. So many programmers used and had deep knowledge of Oracle’s building blocks that such a move would turn computer code into “a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs”.

“Oracle alone would hold the key,” he warned.

Oracle made clear that it firmly disagreed with the court’s judgement, saying that it had increased Google’s power further and damaged other companies’ ability to compete. “They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” said Dorian Daley, the company’s general counsel, in a statement.

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It’s the 0.4% part that’s important. SCOTUS dodged the question of whether an API can be copyrighted (which remains a big and important question). The decision, linked above, is worth reading; you can get by with just the first four pages, which explain it in enough detail. (Notably, Alito and Thomas – the two most conservative judges – dissented, saying that “Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.” The hilarious part of Thomas’s dissent is the implication that it was Oracle’s efforts, rather than Sun originally making Java open source, that made Java successful. Their timeline is wonky: they talk about 2005-08 as a key period, but Oracle didn’t buy Sun until 2010.)
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LG’s phone business is dead: the gripping tale of bold misfires and unfulfilled promise • CNET

Roger Cheng put together this monster obit for LG’s phone business in a day – the equivalent of writing up a celebrity who unexpectedly falls off a cliff. Except LG’s fall had been a long time coming; it lost $4.5bn since 2015:

»

It was 2009, and smartphones were still a luxurious novelty despite the appearance of the iPhone and Google’s first Android phone, the G1 from HTC. LG still moved millions of feature phones at each of the US carriers and didn’t deem Apple a threat because it was tied to AT&T as an exclusive. Android was even more of a niche thing. LG’s feature phone business, meanwhile, had peaked at a tenth of the world’s market for phones, according to Statista. 

“Ironically, 2009 was the best year for revenue and profit for mobile,” Kim said.

Publicly, the company expressed confidence, but privately, executives knew they were behind. That year, its heavy hitter was the enV Touch, a large (for its time) candy bar phone with a 3-inch touchscreen that unfolded to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, dual speakers and a smaller inner screen. Verizon pumped it up as a potential rival to the iPhone with its basic games and rudimentary web browser. 

It was not. And LG knew it. 

“Some of us thought we were too happy with the success of the feature phone,” LG executive Hong-Joo Kim said. “We were so late preparing for smartphones.”

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That’s all you need to know, really. Plus it wouldn’t spend on marketing like Samsung and Apple would.
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Apple’s CEO is making very different choices from Mark Zuckerberg • The New York Times

A transcript of a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Cook by Kara Swisher:

»

Kara Swisher: So when you look at this case [where Epic is suing Apple], one of the things is, it could be bad rules. This is what they’re trying to argue, I think, on Epic’s side, whether these rules where you take a certain cut and then, for example, Apple takes only 15% cut of Amazon’s App Store revenue for Prime Video, for example. Is there a reckoning for you all to think about changing these rules more significantly?

Tim Cook: Well, the App Store is not cast in concrete, you know? And so we’ve changed over time. And in fact, if you look at the commissions, Kara, and I would sort of reframe a bit from what you said, because the vast majority of people pay nothing. Because there’s not an interchange of a digital good, right? And so, like, 85% of people pay zero commission. And then with our recent move with small developers, developers earning less than a million dollars a year pay 15%. Well, it turns out that that’s the vast majority of developers. And then, we also have rules that say that if you have a subscription model in the second year and later years, you only pay 15% of those. And so we’ve only reduced the price over time. It’s only gone in one direction. It’s gone down. More apps were exempted. But those rules are applied equally to everyone. So you’ve mentioned Amazon getting 15%. That’s true for any kind of video streaming service that meets the guidelines of that program.

Kara Swisher: So it depends on what they’re doing — what they’re necessary —

Tim Cook: It depends on what they’re doing. Right.

Kara Swisher: Like Netflix and others, right. What’s wrong with Epic or any developer going their own way or allowing a direct payment system, instead of having to go through the App Store? Why should you have the control?

Tim Cook: Well, I think somebody has to. I think somebody has to curate, right?

«

It’s real Kremlinology to try to read any shift in stance in what Cook says. On the App Store, it feels like the ground might be shifting just a tiny bit. But in general I feel that Cook’s pronouncements are lagging indicators: it’s rare for him to be the one who first comes out with a clear change in policy, except at formal events.
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Cosmic rays causing 30,000 network malfunctions in Japan each year • The Mainichi

»

Cosmic rays are causing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 malfunctions in domestic network communication devices in Japan every year, a Japanese telecom giant found recently.

Most so-called “soft errors,” or temporary malfunctions, in the network hardware of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. are automatically corrected via safety devices, but experts said in some cases they may have led to disruptions.

It is the first time the actual scale of soft errors in domestic information infrastructures has become evident.

Soft errors occur when the data in an electronic device is corrupted after neutrons, produced when cosmic rays hit oxygen and nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere, collide with the semiconductors within the equipment.

Cases of soft errors have increased as electronic devices with small and high-performance semiconductors have become more common. Temporary malfunctions have sometimes led to computers and phones freezing, and have been regarded as the cause of some plane accidents abroad.

Masanori Hashimoto, professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology and an expert in soft errors, said the malfunctions have actually affected other network communication devices and electrical machineries at factories in and outside Japan.

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That’s a lot, and Japan is hardly the only country with lots of electronics. How many might there be elsewhere?
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Covid-19 vaccine cheat days are adding up • The Atlantic

Katherine J. Wu:

»

across the [US], states are rushing to lift mask mandates, tolerance for physical distancing is flagging, and vaccinated people are amending the new guidelines as they see fit. Some, like our would-be dinner-party hosts, are planning mixed-vaccination events, and pushing the boundaries of what makes a gathering “small.” Others are holding birthday bashes, or starting to creep back to in-person work. People are also shaving time off the two-week period that the CDC advises waiting after the final shot, so that immunity can mature. “What difference is a few days going to make?” a friend asked me the other day.

Amid all the fudging, that sentiment is starting to become a constant refrain: really, what’s the harm?

The harm is, frankly, mathematical. Over time, our vaccine cheat days start to add up. It might truly be innocuous for a few people to cut a couple of corners on occasion. But eventually, a series of flubs will allow exposures, which will in turn beget disease. Our shortcuts also signal to others that it’s okay to chill out when it is very much not.

Now is not the time to relax—quite the opposite. “We’re so close to the end that we should be extra careful right now,” Julie Downs, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. The problem is, our lapses don’t just slow us down. They set us back, in the same way that repeatedly opening an oven door will prolong the time it takes to bake a cake (and, at worst, make your delicious dessert collapse). Having made so much progress, we risk a lot with our impatience. And right now, we’re in serious danger of botching our grand pandemic finale.

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Yahoo Answers will be shut down forever on May 4th • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Yahoo, which is now part of Verizon Media Group following the company’s sale to the telecom for nearly $5bn in 2017, announced the change at the top of the Yahoo Answers homepage. The message links to an FAQ, which details the timeline of the shutdown. Starting April 20th, the platform will no longer accept new submissions, the FAQ explains.

Users will also have until June 30th to request their data or it’ll be inaccessible after that. That includes “all user-generated content including your Questions list, Questions, Answers list, Answers, and any images,” Yahoo says, but “you won’t be able to download other users’ content, questions, or answers.”

A note sent to active Yahoo Answers members provides a little more detail as to why Yahoo is shutting down the platform, including that “it has become less popular over the years” and that the company “decided to shift our resources away” from the product to “focus on products that better serve our members.”

…Perhaps the shutdown is for the best, considering the site appears to be overrun with far-right conspiratorial garbage. The current Yahoo Answers homepage is highlighting such introspective gems in its discover section as, “Will America survive 4 years of Joe Biden?” and “Will this summer be record riots by BLM and antifa?,” as well as this instant classic, “Was Stalin right about everything?”

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But if they’re not answering questions on Yahoo Answers, they might be doing it somewhere else. Keeping Answers open is a public service, of sorts. Like litter trays.
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What we’re expecting from Google’s custom “Whitechapel” SoC in the Pixel 6 • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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It’s easy to get overhyped about Google’s first in-house smartphone SoC—”Google is ready to take on Apple!” the headlines will no-doubt scream. The fact of the matter, though, is that Apple is a $2 trillion hardware company, and the iPhone is its biggest product, while Google is an advertising company with a hardware division as a small side project. Whitechapel will give Google more control over its smartphone hardware, but Google’s custom chips in the past have not exactly set the world on fire, and therefore it’s reasonable to temper expectations for the company’s first-generation SoC [expected in its phones this year].

Google’s consumer hardware team has already shipped several custom chips, and I don’t know if you could call any of them world-beaters:

• The Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 and 3 was a custom camera co-processor created with the help of Intel. The Visual Core helped with HDR+ processing, but Google was able to accomplish the same image quality on the Pixel 3a, which didn’t have the chip.
• The Pixel Neural Core in the Pixel 4 was spun out of the company’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) AI accelerator efforts and had a similar job doing camera and AI voice recognition work. It was unimportant enough to just cut from the Pixel 5 entirely.
• There was the air-gesture detection chip, Project Soli, on the Pixel 4. This was a radar-on-a-chip concept that Google originally pitched as capable of detecting “sub millimeter motions of your fingers,” but by the time it was commercialized, it could only detect big, arm-waving gestures. The feature still exists today in the new Nest Hub, for sleep tracking, but it was not good enough to make the jump to the Pixel 5.
• The company’s Titan M Security Chip works as the secure element in some Pixel phones. Google says this makes the Pixel phones more secure, though a roughly equivalent secure element also comes with a Qualcomm chip, or at least, the company has never demonstrated a tangible difference.

I think the biggest benefit we’ll see from a Google SoC is an expanded update timeline.

«

Amadeo is Ars’s Google reporter, and is regularly unimpressed with what Google does. It makes for an interesting dynamic.
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Strain on NHS as tens of thousands of staff suffer long Covid • The Guardian

Denis Campbell:

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Intense pressures on the already overstretched NHS are being exacerbated by the tens of thousands of health staff who are sick with long Covid, doctors and hospital bosses say.

At least 122,000 NHS personnel have the condition, the Office for National Statistics disclosed in a detailed report that showed 1.1 million people in the UK were affected by the condition. That is more than any other occupational group and ahead of teachers, of whom 114,000 have it.

Patient care is being hit because many of those struggling with long Covid are only able to work part-time, are too unwell to perform their usual duties, or often need time off because they are in pain, exhausted or have “brain fog”.

“Ongoing illness can have a devastating impact on individual doctors, both physically and by leaving them unable to work. Furthermore, it puts a huge strain on the health service, which was already vastly understaffed before the pandemic hit,” said Dr Helena McKeown, the workforce lead at the British Medical Association, which represents doctors.

“With around 30,000 sickness absences currently linked to Covid in the NHS in England, we cannot afford to let any more staff become ill. Simply put, if they are off sick, they’re unable to provide care and patients will not get the care and treatment they need.

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The NHS workforce is about 1.3 million, so this suggests that nearly 10% are suffering from this post-viral syndrome. Very concerning. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Why computers won’t make themselves smarter • The New Yorker

Ted Chiang doesn’t think we’re at risk from superintelligent AI:

»

Some proponents of an intelligence explosion argue that it’s possible to increase a system’s intelligence without fully understanding how the system works. They imply that intelligent systems, such as the human brain or an A.I. program, have one or more hidden “intelligence knobs,” and that we only need to be smart enough to find the knobs. I’m not sure that we currently have many good candidates for these knobs, so it’s hard to evaluate the reasonableness of this idea. Perhaps the most commonly suggested way to “turn up” artificial intelligence is to increase the speed of the hardware on which a program runs. Some have said that, once we create software that is as intelligent as a human being, running the software on a faster computer will effectively create superhuman intelligence. Would this lead to an intelligence explosion?

Let’s imagine that we have an A.I. program that is just as intelligent and capable as the average human computer programmer. Now suppose that we increase its computer’s speed a hundred times and let the program run for a year. That’d be the equivalent of locking an average human being in a room for a hundred years, with nothing to do except work on an assigned programming task. Many human beings would consider this a hellish prison sentence, but, for the purposes of this scenario, let’s imagine that the A.I. doesn’t feel the same way. We’ll assume that the A.I. has all the desirable properties of a human being but doesn’t possess any of the other properties that would act as obstacles in this scenario, such as a need for novelty or a desire to make one’s own choices. (It’s not clear to me that this is a reasonable assumption, but we can leave that question for another time.)

So now we’ve got a human-equivalent A.I. that is spending a hundred person-years on a single task. What kind of results can we expect it to achieve? Suppose this A.I. could write and debug a thousand lines of code per day, which is a prodigious level of productivity. At that rate, a century would be almost enough time for it to single-handedly write Windows XP, which supposedly consisted of forty-five million lines of code. That’s an impressive accomplishment, but a far cry from its being able to write an A.I. more intelligent than itself. Creating a smarter A.I. requires more than the ability to write good code; it would require a major breakthrough in A.I. research, and that’s not something an average computer programmer is guaranteed to achieve, no matter how much time you give them.

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Chiang’s short story Understand gives you a wonderful glimpse of what it might be like to be a superintelligent human.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: today in Nuclear Physics Corrections Newsletter: a criticality (of plutonium) wouldn’t necessarily explode – it could just blast everyone in the near area with a lethal dose of radiation. And there’s a fascinating video about the Demon Core (from yesterday).

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Start Up No.1520: a feminist future internet?, Ted Chiang on AI v capitalism, Facebook sees huge data leak, Waymo CEO goes, and more


In 1945, scientists began dangerous lab tests on the “demon core” – which would have been the third atom bomb. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Michals on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Subcritical. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why a more feminist internet would be better for everyone • MIT Technology Review

Charlotte Jee:

»

So what would a “feminist internet” look like? 

There’s no single vision or approved definition. The closest thing the movement has to a set of commandments are 17 principles published in 2016 by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a sort of United Nations for online activist groups. It has 57 organizational members who campaign on everything from climate change to labor rights to gender equality. The principles were the outcome of three days of open, unstructured talks between nearly 100 feminists in 2014, plus additional workshops with activists, digital rights specialists, and feminist academics. 

Many of the principles relate to redressing the vast power imbalance between tech companies and ordinary people. Feminism is obviously about equality between men and women, but in essence it is about power—who gets to wield it, and who gets exploited. Building a feminist internet, then, is in part about redistributing that power away from Big Tech and into the hands of individuals—especially women, who have historically had less of a say. 

The principles state that a feminist internet would be less hierarchical. More cooperative. More democratic. More consensual. More customizable and suited to individual needs, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model.

For example, the online economy would be less reliant on scooping up our data and using it to sell advertising. It would do more to address hatred and harassment online, while preserving freedom of expression. It would protect people’s privacy and right to anonymity. These are all issues that affect every internet user, but the consequences are often greater for women when things go awry. 

To live up to these principles, companies would have to give more control and decision-making power to users. This would mean not only that individuals would be able to adjust things like our security and privacy settings (with the strongest privacy as the default), but that we could act collectively—by proposing and voting on new features, for example. Widespread harassment would not be seen as a tolerable price women have to pay, but as an unacceptable sign of failure.

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Ted Chiang: fears of technology are fears of capitalism • kottke

Chiang, the SF writer whose short “Story of Your Life” was turned into the fantastic film Arrival, appeared on the Ezra Klein podcast recently:

»

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off.

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Here’s the whole podcast. If you haven’t read any of Chiang’s stories, you utterly should.
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Supreme Court’s pro-Facebook ruling could unleash “flood” of robocalls • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

»

A Supreme Court ruling today in favor of Facebook limits the reach of a 1991 US law that bans certain kinds of robocalls and texts. The court found that the anti-robocall law only applies to systems that have the ability to generate random or sequential phone numbers. Systems that lack that capability are thus not considered autodialers under the law, even if they can store numbers and send calls and texts automatically.

Advocates say the ruling will make it harder to block automated calls and texts, potentially unleashing a “flood” of new robocalls.

The ruling “nullifies one of the most important protections against unwanted robocalls: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s (TCPA) prohibition against autodialed calls and texts to cellphones without the called party’s consent,” said the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), which had filed a brief in the case.

“Companies will use autodialers that are not covered by the Supreme Court’s narrow definition to flood our cellphones with even more unwanted robocalls and automated texts,” said Margot Saunders, the group’s senior counsel. The court ruling “interpreted the statute’s definition of autodialer so narrowly that it applies to few or none of the autodialers in use today,” the NCLC also said.

The Facebook case was decided over a question of grammar, as the court had to decide exactly what Congress meant in a key section of the TCPA. The law imposes restrictions on calls made with an “automatic telephone dialing system” and defines that term as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.”

What that sentence means was at the heart of the case that Noah Duguid filed against Facebook.

«

Bizarrely, Duguid didn’t even have a Facebook account. That was the origin of the problem.

Other Facebook news: 533 million users’ mobile number, Facebook ID, name, gender, location, relationship status, occupation, date of birth, and email addresses have leaked onto hacker forums. They include Zuckerberg’s details, and that of other Facebook founders. Inevitable, really.
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Apple Arcade just got a huge update of new games, including some mobile classics • The Verge

Andrew Webster:

»

Apple’s gaming subscription service just got a massive influx of new titles. The headliner is Fantasian — the latest release from the creator of Final Fantasy — which is joined by other titles like new versions of NBA 2K and The Oregon Trail, and World of Demons from PlatinumGames. As part of the update, the service is getting two new categories of games: Apple calls them “Timeless Classics” and “App Store Greats.”

For the greats, Apple is adding a number of high-profile mobile hits to the service, including Threes, Monument Valley, Mini Metro, and a remaster of Cut the Rope. Timeless classics, meanwhile, refers to iconic games like backgammon, solitaire, and Zach Gage’s recent takes on chess and sudoku. While most Arcade games are playable across Apple TV, Mac, and iOS, these new categories will only work on iPhone and iPad. The update adds more than 30 titles to the service, bringing the entire library to more than 180.

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What’s probably attractive to people is not the “new” titles, but the old ones. Who wants to try out a service that has loads of games of unknown quality? Whereas you know just where you are with old favourites.
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Waymo CEO John Krafcik steps down • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

John Krafcik, the former auto industry exec who took over Google’s self-driving car project in 2015, is stepping down as CEO of Waymo. Waymo, which spun off as a separate Alphabet subsidiary in 2016, accomplished a lot during Krafcik’s 5.5-year tenure. Still, Krafcik failed to meet the lofty expectations he faced when he took the helm.

Until 2015, the Google self-driving car project was led by engineer Chris Urmson. At that point, Google CEO Larry Page believed the technology was nearly ready for commercialization, so he hired a car guy—Krafcik—to manage the practicalities of turning the technology into a shipping product.

Krafcik spent his first few years negotiating partnerships with automakers. Talks over a potential partnership with Ford fell apart in early 2016. Krafcik then inked a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to buy 100 hybrid Pacifica Minivans—a deal that was later expanded to 500 minivans.

In early 2018, Waymo announced plans to buy “up to” 20,000 Jaguar I-PACE electric cars and “up to” 62,000 more Pacificas. Around the same time, Waymo said it planned to launch a driverless commercial taxi service before the end of 2018.

In short, Waymo expected its self-driving taxi service to be a big business by around now.

…the pace of growth seems glacial compared to the expectations the company set a few years ago. A Waymo spokeswoman told Ars that the company’s fleet has “well over 600 vehicles across all of our locations.” Six hundred vehicles is fewer than 1% of the 82,000 vehicles Waymo ordered three years ago.

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Hard not to see this as an admission of failure. Has Google’s “Other Projects” done anything that has lasted?
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The digital news industry was built on lies • The Atlantic

Josh Marshall:

»

Have you ever wondered why digital ads, which were fairly sedate 15 years ago, suddenly started taking over your screen or demanding your attention with hideous images? Or why publications let advertisers track you across the web? It’s simple: The chronic oversupply of publications chasing a fixed number of ad dollars has required publishers to continually charge less for ads that demand more of readers. For the biggest players, which scaled up quickly to dominate digital media, there was—at first—enough money to go around. But most digital publications were funded on the premise that scale would eventually lead to dominance and stability, much as it had with technology firms. News publishing, however, doesn’t work that way.

By the middle of the 2010s, the highfliers were still flying high, but their success was mostly an illusion. They were sustained by ongoing infusions of equity investment, all in the hunt for eventual dominance and lock-in. And this is where the real darlings of venture-capital investing, the emerging platform monopolies, came into the picture decisively. Scaling up quickly and wiping out competitors didn’t work in the news business, but it allowed platforms such as Google and Facebook to take control of the advertising industry, and they took an ever-mounting share of its profits for themselves.

Platforms dissolved the privileged space that publishers held in the advertising economy, sending ad revenues at digital publications into sharp decline. Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot. Publications that had spent lavishly to build up scale were suddenly whipsawed by catastrophic declines in their two primary sources of money.

Many of the jobs that have disappeared over the past three or four years never had business models that could sustain them—at least not in the old-fashioned sense of bringing in more revenue than they cost. These hires were made in pursuit of a theory of publishing economics that was simply wrong. The journalists themselves, in most cases, weren’t read into this part of the equation.

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Marshall runs a site with an optional subscription; he’s done so for years. And it works.
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The chilling story of the ‘Demon Core’ and the scientists who became its victims • Science Alert

Peter Dockrill:

»

After Nagasaki proved Hiroshima was no fluke, Japan promptly surrendered on August 15, with Japanese radio broadcasting a recorded speech of Emperor Hirohito conceding to the Allies’ demands.

As it turns out, this was the first time the Japanese public at large had ever heard one of their emperors’ voices, but for scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico – aka Project Y – the event had a more pressing significance.

It meant the functional heart of the third atom bomb they’d been working on – a 6.2-kilogram (13.7-pound) sphere of refined plutonium and gallium – wouldn’t be needed for the war effort after all.

If the conflict had still been raging, as it had for almost five straight years, this plutonium core would have been fitted into a second Fat Man assembly and detonated above another unsuspecting Japanese city just four days later.

As it was, fate issued those souls a reprieve, and the Los Alamos device – code-named ‘Rufus’ at this point – would be retained at the facility for further testing.

It was during these tests that the leftover nuke, which ultimately became known as the demon core, earned that name.

The first accident happened less than a week after Japan’s surrender, and only two days after the date of the demon core’s cancelled bombing run.

That mission may have never launched, but the demon core, stranded at Los Alamos, still found an opportunity to kill.

The Los Alamos scientists knew well the risks of what they were doing when they conducted criticality experiments with it – a means of measuring the threshold at which the plutonium would become supercritical, the point where a nuclear chain reaction would unleash a blast of deadly radiation.

The trick performed by scientists in the Manhattan Project – of which the Los Alamos Lab was a part – was finding how just how far you could go before that dangerous reaction was triggered.

They even had an informal nickname for the high-risk experiments, one which hinted at the perils of what they did. They called it “tickling the dragon’s tail”, knowing that if they had the misfortune to rouse the angry beast, they would be burned.

And that’s exactly what happened to Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian.

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Since last week there was a discussion about the second atomic bomb.. I didn’t know they had a third ready. (Though of course they would, on reflection.) Turns out there was nearly a third blast. Twice.
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How Trump steered supporters into unwitting donations • The New York Times

Shane Goldmacher:

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hat the Blatts believed was duplicity was actually an intentional scheme to boost revenues by the Trump campaign and the for-profit company that processed its online donations, WinRed. Facing a cash crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the campaign had begun last September to set up recurring donations by default for online donors, for every week until the election.

Contributors had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually uncheck a box to opt out.

As the election neared, the Trump team made that disclaimer increasingly opaque, an investigation by The New York Times showed. It introduced a second prechecked box, known internally as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution. Eventually its solicitations featured lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.

The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists — retirees, military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives. Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

“Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It recurred seven more times — adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”

The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts issued more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3m to online donors. All campaigns make refunds for various reasons, including to people who give more than the legal limit. But the sum the Trump operation refunded dwarfed that of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6m in that time.

The recurring donations swelled Mr. Trump’s treasury in September and October, just as his finances were deteriorating. He was then able to use tens of millions of dollars he raised after the election, under the guise of fighting his unfounded fraud claims, to help cover the refunds he owed.

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The level of grift is such an incredible, lasting stain on America. It’s hard to know what will ever wash it out.
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Novel HIV vaccine approach shows promise in “landmark” trial • European Pharmaceutical Review

Hannah Balfour:

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A novel vaccine approach for the prevention of HIV has shown promise in Phase I trials, reported IAVI and Scripps Research. According to the organisations, the vaccine successfully stimulated the production of the rare immune cells needed to generate antibodies against HIV in 97% of participants.

The vaccine is being developed to act as an immune primer, to trigger the activation of naïve B cells via a process called germline-targeting, as the first stage in a multi-step vaccine regimen to elicit the production of many different types of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). Stimulating the production of bnAbs has been pursued as a holy grail in HIV for decades. It is hoped that these specialised blood proteins could attach to HIV surface proteins called spikes, which allow the virus to enter human cells, and disable them via a difficult-to-access regions that does not vary much from strain to strain.

…The company said this study sets the stage for additional clinical trials that will seek to refine and extend the approach, with the long-term goal of creating a safe and effective HIV vaccine. As a next step, the collaborators are partnering with the biotechnology company Moderna to develop and test an mRNA-based vaccine that harnesses the approach to produce the same beneficial immune cells. According to the team, using mRNA technology could significantly accelerate the pace of HIV vaccine development, as it did with vaccines for COVID-19.

…The scientists believe the same approach could also be applied to vaccines for other challenging pathogens such as influenza, dengue, Zika, hepatitis C and malaria.

«

Clouds, silver linings.

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It looks like a Vespa, rides like a Vespa, but doesn’t smell like a Vespa • The New York Times

Nick Czap on a British entrepreneur who created a kit that could (reversibly) turn polluting Vespas into electric Vespas to conform with low-emission rules which original Vespas couldn’t:

»

Three years later, Retrospective Scooters sells kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Costing £3,445 (about $4,750), each includes a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can push a scooter to a top speed of 50 miles an hour and go 30 to 35 miles on a charge.

Certain scooters can accommodate two or three batteries. A Lambretta GP for instance, packed with three lithium-ion units, can go 120 miles between charges. Mr. McCart, though, thinks a single battery is sufficient.

“Let’s not forget what scooters were invented for — traveling in a 20-to-30-mile radius of where you lived,” he said.

To date, Mr. McCart has sold 60 kits — 24 in Britain (20 of them installed at his shop), and 36 to customers overseas, mostly, and somewhat surprisingly to Mr. McCart, in the United States.

“I expected more to go into Europe,” he said, “but there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy and official inspections of any vehicle alterations, so there’s really no incentive for Europeans to buy our kit with all that up against them.”

«

What I find interesting here is the distance. 30 miles per charge doesn’t sound much, but if you just do two trips per day, you’ll struggle to go that far. I had been idly wondering the other day about whether there are electric motorbikes as there are cars. Clearly, yes. (Via John Naughton.)
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NFTs were supposed to protect artists. They don’t • The Atlantic

Anil Dash was the technical co-creator (with an artist) of the NFT idea in 2014:

»

the NFT prototype we created in a one-night hackathon had some shortcomings. You couldn’t store the actual digital artwork in a blockchain; because of technical limits, records in most blockchains are too small to hold an entire image. Many people suggested that rather than trying to shoehorn the whole artwork into the blockchain, one could just include the web address of an image, or perhaps a mathematical compression of the work, and use it to reference the artwork elsewhere.

We took that shortcut because we were running out of time. Seven years later, all of today’s popular NFT platforms still use the same shortcut. This means that when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.

But the situation gets worse.

«

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1519: Myanmar military cuts mobile internet, Biden to cut carbon from US power, 2025 internet forecast, warp drive flops, and more


the British government is giving strong backing to ‘Covid passports’ – five weeks after saying they wouldn’t be needed. CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer 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. Papers, please. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Myanmar’s military shuts down Internet, two months after coup • The Washington Post

Miriam Berger:

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Myanmar’s military government ordered broadband Internet shutdowns Thursday amid ongoing violent suppression of opposition to its ouster of the country’s democratically elected government.

The escalation came as the country marked two months since the army’s toppling of the civilian-led government, which has faced widespread public resistance despite the military’s lethal response: More than 500 civilian protesters have been killed and more than 2,000 arrested since Feb. 1, according to local activists.

The United Nations’ special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, on Wednesday warned that “a bloodbath is imminent” if the international community did not act to quell the violence.

Last Saturday marked the bloodiest day since the coup, with troops reportedly killing over 140 protesters in more than 40 locations across the country.

As Myanmar death toll climbs, a soldier’s wife is caught between protesters and military
Reuters reported Thursday that official orders to halt wireless broadband services did not provide any explanation. Myanmar’s military previously shut down mobile Internet access and slowed service.

A lawyer for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s deposed leader, also Thursday said that the detained opposition leader had been charged the week before in Yangon with breaking the country’s secrets law, the most serious allegation against her yet. The lawyer told Reuters that he had heard about the charges against Suu Kyi and several other members of her National League for Democracy only two days ago.

«

It really is a calamity: hundreds dead, and Myanmar has essentially rewound to 2005 or so. This is a pretty good explainer of why: Aung San Suu Kyi could have been in a position to change the constitution so that the military wouldn’t have had any political power.
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Biden’s infrastructure plan would make electricity carbon-free by 2035 • Scientific American

Scott Waldman:

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The backbone of President Biden’s plan to use infrastructure spending to advance climate policy is a clean electricity standard for the power sector that has the potential to be the most aggressive ever enacted by the federal government.

Tucked into his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is the aim of “achieving 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035,” according to a fact sheet released yesterday by the White House.

“If we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say: ‘This was the moment that America won the future,'” Biden said during a rollout of the proposal in Pittsburgh.

While details are vague about how the “energy efficiency and clean electricity standard” would be enacted, it remains — at minimum — a significant symbolic milestone in the U.S. push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And at best, it could be a transformative measure that loosens U.S. reliance on fossil fuels in less than 15 years. The United States is currently at about 40% clean energy on the grid.
The difference depends on whether the 2035 goal is mandatory, or simply aspirational. Congress will have a big role to play in determining how much power is behind it.

“This really will be the backbone for decarbonizing the power sector,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program. Previous iterations of a clean energy standard have set a goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 so Biden is significantly advancing the timeline, she said.

«

Involves tax rises, so of course it’s completely opposed by Republicans. The Democrats are looking to find a way to finagle it so they don’t need that.
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It took the Suez Canal crisis to highlight the scale of the polluting shipping sector • Climate Change News

Madeline Rose:

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Today there are around 60,000 ships carrying 11 billion tonnes of cargo every year — around 80% of world trade.

Most of everything we own – clothes, shoes, food, technology – at one points sits on a giant container ship like the Ever Given that rose to fame last week.

Every single one of these ships in operation runs on fossil fuels, but not just your everyday petrol or diesel. Container ships run on the world’s cheapest, dirtiest liquid fossil fuel – known as “heavy fuel oil”. This is the gunky black tar-like substance that comes out the bottom of an oil refinery once all the transparent road fuels like gasoline and diesel have been separated out.

Heavy fuel oil contains up to 500 times as much cancer-causing sulphur dioxide than the legal maximum allowed in road fuels. Sometimes even chemical waste and melted car tires, that companies don’t want to pay to dispose of safely, are just blended into shipping fuel.

…Even after somewhat improved sulphur standards finally came into effect in 2020, decades after equivalent rules for power plants, shipping’s dirty air pollution is still linked to 250,000 deaths and 6.4 million childhood asthma cases every year — just the cost of doing business, apparently.

Meanwhile, shipping continues to emit one billion tons of climate-heating greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. That’s more than all but the top five largest emitting countries in the world, we just never talk about it. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is right — governments typically exclude shipping emissions from their climate action plans, pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

Just like other sectors, shipping is capable of running on renewable energy — there are over 100 pilot projects for zero-emission shipping underway. But consumers and governments have not yet demanded that ships make this energy transition.

The shipping industry is in bed with the fossil fuel industry (40% of the sector’s global cargo consist of coal, oil, and fossil gas) so transitioning ships off fossil fuels will require sustained pressure, action, and outrage.

«

The Greta Thunberg tweet is quite something. A very cutting meme for a big problem.
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Social distancing changes things we have seen • Stray Reprints

Ben Greenman:

»

NOTE: These are all things I made during quarantine from the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020. Some are funny but almost all are, once you think about them, sad.

«

Reimagined pictures: American Gothic, Creation of Adam, Wish You Were Here (the best, I feel), Meet The Beatles, Abbey Road, Forrest Gump (close second), E.T. and plenty more.
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Scientists just killed the EmDrive • Popular Mechanics

Caroline Delbert:

»

The crux of the EmDrive is if you bounce microwaves around inside the tube, they exert more force in one direction than the other, creating a net thrust without the need for any propellant. And when NASA and a team at Xi’an in China tried this, they actually got a small-but-distinct net force.

Now, however, physicists at the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden) are saying those promising results showing thrust were all false positives that are explained by outside forces. The scientists recently presented their findings in three papers at Space Propulsion Conference 2020 +1, with titles like “High-Accuracy Thrust Measurements of the EmDrive and Elimination of False-Positive Effects.” (Read the other two studies here and here.)

Using a new measuring scale and different suspension points of the same engine, the TU Dresden scientists “were able to reproduce apparent thrust forces similar to those measured by the NASA team, but also to make them disappear by means of a point suspension,” researcher Martin Tajmar told the German site GreWi.

The verdict:

»

“When power flows into the EmDrive, the engine warms up. This also causes the fastening elements on the scale to warp, causing the scale to move to a new zero point. We were able to prevent that in an improved structure. Our measurements refute all EmDrive claims by at least 3 orders of magnitude.”

«

«

Damn you scientists with your facts and tests! I guess they’ll have to call the EmDrive something else so they can start hyping it again.
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Survey XII: Digital New Normal 2025 – after the outbreak • Imagining the Internet

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Nearly half of experts worry that changes in the ongoing evolution of digital life tied to the COVID-19 outbreak and societies’ responses to it may make digital life in 2025 mostly worse for most people. Threats they cite include inequality and injustice; security risks and privacy’s fall; automation; misinformation and worsening mental health. Their hopes are for improved social relations and social justice; that tech and government may come to more highly value the needs of people and planet over profit and power; and that smarter and fairer human and technological systems will emerge.

«

There’s plenty more, in quite a lot of depth. I read the summary and thought “Sure, but surveys like this are easy to do, and who’s going to hold you to account for them? What did they all forecast for 2020, back in the day?”

Fortunately, the website goes back with predictions from as far back as 2004. So to give you an idea of how seriously to take the predictions from III, below is what the 2020 predictions, made in 2008, said.
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The 2008 Survey • Imagining the Internet

Looking forward to the world in 2020:

»

Among the quantitative results from the expert group:

• Some 77% said the mobile computing device (the smartphone) with more significant computing power will be 2020’s primary global Internet-connection platform.
• 64% favored the idea that 2020 user interfaces will offer advanced touch, talk and typing options and some added a fourth “T” – think.
• Nearly four out of five respondents (78%) said the original Internet architecture will not be completely replaced by a next-generation ‘net by 2020.
• Three out of five respondents (60%) disagreed with the idea that legislatures, courts, the technology industry, and media companies will exercise effective intellectual property control by 2020.
• A majority—56%—agreed that in 2020 “few lines (will) divide professional from personal time, and that’s OK.”
• 56% said while Web 2.0 is bringing some people closer, social tolerance will not be heightened by our new connections
• 45% agreed and 44% disagreed with the notion that the greater transparency of people and institutions afforded by the Internet will heighten individual integrity and forgiveness.
• More than half (55%) agreed that many lives will be touched in 2020 by virtual worlds, mirror worlds, and augmented reality, while 45% disagreed or did not answer the question.

«

I’d say those are pretty good, actually (apart perhaps from the “few lines divide professional from personal time”?). The smartphone in December 2008 was a shadow of its current incarnation.
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Boris Johnson gives backing to domestic use of Covid passports • The Guardian

Jessica Elgot:

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Boris Johnson has given firm backing to the use of Covid passports after the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, suggested the measure would be against “British instinct”.

Johnson, who has faced criticism from his own party over the proposed use of Covid certification in small venues such as pubs and restaurants, has noticeably warmed to the idea in recent weeks. Government sources have suggested the certificates could be used by businesses as a way to relax social distancing measures inside venues. An interim report into the measure is due to be published on Monday.

Speaking on a visit to Middlesborough, Johnson said a certificate could be used to prove a person was safe in an number of different ways – not just vaccination. He suggested businesses would welcome the idea.

“When it comes to trying to make sure that we give maximum confidence to business and to customers here in the UK, there are three things: your immunity, whether you’ve had it before, so you’ve got natural antibodies anyway; whether you’ve been vaccinated; and then, of course, whether you’ve had a test. And so those three things working together will, I think, be useful,” he said.

«

February 23: “The UK government reassured people on Tuesday they will not face major restrictions if they refuse to have a coronavirus jab with officials considering a recent Covid-19 test result as an alternative to ‘vaccine passports’.”

April 1: Johnson gives firm backing to Covid passports. Five weeks.

Though this does set up the possibility that the “libertarian” end of the Tory party will team up with Labour to defeat the measure in Parliament. A strange situation where the right-wing end of the right-wing party finds common cause with the ostensibly left-wing opposition party.
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Update on campaign targeting security researchers • Google Threat Analysis Group

Adam Weidemann:

»

In January, the Threat Analysis Group documented a hacking campaign, which we were able to attribute to a North Korean government-backed entity, targeting security researchers. On March 17th, the same actors behind those attacks set up a new website with associated social media profiles for a fake company called “SecuriElite.”

The new website claims the company is an offensive security company located in Turkey that offers pentests, software security assessments and exploits. Like previous websites we’ve seen set up by this actor, this website has a link to their PGP public key at the bottom of the page. In January, targeted researchers reported that the PGP key hosted on the attacker’s blog acted as the lure to visit the site where a browser exploit was waiting to be triggered.

The attacker’s latest batch of social media profiles continue the trend of posing as fellow security researchers interested in exploitation and offensive security. On LinkedIn, we identified two accounts impersonating recruiters for antivirus and security companies. We have reported all identified social media profiles to the platforms to allow them to take appropriate action. 

«

Claims to be a company called “SecuriElite”, an “offensive security company”. Quite the turn of phrase.
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A French route to Europe’s EV future • Bloomberg

Colin McKerracher:

»

The latest vehicle sales data for France tell an interesting story about the future of the auto sector in Europe.

The obvious point is that the pandemic and related lockdowns are still affecting European auto markets in a big way. Overall vehicle sales were down 21% year-on-year in February. The other big story is that sales of electric vehicles continue to rise quickly. The plug-in vehicle share of new sales is now running at around 13%. That’s up from of 11% in 2020 and just 3% in 2019. Sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles rose a remarkable 134% in February.

There are two big factors driving this. The first is Europe’s tightening automotive CO2 regulations. Automakers across Europe pushed a record number of EVs onto the market last year to drive down the average emissions of the vehicles they sold and avoid paying large fines. The EU targets effectively tighten again this year, since automakers are no longer allowed to remove their 5% of worst-performing vehicles from the calculations – a carve-out they negotiated years ago.

The other factor at play is taxes. France recently updated what’s known as the bonus malus vehicle taxation scheme, which punishes buyers of high emitting vehicles and rewards those choosing electric or low emissions options. The updates make the program even more stringent and are a big part of the buoyant EV sales on display in the latest numbers.

The highest taxes for the bonus malus scheme are for vehicles that emit 220g or more of CO2 per km. This can include models like the Land Rover Discovery and BMW X7, depending on configuration. Buyers of these vehicles face an additional tax of a whopping 30,000 euros ($35,300). At the other end of the spectrum, buyers of vehicles emitting 0-20g CO2 per km benefit from a 7,000 euro ($8,240) rebate. All battery electric vehicle models fall in this latter category. That’s quite an incentive.

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Making ICE (internal combustion engines) much more expensive than EVs (electric vehicles) seems like a better path to “banning” them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: apparently managed to get through a day without screwing things up.

Start Up No.1518: Clegg defends Facebook’s algorithms, the Clubhouse party, WHO criticises China, bitcoin scam app nets $1m, and more


A big US Army contract means Microsoft’s Hololens bet is going to pay off handsomely. CC-licensed photo by NASA Johnson 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. Boom! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

You and the algorithm: it takes two to tango • Medium

Nick Clegg is not the Liberal Democrat leader or deputy British Prime Minister, he’s the chief PR for Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook:

»

Every piece of content that could potentially feature [in your News Feed] — including the posts you haven’t seen from your friends, the Pages you follow, and Groups you joined — goes through the ranking process. Thousands of signals are assessed for these posts, like who posted it, when, whether it’s a photo, video or link, how popular it is on the platform, or the type of device you are using. From there, the algorithm uses these signals to predict how likely it is to be relevant and meaningful to you: for example, how likely you might be to “like” it or find that viewing it was worth your time. The goal is to make sure you see what you find most meaningful — not to keep you glued to your smartphone for hours on end. You can think about this sort of like a spam filter in your inbox: it helps filter out content you won’t find meaningful or relevant, and prioritizes content you will.

Before we credit “the algorithm” with too much independent judgment, it is of course the case that these systems are designed by people. It is Facebook’s decision makers who ultimately decide what content is acceptable on the platform. Facebook has detailed Community Standards, developed over many years, that prohibit harmful content — and invests heavily in developing ways of identifying it and acting on it quickly.

Of course, whether Facebook draws the line in the right place, or according to the right considerations, is a matter of legitimate public debate. And it is entirely reasonable to argue that private companies shouldn’t be making so many big decisions about what content is acceptable on their own. It would clearly be better if these decisions were made according to frameworks agreed by democratically accountable lawmakers. But in the absence of such laws, there are decisions that need to be made in real time.

«

The News Feed is determined by machine learning systems, not people. Engagement is the critical metric, and measured by dwell time. And we have no way to tweak the levers of the algorithm except by Liking content and trying to ban content.

It’s very different from just choosing for yourself what you want to read on, say, Reddit. I find it impossible to read anything Clegg writes without constantly thinking it’s covering something up or skewing something. That’s not so much a hangover from his time in politics (where his big problem was that he wasn’t good enough at lying and scheming) as from how Facebook has been and continues to be. The culture won’t change while the leader doesn’t change.

(Side note: was his post on Medium, not Facebook, because anyone can read Medium?)
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Clubhouse feels like a party. But is it a good one? • The New Yorker

Anna Wiener:

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Over time, I found myself moving quickly from room to room on Clubhouse, restive and unsatisfied, as if at a party that hadn’t yet found its groove—staying home with a book would have been more nurturing, but maybe my friends would show up. For a while, I was content to eavesdrop. There were strangers telling stories, and discussing optimistic science fiction, and practicing second languages, and engaging in wild financial speculation. There were occasional flashes of revelation and inspiration.

It seemed plausible that somewhere on the app people were falling in love, or at least meeting future business partners. It was nice to stumble across friends’ avatars in rooms where I was also a listener—like spotting a familiar face at a lecture, or the bar—and exciting to see the names of people I admired from afar, their avatars flickering with the potential for a serendipitous encounter, a shared stage.

Yet I was always dropping in, swinging by. In so many rooms, I couldn’t remember what had drawn me inside; I knew only that I was just passing through, and wouldn’t stay for long.

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Data withheld from WHO team probing COVID-19 origins in China: Tedros • Reuters

Stephanie Nebehay, John Miller:

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Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing… “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by the WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the United States has alleged, hindered them.

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China won’t ever let a closer examination of the lab happen. That’s not because the lab is the cause (the report discusses the various possibilities pretty fairly), but because China hates being the source of the problem.
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Microsoft wins contract to make modified HoloLens for US Army • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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The Pentagon announced that Microsoft has won a contract to build more than 120,000 custom HoloLens augmented reality headsets for the U.S. Army. The contract could be worth up to $21.88bn over 10 years, a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday.

Microsoft shares moved higher after the announcement. The stock was up 1.7% to $235.77 per share at the end of Wednesday’s trading session.

The deal shows Microsoft can generate meaningful revenue from a futuristic product resulting from years of research, beyond core areas such as operating systems and productivity software.

It follows a $480m contract Microsoft received to give the Army prototypes of the Integrated Visual Augmented System, or IVAS, in 2018. The new deal will involve providing production versions.

The standard-issue HoloLens, which costs $3,500, enables people to see holograms overlaid over their actual environments and interact using hand and voice gestures. An IVAS prototype that a CNBC reporter tried out in 2019 displayed a map and a compass and had thermal imaging to reveal people in the dark. The system could also show the aim for a weapon.

«

That’s the Hololens R&D all paid for, then. Does this push Apple’s plans for a headset forward, do we think?
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Big breakthrough for ’massless’ energy storage • Chalmers

»

Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology have produced a structural battery that performs ten times better than all previous versions. It contains carbon fibre that serves simultaneously as an electrode, conductor, and load-bearing material. Their latest research breakthrough paves the way for essentially ’massless’ energy storage in vehicles and other technology.

​The batteries in today’s electric cars constitute a large part of the vehicles’ weight, without fulfilling any load-bearing function. A structural battery, on the other hand, is one that works as both a power source and as part of the structure – for example, in a car body. This is termed ‘massless’ energy storage, because in essence the battery’s weight vanishes when it becomes part of the load-bearing structure. Calculations show that this type of multifunctional battery could greatly reduce the weight of an electric vehicle.

The development of structural batteries at Chalmers University of Technology has proceeded through many years of research, including previous discoveries involving certain types of carbon fibre. In addition to being stiff and strong, they also have a good ability to store electrical energy chemically. This work was named by Physics World as one of 2018’s ten biggest scientific breakthroughs.

The first attempt to make a structural battery was made as early as 2007, but it has so far proven difficult to manufacture batteries with both good electrical and mechanical properties. 

But now the development has taken a real step forward, with researchers from Chalmers, in collaboration with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, presenting a structural battery with properties that far exceed anything yet seen, in terms of electrical energy storage, stiffness and strength.

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He downloaded the Trezor app on iOS. It was a scam and stole $1 million in bitcoin • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

»

Phillipe Christodoulou wanted to check his bitcoin balance last month, so he searched the App Store on his iPhone for “Trezor,” the maker of a small hardware device he uses to store his cryptocurrency. Up popped the company’s padlock logo set against a bright green background. The app was rated close to five stars. He downloaded it and typed in his credentials.

In less than a second, nearly all of his life savings — 17.1 bitcoin worth $600,000 at the time — was gone. The app was a fake, designed to trick people into thinking it was a legitimate app.

But Christodoulou is angrier at Apple than at the thieves themselves. He says Apple marketed the App Store as a safe and trusted place, where each app is reviewed before it is allowed in the store.

Christodoulou, once a loyal Apple customer, said he no longer admires the company. “They betrayed the trust that I had in them,” he said in an interview. “Apple doesn’t deserve to get away with this.”

…Trezor, based in the Czech Republic and owned by a company called Satoshi Labs, is a well-known maker of hardware wallets. Trezor doesn’t have a mobile app, but crypto thieves created a fake one and put it on Apple’s App Store in January and the Google Play Store in December, according to those companies, tricking some unsuspecting Trezor customers into entering their seed phrases.

Kristyna Mazankova, a spokeswoman for Trezor, said the company has been notifying Apple and Google for years about fake apps posing as a Trezor product to scam its customers. Trezor has never had a mobile app, though the company is working on one. She said the process of reporting the apps is “painful” and that representatives of Apple and Google haven’t been in contact.

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Maybe a placeholder app, Trezor? It’s asking a lot of Apple to police all of these – though there could be a list of names to watch for. (Except if the app updates itself to a different name; that though should trigger a check.)
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The Tories are getting away with corruption on an epic scale – how can Labour make them pay? • New Statesman

Paul Mason:

»

While nobody in their right mind thinks Line of Duty is real, its metaphoric truth is: when dealing with the commercialised and fragmented British state, you have to assume that everybody is on the make, everyone is gaming the system, everyone has something to hide, and that behind every investigation there is a cover-up.

Beyond this general feeling of numbness and indifference towards malfeasance in public office, there is also something more specific. For a minority of the electorate, so long as Johnson and his ministers go on delivering a steady diet of prejudice, illiberalism and provocations against “wokeness”, they will be forgiven any mistake. Tens of thousands of elderly people dead because of an unconscionably late lockdown? Christmas cancelled? The fishing industry destroyed? A trade border now drawn in the Irish Sea? None of it matters so long as Johnson, Priti Patel and the rest are prepared to fight the culture war.

But it should matter and the opposition needs to make it matter. Labour’s Rachel Reeves has carved out a strong position by meticulously pursuing evidence and explanations over the Covid cronyism scandals. Translating this into a potent political narrative requires Labour to go further.

«

The Labour Party seems stunned by Johnson: while Keir Starmer easily bests him in Parliament, that’s not where the real fight is won. Nor does Labour seem to have any policies discernible from the Tories. Starmer hasn’t been helped by the pandemic. But he hasn’t helped himself.
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Dark web bursting with COVID-19 vaccines, vaccine passports • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

»

Tired of waiting to get your vaccine appointment? For just $500, you could get a COVID-19 vaccine dose tomorrow (overnight shipping not included). Too rich for your blood? How about a vaccination card for just $150?

Security researchers have seen a spike in listings on dark web marketplaces in recent weeks. The sites are advertising everything from vaccine doses to falsified vaccine certifications and negative test results. Currently, more than 1,200 listings are offering a variety of vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sputnik, and Sinopharm.

Investigations by researchers at security firm Check Point have been monitoring the sites for COVID-19-related activity since January, and they report a three-fold increase in such activity over the last three months. It’s unclear if the doses are legitimate, and even if they were, there’s no guarantee that the vials have been stored at the correct temperature, potentially rendering them useless. 

Last week, Check Point researchers based in Israel attempted to buy the Sinopharm vaccine from one vendor, said Ekram Ahmed, a spokesperson for the company. “We tried to negotiate and buy the Chinese vaccine through one of the vendors,” he told Ars. The team messaged the vendor, who directed them to continue the negotiations on Telegram. Once there, the vendor provided reassurances that the vaccine doses were legitimate. The researchers sent $500 to a Bitcoin wallet, and while they have received a FedEx shipping label, they have yet to receive the shipment.

Dark web vendors are probably doing better business selling falsified vaccine cards and negative test results. “Lately, we’re seeing more vaccination certificates being offered” than vaccines, Ahmed said. “It’s probably a two-to-one ratio.”

«

The fake vaccination certificates is the sort of thing the late, great British SF writer John Brunner predicted – in his case it was AIDS, but same sorta thing.
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Suez Canal: QAnon’s cargo ship conspiracies are getting wild(er) • Vice

David Gilbert:

»

Within minutes of the Ever Given ship getting stuck in Egypt’s Suez Canal last week, an incident that created chaos in global supply chains, QAnon supporters were spreading wild conspiracies that the ship was operated by Hillary Clinton and carrying a cargo of child sex slaves.

The claims were based on the fact that the Taiwanese shipping company that operates the ship is called Evergreen, which was Clinton’s secret service name when she was first lady.

The baseless theory was given further credence — in the minds of QAnon followers at least — when it emerged that the ship’s call sign was “H3RC” which is close enough to Clinton’s own initials (HRC) for QAnon followers to make the link.

The theory quickly spread on Telegram and Gab, the platforms QAnon followers have fled to in the wake of a purge by mainstream social networks in recent months.

But the claims also made their way to Twitter and Facebook, where fact-checking group PolitiFact flagged and debunked them.

“There is no evidence that an Evergreen ship stuck in the Suez Canal is linked to a human trafficking operation run by Hillary Clinton. That claim has been pushed by supporters of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory,” Daniel Funke, an expert in online misinformation at PolitiFact, wrote.

«

This actually ran last week, while the Ever Given was up the spout, and it’s unintentionally hilarious in what it says about the ARG* that is QAnon.

(* Alternative Reality Game.)

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:Pretty much everyone got in touch by some means or another to point out that the bomb dropped over Nagasaki was not a hydrogen (fusion) bomb but was a fission bomb – the difference from the Hiroshima bomb being that it used plutonium rather than uranium. The first “hydrogen” (H-) bomb – so called because the initial fission blast triggers a fusion process on a small amount of heavy hydrogen, thus unleashing a colossal amount of energy – was tested in 1952.

Start Up No.1517: home appliances hit by chip shortage, Spotify buys.. internet radio?, study shows vaccines stop Covid spread, and more


Sleep tracking is popular, but scientists aren’t so sure there’s any benefit CC-licensed photo by Nicolas Winspeare 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. Wakey wakey! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google Nest Hub, Apple Watch and the pros and cons of sleep tracking • WSJ

Nicole Nguyen:

»

there is such a thing as sleep-data overload. The formal medical term is orthosomnia. “Basically, it’s insomnia from sleep-tracking devices,” said Dr. Prather.

Susheel Patil, a clinical doctor with the Johns Hopkins Pulmonary Sleep Medicine Program, had a patient with insomnia symptoms cure his sleeplessness by removing the Fitbit he was wearing every night. “It can be so much data, and we don’t know what to do with it. Unplugging can be more helpful,” Dr. Patil said.

Plus, seemingly “bad” results might not be meaningful. If your tracker says your sleep is fragmented, but you feel fine, it’s nothing to worry about, he added.

Another concern is the devices’ accuracy. “The gold standard is the polysomnogram with an EEG signature, and everything else is an estimate,” said Kelly Baron, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Utah. An electroencephalogram (aka EEG) test, typically conducted in a lab, looks at electrical activity in your brain using nodes attached to your scalp.

I wanted to see how my data might compare with a polysomnogram test, so I sent Dr. Baron one night’s worth of my data captured by different devices. Looking at the sleep-phase data from Whoop and Fitbit, she said, “The staging data doesn’t look much like the stages we would see in a sleep study.” (The Apple Watch and Google’s Nest Hub don’t attempt to discern the different phases, and I hadn’t yet begun testing the Withings Mat, which does display sleep-cycle duration.) Dr. Baron pointed to the app’s record of a long period of REM—aka rapid eye movement—toward the end of sleep, and the small amount of time in deep sleep as unusual, even for a particularly terrible night of sleep.

…The biggest benefit of these trackers generally is that I’m now prioritizing my sleep, instead of merely thinking of it as the bookend to my day. And honestly, you don’t need trackers to do the same, and follow the two key tenets of the sleep experts I talked to:

• Set consistent bed and wake times—even on the weekends
• Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.

«

I remain to be persuaded that these sleep trackers have any value. They’re just easy to do and aren’t medical devices, so don’t need official clearance. There’s no low-hanging fruit left for wearables. Now we get into the tough part of the game.
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Fridges, microwaves fall prey to global chip shortage • Reuters

Josh Horwitz:

»

A global shortage of chips that has rattled production lines at car companies and squeezed stockpiles at gadget makers is now leaving home appliance makers unable to meet demand, according to the president of Whirlpool Corp in China.

The US-based company, one of the world’s largest white goods firm, saw chip deliveries fall short of its orders by about 10% in March, Jason Ai told Reuters in Shanghai.

“It’s a perfect storm,” he said on the sidelines of the Appliance and World Electronics Expo.

“On the one hand we have to satisfy domestic demand for appliances, on the other hand we’re facing an explosion of export orders. As far as chips go, for those of us in China, it was inevitable.”

The company has struggled to secure enough microcontrollers, simple processors that power over half of its products including microwaves, refrigerators, and washing machines.

While the chip shortage has affected a range of high-end suppliers like Qualcomm Inc, it originated and remains most severe for mature technologies, for example power-management chips used in cars.

«

(Thanks Lloyd Wood for the link.)
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Spotify jumps into social audio, acquires sports-focused live audio app • NBC News

Dylan Byers:

»

Spotify said Tuesday it has acquired the company behind the live audio app Locker Room, giving the music and podcast platform a new foothold in a space that has seen a surge of interest following the rise of the app Clubhouse.

The company, Betty Labs, launched Locker Room in October as a sports-focused platform for live audio conversations. Spotify said it plans to “evolve and expand” the app “into an enhanced live audio experience for a wider range of creators and fans.”

Locker Room will soon expand and rebrand to become more like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces: a forum for live conversations about music, culture and all manner of topics.

“Creators and fans have been asking for live formats on Spotify, and we’re excited that soon, we’ll make them available to hundreds of millions of listeners and millions of creators on our platform,” Spotify’s chief research and development officer Gustav Söderström said in a statement. 

«

So they’ve.. bought internet radio? Talk about reinventing the wheel.
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Arm v9 promises ray tracing for smartphones and a big performance boost • PC World Australia

Mark Hachman:

»

Arm said Tuesday that ray tracing and variable rate shading will migrate from the PC to Arm-powered smartphones and tablets as part of Armv9, the next-generation CPU architecture that the company expects will power the next decade of Arm devices. Chips based upon the v9 architecture will be released in 2021, providing an estimated 30% improvement in performance over the next two Arm chip generations and the devices that run them.

Arm’s v9 will also add SVE2, new AI-specific instructions that will probably be used for the AI image processing used on smartphones, such as portrait mode. Arm v9 will also include what Arm is calling Realms, a hardware container of sorts specifically designed to protect virtual machines and secure applications. 

As an intellectual-property licensing company, Arm enjoys a unique position in the computing industry. Phones, tablets, and servers never include chips directly made by Arm; instead, companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, and others sign licensing agreements wirh Arm, giving them the freedom to manufacture chips designed by Arm, or tweak them to create their own customized designs. Kevin Jou, the chief technology officer of Mediatek—whose chips typically appear in Chromebooks and low-end smartphones—predicted that his company will have an Arm v9 chip by the end of 2021.

«

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Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 90% effective in study of essential workers • The Washington Post

Lena Sun:

»

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines being deployed to fight the coronavirus pandemic are robustly effective in preventing infections in real-life conditions, according to a federal study released Monday that provides reassurance of protection for front-line workers in the United States.

In a study of about 4,000 health-care personnel, police, firefighters and other essential workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the vaccines reduced the risk of infection by 80% after one shot. Protection increased to 90% following the second dose. The findings are consistent with clinical trial results and studies showing strong effectiveness in Israel and the United Kingdom, and in initial studies of health-care workers at the UT Southwestern Medical Center and in Southern California.

The CDC report is significant, experts said, because it analyzed how well the vaccines worked among a diverse group of front-line working-age adults whose jobs make them more likely to be exposed to the virus and to spread it.

…Among 2,479 fully vaccinated people, just three had confirmed infections. Among 477 people who received one dose, eight infections were reported. By comparison, among 994 people who were not vaccinated, 161 developed infections.

No deaths were reported.

«

It begins to look like we’ll emerge from this, doesn’t it?
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Fission chain reaction may trigger supernovae • APS Physics

Philip Ball:

»

A new proposal suggests that when a white dwarf star explodes as a supernova, the initial trigger may be a stellar version of an atomic bomb. This scenario is different from the textbook explanation, which involves an instability resulting from the star sucking mass from a companion star. The researchers suggesting this scenario say that crystallization of uranium during cooling of the stellar core could lead to runaway nuclear fission. This fission “bomb” could in turn trigger an H-bomb-like (nuclear fusion) explosion of lighter elements to produce the supernova. Several key questions about the process remain to be answered, but experts say the theory is worth exploring.

A white dwarf is a very dense star, with a mass comparable to the Sun’s but a size similar to Earth’s. These objects form from Sun-like stars that have densified under gravity after burning most of their fuel. Some white dwarfs end their lives as type 1a supernovae, which are thought to occur only if the star is part of a binary system because a solo white dwarf should be stable as it cools.

But Charles Horowitz of Indiana University and Matt Caplan of Illinois State University point out that heavy elements including uranium are among the first to solidify as a white dwarf’s interior cools. This cooling and solidification process separates the complex plasma-like mixture into its components—a process called phase separation. Even if the initial amounts of uranium and similar elements are very low, “the first solids will be very strongly enriched” in these elements, Horowitz and Caplan write in their paper.

…Horowitz and Caplan carried out calculations and computer simulations showing that a critical mass of uranium can indeed crystallize from a typical element mixture found in a cooling white dwarf. If the uranium explodes, they say, the resulting heat and pressure in the stellar core could be high enough to trigger nuclear fusion of lighter elements, especially carbon and oxygen, and thus a supernova. (Similarly, today’s thermonuclear fusion bombs are detonated by fission bombs.)

«

So it would be a fusion bomb – aka H-bomb – like the one dropped on Nagasaki. like the US first tested in 1952 and which any self-respecting nuclear power now deploys. (Thanks for the corrections.)
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Kuo: Apple headset to have ultra-short focal length lenses and weigh less than 150 grams • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:

»

Following a recent report mentioning that Apple’s rumored mixed reality headset will feature advanced eye tracking, reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a research note obtained by 9to5Mac that Apple has been working on hybrid ultra-short focal length lens aiming to keep the weight of the headset under 150 grams.

As mentioned by Kuo, current virtual reality headsets typically weigh over 300 grams and have a bulky form factor, which is something Apple wants to solve for its own headset. Apple’s VR device is expected to adopt Fresnel’s hybrid ultra-short focal length lens that have improved field of view, as well as reduced weight and thickness.

The analyst believes that the new Apple-built headset will weigh less than 150 grams, which will be a big advantage when compared to similar devices that currently exist. The device will be equipped with lenses made of plastic instead of glass, which are lighter — but details about the durability of the material are unknown.

«

A lemon weighs about 100g, and a kiwifruit about 50g. So imagine those on your face, if that helps. Alternatively: 17 UK £1 coins, which weigh 8.75g each. Or, in the US, 30 nickels – each weighs 5g.
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Steer through the Suez Canal • CNN Interactive

Sarah-Grace Mankarious and Marco Chacón:

»

Navigating the Suez Canal is a high-stress, complicated feat that requires master piloting skills. To demonstrate, we worked with Master Mariner Andy Winbow and Captain Yash Gupta to produce this simulated passage.

Try your hand at traversing one of the most highly trafficked nautical thoroughfares in the world.

Note: This is a non-scientific simplified interactive experience intended for illustrative purposes only. There are many factors that have not been accounted for, including (but not restricted to): the depth of water; proximity to the banks; interaction with passing ships; the turning circle; availability of tug boats and other weather conditions like visibility. We have also sped up the time it takes to maneuver a ship of this size. Master Mariner Andy Winbow and Captain Yash Gupta have been advisers.

«

Well, that’s your lunchtime sorted.
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Apple developing new Remote for the next-generation Apple TV • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:

»

We’ve been hearing rumors about the next-generation Apple TV for a while now, but we don’t know when the company plans to officially announce it. Now 9to5Mac has learned that Apple is developing a new Remote for Apple TV, which corroborates some previous rumors about Apple updating the Siri Remote.

Details about this new Apple TV Remote are still unknown, but 9to5Mac’s sources have told us that this model is being developed under the code name “B519,” which is quite different from the code name of the current Siri Remote — internally identified as “B439.”

«

All I ask is that you can tell which way up it is if you pick it up with your eyes closed. And that the buttons are sized according to how much you’ll use them. And that you can tell which button is which with your eyes closed. (I wrote about the difference between design built around affordance – the Sky remote – and design built around “here’s a shape, now fit the buttons into it” – the Apple TV remote – a while ago. It’s still true.)
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Intel’s 11th gen Core i9 processor boosts Microsoft Flight Simulator by 20% • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

I built a new gaming PC in September to play new games like Microsoft Flight Simulator, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I figured that picking Intel’s Core i9-10900K and Nvidia’s RTX 3090 would make this machine last for years and offer top tier performance in demanding titles like Microsoft Flight Simulator. I was wrong. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a notorious beast of a game and is quickly becoming the new Crysis test for PCs.

It has struggled to run smoothly above 30fps with all settings maxed out at 1440p on my PC, and even AMD’s Intel-beating Ryzen 9 5950X only improved the situation slightly for some.

Intel’s latest 11th Gen processor arrives with a big promise of up to 19% IPC (instructions per cycle) improvements over the existing i9-10900K, and more specifically the lure of 14% more performance at 1080p in Microsoft Flight Simulator with high settings. This piqued my curiosity, so I’ve been testing the i9-11900K over the past few days to see what it can offer for Microsoft Flight Simulator specifically.

It’s less than a year after the i9-10900K release, and I’m already considering upgrading to Intel’s new i9-11900K because I’ve found it boosts Microsoft Flight Simulator by 20%.

«

Though this is still at the 14nm (!!) process. No word on the power consumption, which must therefore still be substantial. Still a long time before we see the fruits of Gelsinger’s new policies, of course.
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Banks face regulators’ scrutiny on handling of Archegos fire sale • Financial Times

Eric Platt, Leo Lewis, Ortenca Aliaj and Stephen Morris:

»

Archegos founder Bill Hwang on Thursday gathered Wall Street lenders Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo, as well as Swiss rivals UBS and Credit Suisse and Japan’s Nomura, in a last-ditch effort to unwind billions of dollars of markets bets in an orderly manner.

But on Friday banks started selling large blocks of shares that had underpinned Hwang’s trades, knocking $33bn of value off media groups ViacomCBS and Discovery and Chinese tech stocks, such as Baidu. The sales spurred losses for Nomura and Credit Suisse that are expected to run into billions of dollars.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority have requested information from the banks involved. Finra, Wall Street’s self-regulatory body, has also contacted the banks at the centre of the Archegos trading debacle.

As Archegos’ losses increased last week, several prime brokers that had extended credit to the firm tried to agree to an orderly unwinding of the trades over time, fearing that a fire sale would depress the value of the securities held on behalf of Archegos.

One person said they had hoped to sell Archegos’ book over a period of about 20 days.

«

This is a bit Inside Wall Street, but last Friday a big hedge fund called Archegos went bust. In trying to recover their assets, banks sold shares (as detailed here). What everyone’s wondering is whether this presages a much bigger problem, rather as the implosion of two hedge funds at Bear Stearns in July 2007 was the first inkling of the credit crunch.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1516: GPT-3 blurps billions of words daily, hackers try to backdoor PHP, the vanishing NFTs, Apple pushes urgent iOS updates, and more


Membership of American churches has for the first time fallen below 50%. A harbinger, but of what? CC-licensed photo by Don Sniegowski 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. Less than 4.5 billion. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

OpenAI’s text-generating system GPT-3 is now spewing out 4.5 billion words a day • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

OpenAI started life as a nonprofit, but for the last few years, it has been trying to make money with GPT-3 as its first salable product. The company has an exclusivity deal with Microsoft which gives the tech giant unique access to the program’s underlying code, but any firm can apply for access to GPT-3’s general API and build services on top of it.

As OpenAI is keen to advertise, hundreds of companies are now doing exactly this. One startup named Viable is using GPT-3 to analyze customer feedback, identifying “themes, emotions, and sentiment from surveys, help desk tickets, live chat logs, reviews, and more”; Fable Studio is using the program to create dialogue for VR experiences; and Algolia is using it to improve its web search products which it, in turn, sells on to other customers.

All this is good news for OpenAI (and Microsoft, whose Azure cloud computing platform powers OpenAI’s tech), but not everyone in startup-land is keen. Many analysts have noted the folly of building a company on technology you don’t actually own. Using GPT-3 to create a startup is ludicrously simple, but it’ll be ludicrously simple for your competitors, too. And though there are ways to differentiate your GPT startup through branding and UI, no firm stands to gain as much as from the use of the technology as OpenAI itself.

Another worry about the rise of text-generating systems relates to issues of output quality. Like many algorithms, text generators have the capacity to absorb and amplify harmful biases. They’re also often astoundingly dumb. In tests of a medical chatbot built using GPT-3, the model responded to a “suicidal” patient by encouraging them to kill themselves. These problems aren’t insurmountable, but they’re certainly worth flagging in a world where algorithms are already creating mistaken arrests, unfair school grades, and biased medical bills.

«

“Astoundingly dumb” isn’t quite the tagline that OpenAI may have been looking for. Probably hoping instead for “astonishingly prolific”. Thing is, the prolific element will continue. Will the dumb part, though?
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Hackers backdoor PHP source code after breaching internal git server • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

A hacker compromised the server used to distribute the PHP programming language and added a backdoor to source code that would have made websites vulnerable to complete takeover, members of the open source project said.

Two updates pushed to the PHP Git server over the weekend added a line that, if run by a PHP-powered website, would have allowed visitors with no authorization to execute code of their choice. The malicious commits gave the code the code-injection capability to visitors who had the word “zerodium” in an HTTP header.

The commits were made to the php-src repo under the account names of two well-known PHP developers, Rasmus Lerdorf and Nikita Popov. “We don’t yet know how exactly this happened, but everything points toward a compromise of the git.php.net server (rather than a compromise of an individual git account),” Popov wrote in a notice published on Sunday night.

In the aftermath of the compromise, Popov said that PHP maintainers have concluded that their standalone Git infrastructure is an unnecessary security risk. As a result, they will discontinue the git.php.net server and make GitHub the official source for PHP repositories. Going forward, all PHP source code changes will be made directly to GitHub rather than to git.php.net.

The malicious changes came to public attention no later than Sunday night by developers including Markus Staab, Jake Birchallf, and Michael Voříšek as they scrutinized a commit made on Saturday. The update, which purported to fix a typo, was made under an account that used Lerdorf’s name. Shortly after the first discovery, Voříšek spotted the second malicious commit, which was made under Popov’s account name. It purported to revert the previous typo fix.

«

Close call. And makes one wonder how many similar hacks simply haven’t been noticed. How, after all, would you know?
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People’s expensive NFTs keep vanishing. This is why • Vice

Ben Munster:

»

Last month, Tom Kuennen, a property manager from Ontario, coughed up $500 worth of cryptocurrency for a JPEG of an Elon Musk-themed “Moon Ticket” from DarpaLabs, an anonymous digital art collective. He purchased it through the marketplace OpenSea, one of the largest vendors of so-called non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, in the hopes of reselling it for a profit. 

“It’s like a casino,” he said in an interview. “If it goes up 100 times you resell it, if it doesn’t, well, you don’t tell anyone.”

He never got the chance to find out. A week later, he opened up his digital “wallet,” where the artwork would supposedly be available, and was faced with an ominous banner reading, “This page has gone off grid. We’ve got a 404 error and explored deep and wide, but we can’t find the page you’re looking for.” 

The artwork, which he expected to be on the page, had disappeared entirely. “There was no history of my ever purchasing it, or ever owning it,” he said. “Now there’s nothing. My money’s gone.”

«

The internet is for porn, but also for scams. But this is different again: if you thought that an NFT was like a signed copy of a picture, this is what happens if you still have the signature but the picture’s gone.
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The mysterious user editing a global open-source map in China’s favour • Rest of World

Vittoria Elliott and Nilesh Christopher:

»

The user had also made the changes [to OpenStreetMap, about a new Chinese village near Bhutan] under the name NM$L, Chinese slang for the insult “Your mom is dead,” and linked to a Chinese rap music label that shares the same name. An accompanying bio hinted at their motives: “Safeguarding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity is the common obligation of all Chinese people, including compatriots in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan,” it read. 

“Most people on OpenStreetMap don’t even have anything in their profile,” said Doiron. “It’s not like a social media site.”

As he looked deeper, [Nick] Doiron discovered that NM$L had made several other edits, many of them along China’s border and in contested territories. The account had added changes to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago that an international tribunal ruled in 2016 was not part of China’s possible territorial claims, though it has continued to develop in the area. The account also drew along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates Indian and Chinese territory in the disputed Himalayan border region, which the two countries fought a war over in 1962.

What, Doiron wondered, is going on here? 

Anyone can contribute to OSM, which makes the site democratic and open, but also leaves it vulnerable to the politics and perspectives of its individual contributors. This wasn’t the first time Doiron had heard of a user making edits in a certain country’s favor. “I know there are pro-India accounts that have added things like military checkpoints from the India perspective,” he said.

«

Pretty clear, isn’t it.
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Gallup: US church membership dips below 50% for first time • Axios

Fadel Allassan:

»

47% of Americans said they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque in 2020, down from 50% in 2018, according to a Gallup poll out Monday.

«

Them: it’s fallen below 50%! First time since measurement began in 1937!

Me: church membership was ABOVE FIFTY%?! (In the UK, religious affiliation of any sort – not even church membership – has been below 50% since 2009, and as of 2018 was 52%.)

Obvious question is how this will affect religious impact on American politics.
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Apple releases emergency update for iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watch • ZDNet

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes:

»

The patches are iOS 14.4.2, iPadOS 14.4.2, and watchOS 7.3.3, respectively. 

The vulnerability, discovered by Google’s Threat Analysis Group, affects Apple’s WebKit browser engine, and what makes this an urgent update is the fact that Apple claims the vulnerability is being actively exploited.

Details from Apple are limited, but such vulnerabilities could be used to carry out malicious actions such as directing users to phishing sites. 

Underlining the seriousness of this vulnerability is the fact that Apple has pushed out iOS 12.5.2 for older devices: iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPad Air, iPad mini 2, iPad mini 3, and iPod touch (6th generation).

The bottom line: This patch is important. Install it now.

«

The last time this happened (August 2016), it was an exploit owned by an Israeli hacking/security company which had sold its use to United Arab Emirates, which was using it to spy on dissidents abroad; the use was discovered by a Canadian university.
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The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra’s camera bump is no moon; it’s a space station • The Verge

No comment on the device; I just like the headline. (On the story when you read it. The page headline, which is what Google sees, is much more boring: “The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra camera bump is huge — for a reason”. Bah.)
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Fear me not! I got my Covid vaccine. Now what? • Econlib

Bryan Caplan:

»

I’m now fully vaccinated.  How should I change my behavior?  How should anyone?

One popular answer is: not at all. Why not?  The top reason I’ve heard is: because even those of us who have been vaccinated can’t be absolutely sure we won’t be infected – or spread infection to others.  Some use the same reasoning to argue that people who have recovered from COVID shouldn’t change their behavior either. As immunologist Alexander Sette puts it:

»

Not taking any precautions—including wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing, or getting vaccinated—after an initial coronavirus infection is comparable to “driving a car where you’re 90% sure the car has brakes.”

«

However, both common sense and economic reasoning say virtually the opposite. If a risk falls by 90% – and there are large gains to accepting the risk – you should not only accept more of the risk; you should probably accept much more risk.

This is obviously what self-interest recommends. And when your risk-taking benefits others, this is what humanitarianism recommends as well. Remember: your social distancing doesn’t just harm your quality of life. Your social distancing also harms the quality of life of everyone who loses the pleasure of your company and the profit of your patronage. (Caveat: since vaccines take two weeks or so to kick in, neither self-interest nor humanitarianism recommend drastically changing your behavior the instant you get vaccinated).

What about the “90% sure the car has brakes” analogy?  It posits a lopsided scenario where you have a 10% chance of killing or seriously injuring others for a trivial total benefit. You shouldn’t die with 100% probability to see a movie; neither should you die with a 10% probability to see a movie. Anyone who has ever driven to a movie, however, has accepted a .00001% chance of dying en route. And accepting such a risk to see a movie is both prudent and considerate.

«

This completely misunderstands the problem. You aren’t going to die in the car without brakes. The person at the pedestrian crossing in front of you is. You aren’t going to die of Covid; the 80-year-old infected by the person you infect is. And that’s before we get to variant strains arising in immunocompromised people infected by overconfident vaccinated people.
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SolarWinds hack got emails of top DHS officials – sources • Associated Press

Alan Suderman:

»

Suspected Russian hackers gained access to email accounts belonging to the Trump administration’s head of the Department of Homeland Security and members of the department’s cybersecurity staff whose jobs included hunting threats from foreign countries, The Associated Press has learned.

The intelligence value of the hacking of then-acting Secretary Chad Wolf and his staff is not publicly known, but the symbolism is stark. Their accounts were accessed as part of what’s known as the SolarWinds intrusion, and it throws into question how the U.S. government can protect individuals, companies and institutions across the country if it can’t protect itself.

The short answer for many security experts and federal officials is that it can’t — at least not without some significant changes.

“The SolarWinds hack was a victory for our foreign adversaries, and a failure for DHS,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, top Republican on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We are talking about DHS’s crown jewels.”

The Biden administration has tried to keep a tight lid on the scope of the SolarWinds attack as it weighs retaliatory measures against Russia. But an inquiry by the AP found new details about the breach at DHS and other agencies, including the Energy Department, where hackers accessed top officials’ schedules.

The AP interviewed more than a dozen current and former US government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the ongoing investigation into the hack.

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In Suez Canal, stuck ship is a warning about excessive globalization • The New York Times

Peter Goodman:

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The fact that one mishap could sow fresh chaos from Los Angeles to Rotterdam to Shanghai underscored the extent to which modern commerce has come to revolve around truly global supply chains.

In recent decades, management experts and consulting firms have championed so-called just-in-time manufacturing to limit costs and boost profits. Rather than waste money stockpiling extra goods in warehouses, companies can depend on the magic of the internet and the global shipping industry to summon what they need as they need it.

The embrace of this idea has delivered no less than a revolution to major industries — automotive and medical device manufacturing, retailing, pharmaceuticals and more. It has also yielded a bonanza for corporate executives and other shareholders: Money not spent filling warehouses with unneeded auto parts is, at least in part, money that can be given to shareholders in the form of dividends.

Yet, as in everything in life, overdoing a good thing can bring danger.

An excessive reliance on just-in-time manufacturing helps explain how medical staff from Indiana to Italy found themselves attending to Covid-19 patients during the first wave of the pandemic without adequate protective gear like masks and gowns.

Health care systems — many under the control of profit-making companies answerable to shareholders — assumed that they could depend on the web and the global shipping industry to deliver what they needed in real time. That proved a deadly miscalculation.

The same dependence explains how Amazon failed to provide adequate stocks of masks and gloves to its warehouse workers in the United States in the first months of the pandemic.

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I don’t agree. What’s needed isn’t less globalisation, but more resilience: that you expect things will go wrong and have plans for when, predictably, they do.
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