Start Up No.1514: Amazon’s toilet problem, Tesla’s bitcoin swizz, Medium pivots (yet) again, assess your news bubble, and more


The Zodiac killer of the 1960s, still unidentified, left cryptic ciphers. Now they’ve been cracked. CC-licensed photo by tommy jonq 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, chief impact officer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon denies workers pee in bottles. Here are the pee bottles • Vice

Lauren Kaori Gurley:

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Amazon’s PR team is beefing with a Wisconsin congressman about the company’s labor conditions, among them whether its workers pee in bottles. 

On Wednesday evening, Wisconsin representative Mark Pocan called out the tech behemoth for its well-documented labor abuses in a tweet: “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.” 

In response, @AmazonNews, the company’s official news account countered, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.” 

But the fact that Amazon delivery drivers pee in bottles and coffee cups in their vans is not invented. It has been well-documented, and is a huge talking point among many delivery drivers. It is one of the most universal concerns voiced by the many Amazon delivery drivers around the country that Motherboard has interviewed. Delivery workers, who drive Amazon emblazoned vans, often deliver up to 300 packages a day on a 10 hour shift. If they take too long, they can be written up and fired. So spending time locating and using a bathroom is not always an option. 

In fact, here’s a photo of an Amazon delivery driver’s pee bottles. Motherboard confirmed the driver’s position and employment.

“We’re pressured to get these routes done before night time and having to find a restroom would mean driving an extra 10 minutes off path to find one,” an Amazon delivery driver told Motherboard. “Ten to fifteen minutes to find a bathroom can add up, meaning 20 to 30 minutes there and back all together.” 

“Obviously we drink a lot of water throughout the day so this is happening a lot through the drive,” they continued.

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This reminds me of the story about Lauren Hough, who had a job installing cable and fixing people’s routers. She measured customers by whether they offered her the use of the toilet.
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The solution of the Zodiac Killer’s 340-character cipher • Wolfram Blog

Sam Blake:

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The Zodiac Killer (an unidentified American serial killer active during the 1960s and 70s) sent numerous taunting letters to the press in the San Francisco area with regard to a local murder spree. In these letters, the killer took responsibility for the crimes and threatened to commit further murders. He also included three ciphers, each containing one-third of a 408-character cryptogram. The killer claimed that this cryptogram would reveal his identity when deciphered. The killer sent the fourth and final cipher (discussed in this blog post) to the San Francisco Chronicle after the 408-character cryptogram, deciphered in 1969, did not reveal the killer’s identity.

In 2020, Melbourne, Australia, had a 112-day lockdown of the entire city to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The wearing of masks was mandatory and we were limited to one hour a day of outside activity. Otherwise, we were stuck in our homes. This gave me lots of time to look into interesting problems I’d been putting off for years.

I was inspired by a YouTube video by David Oranchak, which looked at the Zodiac Killer’s 340-character cipher (Z340), which is pictured below. This cipher is considered one of the holy grails of cryptography, as at the time the cipher had resisted attacks for 50 years, so any attempts to find a solution were truly a moonshot.

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They really did go to the moon. Much easier to create a cipher than to break it. (The answer isn’t Ted Cruz, disappointingly.)
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Musk: Tesla accepts bitcoin as payment, won’t convert it “to fiat currency” • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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An all-caps warning from Tesla told buyers to be careful of mistakes that could result in lost cryptocurrency. “We will provide to you a digital wallet address (‘Bitcoin Address’) in both alphanumeric and QR code form. This is the payment address location to which you will need to send Bitcoin from your digital wallet… IF YOU INPUT THE BITCOIN ADDRESS INCORRECTLY, YOUR BITCOIN MAY BE IRRETRIEVABLY LOST OR DESTROYED,” Tesla said.

On any refunds of purchases made with bitcoin, Tesla will decide whether to give the customer dollars or bitcoin. This could result in a loss of value for customers because the price of bitcoin changes rapidly.

“If you are entitled to a refund of your payment or to a buyback, we reserve the right to refund to you either the exact Bitcoin Price that you provided to us at the time of purchase or an amount of U.S. Dollars that is equivalent to the U.S. Dollar price of the product that you purchased, at our sole and absolute discretion, taking into consideration operational efficiency,” Tesla said.

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So, note all the elements of this. First, you’re using a payment method that can screw up irretrievably, and which might be harder to get right than a normal bank transfer.

Second, heads you lose, tails Musk wins: you pay in bitcoin, but if its value goes up then you get a refund for less. If its value goes down, you get that lower value.

All this independent of the environmental waste of hawking bitcoin. But Musk is more interested in memes than the environment, it seems.
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Facebook has been autogenerating pages for white supremacists • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before Congress today, and he may have a few more uncomfortable questions to answer. Among them, why is Facebook autogenerating pages for white supremacist groups?

Researchers at the Tech Transparency Project found that Facebook created dozens of pages for groups like the “Universal Aryan Brotherhood Movement” when a user did something as simple as listing it as their employer. Some of the autogenerated pages garnered thousands of likes by the time they were discovered by researchers. TTP also discovered four Facebook groups that had been created by users. The researchers shared their findings with Facebook, which removed most of the pages. Yet, two of the autogenerated pages and all four Facebook groups remained active when the group published its findings.

Facebook reportedly banned “white nationalist” content following the 2019 mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque, expanding on an earlier ban of white supremacist content. 

It wasn’t hard for the researchers to find offending pages and groups. They simply searched Facebook for the names of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups identified by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Facebook has been doing this for ages – in my forthcoming book, I point to examples where it was ever so helpfully doing this for Isis and Al-Shabab. What’s more interesting is precisely why this happens, and keeps happening. Yes, I do cover that.

Zuckerberg also told Congress that lies aren’t allowed in ads. Not true.
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Broad Institute launches $300m initiative to fight diseases with artificial intelligence • The Boston Globe

Andy Rosen:

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The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is launching a new, $300 million initiative that applies advanced computer science to some of the hardest problems in medicine — an endeavor it said could uncover new ways to fight cancer, infectious disease, and other illnesses.

The Cambridge research center early Thursday announced the creation of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center, named for the former Google chief executive and his wife, who are major funders of the effort.

The money comes as biological and medical researchers are unlocking information about the human body at a scale that could take lifetimes to analyze and fully understand without the help of sophisticated artificial intelligence software. The institute hopes that by focusing its resources and expertise on developing and improving these programs, it will be able to spot patterns and unlock some of the basic mysteries of the human body.

In an interview, Eric Schmidt said he views the contribution as key to continuing the work of “mapping the language of life,” a hugely complicated proposition that is only conceivable because of the rapidly developing capacity of computer programs to help researchers find patterns in massive sets of data.

…He and Wendy Schmidt both said they believe most people would be astonished by the scope of things that science still cannot explain, such as the tangled web of interactions between the cells in our bodies.

“Life is full of patterns,” said Wendy Schmidt. She said advances in computing can help tease those out in ways that individual scientists’ observations cannot. “Then you get to the frontiers of whole new ways of looking at disease, and aging, and all of the things that plague humans.”

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Wasn’t really aware of Wendy Schmidt before. She and Eric S met because she edited his doctoral thesis at the University of California. (She was doing journalism.)
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The mess at Medium • The Verge

Casey Newton spoke to current and former employees at the Ev Williams-funded project:

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Like most such efforts, Medium’s renewed push into original journalism in 2018 was greeted with optimism by the reporters and editors who were hired to build the project out. One editor recounted to me the joy at being told they could pay freelancers $1 a word — more than they had been able to pay at previous jobs.

The company launched publications including OneZero, for tech; Elemental, for health; and Zora, for Black and brown women. Over the next two years, much of its fresh, insightful journalism would be acclaimed by an industry beleaguered by layoffs. At OneZero, Matt Stroud revealed that the CEO of a tech company backed by SoftBank had once been a neo-Nazi, leading to the CEO’s departure from the company; “The Zora Canon,” a list of the best books written by African American women, earned coverage everywhere from NPR to the New York Public Library.

The push into original reporting was rewarded with strong growth in paid subscriptions, current and former staffers said. But journalism was rarely at the center of the company’s marketing efforts. Employees expressed frustration that the company did so little to promote their work, hampering efforts to grow their publications’ brands — particularly during the crucial early months in which readers were forming impressions of them. Publications often had only skeletal branding or visual design; some “launched” before their editors-in-chief had even been hired. (On the other hand, I’m told, Medium’s public relations team exclusively promoted owned and operated publications, as did its social media accounts.)

With millions of dollars sunk into the effort, Medium’s push into journalism represented a significant investment. But individual publications often got little attention — and what resources they did get began shrinking within months. It was too much, and too little, all at once. “We were set up to fail,” a former employee told me.

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About 700k paid subscribers, generates about $35m in revenue annually, yet has burnt through more than $130m since 2016 with 75 editorial employees. It’s a mystery how. Hard to see things improving from here.
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How much of your stuff belongs to big tech? • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:

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[Michael] Heller and [James] Salzman open their new book, “Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives” (Doubleday), with the brouhaha that became known as “reclinegate.” In January, 2020, on the day that the Trump Administration declared covid-19 a “public health emergency,” a woman named Wendi Williams travelled from New Orleans to Charlotte on American Airlines. She was sitting in the next-to-last row, and some minutes into the flight she pressed the metal button on her armrest and leaned back. The man behind her responded by pounding on her seat. Williams filmed him with her phone and tweeted the video, which went viral. Everybody, it seemed, had an opinion on the matter.

“The proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s O.K. first,” Ed Bastian, the head of Delta Air Lines, said.

“The only time it’s ever O.K. to punch someone’s seat is if the seat punches you first,” Ellen DeGeneres declared.

According to Heller and Salzman, neither party was exactly right or exactly wrong. When Williams bought her ticket, she’d been led to believe that she was buying access to her seat and to the triangle of space behind it. The man in the last row believed that the triangle properly belonged to him. The airline had left the “rules of ownership” vague so that it could, in effect, sell the same wedge of space twice. The result was an aerial imbroglio.

In “Mine!,” Heller and Salzman examine a wide array of ways that people lay claim to things, both actual (as in treasure) and more abstract (as in ideas). Since ownership is constructed, it’s always up for grabs. Consider perhaps the most basic argument for possession: it’s mine because it’s me. Heller and Salzman recount the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn man who worked to match desperately ill patients with kidney donors. Had the donors given away their organs, Rosenbaum would probably have been considered a hero. As it was, the donors were paid. Under U.S. law, a person is forbidden to sell a kidney, even if it’s her own, and Rosenbaum was convicted of organ trafficking. At his sentencing hearing, in Trenton, several people said that he had saved their lives. Nevertheless, he ended up spending two and a half years in prison.

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Since we’ve had NFTs, and the question of “ownership”, this seemed apposite about ownership rights of physical spaces and virtual objects.
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Dr. Zeynep Tufekci to join Columbia Journalism School’s Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security • Columbia Journalism School

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Zeynep Tufekci, a leading scholar and writer on the complex relationship between technology and society, will be joining Columbia Journalism School’s faculty as a visiting professor in the fall of 2021 to shape the school’s new Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security. 

Tufekci is currently an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill at the School of Information and Library Science and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, WIRED and Scientific American, among other publications. Professor Tufekci’s book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” (Yale University Press, 2017) examined the competing innovations and weaknesses of digital tools in mass social movements.

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What would be really useful – if it’s what is happening – would be for Tufekci to teach people how she thinks. Because she is surely one of the smartest people around, and everyone could benefit from there being more people who can think like her.
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It ‘might take weeks’ to free ship stuck in Suez Canal • NPR

Scott Neuman:

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Eight large tugboats were continuing a struggle to free a giant container ship lodged crossways in the Suez Canal after the vessel ran aground earlier this week, bringing transit through one of the world’s busiest waterways to a halt.

The Suez Canal Authority said in a statement Thursday that it had officially suspended traffic while efforts to dislodge the 1,300-foot Ever Given continued. The salvage operator working to free the ship said it could be weeks before it is refloated — raising the possibility of major new disruptions to global commerce just as supply chains have begun to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ever Given — one of the largest container vessels in operation and nearly twice as long as the canal is wide — ran aground on Tuesday amid high winds, a dust storm and poor visibility for navigation. It was heading north en route from China to the Netherlands through the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

The tugs have been concentrating efforts around twice-daily high tides in the canal when they have the best chance of nudging the vessel into deeper water, shipping experts said.

But Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis, which is trying to free the ship, compared it to “an enormous beached whale” and said “it might take weeks” to get the vessel off, possibly necessitating “a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tugboats and dredging of sand.”

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So that’s going to be 10% of world trade stuff for a while. They need a shipping midwife.

…I’ll get me coat.
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Do you have a news blindspot? Analyze the news diet of any account on Twitter • Blindspotter

Lots of people playing with this on Twitter. However…

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Limitations of the tool

Our tool cannot decipher if an interaction with news content is positive or negative.

The results of the tool may be less meaningful for accounts largely run by assistants/staffers.

Our tool only records interactions with news sources that have a bias rating, so smaller local publications may not be included as a “news interaction”

We source our bias ratings from allsides, mediabiasfactcheck and adfontesmedia. You can read more about the methodology behind our bias ratings here.

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It’s all very dependent on what you classify as “left” and “right” and “centrist”. I get the feeling that the New York Times is classed as “left” and that it’s all very US-centric. Rather different from the view one might get this side of the Atlantic. (Via John Naughton.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1513: Intel outlines future plans, Zuckerberg asks for Section 230 tweaks, why the Suez ship is a worst-case scenario, and more


Straw hats look innocuous enough – yet in the 1920s, triggered a riot. 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 9 links for you. You’ve got random direct messages! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Intel’s revival plan is a bet that chip demand will keep booming after Covid-19 • WSJ

Robert Wall:

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Behind Intel Corp.’s INTC -2.27% multibillion-dollar revival plan is a growing view among tech executives that booming demand for computer chips will continue beyond the pandemic.

Intel on Tuesday committed to a record $19bn to $20bn in capital expenditures this year, or about 45% above the company’s average annual capital expenditures over the past five years.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s leading contract chip maker, in January pledged to spend up to $28bn on plant investments this year, a record for that company and a 47% annual increase.

“Everything is becoming more digital and we are saying Intel is stepping into that gap aggressively to help provide the capacity that’s needed,” Intel Chief Executive Pat Gelsinger said Tuesday as he rolled out his turnaround plan for the company. The embrace of more digital tools fueling that demand, he said, was only accelerated by the pandemic.

Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella, joining his Intel counterpart by video at the chipmaker’s strategy rollout, said that “we’re entering a complete new era as computing becomes embedded in our world.”

Mr. Nadella expects spending on technology, currently at about 5% of gross domestic product, will accelerate. “It’s going to double in the next 10 years to 10%,” he said last month.

Even before Intel’s latest investment plan the semiconductor industry was on pace for record capital spending, market research firm IC Insights said. The industry globally was expected to plow a record $129.4bn into things such as new plants and equipment, up around 14% from a year ago.

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Intel’s advantage is that it’s the only American maker of CPUs out there, and geopolitically it’s important that TSMC isn’t the only big supplier. (I wonder constantly what Apple’s strategic plan is for the Chinese government invading Taiwan.)

The seriousness of Intel’s aim here makes its Justin Long adverts trying to poke fun at Apple’s CPU work seem even more strange, though. As though they didn’t know what Gelsinger was working on.

Ben Thompson was hugely impressed by Gelsinger’s presentation and intent. (Personally, I felt he lacked gravitas: he sounded like a motel manager hoping I’d have a good weekend stay. Steve Jobs really could do that we’re-in-deep-crap stuff much better.)
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Slack to fix error in new direct messaging feature over harassment concerns • Yahoo Finance

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Workplace messaging app Slack Technologies Inc said it was working to fix an error in the direct-messaging feature it introduced earlier on Wednesday, which could have lead to online harassment.

The feature enabled users to send direct messages to anyone inside or outside their company through Slack Connect. Users could send an invite to any partner and start messaging as soon as it is accepted, the company said in a blog post.

After rolling out the feature, Slack received feedback from users about how email invitations to use the feature could potentially be used to send abusive or harassing messages, Jonathan Prince, vice president of communications and policy at Slack, said in a statement.

“We made a mistake in this initial roll-out,” Prince added.

The company, which is being acquired by Salesforce.com Inc, said it would be removing the ability to customize a message when a user invites someone to Slack Connect direct messages to address the issue.

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Amazing that this got through any sort of QA. People being allowed to message you randomly is annoying in LinkedIn, but on Slack?
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Zuckerberg calls for changes to tech’s Section 230 protections

Dylan Byers:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will propose this week that Congress make revisions to federal internet regulations that would require platforms to have systems in place for identifying and removing unlawful content.

The proposal, which Zuckerberg will present during his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, would raise the bar for social media companies that are currently granted immunity from liability for the content that appears on their platforms. That immunity, granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, has come under fire in recent years from Republicans and Democrats.

While meant to ensure that companies are taking action against unlawful content, the changes could theoretically shore up Facebook’s power, as well as that of other internet giants like Google, by requiring smaller social media companies and startups to develop robust content moderation systems that can be costly.

“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,” Zuckerberg will say in his opening remarks, according to written testimony released on the House Committee website Wednesday.

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Another key quote: “Definitions of an adequate system could be proportionate to platform size and set by a third-party.” Basically, make government responsible for telling Facebook (and others) what its moderation policy should be.
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Suez Canal container ship accident is a worst-case scenario for global trade

Rory Hopcraft, Kevin Jones and Kimberly Tan at the University of Plymouth:

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As researchers of maritime security, we often simulate incidents like the Ever Given grounding to understand the probable long and short-term consequences. In fact, the recent event is near identical to something we have been discussing for the last month, as it represents an almost worst-case scenario for the Suez Canal and for knock-on effects on global trade.

The Suez Canal is the gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia, and it was responsible for the transit of over 19,000 ships in 2019, equating to nearly 1.25 billion tonnes of cargo. This is thought to represent around 13% of world trade so any blockage is likely to have a significant impact.

The Suez Canal Authority started expanding the strait in 2014 to raise its daily capacity from 49 vessels at present to 97 by 2023. This gives an indication of how many ships are likely to be affected by the current situation. There are reports that the incident has already halted the passage of ten crude tankers carrying 13 million barrels of oil, and that any ships rerouted will have 15 days added to their voyage.

The severity of the incident is because of the dimensions of the vessels using the canal. The Ever Given is 400 metres long, 59 metres at its widest point and 16 metres deep below the waterline. This makes it one of the largest container ships in the world, capable of carrying over 18,000 containers. Depending on the severity of the grounding, the salvage and re-floating of this type of ship is a complex operation, requiring specialist equipment and potentially a lot of time.

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It’s OK, they’ve got a JCB.
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EVER GIVEN Current position (Container Ship, IMO 9811000) • VesselFinder

Just in case you wanted to know how The Ship That Blocked The Suez Canal is doing just now. After this it’s probably going to want to change its name and move to a different town. Or at least the captain will. There’s a good visual rundown at The Guardian.

Quite how this happened (“strong winds” are blamed) is going to make one hell of a Cautionary Tale for Tim Harford’s.. next? podcast series.
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A somewhat sane take on NFTs and crypto-art, from a practicing artist, who thinks, on balance (ultimately) that it’s a good idea • Dan Catt

Dan Catt used to be a colleague at The Guardian, who worked on the coding side. He saw the possibilities of bitcoin quite early, and made some money from Flickr:

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I’ve now laid out my frame of reference; digital art is real, artists are exploited, institutions are capitalist (we’ll cover this below) and bad. This phrase, which I’ve seen on Twitter, may help…

“NFTs are a solution looking for a problem”.

The problem is, how can we pay artists for digital work in a more direct fashion while exploiting them less than they currently are?

The solution is we use an NFT on a decentralised system as a token of “ownership” of an artwork that you give money to the original artist for. The artist then takes that money and buys food.

Again, all the NFT is, is a token that says “this person, owns that art”, it is not the art. It is bits inside a computer, which different people put a value on.

If you value the NFT as stupid, pointless, worthless bullshit, which you are obviously totally free to do, then that’s what it’s worth to you.

If the artist says, “to me, this NFT is worth $100”, and someone who likes the artwork goes “Okay, it’s worth $100 to me to make a transaction with the artist to transfer ownership of this token from them to me” then you can make a deal.

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It’s a long read. And he does acknowledge that the enviromental problems are, well, problems.
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NFTs are a dangerous trap • Seth’s Blog

Seth Godin:

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THE REST OF US are going to pay for NFTs for a very long time. They use an astonishing amount of electricity to create and trade. Together, they are already using more than is consumed by some states in the US. Imagine building a giant new power plant just to make Christie’s or the Basel Art Fair function. And the amount of power wasted will go up commensurate with their popularity and value. And keep going up. The details are here. The short version is that for the foreseeable future, the method that’s used to verify the blockchain and to create new digital coins is deliberately energy-intensive and inefficient. That’s on purpose. And as they get more valuable, the energy used will go up, not down.

It’s an ongoing waste that creates little in ongoing value and gets less efficient and more expensive as time goes on. For most technological innovations the opposite is true.

The trap, then, is that creators can get hooked on creating these. Buyers with a sunk cost get hooked on making the prices go up, unable to walk away. And so creators and buyers are then hooked in a cycle, with all of us up paying the lifetime of costs associated with an unregulated system that consumes vast amounts of precious energy for no other purpose than to create some scarce digital tokens.

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Estonia’s free county public transport did not fulfill goals • Eltis

Claus Köllinger:

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The National Audit Office of Estonia have been investigating the free public transport introduced in Tallinn, including the free bus and tram travel for local registered people. Analysis included studying whether economic feasibility as well as the mobility needs of people had been taken into account when deciding to cut payment by users.

Results on the county model were that free public transport has not reached its goal to reduce car journeys. Whilst public transport use numbers have increased, still more than half of all trips to work are done by car.

“What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years,” stated Auditor General Janar Holm. “Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport despite the fact that over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties.”

Furthermore, the National Audit Office found that funding for public transport services is unequal between Estonian counties and that state expenditures in funding public transport has risen rapidly. “In a relatively short period of time, the costs of county public transport can be expected to triple,” Auditor General Janar Holm said.

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You would probably expect that cutting fares to zero would mean everyone would prefer that over paying for fuel for their car. Wrong, evidently. But why, exactly? There’s a terrific Twitter thread analysing this finding, and its implications for London and American cities, by John Bull (a technology and transport journalist), which you can read as a single page.
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Straw Hat Riot • Wikipedia

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By the early 20th century, straw boaters were considered acceptable day attire in North American cities at the height of summer even for businessmen, but there was an unwritten rule that one was not supposed to wear a straw hat past September 15 (which was known as “Felt Hat Day”).

This date was arbitrary; earlier it had been September 1, but it eventually shifted to mid-month. It was socially acceptable for stockbrokers to destroy each other’s hats, due to the fact that they were “companions”, but it was not acceptable for total strangers. If any man was seen wearing a straw hat, he was, at minimum, subjecting himself to ridicule, and it was a tradition for youths to knock straw hats off of wearers’ heads and stomp on them.

This tradition became well established, and newspapers of the day would often warn people of the impending approach of the fifteenth, when men would have to switch to felt or silk hats. Hat bashing was only socially acceptable after September 15, but there were multiple occasions leading up to this date where the police had to intervene and stop teenagers.

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This article (via Benedict Evans) feels like reading about another planet, or one of those parallel-world things from Star Trek. “It was a tradition for youths to knock straw hats off of wearers’ heads and stomp on them.” I have SO many questions, particularly about how many repetitions over how many years it would take for such a “tradition” to become embedded.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1512: the personal photo curator, US begins Caller ID for mobiles, the mystery of the feet, can the common cold slow Covid? and more


You may not know the best orientation to transport a black rhino – but we do. CC-licensed photo by Des Wass 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. A year and counting. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a personal-photo curator separates the is-this-a-rash selfies from the keepers • The New Yorker

Lauren Collins:

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Elevator operator became a job sometime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, first appearing as its own category on the U.S. Census in 1910. It is the only job since 1950, according to a recent study, to have been fully eliminated by automation. Occupations come and go, their life spans following trend and technology. Town criers, soda jerks, lamplighters, clock winders, pinsetters, and ice cutters give way to air-traffic controllers, genetic counsellors, drone operators, influencers, and social-media managers. The other day, a journalist [Collins refusing to use the word “I” for some obscure American journalism reason – CA] was scrolling through Instagram and spotted an interesting-sounding gig in another user’s bio: personal-photo organizer.

A call to Fort Greene (no operator necessary) confirmed that personal-photo organizing is, indeed, an emerging profession, and that people who spend their days swiping and saving in the name of posterity are also known as family-photo curators. “Photo managers can help organize and curate collections, digitize prints, suggest backup systems, re-house in archival storage, and help you tell your story through photo book design, videos, websites, and countless other ways,” reads the web site of the Photo Managers (formerly the Association of Personal Photo Curators), est. 2009.

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Nice work (well, maybe) if you can get it: $125/hr, and she picks about 40 clients per year. A family of four generates about 5,000 photos per year.
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Caller ID authentication may tame the scourge of spam calls • TidBITS

Glenn Fleishman:

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This morning, my iPhone rang five times. Because I pay Hiya for reverse Caller ID lookups, each number lit up with a name I didn’t know, along with the originating city and state: three from Florida and two from Connecticut. I didn’t answer any of the calls because I didn’t recognize any of the names. When I checked later, I found they lacked a relatively new indicator that I watch out for: a tell-tale checkmark. While tiny, it’s a harbinger of better things to come, particularly with a looming deadline in June 2021 for major phone carriers and Internet telephony providers.

You may not even notice this checkmark—it’s truly very tiny—but it appears in the Recents list in the Phone app on an iPhone and in call details. On some Android phones, a verified indicator appears on the incoming call screen, and telephone carriers have asked Apple to add it there on iPhones, too. Only in the call detail do you get an explanation from Apple: “Calls with a checkmark have been verified by the carrier.”

«

The protocol is called “STIR/SHAKEN” (very James Bond). US carriers seem to be implementing it because spam calls are such a blight there. No indication that UK mobile networks are looking to implement it (yet?).
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How science solved the mystery of feet washing ashore in the Pacific Northwest • National Geographic

Erika Engelhaupt:

»

On August 20, 2007, a 12-year-old girl spotted a lone blue-and-white running shoe—a men’s size 12—on a beach of British Columbia’s Jedediah Island. She looked inside, and found a sock. She looked inside the sock, and found a foot.

Six days later on nearby Gabriola Island, a Vancouver couple enjoying a seaside hike came across a black-and-white Reebok. Inside it was another decomposing foot. It, too, was a men’s size 12. The two feet clearly didn’t belong to the same person; not only were the shoes themselves different, but they both contained right feet.

Police were stunned. “Two being found in such a short period of time is quite suspicious,” Garry Cox of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told the Vancouver Sun. “Finding one foot is like a million to one odds, but to find two is crazy. I’ve heard of dancers with two left feet, but come on.”

The next year, five more feet appeared on nearby Canadian beaches. The discoveries ratcheted up the public’s fears, and media speculation soared. Was a serial killer on the loose? Did he have something against feet?

«

This is gruesome, and utterly fascinating. Blame Charlotte Jee – she pointed to it.
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Infection with common cold might provide some protection against COVID • University of Glasgow

»

The research – published today in Journal of Infectious Diseases and led by scientists at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) – found that human rhinovirus (the virus that causes the common cold) triggers an innate immune response that seems to block SARS-CoV-2 replication in cells of the respiratory tract.

In further studies, mathematical simulations by the research team showed that this virus-virus interaction might have a population-wide effect, and that an increasing prevalence of rhinovirus could reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases.

Human rhinoviruses cause the common cold and are the most widespread respiratory viruses found in people. Previous research has shown that interactions between rhinoviruses and other respiratory viruses can affect the type and severity of infections in individuals, and the way in which they infect and circulate around groups of people (patterns of infection).

…In the study, the researchers first infected human respiratory cells with SARS-CoV-2 in the lab, recreating the cellular environment in which infections normally occur. They then studied the replication of SARS-CoV-2 in these cells, both in the presence and absence of rhinovirus.

Professor Pablo Murcia, from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, explains: “Our research shows that human rhinovirus triggers an innate immune response in human respiratory epithelial cells which blocks the replication of the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2. This means that the immune response caused by mild, common cold virus infections, could provide some level of transient protection against SARS-CoV-2, potentially blocking transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and reducing the severity of COVID-19.”

«

So if we’d only managed all to have colds we’d have been OK? Or, alternatively, we just need a common cold vaccine? (Thanks G for the link.)
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The Technology 202: where is YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki? • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski and Aaron Schaffer:

»

YouTube videos are a critical source of online misinformation, yet they often get a pass in broader discussions about the dangers of social media. Even in Congress.  

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has never had to appear alongside other social media executives for a Capitol Hill grilling, and she will not be in attendance on Thursday when Congress questions top tech executives for the first time since the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks. 

Instead, lawmakers have invited Sundar Pichai, the CEO of YouTube’s parent companies Google and Alphabet, to testify alongside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. All are becoming familiar figures at the Capitol. The hearing will be Zuckerberg’s fourth appearance since July and Dorsey and Pichai’s third during the same time period. 

But YouTube critics say that by inviting Pichai, who has to answer for a broad range of different products and services at Alphabet, lawmakers are not paying enough specific attention to one of the most popular social networks in the world. 

“There have been hearings where you can’t count on one hand the number of questions about YouTube, which is ridiculous given the level of impact,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who researches online speech. 

YouTube has massive influence over Americans’ media consumption. YouTube has the highest reach of any platform among American adults, with 73% of Americans reporting they use the platform in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Facebook is the only social network that comes even close to YouTube’s reach, with 69% of Americans reporting they use it. Meanwhile, only 22% of US adults surveyed use Twitter. Additionally, 23% of Americans say they regularly use YouTube as a news source, which is eight percentage points more than Twitter. 

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Possibly the argument is that Pichai has responsibility for YouTube, so Wojicki doesn’t need to show up. But she really should. Also, the idea of regularly using YouTube as a news source strikes me as weird.
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Digital government during the coronavirus crisis • Institute for Government

Gavin Freeguard, Marcus Shepeard and Oliver Davies:

»

Departments need interoperable technology to work well with each other. But at the start of the crisis there was a distinct lack of interoperability between systems used by different organisations across government. This made communicating, sharing and working with colleagues much more difficult than it needed to be. Departments were using a variety of platforms and tools which were blocked by other departments, making collaboration much more difficult. Civil servants have long complained about these problems, but they had been easy to overlook until the crisis forced so many officials to use these tools all at once.

[See the grid of inter-departmental interoperability and non-operability, drawn up by the UK government.]

This mix is a result of there being no mandated suite of tools that all civil servants should use. This is something the centre of government has deliberately avoided, since it would bring its own set of problems that the last decade of digital transformation in government has tried to solve – such as reliance on (and being tied into big contracts with) single, big suppliers. But devolving decisions to departments means little consideration has been given to how officials communicate and collaborate between departments.

During the pandemic, GDS established Project Unblock (of which there is only one mention on GOV.UK) to understand and unblock compatibility issues between departments, starting with video conferencing. Between May and July 2020 many departments ‘unblocked’ access to various video conferencing tools. By July, only a few major departments (including HMRC and the Ministry of Defence) were still blocking some software, and even these had made more tools accessible. Microsoft Teams has been unblocked across all major departments, while Google Meet has gone from being unavailable or restricted in 11 departments to four, and Skype from being blocked in five departments to two. Even where departments have mandated the use of a particular tool internally, they have also authorised the use of other platforms for teams to be able to talk to other departments.

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And you thought you had problems picking a video tool. Imagine trying to run a government when you have two departments struggling to find one they can both use. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Why airlifting rhinos upside down is critical to conservation • CNN

Rebecca Cairns:

»

Namibia is home to a nearly a third of Africa’s black rhinos — one of two rhino species found on the continent.

Starting in 2015, the Cornell team suspended 12 black rhinos – each weighing between 1,770 and 2,720 pounds – upside down from a crane, and placed them in a side-lying position for comparison.

The researchers measured biomarkers for respiration and ventilation, and found that the rhinos had higher blood oxygen levels when upside down.

[Robin] Radcliffe [a senior lecturer in wildlife and conservation medicine], says the upside-down position allows the spine to stretch which helps to open the airways. Additionally, the team found that when lying on their side, rhinos have a larger “dead space” — the amount of air in each breath that does not contribute oxygen to the body.

The difference between the two postures was small, but because the strong anaesthetic used on the rhino causes hypoxemia – low oxygen levels in the blood – even a minor improvement makes a difference to the rhino’s welfare.

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Just in case you need to transport a rhino in the next week or two.
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Facebook guidelines allow users to call for death of public figures • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

»

Public figures are defined by Facebook to include people whose claim to fame may be simply a large social media following or infrequent coverage in local newspapers.

They are considered to be permissible targets for certain types of abuse “because we want to allow discussion, which often includes critical commentary of people who are featured in the news”, Facebook explains to its moderators.

It comes as social networks face renewed criticism over abuse on their platforms, including of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and of professional footballers, in particular black stars such as Marcus Rashford.Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has changed its policies in response to the criticism, introducing new rules to cover abuse sent through direct messages and committing to cooperate with law enforcement over hate speech.

In the detailed guidelines seen by the Guardian, running to more than 300 pages and dating from December 2020, Facebook spells out how it differentiates between protections for private and public individuals.

“For public figures, we remove attacks that are severe as well as certain attacks where the public figure is directly tagged in the post or comment. For private individuals, our protection goes further: we remove content that’s meant to degrade or shame, including, for example, claims about someone’s sexual activity,” it says.

Private individuals cannot be targeted with “calls for death” on Facebook but public figures simply cannot be “purposefully exposed” to such calls: it is legitimate, under Facebook’s harassment policies, to call for the death of a minor local celebrity so long as the user does not tag them in to the post, for example.

«

This must have made some sort of sense when an increasingly exhausted group of people sat around a table and drew it up. But what the hell is a “minor local celebrity”? How local? How minor? How celebrated?
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Bitcoin is a mouth hungry for fossil fuels • Ketan Joshi

»

The Venn circles of Silicon Valley tech folks, libertarians, finance bros and oil and gas bros all seem to meet centrally at whatever the hell Bitcoin is. In world where a lot of people give a shit about protecting our planet, there is a broader effort to plead, through a series of misunderstandings, broken arguments and empty promises, that the act will be cleaned up very soon.

This 2019 piece by Maximillian Fiege, who works for Signum Growth Capital, an advisor to ARK, details clearly (and with pretty good knowledge of the energy industry) why bitcoin miners are driven towards fossil fuel operations. Some bitcoin mining operations camp out where power is cheap, plentiful and far too over-supplied, such as China’s massive hydropower schemes, poorly connected to areas of high demand. Of course, they also camp out in coal-rich regions in China. If zero emissions power is used, it’s a side-effect, not an effort to engage in climate action.

Fiege doesn’t make a secret of the fact that this loophole is being erased, because in a climate constrained world, there is no room for wasted potential. The growth of transmission lines and interconnection between regions is accelerating. That means far less ‘surplus’ from renewables. If zero emissions power is “stranded”, it shouldn’t be, because there is still fossil power in the world, and in a climate emergency, it should be displacing fossil fuels, not just meeting new demand.

Despite the natural gravity of this industry leaning towards carbon intensive fuels, there is an instinct to half-heartedly greenwash the climate damage of Bitcoin. This manifests not just through promises to do better in the future, but some genuinely silly arguments that frame Bitcoin as a grid tool that helps wind and solar do their thing.

«

There’s a certain element of climate denialism inherent in bitcoin, once you realise how much power it’s consuming to (as Joshi puts it) spit out random numbers in the hope that one of them wins the lottery this cycle. The knots that people tie themselves in to justify it is very similar to those used by climate denialists.
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Pedestrian traffic fatalities by state: 2020 preliminary data • US GHSA

»

An analysis of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) projects that 2,957 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roads in the first six months of 2020, closely mirroring the number from the year before despite a 16.5% decrease in VMT [vehicle miles travelled] during that time.

The report examines key trends affecting this rise in pedestrian deaths, including increased reckless driving behaviors, the need for safer road crossings and efforts to make pedestrians more visible through better lighting and other strategies, and the continued uptick in sales of sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which cause more pedestrian impacts in the event of a collision.

«

Pandemic plus bigger cars plus reckless drivers means more deaths. In the US.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1511: Google’s dead-end searches, lab leak theory redux, Iceland’s volcano up close, airlines mull vaccine ‘passports’, and more


The Apple HomePod mini has a sensor to measure ambient temperature and pressure. Why? CC-licensed photo by Jazz Guy 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. Unavailable as an NFT. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

In 2020, two thirds of Google searches ended without a click • SparkToro

Rand Fishkin:

»

Here are the headline statistics from the data:

• SimilarWeb analyzed ~5.1 trillion Google searches in 2020
• These searches took place on a panel of more than 100 million mobile and desktop devices from which SimilarWeb collects clickstream data
• Of those 5.1 trillion searches, 33.59% resulted in clicks on organic search results
• 1.59% resulted in clicks on paid search results
• The remaining 64.82% completed a search without a direct, follow-up click to another web property
• Searches resulting in a click are much higher on desktop devices (50.75% organic CTR, 2.78% paid CTR)
• Zero-click searches are much higher on mobile devices (77.22%)

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There’s a lot to chew over in this. Some of the cases where there’s no click must be from Google’s factboxes – where the result is on the page already without any need to click. Mobile is bigger than desktop. And there are more paid clicks, almost certainly because on mobile now the whole of the first page of results comprises ads.

For Fishkin’s audience of website owners, though, this is mostly bad news. Zero-click searches mean people aren’t coming to them from Google. And the paid clicks? It’s the websites doing the advertising who are paying for that. Which of course in the end is you. Whereas organic search is free to them and to you.
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Why the COVID lab-leak theory in Wuhan shouldn’t be dismissed • USA Today

Alison Young is an investigative journalist in Atlanta who has done extensive work looking at laboratory accidents in the US:

»

According to documents I obtained recently using the federal Freedom of Information Act, U.S. laboratories reported more than 450 accidents during 2015 through 2019 while experimenting with some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens – those subject to federal regulation because they “pose a severe threat” to health and also have the potential to be turned into bioweapons. These pathogens, which the U.S. government calls “select agents,” include anthrax, Ebola, plague, deadly strains of avian influenza and types of SARS coronaviruses.

The safety breaches reported to the U.S. Federal Select Agent Program – which is jointly run by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – ranged from animal bites and needle sticks to failures of safety equipment and mistakes that resulted in infectious particles becoming airborne inside labs.

In nearly all reported cases, regulators deemed the breaches serious enough to put workers at risk of becoming infected, the program’s annual reports to Congress show. As a result, more than 660 U.S. scientists and other lab workers involved in the incidents underwent medical assessment or treatment with preventative medications.

The good news is that almost none of these lab workers got sick, according to the reports, which provide only statistics and no personalized details. But a few – without realizing it – became infected, going about their lives at home and in public for months. Their exposures were identified only because their lab happened to conduct annual blood tests, checking for antibodies to research pathogens, something that federal regulators don’t require. Fortunately, the organisms they were working with were types of bacteria that, while dangerous, don’t spread easily from person to person. 

«

The big gap in the “Wuhan lab leak” hypothesis is that there’s no evidence the virus we now identify as SARS-Cov-2 was ever in there. (That’s one of the giant gaps that proponents of the hypothesis never admit.) Provide that, and you’re almost there with the case. (You’d also need to show that it escaped, though that would be almost a foregone conclusion.) China, however, would never allow the sort of investigation that would enable that to be proved or disproved. (And if it’s not found, that still isn’t absolute proof.)
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I captured the Iceland volcano eruption from up close • Petapixel

Iurie Belegurschi:

»

It finally happened. Every year we’ve seen it on the news: another volcano in Iceland was going to erupt. The truth is: Iceland has so many volcanoes and there is more than one overdue. But this year we could feel an eruption was getting closer.

Over the last month, we had many earthquakes — over 40,000 tremors, with two quakes as large as magnitude 5.6 — so an eruption was imminent. And a few days ago, the eruption finally happened.

«

Amazing photos. That’s all there is to say.
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Apple HomePod mini has secret sensor for smart home thermostats • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

Apple Inc.’s HomePod mini speaker launched last November with new features such as a home intercom system. But one part of the device has remained secret: a sensor that measures temperature and humidity. 

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant never disclosed this component and the device currently lacks consumer-facing features that use it. The company has internally discussed using the sensor to determine a room’s temperature and humidity so internet-connected thermostats can adjust different parts of a home based on current conditions, according to people familiar with the situation. The hardware could also let the HomePod mini automatically trigger other actions, say turning a fan on or off, depending on the temperature.

If Apple eventually enables the sensor, it would bolster a smart-home strategy that has sometimes lacked focus and trailed those of rivals. Amazon.com Inc.’s latest Echo speakers have temperature sensors, while Google’s Nest sells sensors that can be placed around homes and connect to its thermostats to adjust the temperature of each room. 

«

“Confirmed by iFixit, which took apart one of the speakers after an inquiry from Bloomberg News.” Gurman getting an insider tip, clearly.

And then there’s this, dumped right at the end of the piece:

»

Before the discontinuation of the larger HomePod, the company had been working on an updated version for release in 2022. It has also been developing new speakers with screens and cameras, but such a launch isn’t imminent.

«

“New speakers with screens and cameras”. Isn’t that.. an iPad? There is, though, a terrific rant by John Siracusa in the “RIP Homepod” chapter on the recent Accidental Tech Podcast about all the things the HomePod could have done if only Apple had given it more inputs – let’s say, optical, line-in, Bluetooth just for starters. As he points out, Apple could even have got people to buy a third box, not just a ridiculously expensive stereo pair of HomePods, if it had only done it right.
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Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 during border quarantine and air travel, New Zealand (Aotearoa) • Emerging Infectious Diseases journal

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The strategy in New Zealand (Aotearoa) to eliminate coronavirus disease requires that international arrivals undergo managed isolation and quarantine and mandatory testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Combining genomic and epidemiologic data, we investigated the origin of an acute case of coronavirus disease identified in the community after the patient had spent 14 days in managed isolation and quarantine and had 2 negative test results.

By combining genomic sequence analysis and epidemiologic investigations, we identified a multibranched chain of transmission of this virus, including on international and domestic flights, as well as a probable case of aerosol transmission without direct person-to-person contact. These findings show the power of integrating genomic and epidemiologic data to inform outbreak investigations.

«

The key thing is that a transmission case in a hotel which they thought happened through people touching surfaces turned out instead to be via aerosols.

There are, as far as I know, no documented cases shown to be due solely to surface contact. Indoor aerosols, on the other hand… yet we’re still told to wash our hands, use sanitiser, and so on. (Thanks Richard for the link.)
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Qantas boss: governments ‘to insist’ on vaccines for flying • BBC News

Jonathan Josephs:

»

The boss of Australian airline Qantas has told the BBC that “governments are going to insist” on vaccines for international travellers.

Coronavirus vaccines are seen as crucial to reviving an industry that saw worldwide passenger numbers fall 75.6% last year.

Chief executive Alan Joyce said many governments were talking about vaccination as “a condition of entry”.

Even if they weren’t, he thought the airline should enforce its own policy. “We have a duty of care to our passengers and to our crew, to say that everybody in that aircraft needs to be safe,” Mr Joyce said.

He believes that would justify changing the terms and conditions on which tickets are booked.

And Mr Joyce thinks passengers would be willing to accept the change. “The vast majority of our customers think this is a great idea – 90% of people that we’ve surveyed think it should be a requirement for people to be vaccinated to travel internationally.”

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The idea of “Covid passports” is going to go from “maybe” to “good idea” to “definitely” to “you’re not going anywhere without it”. Rather as yellow fever vaccination certificates used to be.
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Biden nominates Lina Khan, a vocal critic of Big Tech, to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

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President Biden on Monday nominated Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, installing a vocal critic of Big Tech into a key oversight role of the industry.

If her nomination is approved by the Senate, Ms. Khan, 32, would fill one of two empty seats earmarked for Democrats at the F.T.C.

Ms. Khan became recognized for her ideas on antitrust with a Yale Law Journal paper in 2017 called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” that accused Amazon of abusing its monopoly power and put a critical focus on decades-old legal theories that relied heavily on price increases as the underlying measure of antitrust violations.

She served as a senior adviser to Rohit Chopra when he was F.T.C. commissioner. Most recently, she was a leading counsel member to a 16-month-long investigation of online platforms and competition by the House antitrust subcommittee. As a result, Democratic leaders on the subcommittee called for the breakup of Big Tech and legislation to strengthen enforcement of competition violations across the economy.

“As consumers, as users, we love these tech companies,” Ms. Khan said in an interview with The New York Times in 2018. “But as citizens, as workers, and as entrepreneurs, we recognize that their power is troubling. We need a new framework, a new vocabulary for how to assess and address their dominance.”

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Khan and Tim Wu (at the National Economic Council) will be pretty formidable. “Big tech” has an interesting few years ahead.
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Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold as an NFT for an oddly specific $2,915,835.47 • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

»

After it spent just over two weeks on the market, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has sold his first tweet as an NFT for the weirdly specific figure of $2,915,835.47. The winning bidder was Sina Estavi, who had held the high bid since offering $2.5 million on March 6th. He upped his bid to this number at the last moment (and if anyone can tell us what that figure represents, we’d love to hear your theories).

Dorsey put the tweet up for digital auction as an NFT — non-fungible token — a digital good that lives on the Ethereum blockchain, on March 5th. Bids were handled on a platform called Valuables by Cent that lets people make offers on tweets that are “autographed by their original creators.”

…The bids on Dorsey’s succinct first tweet “just setting up my twttr” from March 21st, 2006, quickly escalated, and Dorsey later said he would end the bidding on the tweet’s 15th anniversary. According to the time stamp on Cent, Estavi made his final, winning bid on Monday afternoon, and according to Reuters, paid using the Ether cryptocurrency in the amount of 1630.5825601 ETH. Estavi, CEO of blockchain company Bridge Oracle, told Reuters he was “thankful.”

«

So, more Monopoly money payments. But Dorsey sent about 50 bitcoin, or $2.75m, to the Give Africa fund, which I hope has found a way to convert it into real folding stuff.

Meanwhile you can view the tweet for free here. Supplies are not limited.
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Major coronavirus variant found in pets for first time • AAAS

David Grimm:

»

The variants of SARS-CoV-2 that keep emerging aren’t just a human problem. Two reports released this week have found the first evidence that dogs and cats can become infected by B.1.1.7, a recent variant of the pandemic coronavirus that transmits more readily between people and also appears more lethal in them. The finds mark the first time one of the several major variants of concern has been seen outside of humans.

B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom and that’s where some of the variant-infected pets were found. The U.K. animals suffered myocarditis—an inflammation of the heart tissue that, in serious cases, can cause heart failure. But the reports offer no proof that the SARS-CoV-2 variant is responsible, nor that it’s more transmissible or dangerous in animals. “It’s an interesting hypothesis, but there’s no evidence that the virus is causing these problems,” says Scott Weese, a veterinarian at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College who specializes in emerging infectious diseases.

…Infected pets appear to have symptoms ranging from mild to nonexistent, and infectious disease experts say companion animals are likely playing little, if any, role in spreading the coronavirus to people.

The new variants might change that equation, says Eric Leroy, a virologist at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development who specializes in zoonotic diseases. In one of the new studies, he and colleagues analyzed pets admitted to the cardiology unit of the Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre in the outskirts of London. The hospital had noticed a sharp uptick in the number of dogs and cats presenting with myocarditis: From December 2020 to February, the incidence of the condition jumped from 1.4% to 12.8%.

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The blockchain is a dark forest • Something Interesting

KF:

»

Trades made on decentralized exchanges like Uniswap are broadcast publicly to the entire network they are built on – anyone can see them. Eventually miners will add broadcast transactions to a block to confirm them – but miners don’t include transactions in the order they receive them, they include transactions in order from most to least profitable. It is totally possible (and even normal) for new transactions to “cut in line” in front of older transactions by offering to pay miners a higher fee.

So anyone on the Ethereum network can see any Uniswap trade, calculate how profitable it would be to front-run it [buy that amount ahead of the original buyer and sell it to them for a profit] and how much they would need to pay miners to be able to, and if there is money to be made execute the trade. In Ethereum trading circles this is sometimes called a “sandwich attack” since you enclose the original trade in between two trades of your own. An attacker can even bundle the transactions together so if they lose the front-running race the purchases just harmlessly fail instead of leaving them owning coins they never wanted.

If this sounds like free money to you, you’re not alone. There has been a boom in this kind of predatory trading, a natural consequence of the surge in popularity of decentralized exchanges themselves. But there is no such thing as risk-free yield and every predator is also prey. In this case the predator’s predator is Nathan Worsley, who built an elegant little trap to catch sandwich traders in the act:

Mr. Worsley wrote a smart contract called “Salmonella” and set up a small, completely artificial market for it on Uniswap. Salmonella looked and acted like an ordinary ERC-20 token in all ways but one: when it detected sandwich-trading it would silently confiscate 90% of the attacker’s payout while mimicking the logs of a successful attack. He then set up some tempting front-runnable transactions in the market as bait and let the sandwich traders walk into the trap. Over the course of the next few days he captured >100 ETH (~$176k at time of writing) before sandwich traders updated their strategies to detect and avoid his poison tokens.

This is one glimpse into what finance might look like in a truly decentralized world.

«

Sounds delightful. Can’t wait. (Something Interesting is a Substack, of course, newsletter mostly about crypto stuff, if you want to get that.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1510: Trump said to plan social network, car chip factory fire spells supply trouble, Johnson’s lockdown dithering, and more


Sperm whales realised they were being hunted in the 1800s and communicated to avoid death, scientists say. CC-licensed photo by Library Company of Philadelphia 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. Email me callsh. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The New York Times is *so* done with its 77,000-member Facebook cooking group. What happens now? • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:

»

Why would The New York Times want to abandon its 77,000-member cooking Facebook group? The one whose demise I surely ensured by reporting, upon its launch two years ago, that it was a “happy corner of the internet”? A place where, as one Times social media editor put it at the time, “everyone’s so nice to each other, and so encouraging, it feels like one long episode of ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ 24 hours a day”?

A lot can change in two years. It is very, very hard to meaningfully moderate a big Facebook group, perhaps nearly impossible to moderate one the size of a small city. As it turns out, it’s a full-time job — likely more than one — and one the Times no longer wants to do.

“The interest in this group is about much more than recipes or The New York Times. As it continues to grow and change, it should be run by people who are an engaged and informed part of the community. And so it is time to hand this group over to you, its members,” the editors of NYT Cooking wrote in a Facebook post this week, adding that they are looking for “a group of 10 to 20 volunteers to take over as moderators for this community.

…The 2020 election and the pandemic created division and breaking points within communities (real-life and virtual) everywhere; NYT Cooking was no exception. Politics seeped in constantly, despite a group rule that there “are many places to express your political views; this is not one of them.” When posts supporting presidential candidates were deleted, people started sneaking “vote” messages into their food pictures.

Holidays added another round of conflict. For instance: Someone posts a picture of a Thanksgiving table that is clearly set for a gathering beyond immediate family, or asks for a good recipe for a “big group,” or posts a picture of themselves at a “socially distanced” gathering where nobody is masked and everybody is close together; judgment ensues. This happened repeatedly.

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Social media would be great if it weren’t for the damn users.

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Trump will use ‘his own platform’ to return to social media after Twitter ban • The Guardian

Martin Pengelly:

»

Donald Trump will soon use “his own platform” to return to social media, an adviser said on Sunday, months after the former president was banned from Twitter for inciting the US Capitol riot.

Trump has chafed in relative silence at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since losing his Twitter account and the protections and powers of office. Recently he has released short statements which many have likened to his tweets of old.

Speculation has been rife that Trump might seek to create his own TV network in an attempt to prise viewers from Fox News, which was first to call the crucial state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, to Trump’s considerable anger.

But on Sunday adviser Jason Miller said social media was the immediate target.

“The president’s been off of social media for a while,” he told Fox News Media Buzz host Howard Kurtz, “[but] his press releases, his statements have actually been getting almost more play than he ever did on Twitter before.”

Miller said he had been told by a reporter the statements were “much more elegant” and “more presidential” than Trump’s tweets, but added: “I do think that we’re going to see President Trump returning to social media in probably about two or three months here with his own platform.

“And this is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media, it’s going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does. But it will be his own platform.”

Asked if Trump was going to create the platform himself or with a company, Miller said: “I can’t go much further than what I was able to just share, but I can say that it will be big once he starts.

“There have been a lot of high-power meetings he’s been having at Mar-a-Lago with some teams of folks who have been coming in, and … it’s not just one company that’s approached the president, there have been numerous companies.

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Standard Trump-team bollocks. It’s going to be the biggest and the best – sure, like the infrastructure project, the wall, and the health plan. The reality is that running a social media network is difficult, and costs a lot of money. Where’s Trump going to find that? Is he really going to put that money in, skinflint that he is? Will he charge for it, and will people pay?

I’ll predict that it will have security holes, obvious mistakes, be rushed, get overwhelmed, be discovered to be the host for noxious and vicious and violent content.
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Are your NFTs on the wrong blockchain? • Fortune

David Morris:

»

NFT discourse has inherited one of the laziest and most misleading habitual inaccuracies of the cryptocurrency industry. These art claims, we hear all the time, “live on the blockchain.” You can trade them “on the blockchain.” The blockchain, the blockchain, the blockchain.

It’s enough to drive a person to drink (more). Because there is no such thing as “the blockchain.” There are many blockchains, and they are effectively competing for market share in a battle that will have winners and losers. So the blockchain your NFT calls home could be just as important to its value as whether it was created by Rob Gronkowski or the CryptoPunks team.

“You can’t really have that kind of value accrual unless the blockchain underlying it is secure,” according to Sam Kazemian, cofounder and President of Everipedia. The blockchain firm has branched out from its initial Wikipedia-like project to build what Kazemian calls “Adobe for NFTs.” The aim is to help companies and artists easily launch their own NFTs, and Kazemian recently helped the Associated Press get its feet wet, but Everipedia doesn’t run its own blockchain.

The health of a blockchain is fundamental to the unique functionality of the NFTs on it. Just like cryptocurrencies, the real point of NFTs is that they offer a form of digital ‘ownership’ that doesn’t rely on a central authority, and their trading can’t (in principle) be censored. If the NFT is in your digital wallet, you don’t just own it, you possess it – the kind of possession that’s 9/10ths of the law. That’s why these things have any value as a category.

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I’m still left puzzled why you’d pay anything for something that can be reproduced perfectly and infinitely. To which the added element that you might just lose the token that claims to give you ownership of one of them if the company goes bust is just sprinkles on the top.
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The Infinite Drum Machine • Experiments with Google

»

Sounds are complex and vary widely. This experiment uses machine learning to organize thousands of everyday sounds. The computer wasn’t given any descriptions or tags – only the audio. Using a technique called t-SNE, the computer placed similar sounds closer together. You can use the map to explore neighborhoods of similar sounds and even make beats using the drum sequencer.

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Fun! Though I couldn’t get it to work on Safari – only Chrome.
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Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information • The Guardian

Philip Hoare:

»

Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors [of the study] discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead, who spoke to the Guardian from his house overlooking the ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches at Dalhousie University. Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.

It was a frighteningly rapid killing, and it accompanied other threats to the ironically named Pacific. From whaling and sealing stations to missionary bases, western culture was imported to an ocean that had remained largely untouched. As Herman Melville, himself a whaler in the Pacific in 1841, would write in Moby-Dick (1851): “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.”

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

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Renesas warns of hit to global chip supply after factory fire • Financial Times

Kana Inagaki:

»

Renesas Electronics, one of the world’s largest makers of chips for the automotive industry, has warned that a fire at one of its factories could have “a massive impact” on global semiconductor supplies and halt production for at least a month.

The timing of Friday’s fire at the advanced chip facility in Japan could not be worse for carmakers, which were already wrestling with widespread disruption to supply chains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the US cold snap that led to mass blackouts in Texas. 

“We are concerned that there will be a massive impact on chip supplies,” Hidetoshi Shibata, chief executive of Renesas, said at an online news conference on Sunday. “We will pursue every means possible to minimise the impact.” 

The fire broke out in one of the clean rooms at the company’s plant in Naka city, north of Tokyo, bringing to a halt the production of 300mm wafers and burning about 2% of the facility’s manufacturing equipment.

About two-thirds of the affected production was automotive chips, according to Shibata.

«

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Dominic Cummings ready to reveal all on Boris Johnson’s lockdown paralysis • The Times

Steven Swinford, Oliver Wright and Chris Smyth on Boris Johnson’s dithering over an October lockdown, when he demanded to hear “other voices” rather than those advocating lockdown to save lives:

»

That Sunday, Cummings and Vallance arranged a Zoom meeting for the prime minister with prominent lockdown sceptics including Professor Sunetra Gupta and Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University and Professor Anders Tegnell, a leading epidemiologist from Sweden who masterminded his country’s policy of avoiding a lockdown.

John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, made the case for a circuit breaker. By the end of the meeting the prime minister’s views were unclear. “He wasn’t convinced by the anti-lockdowners but he wasn’t persuaded of the need for a circuit breaker either,” a source said.

On the Tuesday, with case numbers at more than 6,000 a day, Cummings and other advisers had one last attempt. Over the weekend data analysts in Downing Street had drawn up projections for the number of cases, hospital admissions and deaths in four to six weeks.

Cummings opened the meeting by asking the prime minister to imagine it was being held in mid to late October, with the projections a reality and Britain in the grip of a second wave. “Dom was making the case that you’re going to have to lock down at that point, so let’s lock down today and save lives and reduce the need for a harder lockdown later,” one government source said.

Johnson again resisted. “He didn’t believe that lockdowns worked, he thought that the economic damage outweighed the public health benefits. He thought things would get better,” a source said. Another source said that the data at that stage was unclear — schools had just returned and the prime minister wanted to see whether the trend would continue before locking down.

That evening he announced relatively minor restrictions, including banning more than six people from meeting and a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. People were asked to work from home if they could.

It was not until the end of October, by which point case numbers had quadrupled, that Johnson eventually implemented the second lockdown. “Those five days were critical,” one Downing Street insider said. “We could have got ahead of it. Instead we let Captain Hindsight [Sir Keir Starmer] become Captain Foresight when he called for a lockdown.”

«

This is the flip side – or the obvious outcome – of having a clown (see previous issue) as PM.
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Cursed Keyboard Image • jwz

Jamie Zawinski:

»

Apple KeyChange Keyboard, English version. All versions of this innovative keyboard have keys resized to approximate their frequency of use in the keyboard’s language, allowing for smoother and more accurate typing.

«

Hard nope from me, and from him. I can’t imagine that it would really be easier to type on this. Though it’s amusing.
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An incredible move: the Indiana Bell Telephone Building • Amusing Planet

Kaushik Patowary, continuing our occasional thread about moving entire buildings from one place to another wholesale:

»

The relocation of the headquarters building of Indiana Bell Telephone Company in Indianapolis remains one of the most fascinating moves in the history of structure relocation.

The headquarters of Indiana Bell, a subsidiary of AT&T serving the US state of Indiana, was housed inside an 8-story, 11,000-ton building built in 1907. In 1929, the phone company decided they needed a larger building, but they couldn’t just demolish the old building because it was providing an essential service to the city. The building was also inconveniently located on the site where they wanted the larger structure. In the end it was decided that the old building will be moved to the back of the plot to make room for the new building.

The massive undertaking began on October 1930. Over the next four weeks, the massive steel and brick building was shifted inch by inch 16 meters south, rotated 90 degrees, and then shifted again by 30 meters west. The work was done with such precision that the building continued to operate during the entire duration of the move. All utility cables and pipes serving the building, including thousand of telephone cables, electric cables, gas pipes, sewer and water pipes had to be lengthened and made flexible to provide continuous service during the move. A movable wooden sidewalk allowed employees and the public to enter and leave the building at any time while the move was in progress. The company did not lose a single day of work nor interrupt their service during the entire period.

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There’s also a terrific GIF showing the building moving, and a thread about it on Twitter.
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Musk says Tesla would be shut down if its cars spied in China, elsewhere • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

»

Tesla Inc chief executive Elon Musk said on Saturday his company would be shut down if its cars were used to spy, his first comments on news that China’s military has banned Teslas from its facilities.

“There’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information,” Musk told a prominent Chinese forum during a virtual discussion. “If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down.”

Sources told Reuters on Friday that the Chinese military has banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes, citing security concerns over cameras installed on the vehicles.

Those restrictions surfaced as the top Chinese and US diplomats were holding a contentious meeting in Alaska, the first such in-person interaction since US President Joe Biden took office in January.

Musk urged greater mutual trust between the world’s two biggest economies, in his remarks to the China Development Forum, a high-level business gathering is hosted by a foundation under the State Council.

He was holding a discussion panel with Xue Qikun, a Chinese quantum physicist who heads the Southern University of Science and Technology.

In China, the world’s biggest car market and a key battleground for electric vehicles (EVs), Tesla sold 147,445 vehicles last year, 30% of its global total. However, it is facing more competition this year from domestic rivals from Nio Inc to Geely.

«

The cars do collect a ton of data and send it back to Tesla – that much emerged when a New York Times columnist complained about its range in 2013. If China really wants to make Musk uncomfortable, it has plenty of lines of inquiry.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1509: Apple warns Chinese app makers, Johnson the clown king, Facebook’s AR plans, AZ vaccine can’t beat SA variant, and more


Magnus Carlsen is taking chess to strange new places. CC-licensed photo by Andrew Gustar on Flickr.

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Pre-orders! They’re good for books. You can preorder my forthcoming book (due 24 June) Social Warming: the dangerous and polarising effects of social media. (If you do that on smile.amazon.co.uk then Amazon eventually donates some money to a charity you choose.)


A selection of 11 links for you. Here we are again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple warns Chinese apps not to dodge its new privacy rules • Financial Times

Yuan Yang and Patrick McGee:

»

A cat-and-mouse game has begun between Apple and Chinese tech companies, as the iPhone maker tries to enforce its new privacy policies in China.

Apple is expected to roll out changes to iPhones in the Spring that will give users more privacy from mobile advertising, a market that hit $240bn last year, according to App Annie.

The changes will force apps to ask for permission before collecting tracking data on users, a move that has been bitterly fought by Facebook, since most users are expected to say no.

But even before introducing the changes, Apple is facing problems in China, where tech companies are testing ways to beat the system and continue tracking users without prompting for their consent. Apple previously said it would reject from its App Store any apps that “are found to disregard the user’s choice”.

On Thursday, Apple fired pre-emptive warnings to at least two Chinese apps, telling them to cease and desist after naming a dozen parameters such as “setDeviceName” that could be used “to create a unique identifier for the user’s device”.

“We found that your app collects user and device information to create a unique identifier for the user’s device,” reads a screenshot of a warning to one developer who was using a new way of identifying users called CAID, which was developed by the state-backed China Advertising Association.

Its guidelines suggest an update must be “compliant with the App Store Review Guidelines within 14 days” or “your app will be removed from sale”.

«

Is Apple really going to zap all the Chinese apps in the App Store? This could be quite the test of nerve.
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The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool • The Guardian

Edward Docx:

»

Would-be biographers of Johnson might do worse than to read Paul Bouissac, the leading scholar on the semiotics of clowning. Clowns are “transgressors”, he writes, cultural subversives who enact rituals and dramatic tableaux that “ignore the tacit rules of social games to indulge in symbolic actions that … toy with these norms as if they were arbitrary, dispensable convention.” Clowns “undermine the ground upon which our language and our society rest by revealing their fragility”. They “foreground the tension” between “instinct” and “constraint”. Bouissac could be writing directly of Johnson when he adds: “Their performing identities transcend the rules of propriety.” They are, he says, “improper by essence”.

Observe classic Johnson closely as he arrives at an event. See how his entire being and bearing is bent towards satire, subversion, mockery. The hair is his clown’s disguise. Just as the makeup and the red nose bestow upon the circus clown a form of anonymity and thus freedom to overturn conventions, so Johnson’s candy-floss mop announces his licence. His clothes are often baggy – ill-fitting; a reminder of the clothes of the clown. He walks towards us quizzically, as if to mock the affected “power walking” of other leaders. Absurdity seems to be wrestling with solemnity in every expression and limb. Notice how he sometimes feigns to lose his way as if to suggest the ridiculousness of the event, the ridiculousness of his presence there, the ridiculousness of any human being going in any direction at all.

His weight, meanwhile, invites us to consider that the trouble with the world (if only we’d admit it) is that it’s really all about appetite and greed. (His convoluted affairs and uncountable children whisper the same about sex.) Before he says a word, he has transmitted his core message – that the human conventions of styling hair, fitting clothes and curbing desires are all … ludicrous. And we are encouraged – laughingly – to agree.

«

Marina Hyde says this is one of the best things she’s read on Johnson. No higher commendation.
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Wrist-based interaction for the next computing platform • Inside Facebook Reality Labs

»

Last week, we kicked off a three-part series on the future of human-computer interaction (HCI). In the first post, we shared our 10-year vision of a contextually-aware, AI-powered interface for augmented reality (AR) glasses that can use the information you choose to share, to infer what you want to do, when you want to do it.

Today, we’re sharing some nearer-term research: wrist-based input combined with usable but limited contextualized AI, which dynamically adapts to you and your environment. Later this year, we’ll address some groundbreaking work in soft robotics to build comfortable, all-day wearable devices and give an update on our haptic glove research.

«

So… sort of helps if you have a smartwatch platform to begin with?
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Tesla on Autopilot crashes into Michigan police car; NHTSA launches probe • Automotive News

Michael Martinez:

»

A Tesla on “Autopilot” crashed into a stationary police car on a Michigan freeway early Wednesday, authorities said.

No one was injured in the crash, which happened on Interstate 96 near Lansing while a Michigan State Police trooper was investigating an earlier accident involving a deer.

The Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system was engaged when it struck the police car, a blue Dodge Charger with its emergency lights activated, police officials tweeted. The driver of the Tesla, identified as a 22-year-old man from Lansing, was ticketed for failing to move over and driving with a suspended license.

…NHTSA has previously launched at least 14 special crash-investigation teams after Tesla crashes that were suspected of being tied to its Autopilot driver-assistance system but has taken no action against the automaker as a result of those probes, according to Reuters.

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Not using the new beta “Full Self Driving” software, but the more standard “Autopilot”.
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AstraZeneca vaccine doesn’t prevent B1351 COVID in early trial • CIDRAP

Mary Van Beusekom:

»

Two doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine were ineffective against mild-to-moderate infections with the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa, according to a phase 1b-2 clinical trial published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The double-blind multicenter study, led by scientists at the South African Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit, studied the safety and the efficacy of the AstraZeneca ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine in HIV-negative adults aged 18 to 64 who received either two standard doses of the vaccine or a placebo in a 1:1 ratio 21 to 35 days apart from Jun 24 to Nov 9, 2020. Median follow-up after the second dose was 121 days.

Of the 750 participants vaccine recipients, 19 (2.5%) developed mild to moderate COVID-19 more than 14 days after the second dose, compared with 23 of 717 placebo recipients (3.2%).  The incidence of COVID-19 among the vaccine group was 731 per 1,000 person-years, compared with 93.6 per 1,000 person-years among the placebo group, for an efficacy of 21.9% (95% confidence interval [CI], -49.9 to 59.8).

Of the 42 total cases of COVID-19, 39 (92.9%) were caused by B1351, for a vaccine effectiveness against this variant of 10.4% (95% CI, -76.8 to 54.8). All 42 cases were mild to moderate, and no patients were hospitalized.

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This is measured as just over 10% effective. South Africa is using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine instead.
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iOS developer who drew attention to App Store scams is now suing Apple • The Verge

Nick Statt:

»

Mobile app developer Kosta Eleftheriou, who publicly called out Apple earlier this year for negligence with regard to policing iOS scams and copycat apps on the App Store, has filed a lawsuit against the iPhone maker in California. He’s accusing the company of exploiting its monopoly power over iOS apps “to make billions of dollars in profits at the expense of small application developers and consumers.”

Eleftheriou’s company KPAW LLC, which he co-owns with his partner Ashley Eleftheriou, filed its complaint in Santa Clara County on Wednesday. It details the development and release timeline of Eleftheriou’s Apple Watch keyboard app FlickType.

At the time he began accusing Apple of abetting App Store scams early last month, Eleftheriou revealed that his FlickType app had been targeted by competing software he says either didn’t work well or didn’t work at all, and yet nonetheless chipped away at this sales and App Store rankings through false advertising and the purchase of fake reviews. After he complained, he said Apple did not do enough to combat the scams, though Apple did later remove some of the apps he called attention to.

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Wouldn’t “negligence” work better? But I guess Apple has that covered – that it runs the App Store to the best of its abilities but makes no promises about infallibility.
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Double bongcloud: why grandmasters are playing the worst move in chess • The Guardian

Bryan Armen Graham:

»

An otherwise meaningless game during Monday’s preliminary stage of the $200,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational left a pair of grandmasters in stitches while thrusting one of chess’s most bizarre and least effective openings into the mainstream.

Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States had already qualified for the knockout stage of the competition with one game left to play between them. Carlsen, the world’s top-ranked player and reigning world champion, started the dead rubber typically enough by moving his king’s pawn with the common 1 e4. Nakamura, the five-time US champion and current world No 18, mirrored it with 1 … e5. And then all hell broke loose.

Carlsen inched his king one space forward to the space where his pawn had started. The self-destructive opening (2 Ke2) is known as the bongcloud for a simple reason: you’d have to be stoned to the gills to think it was a good idea.

The wink-wink move immediately sent Nakamura, who’s been a visible champion of the bongcloud in recent years, into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Naturally, the American played along with 2 … Ke7, which marked the first double bongcloud ever played in a major tournament and its official entry to chess theory (namely, the Bongcloud Counter-Gambit: Hotbox Variation).

“Don’t do this!” cried the Hungarian grandmaster Peter Leko from the commentary booth, looking on in disbelief as the friendly rivals quickly settled for a draw by repetition after six moves.

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Grandmaster chess really has moved on a long way since Spassky and Fischer, hasn’t it.
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Visa to hike interchange fees for UK customers in post-Brexit move • Sky News

Mark Kleinman:

»

The payments giant Visa is to hike fees for purchases made by UK-based customers from most of Europe – stoking fears of higher prices and fuelling the argument that Brexit is adding to the cost of trading with the EU.

Sky News has learnt that Visa plans to inform its roughly 4000 clients later this week that so-called interchange fees will increase to 1.5% for online credit card payments – a fivefold increase.

For debit card transactions, the rate will go up from 0.2% to 1.15%.

The move will particularly affect online transactions with EU-based companies in sectors such as online retail, hospitality and travel.

…The two companies are able to raise the levy they charge because of Britain’s exit from the EU, which regulates the fees within the trading bloc.

In 2019, the European Commission accepted commitments from Visa and MasterCard for a standardised fee structure for international consumer transactions at merchants within the European Economic Area.

Both Visa and MasterCard have faced a deluge of litigation in recent years over the charges they impose, with retailers and consumers pursuing billions of pounds in legal claims.

People close to the situation said that Visa Europe was likely to give its clients, which include many of Britain’s biggest banks, six months to implement the higher fees.

«

Honestly, is there no beginning to the benefits of Brexit.
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Attackers are trying awfully hard to backdoor iOS developers’ Macs • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

Researchers said they’ve found a trojanized code library in the wild that attempts to install advanced surveillance malware on the Macs of iOS software developers.

It came in the form of a malicious project the attacker wrote for Xcode, a developer tool that Apple makes freely available to developers writing apps for iOS or another Apple OS. The project was a copy of TabBarInteraction, a legitimate open source project that makes it easier for developers to animate iOS tab bars based on user interaction. An Xcode project is a repository for all the files, resources, and information needed to build an app.

Alongside the legitimate code was an obfuscated script, known as a “Run Script.” The script, which got executed whenever the developer build was launched, contacted an attacker-controlled server to download and install a custom version of EggShell, an open source back door that spies on users through their mic, camera and keyboard.

Researchers with SentinelOne, the security firm that discovered the trojanized project, have named it XcodeSpy. They say they’ve uncovered two variants of the customized EggShell dropped by the malicious project. Both were uploaded to VirusTotal using the Web interface from Japan, the first one last August 5, and the second one on the following October 13.

“The later sample was also found in the wild in late 2020 on a victim’s Mac in the United States,” SentinelOne researcher Phil Stokes wrote in a blog post Thursday. “For reasons of confidentiality, we are unable to provide further details about the ITW [in the wild] incident. However, the victim reported that they are repeatedly targeted by North Korean APT actors and the infection came to light as part of their regular threat hunting activities.”

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Both Microsoft and Google are seeing similar things, also from North Korea. (Thanks G for the link.)
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How to make streaming royalties fair(er) • Cuepoint

Sharky Laguana:

»

Streaming services, most notably Spotify (by far the largest) use what could be called a parimutuel royalty system: all the money collected goes into a big pool, Spotify takes their 30% off the top, and whatever is left is distributed to artists based on their share of overall plays. Spotify explains how it all works right here. It sounds perfectly fair and reasonable: if an artist wants to make more money all they need to do is get more plays. But there’s a major disconnect in this economic model that has not been discussed widely: Spotify doesn’t make money from plays. They make money from subscriptions.

So how is that a disconnect? Let’s say I am a huge fan of death metal. And nothing pumps me up more than listening to my favorite death metal band Butchers Of The Final Frontier. So I sign up for Spotify in order to listen to their track “Mung Party.” I listen to the track once, and then I decide Spotify isn’t for me. OK, So who got the benefit of the $10 I paid in subscription fees?

$3 goes to Spotify. Sure, that seems fair enough. Roughly $0.007 will go to Butchers Of The Final Frontier. Hrmm, if only I had played the track one more time Butchers would have earned a penny.

But… hey, wait a second… I paid $10. Where’d that other $7 go?
Spotify: “What $7?”
That other $7. Where’d it go?
Spotify: “We paid it out in royalties. For plays. Your boys got paid for their plays”
Don’t be cute with me. Who got the $7?
Spotify: “Look! A puppy!”

Since Spotify is so reticient on this topic, allow me to explain what will happen to 99.9% of the payable royalties generated by Butchers Of The Final Frontier: that money will largely wind up in the pockets of major pop artists like Calvin Harris, Meghan Trainor, Maroon 5 and Avicii.

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The alternative is that you dole it out according to what individuals listen to. Would that be fairer? It might just be. Equally, as the FT pointed out a couple of weeks ago, that there are simply more artists chasing roughly the same amount of money.

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The Government’s Covid-testing policy for schools seems strange, but rests on good science • Conservative Home

Anthony Browne is a Conservative MP on the Treasury Select Committee and former CEO of the British Bankers Association:

»

The source of all the anguish is the Government policy that if a child tests positive for Covid on the less-accurate lateral flow device (LFD) test at school, but subsequently tests negative by the more accurate laboratory PCR test, then the more accurate second test does NOT over-ride the less accurate first one: the child and their close contacts at school still need to self-isolate for ten days.

It happened at a school I know this week, where 18 A-Level students missed their mocks because one student tested positive on the LFD test on Monday despite subsequently being cleared by the PCR test on Tuesday.

I was bombarded by apoplectic parents, and went into battle. Dredging up my maths degree, I created an algorithm for the problem and last night locked horns with the Department of Health mathematicians, plugging in all the real world data.

The headline is that with the virus at its current prevalence (0.5% of people have it nationwide) then the proportion of people who test positive on the first LFD test and subsequently test negative on the PCR test but are actually infected is astonishingly high: 30%. In other words, nearly one third of pupils with a negative result from the second PCR test after a positive LFD test are actually infected – and that is a big enough risk to justify them being required to isolate.

However, as the prevalence of the virus falls, then that risk goes down rapidly as well. When the prevalence of the virus is down to 0.1% (i.e. one in a thousand people have it), then the proportion who get a positive LFD result then a negative PCR result who are actually infected will be 8% – i.e. more than 90% won’t be. So as the virus becomes rarer, we can rely more on the PCR result, and the Government policy will change.

«

As he points out, “common sense” doesn’t work here. The maths is straightforward, yet catches people out regularly.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: re the new “radar-equipped” Google Nest, drew asks: “Are we absolutely, iFixit-teardown sure the new Nest doesn’t have a camera? Remember, the original Nest had a secret microphone.”

To which the answer has to be: let’s wait for iFixit.

Start Up No.1508: the bear case on Clubhouse, new iPad Pros incoming?, OnePlus shuns Wear OS, Intel snipes at Apple’s M1, and more


Marijuana has been legal in Colorado and Washington state for nearly a decade: so what had that done to crime, price and so on? CC-licensed photo by Cold, Indrid 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. Enough, surely? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The buzzy, chatty, out-of-control rise of Clubhouse • WIRED

Steven Levy:

»

On March 17, 2020—just as Covid drove people into their houses—the beta version of Clubhouse went live, open only to a few of Davison’s and Seth’s friends and family members. When you opened the app, you were thrust into the single conversation room. Everyone could speak. At first, when the app had only about 20 or so people, that room was often empty. Davison had an alert set up on Slack to let him know when someone opened Clubhouse. He’d drop whatever he was doing and pop in to say hi. Even when more people began to join, Davison continued the habit. He and Seth monitored the app constantly. “I hated the idea that someone would come in and have a bad experience and no one would join them,” Davison says. “Rohan would say, ‘Paul, don’t do it. We have to see if it can live on its own.’” It took Davison a few weeks to develop the discipline to not jump in.

By mid-April, the founders were confident they’d created something worthwhile. “It was like an interesting dinner party where you’d see a couple of friends, but then you’d meet new people,” Davison says. They were stunned at its addictiveness. When people came to Clubhouse, they stayed, sometimes for hours. The next day, or even in the middle of the night, they would come back. They invited more people but kept the app small, and most of Clubhouse’s users were from the Davison-Seth orbit of tech entrepreneurs and investors. The intimacy worked, and new users were soon tweeting ecstatic descriptions of what they heard on Clubhouse, increasing demand for invitations and further agitating the non-invitees who had their noses pressed against the Gorilla Glass on their smartphones.

“When there were no conferences, where people were not traveling, people found this a great substitute,” says tech analyst Michael Gartenberg, who joined that summer. Kat Cole, a prominent Atlanta-based businesswoman, was drawn to its spontaneity and the ease with which you could drop in and out of conversations. “It felt a lot like Burning Man in that you just choose your own adventure,” she says. “You never know what camp you’re wandering into.”

«

A good overview – Levy points to lots of the moderation problems that you’d expect with any fast-growing app. In parallel, though, is this thread from Twitter (on a non-Twitter link on a single page) which gives you the bear case: it’s not possible to keep people interested due to the ephemeral nature of the content.
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Apple nears launch of new iPads after stay-at-home sales boost • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

The devices will have an updated processor that is on par with the faster M1 chip in the latest MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Apple designs these processors itself and typically has them made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Apple is also looking to include a Mini-LED screen with at least the larger model, which would be brighter and have improved contrast ratios.

In testing, the new iPad Pros have used a Thunderbolt connector, the same port on the latest Macs with custom Apple processors. The port doesn’t require new chargers, but it would enable connectivity with additional external monitors, hard drives and other peripherals. It’s also faster at syncing data than the USB-C technology used in the current models.

…The iPad Pro was last updated in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, adding a tweaked processor, support for the Magic Keyboard with Trackpad case, and a lidar scanner alongside the camera.

Apple plans to refresh its cheapest iPad aimed at students with a thinner and lighter design later this year, Bloomberg News has reported. It’s also preparing to launch a new iPad mini with a larger screen as early as this year, an increase from the 7.9-inch display used since the first model. The iPad mini was last upgraded in 2019 with support for the Apple Pencil stylus and a faster processor.

«

OK, but what is the USP of an iPad over an M1 Macbook Air? You’d need to really love touchscreens, wouldn’t you? Anyhow, there are strong rumours of an Apple event on Tuesday March 23.

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The data on legalizing weed • Planet Money, NPR

Greg Rosalsky:

»

It’s been almost a decade since Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. That’s given economists and other researchers enough time to study the effects of the policy. Here are some of the most interesting findings:

Legalization didn’t seem to substantially affect crime rates — Proponents of legalizing weed claimed it would reduce violent crimes. Opponents said it would increase violent crimes. A study by the CATO Institute finds, “Overall, violent crime has neither soared nor plummeted in the wake of marijuana legalization.”

Legalization seems to have little or no effect on traffic accidents and fatalities — Opponents of marijuana legalization argued it would wreak havoc on the road. A few studies have found that’s not the case. Economists Benjamin Hansen, Keaton S. Miller & Caroline Weber, for instance, found evidence suggesting it had no effect on trends in traffic fatalities in both Colorado and Washington.

Legalization has barely affected the price of marijuana — Many people believed that marijuana prices would crash after legalization, providing an increased incentive to use it. But a recent study by the CATO institute found prices have barely budged. The price of getting high has stayed high. In California, for example, the price of marijuana actually increased after legalization, before leveling off at about $260 an ounce. Before full legalization, it cost about $250 an ounce.

«

Has also created lots of jobs, and (weird one) reduced worker compensation costs – because staff use it for pain relief. That stat on crimes might seem surprising, but did anyone really think marijuana was a serious cause of violent crime? Some property crime, perhaps, but violent crime?
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Confirmed: OnePlus Watch won’t run Wear OS • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

»

OnePlus has confirmed a few times now that we will see the company’s first smartwatch on March 23. It will launch alongside the highly-anticipated 2021 flagship phones from the brand: the OnePlus 9 series.

Today, though, company CEO Pete Lau confirmed an aspect of the upcoming OnePlus Watch we’ve been wondering about for literally years. In a response to a question from a OnePlus forum member, Lau confirmed the watch’s operating system will be an unnamed RTOS, or “real-time operating system.” This is a tacit confirmation that it will not run on Google’s Wear OS, which has been common speculation.

Here are Lau’s own words: “We chose to go with a smart wear operating system developed based on RTOS because we believe it provides you a smooth and reliable experience while offering a great battery life, covering some of the biggest concerns we’ve been hearing from people looking to buy a smartwatch.”

Lau’s statement means that the OnePlus Watch’s software will probably be quite similar to what we see on watches from companies like Amazfit and its sister brand Zepp. The software on those watches features a very limited selection of apps with literally no third-party app support. However, they usually see great battery life and fast performance, which are things Wear OS doesn’t do well.

«

When Android Authority is saying that Wear OS has indifferent battery life and lacks performance, you know it’s got a problem.
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Intel puts Apple’s ‘I’m a Mac’ guy into new ads praising PCs – The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Intel has hired Apple’s former “I’m a Mac” actor Justin Long to create new ads praising PCs. Long starts each commercial with “Hello I’m a… Justin,” with the typical white background you’d find on Apple’s Mac vs. PC ads from the 2000s. Naturally, the ads focus on Mac vs. PC again, with Long mocking Apple’s Touch Bar, lack of M1 multiple monitor support, and the “gray and grayer” color choices for a MacBook.

One even goes all-in on Apple’s lack of touchscreens in Macs or 2-in-1 support by mocking the fact you have to buy a tablet, keyboard, stylus, and even a dongle to match what’s available on rival Intel-based laptops. Another ad also points out that “no one really games on a Mac.”

The return of Justin Long in Mac vs. PC ads for Intel comes just months after Apple brought back actor John Hodgman to reprise his role as the PC guy from Apple’s “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” ad campaign. While Apple kept its reprisal limited to the company’s keynote to introduce Arm-based M1 MacBooks, Intel has gone a step further and revived this for full commercials.

«

When Apple did its adverts, from 2006-2009, they were aimed at Microsoft: Apple had just made the switch from PPC to Intel chips, and was still very much the underdog in the computing world.

Intel is pointing to things that Apple doesn’t have (or has but whose need is dubious, in the case of the Touch Bar), but apart from the multiple monitor support (which can be done), all of those things it points to are true about Intel Macs.

These ads aren’t what you do when you’re confident; it’s what you do when you feel threatened. Possibly, as with the internal email saying it wasn’t going to lose out to a lifestyle company, this is more about inciting the troops at Intel.
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Samsung explains why there might not be a Galaxy Note 21 this year • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Rumors in late 2020 said that Samsung might abandon the Galaxy Note series, as it’s looking at making significant changes to its operations. Samsung was contemplating adding the S Pen stylus to other devices, including the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the upcoming Galaxy Z Fold 3. Samsung later confirmed the rumors, and the S21 Ultra does support the stylus.

The S Pen is the only remaining Note feature, as the Galaxy Note is no longer the largest smartphone you can buy. Samsung dismissed rumors that there won’t be a Note 21 phone in stores this year a few months ago. But the Korean giant is now changing tune. There might not be a Galaxy Note 21 this year, but not because the Galaxy S21 Ultra is practically a Note 21 version.

Samsung co-CEO DJ Koh, who previously lead the mobile division, said during the annual shareholders meeting in Seoul that the current chip shortage will pose a severe problem next quarter. Per Bloomberg, that’s where he said that Samsung is considering skipping the introduction of a new Galaxy Note this year.

“There’s a serious imbalance in supply and demand of chips in the IT sector globally,” Koh said. “Despite the difficult environment, our business leaders are meeting partners overseas to solve these problems. It’s hard to say the shortage issue has been solved 100%.”

“Note series is positioned as a high-end model in our business portfolio,” he said. “It could be a burden to unveil two flagship models in a year, so it might be difficult to release Note model in [the second half of 2021]. The timing of Note model launch can be changed, but we seek to release a Note model next year.”

«

That Samsung is hit by the chip shortage is quite a thing: it’s usually thought of as having the entire stack, from memory chips to displays.
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I was a teenage Twitter hacker: Graham Ivan Clark gets 3-year sentence • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

A Florida teenager accused of orchestrating one of last summer’s Twitter hacks—this one used celebrity accounts to make more than $100,000 in a cryptocurrency scam—pleaded guilty on Tuesday in exchange for a three-year sentence, it was widely reported.

Authorities said that Graham Ivan Clark, now 18, and two other men used social engineering and other techniques to gain access to internal Twitter systems. They then allegedly used their control to take over what Twitter has said were 130 accounts. A small sampling of the account holders included then Former Vice President Joe Biden, Tesla founder Elon Musk, pop star Kanye West, and philanthropist and Microsoft founder and former CEO and Chairman Bill Gates.

The defendants, prosecutors have alleged, then caused the high-profile accounts—many with millions of followers—to promote scams that promised to double the returns if people deposited bitcoins into attacker-controlled wallets. The scheme generated more than $117,000. The hackers also took over accounts with short usernames, which are highly coveted in a criminal hacking forum circle calling itself OGusers.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Clark agreed to plead guilty in return for a three-year prison sentence followed by three years’ probation. The agreement allows Clark to be sentenced as a “youthful offender,” a status that allows him to avoid a minimum 10-year sentence he would have received if he was convicted as an adult.

«

Things in life that are certain: death, taxes, hacking, hackers getting into jail. (An Australian journalist I knew used to say “there are three things in life that are certain: death, taxes and nurses.” Australians, eh.)
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Implanted memories teach birds songs they’ve never heard • New Atlas

Michael Irving:

»

Finch fathers sing to their chicks while they’re young, and eventually the baby birds will start to mimic them. Over time, they’ll master the song and pass it down to their own offspring. In a way, zebra finches show a simplified version of human vocal development.

But in the new study, the researchers bypassed this process and directly manipulated the brains of young finches, teaching them parts of a song without any kind of tutoring from their parents.

They managed this using optogenetics, a technique where flashes of light are used to stimulate certain neurons in the brain. In this case, the scientists manipulated the connection between the part of the brain that processes what the animal hears, and the part that controls the vocal “motor.” In effect, they were creating auditory memories that would normally be coming from outside, and the bird would naturally try to mimic the signals.

The researchers used a kind of Morse code to teach the finches how long syllables of the song should be. Longer pulses of light told them to sing longer syllables, and vice versa. And sure enough, the birds eventually learned to sing along, even though they’d never been taught by an adult finch.

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The NFT art heists (may) have begun • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

»

Nifty Gateway—an NFT marketplace that was bought out by the Winklevoss twins back in 2019—announced on Monday morning some of its users were swept up in a small-scale hack that saw their accounts and credit cards compromised.

“Our analysis is ongoing, but our initial assessment indicates that the impact was limited,” the company tweeted Monday morning. “None of the impacted accounts had 2FA enabled, and access was obtained via valid account credentials.” Aside from mentioning that some NFT’s “involved in these account takeovers” were sold over Discord or Twitter, Nifty’s thread is pretty light on the details.

That disclosure is likely a response to some of the anecdotal accounts coming from Nifty users reporting thousands of dollars worth of artwork being bought under their Nifty accounts. “Someone stole my NFTs today on @niftygateway and purchased $10K++ worth of today’s drop without my knowledge,” tweeted Michael Miraflor, an ad consultant based out of Los Angeles. Another collector tweeted on Monday morning claiming that his account was robbed of about $150,000 worth of artwork.

«

An equally relevant, and more sobering, thread (non-Twitter link) explains that a lot of these NFTs are tied to websites run by companies which are sure to go bust. At which point the NFT is worthless because it’s tied to a URL on the site.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1507: the FTC’s 2013 mistakes on Google, the turbine-less wind turbine, WHO says Covid started on farms, and more


Your second Covid vaccination shot may make you feel worse than the first. Why? CC-licensed photo by Puddin Tain on Flickr.


Pre-orders! They’re good for books. You can preorder my forthcoming book (due 24 June) Social Warming: the dangerous and polarising effects of social media. (If you do that on smile.amazon.co.uk then Amazon eventually donates some money to a charity you choose.)


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 12 links for you. A warhead in every pot. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Washington fumbled the future • POLITICO

Leah Nylen on what documents show about how the FTC’s economists argued against taking antitrust action against Google back in 2013:

»

Nearly a decade ago, the documents show, the FTC’s investigators uncovered evidence of how far Google was willing to go to ensure the primacy of the search engine that is the key to its fortunes, including tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations. But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62% of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all US smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The FTC’s decision to let Google off the hook reflected an era when the Obama administration had a close relationship with Silicon Valley and Americans held largely positive views toward the emerging tech giants. But the documents also demonstrate how the Obama-era FTC took a cautious approach to antitrust enforcement, deferring to the wisdom of the agency’s economists over its lawyers — an attitude anti-monopoly advocates are now questioning as Congress considers sweeping changes to antitrust laws.

«

I was reporting on the topic at the time, and the investigative part of the FTC was all in favour of taking antitrust action against Google, on the basis that it was favouring its own results and suppressing rivals. The economists were against taking action. The FTC commissioners went with the economists.

The point about smartphones is amazing. By mid-2012 iOS and Android had 85% of the US smartphone installed base, and all rivals were in single digits.
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Good vibrations: bladeless turbines could bring wind power to your home • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

»

“We are not against traditional windfarms,” says David Yáñez, the inventor of Vortex Bladeless. His six-person startup, based just outside Madrid, has pioneered a turbine design that can harness energy from winds without the sweeping white blades considered synonymous with wind power.

The design recently won the approval of Norway’s state energy company, Equinor, which named Vortex on a list of the 10 most exciting startups in the energy sector. Equinor will also offer the startup development support through its tech accelerator programme.

The bladeless turbines stand at 3 metres high, a curve-topped cylinder fixed vertically with an elastic rod. To the untrained eye it appears to waggle back and forth, not unlike a car dashboard toy. In reality, it is designed to oscillate within the wind range and generate electricity from the vibration.

…“Our technology has different characteristics which can help to fill the gaps where traditional windfarms might not be appropriate,” says Yáñez.

These gaps could include urban and residential areas where the impact of a windfarm would be too great, and the space to build one would be too small. It plugs into the same trend for installing small-scale, on-site energy generation, which has helped homes and companies across the country save on their energy bills.

This could be wind power’s answer to the home solar panel, says Yáñez.

“They complement each other well, because solar panels produce electricity during the day while wind speeds tend to be higher at night,” he says. “But the main benefit of the technology is in reducing its environmental impact, its visual impact, and the cost of operating and maintaining the turbine.”

The turbine is no danger to bird migration patterns, or wildlife, particularly if used in urban settings. For the people living or working nearby, the turbine would create noise at a frequency virtually undetectable to humans.

«

Three metres high really isn’t much. You could put a few in the back garden. Hang some washing between them. Win-win-win.
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WHO points to wildlife farms in southern China as likely source of pandemic • WBUR News

Michaelenn Doucleff:

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many [wildlife] farms are located in or around a southern province, Yunnan, where virologists found a bat virus that’s genetically 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Second, the farms breed animals that are known to carry coronaviruses, such as civet cats and pangolins.

Finally, during the WHO’s mission to China, [Peter] Daszak said the team found new evidence that these farms were supplying vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where an early outbreak of COVID-19 occurred.

The market was shut down overnight on Dec. 31, 2019, after it was linked to cases of what was then described as a mysterious pneumonia-like illness.

“There was massive transmission going on at that market for sure,” says Linfa Wang, a virologist who studies bat viruses at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. He’s also part of the WHO investigative team. Wang says that after the outbreak at the Huanan market, Chinese scientists went there and looked for the virus.

“In the live animal section, they had many positive samples,” Wang says. “They even have two samples from which they could isolate live virus.”

And so Daszak and others on the WHO team believe that the wildlife farms provided a perfect conduit between a coronavirus-infected bat in Yunnan (or neighboring Myanmar) and a Wuhan animal market.

«

The part about testing in the Wuhan market finding positive samples is completely new to me. In more than a year of reports about this, I’ve never heard that before. Equally, the suggestion that Covid actually developed at one of the big animal farms makes far more sense than that it leaked from a lab. Every other zoonosis (animal to human disease) has started that way – by natural animal-human contact.
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New Nest Hub features clever sleep tracking to make it the ultimate bedside assistant • Pocket Lint

Chris Hall:

»

the biggest change is in how Google is positioning this device. It still has no camera, so Google sees this as a bedside device, able to ensure your privacy because there’s no camera that might initial a call while you’re enjoying a little private time in the bedroom.

What Google is adding is sleep tracking. That’s seen the addition of Google’s Soli hardware to the Nest Hub, so that it can use the Motion Sense technology to track your sleep.

Soli uses a type of radar that can detect motion and interpret that. Previously, Google used it for some motion control on the Pixel 4, although that seemed a little silly – offering hands-free gestures on a device that you essentially always operate when you’re holding it.

Now Soli will be set to task to detect motion patterns and breathing of the person sleeping closest to the Nest Hub to power the new Sleep Sensing functions.

On top of motion, Nest Hub can also listen out for noises – coughing or snoring – while being able to monitor light conditions and temperature. In that way, it will monitor how you sleep and the conditions you’re trying to sleep in.

To protect your privacy, none of this raw data is sent out to Google services, everything happens on the Nest Hub itself.

From this information, Google will present you with a sleep summary – and having learnt your sleeping habits and monitored the quality of your sleep for a couple of days, can make suggestions to improve your sleep.

«

Apparently the team discussed whether to put a camera in it for about two minutes. “Nobody wants a camera in the bedroom,” one said, in a statement of the blindingly obvious. And they moved on.

I’m still completely unconvinced that you can “improve” your sleep, apart from going to bed earlier, not using your phone in bed, and waking up later.
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The Telegraph’s approach to performance pay won’t reward clickbait • One Man And His Blog

Adam Tinworth says we’ve got it all wrong about the Telegraph moves quoted in The Guardian:

»

The Telegraph’s [editor] Chris Evans is clearly not talking about clickbait, or even traffic:

»

“It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

«

Notice nothing in that quote specifies traffic: just retaining and attracting subscribers. I’ve been working with paywalled sites for nearly 25 years, and those measures are way more indicative of such sites’ success than raw traffic, much of which will never convert to paying subscribers.

…I’m much less worried about this leading to clickbait than the Twitter commentariat. Clickbait is common, easy to replicate, and available everywhere — you really don’t need to pay for it. The Sun’s short-lived paywall experiment proved that nicely. Conversely, the role of breadth of journalism in keeping readers subscribing has been a key element in the success of, say, The Times. Generally, speaking, that which attracts and converts readers can be quite different from what keeps them subscribing.

«

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TikTok wants to keep tracking iPhone users with state-backed workaround • Ars Technica

Patrick McGee and Yuan Yang:

»

the state-backed China Advertising Association, which has 2,000 members, has launched a new way to track and identify iPhone users called CAID, which is being widely tested by tech companies and advertisers in the country.

ByteDance, the owner of the social video app TikTok, referred to CAID in an 11-page guide to app developers obtained by the Financial Times, suggesting that advertisers “can use the CAID as a substitute if the user’s IDFA is unavailable.”

People close to Tencent and ByteDance confirmed the companies were testing the system, but both companies declined to comment.

Several efforts are under way to get around Apple’s rules, but CAID is the biggest challenge to them yet, and the iPhone maker declined to comment directly on it. But in a move that sets the stage for a major confrontation, Apple denied that it would grant any exceptions.

“The App Store terms and guidelines apply equally to all developers around the world, including Apple,” the company said. “We believe strongly that users should be asked for their permission before being tracked. Apps that are found to disregard the user’s choice will be rejected.”

One person familiar with the situation said Apple would be able to detect which apps use the new tool and block them from its App Store in China if it wanted to.

But Zach Edwards, founder of Victory Medium, a tech consultancy, said: “They can’t ban every app in China. If they did it would effectively trigger a series of actions that would get Apple kicked out of China.”

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(Originally in the Financial Times.)
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Facebook explores paid deals for new publishing platform • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Facebook will soon begin testing partnerships with a small group of independent writers for its new publishing platform, sources tell Axios.

The platform, which includes tools for journalists to build actual websites, in addition to newsletters, will be tested with a small group of writers, some of whom Facebook plans to pay to help get the tools off the ground.

The publishing platform, which has yet to be officially named, is free-to-use, and will be integrated with Facebook Pages, sources say.

The Pages integration will allow writers, journalists, and other types of professional experts to publish content outside of text, like live videos and “Stories” status updates.

In time, Facebook plans to build tools within the platform that allow writers to monetize their websites and newsletters with subscriptions, and possibly other forms of revenue down the line.

«

And if you believe this will last any length of time, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Facebook has pulled this sort of bait-and-switch many times before. The biggest was over video views, where it produced false statistics about how long people were spending watching videos. For videos that were less popular, it produced average viewing times that were *longer* than the videos – giving the false impression that those videos were somehow doing really well.

Any writer is going to be at the mercy of Facebook’s recommendation algorithm. And recommendations can go down as well as up.
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Why the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine can make you feel lousy • Mercury News

Lisa Krieger:

»

Q: Why does the second dose cause more problems?

Grace Lee, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine: The first shot teaches your immune cells to recognize the virus; it’s revving up. With the second shot, there are more immune cells ready and waiting to launch a major defense. The muscle ache and fever come from inflammation; your immune cells are sending out an alarm in the form of chemicals called cytokines.

“Your immune system is ‘primed’ with dose one. You’re getting ‘boosted’ with dose two. That reflects your body’s quick response. … Your body is seeing it for the second time and remembering it, and is developing the powerful immune response that it needs to respond to infection.”

Q. What can I do to counter the side effects?

GL. Don’t be tempted to skip your second dose. The Pfizer-BioNTech shots are spaced 21 days apart; the Moderna shots are 28 days apart. While the first dose provides some protection around 12 days, you won’t be fully protected until two weeks after your second dose.

If possible, schedule the second dose when you can get some extra rest. If you experience intense side effects, it’s safe to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Ice may help a sore arm. Serious allergic reactions are very rare.

Q: Are there age differences in the response?

William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine: Older adults tend to have a milder response than younger people because “their immune systems are not responding as vigorously as a young person’s, but they still get 95% protection from the virus.”

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Dropbox will have a free password manager in April — if you’ve got 50 or fewer passwords • The Verge

Ian Carlos Campbell:

»

Dropbox is adding a new feature on top of its usual offerings of storage and file sharing for free Basic accounts. Dropbox Passwords, the password management feature the company introduced for paying customers in 2020, will be free for Dropbox Basic accounts in April — with a new, arbitrary limit of 50 passwords that makes it seem suspiciously like a way to upsell you on a paid Dropbox account.

Now that LastPass is putting a device limit on its free plans, many are looking for a free alternative, and Dropbox Passwords will indeed allow you to sync your passwords across three devices for free. Like other password managers, it exists as a web browser extension, a mobile app on iOS and Android, and desktop applications on MacOS, Windows, and Linux. But other free password managers, like Bitwarden, offer unlimited passwords for free.

«

Dropbox is all about the upsell these days. It’s quite exhausting to have to keep fighting it off. Steve Jobs was dismissive of it, calling it “a feature, not a product”. It’s a really good feature, but Jobs was right. Apple has built both into its ecosystem.
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China Signal users report difficulty accessing messaging app • Bloomberg

»

Signal, an encrypted messaging app that competes with the likes of Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp, appears to have been blocked in China, the latest move by Beijing to crack down on social media platforms.

From Monday night, Signal users reported difficulties using the app in China without the help of a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows users to mask their location and access banned foreign communication services like Gmail and Twitter. Previously, no such software was needed to access Signal.

It isn’t immediately clear if this is a permanent ban, as Chinese regulators have been known to sometimes ramp up controls as a trial run only to ratchet them down later. The Cyberspace Administration of China didn’t respond immediately to a faxed request for comment Tuesday morning. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment when asked about access to the app at a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

Signal has been a popular tool among political dissidents and journalists seeking a communication method that minimizes the risk of messages being intercepted by government censors and bad actors. In particular, the app has gained traction among China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur diaspora.

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Google Play drops commissions to 15% from 30%, following Apple’s move last year • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

»

The Android-maker said on Tuesday that starting July 1, it is reducing the service fee for Google Play to 15% — down from 30% — for the first $1m of revenue developers earn using Play billing system each year. The company will levy a 30% cut on every dollar developers generate through Google Play beyond the first $1m in a year, it said.

Citing its own estimates, Google said 99% of developers that sell goods and services with Play will see a 50% reduction in fees, and that 97% of apps globally do not sell digital goods or pay any service fee.

Google’s new approach is slightly different from Apple, which last year said it would collect 15% rather than 30% of App Store sales from companies that generate no more than $1m in revenue through the company’s platform. That drop doesn’t apply to iOS apps if a developer’s revenue on Apple platform exceeds $1m.

«

So imagine a company that gets gross revenues of $2m. With Apple, it keeps $1.4m. With Google, it keeps $1.55m. Not trivial – that’s about a whole developer’s salary.

Far more interesting is that 97%/99% quote. So only 3% of all apps charge. And 99% of those 3% don’t generate more than $1m. (If I’m interpreting the – slightly confusing? – statement correctly.) So 1% do. With just shy of 3 million apps on the Play Store, that means about 30,000 apps generating over $1m.

That suggests that Google Play generates gross revenues of $30bn. Which is about where estimates put it.
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iOS security fixes could soon be delivered separately from other updates, beta code suggests • 9to5Mac

Filipe Esposito:

»

Apple has never been flexible when it comes to iOS updates. While users can choose not to install an update, you will be left without security fixes if you don’t install the latest version of iOS available. Although Apple still updates iOS 12 for older iPhones and iPads, devices currently supported by the company don’t have the option to run this operating system with the latest security updates.

A new section added to the iOS software update menu indicates that Apple will provide standalone security updates for iPhone and iPad users. Users would be able to choose whether they want to install only security updates or full iOS updates.

Although we don’t yet have more details about this change, macOS already offers a similar method of updates. When you have a Mac running an older version of the operating system, such as macOS Mojave, Apple delivers separate security updates so that users can get security patches and bug fixes without having to install the latest macOS version available.

The new code found in iOS 14.5 also mentions that once you download a specific update, such as a security update, you may need to delete it before installing another available iOS update. It’s hard to tell how exactly Apple plans to implement this in iOS, but one possibility is to continue offering security updates for iOS 14 after the release of iOS 15, so that users can choose to not update to the latest major version, but keep receiving important security patches.

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Long overdue, though there’s no indication on quite how “soon” this might actually happen. As this points out, the capability is there on the desktop, so must be feasible on the phone.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1506: Berners-Lee calls for nicer networks, Telegraph mulls PPC journalism, carmakers try to delay electric future, and more


Hydrogen power! It’s the future. Or is it? CC-licensed photo by JOHN LLOYD 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. This is for everyone. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tim Berners-Lee: ‘We need social networks where bad things happen less’ • The Guardian

Harris interviews the web inventor:

»

“After Brexit and Trump, I think a lot of people realised: ‘We need to have a web that spreads more truth than rubbish.’ And at that point, the Web Foundation said: ‘It’s not just about getting the web to everyone, it has to serve humanity in a positive way.’”

This basic argument has now belatedly started to make its way into politics, something seen in both an increasingly loud conversation about the responsibilities of the big platforms for misinformation and hate speech – and the accompanying conversation about tackling the same platforms’ huge concentrations of power. On this stuff, Berners-Lee’s opinions are delicately balanced. To take two topical examples, he is opposed to Australia’s plans to force tech giants to pay news organisations even for the use of links to their articles (“the right to link is really important – it’s just part of free speech, and it makes the web functional”), though when I ask him about the possibility of Google and Facebook being forcibly broken up, he sounds at least open to the idea.

Dominance of the web by a tiny handful of companies, he reminds me, is hardly new, but over the years, things have always shifted. Look at the history of browsers: Netscape was succeeded by Internet Explorer, which in turn was nudged aside by Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

To that, there is an obvious riposte. The position of the 21st century’s big players looks very different.

“I think what the American public and lawmakers are doing … I think they’re aware of that,” he replies. “And they know from experience with big oil and with [the American telecoms utility] AT&T, that there have been times when US governments have broken up large companies. There’s a lot of discussion of that right now, and so that is a possibility.”

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Daily Telegraph plans to link journalists’ pay with article popularity • The Guardian

Archie Bland:

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An email sent by the editor, Chris Evans, last Thursday told staff that “in due course” the outlet wants to use the “Stars” system, which scores stories published online according to factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get, “to link performance to reward” using subscription data.

Evans said: “It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

But staff are said to be up in arms about the proposals, with some registering their objections in meetings held to explain the plans since Evans’ email was sent.

Executives “tried to convince everybody that it’s just experimental, not a big deal”, one journalist told the Guardian. “They were squirming at the questions. Everyone is just hoping it’s one of those mad ideas that eventually they quietly chuck out. Everyone is outraged. People feel compromised.”

Another said: “I’d call the mood mutinous. If you’re writing royal stories or big political news or coronavirus stuff or you’re famous then you’re going to get huge numbers. Most reporters are at the mercy of editors and it’s not their fault if they’re getting assigned boring things – and now that’s going to affect their pay packet.”

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I’m going to write a story about how Perverse Incentives led to Unintended Consequences. Though Matt Round (who runs Vole.wtf – which recently featured the chess game inside 1k of Javascript) suggested, half-ironically, the journalists should also be able to decide where and how many ads are placed on their stories. It’s not unreasonable: if you’re going to pay them in this way, give them agency too.

Don’t expect too much “journalism”, though.
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Conspiracy theory books about Covid are all over Amazon • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko:

»

Conspiracy theorist David Icke’s lies about COVID-19 caused Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Spotify to ban him. But on Amazon, Icke, who believes in the existence of lizard people, is recommended reading.

Despite being filled with misinformation about the pandemic, Icke’s book The Answer at one point ranked 30th on Amazon.com’s bestseller list for Communication & Media Studies. Its popularity is partly thanks to the e-commerce giant’s powerful recommendation algorithms that suggest The Answer and other COVID conspiracy theory books to people searching for basic information about the coronavirus, according to new research shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News.

“Amazon is doing the least, by a substantial measure, of any of the major platforms to deal with the misinformation and conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 virus,” Marc Tuters, an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, told BuzzFeed News.

“For creators and consumers of conspiracies, Amazon.com is a one-stop shop,” said Tuters, who co-led the team that included researchers and students at King’s College London, the University of Amsterdam, and the Digital Methods Initiative Winter School, in association with the infodemic.eu project.

The problem highlights how Amazon’s search and book promotion mechanisms often direct customers to COVID-19 conspiracy titles. Tuters does not advocate for banning the books but says Amazon needs to follow the lead of other platforms and elevate reliable information about COVID-19.

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I’m sure Amazon will get onto this right away. Uh-huh. Top of the list. Got a star by it. Must-do. Real A+ priority. Got it marked down for, oh, 2030 or so.
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A hacker got all my texts for $16 • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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I didn’t expect it to be that quick. While I was on a Google Hangouts call with a colleague, the hacker sent me screenshots of my Bumble and Postmates accounts, which he had broken into. Then he showed he had received texts that were meant for me that he had intercepted. Later he took over my WhatsApp account, too, and texted a friend pretending to be me.

Looking down at my phone, there was no sign it had been hacked. I still had reception; the phone said I was still connected to the T-Mobile network. Nothing was unusual there. But the hacker had swiftly, stealthily, and largely effortlessly redirected my text messages to themselves. And all for just $16.

I hadn’t been SIM swapped, where hackers trick or bribe telecom employees to port a target’s phone number to their own SIM card. Instead, the hacker used a service by a company called Sakari, which helps businesses do SMS marketing and mass messaging, to reroute my messages to him. This overlooked attack vector shows not only how unregulated commercial SMS tools are but also how there are gaping holes in our telecommunications infrastructure, with a hacker sometimes just having to pinky swear they have the consent of the target.

“Welcome to create an account if you want to mess with it, literally anyone can sign up,” Lucky225, the pseudonymous hacker who carried out the attack, told Motherboard, describing how easy it is to gain access to the tools necessary to seize phone numbers.

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There are some stupefyingly stupid companies in the US which think that nobody will tell lies to gain advantage. Or do know it, and like to pretend it’s not their problem actually, even though they’re the conduit.

Foolish too how the carriers allow this to happen.
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Car industry lobbied UK government to delay ban on petrol and diesel cars • The Guardian

Jasper Jolly:

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The government announced in November that it would move forward a ban on the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars from 2040 to 2030, but said that it would allow the sale of hybrid vehicles until 2035, in a significant victory for the car industry.

Carmakers including BMW, Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and McLaren argued strongly against a ban earlier than 2040, in written submissions to the government obtained by the Guardian. They also said plug-in hybrid cars should be exempted from the earlier deadline. Some of the claims made by the firms contradicted findings by environmental campaigners.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a lobby group, claimed in private modelling that a 2030 ban would cause UK car sales to drop from 2.3m in 2025 to only about 800,000 in that year. The 2035 ban would reduce UK car sales to about 1.2m in that year, it claimed, compared with more than 2m if a 2040 deadline was allowed.

BMW, which also owns Mini and Rolls-Royce factories in the UK, said there was “no scientific evidence to support such ambitious market uptake in the UK” for the previous 2040 ban, let alone an earlier date. A BMW spokesman said the claim related to modelling of consumer demand for electric cars.

The government decision to bring forward the deadline was partly based on advice from scientists on the Committee on Climate Change, which argued a total ban – including for hybrids – was needed by 2032 for the UK to meet its decarbonisation goals.

Ministers admitted in December they had relented on plans to ban hybrids in 2030, partly because of the threat to British car factories, most of which produce hybrids. Honda and Ford both raised the spectre of job losses in manufacturing as part of their evidence.

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Hybrids are still, essentially, fossil-fuel driven vehicles. As Greg Archer of the thinktank Transport & Environment points out, they’re fighting a battle that’s already lost.
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The hydrogen revolution is real and it will change the world • Daily Telegraph

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

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The message from hard-headed industrialists at this year’s “energy Davos” surprised even those who keep up with this fast-moving technology. The switch to hydrogen is a fact on the ground; it is accelerating fast; it is heading for much lower costs than sceptics suppose; and future scale is vast.

Along the way, the oil “supermajors” are reinventing themselves for net-zero life, finding a green raison d’être by deploying their engineering and offshore know-how to lock carbon underground and unlock hydrogen above ground. They are no longer the perennial climate villains depicted by the green Taliban. Subtler moral judgment is required.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are also reinventing themselves, aiming to become mass global exporters of zero-carbon fuels for ships, aircraft, or Asian power plants. Abu Dhabi is already developing desert solar power for $1.35 per megawatt hour, tantamount to free energy. This will be converted into hydrogen by Siemens through electrolysis to make clean synthetic jet fuel. Carbon-free air travel is in sight.

Seifi Ghasemi heads the US conglomerate Air Products, the world’s biggest commercial producer of hydrogen. He manufactures mostly dirty “grey hydrogen” from fossils for refineries, industrial uses, or to make ammonia for fertilizers.

Ghasemi is hardly a green romantic. Aged 76, he knows his hydrogen and has seen it all. His conclusion is that this cycle is different from past episodes. Net-zero targets and the Sino-Western hydrogen race have changed the political landscape, and with it the cost calculus. So have rising carbon prices. EU emissions contracts have doubled since October to nearly €42 a tonne. This really bites.

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The oil supermajors are reinventing themselves, are they? Evans-Pritchard is quite excited about this. But he’s been excited about a lot of things; the evidence doesn’t always agree.
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Google Voice is about to get a lot more frustrating to use • Android Police

Michael Crider:

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The slow, painful stagnation of Google’s call forwarding service continues. An update to the support text for Google Voice says that soon SMS forwarding for Google Voice will no longer operate. That will leave the Google Voice app, on your phone or the web, as the only place that they’re visible. Google says that carriers are beginning to block these messages, which is, indeed, something we’ve observed over the last few weeks.

This is particularly bad news for those of us who’ve been using Google Voice as effectively our only phone number, forwarding it to new SIMs and devices as we get them. Phones tend to lean on their default texting app for integration into a lot of other services. The Google Voice app usually covers those, but it isn’t particularly friendly with the rest of Android outside of the notification basics. For example, my Fitbit Versa 3 doesn’t detect it as an option for a default text message app—I have to use the generic notification system instead. An end to SMS forwarding will add a bit of a headache there.

Google’s support page doesn’t give a specific timeframe for when SMS forwarding will end, leaving Voice users in a familiar limbo.

«

Google is great at getting a v1 out of the door, and often times the v2 as well. But it has enormous problems staying interested in products, and there’s always a question about what its overarching strategy is. How does Google Voice help its mission statement of “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”? Well.. it might help get a call from somewhere else? Sort of? The truth is, things are getting difficult (because of the carriers) and Google’s looking like it has lost interest.
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Texas power cut at Samsung fab line will hit world smartphone production • TrendForce

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The Line S2 fab of Samsung in Austin, Texas sustained a power interruption, which has forced it to suspend operation since mid-February, under the impact from the winter storm. TrendForce’s latest investigations indicate that the capacity utilization rate for the entire fab is not expected to climb back to over 90% until the end of March. In particular, Samsung manufactures several products that are highly important for the production of smartphones, including the Qualcomm 5G RFIC, Samsung LSI OLED DDIC, and Samsung LSI CIS Logic IC. Supply-wise, the first two products sustained the brunt of the winter storm’s impact, and global smartphone production for 2Q21 is therefore expected to drop by about 5% as a result.

…the Qualcomm RFIC is primarily supplied to smartphone brands to be used in 5G handsets. This product is delivered to clients as part of either AP bundles or 5G modems. The winter storm’s impact on the production of the Qualcomm RFIC is expected to take place in 2Q21, resulting in a 30% decrease in 5G smartphone production for the quarter.

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The Texas administration’s determination to let the free market have its way with electricity supply is echoing down the years.
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Vaccine efficacy, statistical power and mental models • Insight

Zeynep Tufekci:

»

There is, of course, a relationship between mild COVID—or breakthrough cases, getting symptoms of COVID despite being vaccinated—in that if you aren’t even getting mild disease, you are certainly not getting severe consequences. But the converse is not true: an inability to prevent mild disease does not necessarily signal an inability to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death. That would be the case if vaccinations and the immune system, indeed, had operated like a wall; if a wall can’t stop a five-foot wave because it is too short, it certainly can’t stop a nine-foot wave.  

Instead, though, the immune system is a tiered (and very complicated) system. The first line of defense is those antibodies that we keep hearing of (which are important and significant for our purposes here, also easier to measure) that attach to the invading pathogen and are, well, neutralizing (Hence neutralizing antibodies). But there is another component to our immune system, called T cells, which kick into action after an infection has occurred. They work to clear out the infected cells (which have become little factories producing the virus). 

…I certainly don’t have to pretend to understand all the complexities of the immune system which, my Atlantic colleague Ed Yong referred to as the place where “intuition goes to die.” But his whole article is absolutely worth reading for the non-specialist because the important message is this: the immune system is not a wall with a specific height that fails if the wave is taller. It’s a tiered system with very complex interactions. If the initial response falls short and “breakthrough” disease occurs despite vaccination, that does not mean that severe disease is necessarily more likely to occur – that “the wall” had been overcome the way a wave washed over the sea wall protecting the Fukushima plant.

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This point, about why the vaccine prevents some forms but not others, is all about our mental model of the immune system as something that gets overwhelmed, as she points out.
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Vaccines seem to help the symptoms of Long Covid • Elemental

Akiko Iwasaki:

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Back when I first learned about long Covid in June 2020, I proposed three possible mechanisms that might be causing it: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) “viral ghost,” which are fragments of the virus (RNA, proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but are still capable of stimulating the immune system; and 3) an autoimmune response induced by the infection. Of course, other mechanisms may also contribute.

Since then, many studies have provided support for all three of these mechanisms. Research has shown that viral reservoirs are present in tissues, viral RNA is found in non-respiratory tissues and is associated with inflammation, and diverse autoantibodies are detected in some Covid patients.

The three mechanisms of long Covid I proposed above are not mutually exclusive, and all three may benefit from the vaccines. If the first is true, vaccine-induced T cells (immune cells that attack and kill infected cells) and antibody responses may be able to eliminate the viral reservoir. If the second is true, vaccine-induced immunity may be able to eliminate the viral ghost if such viral components are associated with the spike protein, which the virus uses to gain entry into cells. If the third is true, the vaccine might divert autoimmune cells, as I will describe below.

I suspect that people with long Covid have varying degrees of all three mechanisms taking place. Thus, long Covid consists of multiple types of diseases. By understanding which mechanism(s) are causing long Covid within each person, suitable treatment can be given.

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Principally of interest to people who have or know those with Long Covid, but the amount we’re adding to our knowledge of the immune system over the past year is amazing.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Robert Colvile’s surname was mispelt in yesterday’s post. He also answered a question on Twitter: if existing v nonexisting databases are what makes Test & Trace work (or not), what does he say about Wales, where it succeeded? His response: Wales used existing infrastructure, while England (where it went bad) didn’t.

Start Up No.1505: the deepfake cheerleader mom, electric charging grows up, NFT auction mystery deepens, Adobe’s “Enhance” really does, and more


The beautiful, classic lines of the compact cassette were invented by the late Lou Ottens. CC-licensed photo by Scott Schiller 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. Could Phil Dunphy help? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Woman created ‘deepfake’ videos to force rivals off daughter’s cheerleading squad: police • pennlive.com

Jana Benscoter:

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Police arrested a 50-year-old Bucks County woman March 10 for sending her teen daughter’s cheerleading coaches fake photos and videos depicting her rivals naked, drinking, or smoking, to try to get them kicked off the squad, according to media reports.

Raffaela Spone, of Chalfont, was charged with two misdemeanors, Hilltown Township Police officers said. Spone is facing three counts of cyber harassment of a child and three counts of harassment.

An investigation last year led officers to discover that Spone had sent harassing text messages directly to the teenagers as well, police said. As the investigation continued, more teenagers came forward, who were all part of a traveling cheerleading group — Victory Vipers — based in the Doylestown area.

“Spone last year created the doctored images of at least three members,” according to the affidavit. There were no indications that Spone’s daughter knew what her mother was doing.

The teenagers told officers Spone sent them “manipulated images,” and in an anonymous message, said that Spone “urged them to kill themselves,” Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hilltown police were contacted by one of the teenager’s parents in July, and then two more families came forward with a similar account. They told officers they and their coaches received text messages that depicted them naked, drinking, and smoking a vape, according to the Philly Inquirer.

Some of the teenagers were “sent photos of themselves in bikinis, with accompanying text saying the subjects were “drinking at the shore,” court records show.

The videos were analyzed, and detectives were able to determine they were “deepfakes” — digitally altered but realistic-looking images — created by mapping the girls’ social media photos onto other images, the Philly Inquirer reported.

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Well, I guess it’s really out of the lab now. She doesn’t seem (based on a search) to be any great computer whiz.
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Great news for the UK’s electric-vehicle driving community (which will soon be all of us) • Status-Q

Quentin Stafford-Fraser (who has been driving an EV since 2015 – doughty soul):

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Ecotricity still maintained the monopoly on the motorway service stations, so the places where you needed the fastest and best chargers had the slowest and the worst.

Until now.

Yesterday, there was an announcement that this monopoly was going to end.

And today, joint announcements from Ecotricity and Gridserve say that they’re going to collaborate on renewing the Electric Highway. (Did Dale Vince jump, one can’t help wondering, or was he pushed?) Anyway, this is excellent news.

Gridserve, for those who don’t know, created the UK’s first fully-electric forecourt, which I visited soon after it opened. Like everybody else, I was suitably impressed, so it’s great to see them grow.

The Fully Charged Show has an interview with the CEOs of the two companies.

The key item to take away here is that most of the UK’s motorways will soon be well-equipped with 350kW chargers capable of adding vast amounts of range to the big batteries of today’s newer cars, in the time it takes to visit the loo and get a coffee.

The Gridserve forecourt was actually the last place I charged my old BMW before replacing it, so in a sense, this merger of its first and last charge-suppliers seems somehow appropriate, and my ownership of that car is a bit reminiscent of the early days of the web: it spanned the era from when EV-driving was new and exciting to when it started becoming mainstream, in a very small number of years.

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The cars are only half the story; the chargers are the rest, just as driving an internal combustion car is going to be a challenge without a network of fuel stations. We take them for granted, but they weren’t always there.
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Metakovan, the mystery Beeple art buyer, and his NFT/DeFi scheme • Amy Castor

Castor digs into the peculiar transaction last week where an artwork was “bought” for a ton of Monopoly money:

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MetaKovan [the buyer, who Castor believes is actually Vignesh Sundaresan] is also behind Singapore-based Metapurse, a crypto-based investment firm. Metapurse’s mission, according to its website, is to “democratize access and ownership to artwork.” The firm also purchased Beeple’s “Everdays: 20 Collection” artworks for $2.2m in December.

Metapurse has taken these Beeple artworks, or NFTs, along with a few virtual museums, and combined everything into a “massive bundle.” Would you like to invest in this wonderful package? You can—by buying B20 tokens.

This blog post on the Metapurse substack lays out the grand plan:

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“We believe we truly achieved this with B.20 – the name of a massive NFT bundle we are fractionalizing so that everyone can have ownership over the first large scale public art project within the metaverse. It is important to note that we’re fractionalizing ownership, not the assets themselves. These fractions will be available as 10 million B.20 tokens, and can be referred to as the “keys” to this digital vault.”

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At the end of the day, this is all about “number go up.” The B20 token is pumped up in value, so holders and Metapurse can benefit when they go to sell the token—get more ETH, buy more NFTs, rinse, repeat.

The distribution is something to pay attention to. Metakovan has 59% of all the B20 tokens. Why does he own the majority of tokens? As he explains it, that’s so that no one person can own 100% of all of the B20 tokens—and snatch up all this wonderful artwork for themselves. No, this is meant to be decentralized, if you can get your head past Metakovan controlling the token supply.

What’s interesting is that Beeple, the creator of the artwork, is actually a business partner of MetaKovan’s. He owns 2% of all the B20 tokens. I’m sure there is no conflict of interest here.

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But what, you might ask, about Christie’s? Surely the venerable auction house, which is being “paid” in Monopoly money (having waived the standard requirement that its cut of the payment should be in good old folding fiat money) will be annoyed at being used in this way?

Well.. maybe not. Auction houses have seen business fall off a cliff, as you’d expect for places reliant on groups of people sitting close together inside rooms. Being involved in this and getting constantly namechecked means it can be down wid da kidz; and if this sort of thing happens again they can demand payment in real money.
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Adobe Photoshop’s ‘Super Resolution’ made my jaw hit the floor • Petapixel

Michael Clark:

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I have seen a bit of reporting out there on this topic from the likes of PetaPixel and Fstoppers, but other than that the ramifications of this new feature in ACR have not been widely promoted from what I can see. The new Super Resolution feature in ACR essentially upsizes the image by a factor of four using machine learning, i.e. Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The PetaPixel article on this new feature quoted Eric Chan from Adobe:

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Super Resolution builds on a technology Adobe launched two years ago called Enhance Details, which uses machine learning to interpolate RAW files with a high degree of fidelity, which resulted in images with crisp details and fewer artifacts. The term ‘Super Resolution’ refers to the process of improving the quality of a photo by boosting its apparent resolution,” Chan explains. “Enlarging a photo often produces blurry details, but Super Resolution has an ace up its sleeve: an advanced machine learning model trained on millions of photos. Backed by this vast training set, Super Resolution can intelligently enlarge photos while maintaining clean edges and preserving important details.

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What does this mean practically? Well, I immediately tested this out and was pretty shocked by the results. Though it might be hard to make out in the screenshot below, I took the surfing image shown below, which was captured a decade ago with a Nikon D700 — a 12MP camera — and ran the Super Resolution tool on it and the end result is a 48.2MP image that looks to be every bit as sharp (if not sharper) than the original image file. This means that I can now print that old 12MP image at significantly larger sizes than I ever could before.

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Wow, indeed. The article goes into detail about how it’s done. Essentially, AI is now going to fill in the micro-detail that wasn’t there.
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Elon Musk says Tesla revoked access for some drivers testing ‘full self-driving’ • Business Insider

Kevin Shalvey:

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Friday said the carmaker had expanded the public testing pool for its Full Self-Driving software to about 2,000 vehicle owners but also revoked access for drivers who didn’t pay close attention to the road.

Tesla “revoked beta where drivers did not pay sufficient attention to the road,” Musk said on Twitter late Friday. “No accidents to date.”

Musk didn’t offer further details about how many drivers have lost access, or how Tesla made decisions about pulling access. Insider has reached out to the company for comment.

Musk’s statement followed a Friday report saying the National Transportation Safety Board chairman called for increased scrutiny of self-driving software.

On Friday, CNBC reported that NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt had in February sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asking for updated requirements for carmakers testing software like Tesla’s on public roads.

Sumwalt’s letter mentioned Tesla by name 16 times, as CNBC reported. He wrote that Tesla was testing its software on public roads “with limited oversight or reporting requirements.”

He added: “Although Tesla includes a disclaimer that ‘currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,’ NHTSA’s hands-off approach to oversight of [automated vehicle] testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users.”

A week ago, Musk said Tesla would double the size of its public beta testing program for version 8.2 of its software. “Still be careful, but it’s getting mature,” he said.

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If you have to keep your attention on the road, it’s not really self-driving, is it? And it really never will be, as Tesla has admitted. Musk is successfully fooling about 2,000 people all of the time, but the rest – no.
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Apple discontinues original HomePod, will focus on mini • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:

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The original HomePod was a feat of audio engineering that Apple spent over five years developing. In order to accomplish its development, the team at Apple built out a full development center near its headquarters in Cupertino, with a world-class development environment with a dozen anechoic chambers, including one of the bigger anechoic chambers outside of academic use in the US. I visited the center before its release, noting that Apple took it the extra mile to get the incredibly complex series of tweeters and woofer that built its soundspace…

…The major gripe for the speaker at the time was the $349 price, which was at the top end of the home speaker market, especially those with embedded home assistants. A price drop to $299 mitigated that somewhat, but still put it at the top of the pricing umbrella for the class. Apple’s HomePod mini, launched last year, has been well received. Our Brian Heater said that it had ‘remarkably big sound’ for the $99 price.

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So the discontinuation implies that Apple couldn’t find a price for the original HomePod where it would both make an adequate profit and people would buy it in sufficient numbers. Yet it can for the HomePod mini. Given the difference in sound quality, that’s a loss for everyone. (If you like them enough, they’re available “while stocks last”, just like the iMac Pro. Unless Apple is going to introduce a new cheaper better version of both of them later this month.)

Rene Ritchie suggests that Apple should offer something that does a bit more – allow Bluetooth, or line-in, or both. Or be a router-speaker. The lack of inputs on the HomePod (and mini) suggests it’s “Ived”: a victim of the ex-head of design’s desire to make devices that ignored the world outside Apple’s tiny one.
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The vaccine programme has one key thing Test and Trace doesn’t. And it’s not money • The Sunday Times

Robert Colvile:

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Something almost no one outside government appreciates is that the British state, like all its modern counterparts, is essentially a collection of databases. Throughout the pandemic, its policy successes have largely come where there are good databases, and its failures where there are not.

The furlough scheme worked because of PAYE. The expansion of universal credit relied on the existing benefits system. The “shielding list” of vulnerable patients was compiled by blending six data sets from NHS Digital.

Good data is also the secret sauce of the vaccination rollout. The jabbers could move seamlessly down the age and risk cohorts, because GPs had the appropriate patient lists. There have still been huge challenges in distributing the vaccines and tracking down the unregistered, but the data gave us an enormous head start.

The central problem with Test and Trace, by contrast, was that it didn’t have a database. When the pandemic hit, Apple and Google developed a joint framework for contact-tracing apps, which would ping you if someone you met later tested positive. But they wouldn’t let your phone share those details with the government — hence Matt Hancock’s abortive attempt to develop a homegrown alternative.

The trackers and tracers therefore had to map out the nation’s social network from a standing start, getting individual contact lists from every person who had tested positive to find out who else needed testing and quarantine. Public Health England even managed to lose 16,000 cases because it built its database with a stone-age version of Microsoft Excel and the file grew too large.

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As Colville points out, it was “have database/don’t have database” that made the difference, not private v public.
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Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94 • The Guardian

Daniel Boffey:

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Following the war, Ottens obtained an engineering degree, and he started work at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, in 1952. Eight years later he was promoted to head of the company’s newly established product development department, and within a year he unveiled the EL 3585, Philips’s first portable tape recorder, which would go on to sell more than a million units.

But it was two years later that Ottens made the biggest breakthrough of his life – born out of annoyance with the clumsy and large reel-to-reel tape systems of the time. “The cassette tape was invented out of irritation about the existing tape recorder, it’s that simple,” he would later say.

Ottens’s idea was that the cassette tape that should fit in the inside pocket of his jacket. In 1963 the first tape was presented to the world at an electronics fair in Berlin with the tagline “Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!”

Photographs of the invention made their way to Japan, where substandard copies started to emerge. Ottens made agreements with Sony for the patented Philips mechanism to be the standard.

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Really he should be buried next to Laszlo Biro.
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Facebook is studying vaccine hesitancy, new documents show • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin:

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Facebook is conducting a vast behind-the-scenes study of doubts expressed by U.S. users about vaccines, a major project that attempts to probe and teach software to identify the medical attitudes of millions of Americans, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The research is a large-scale attempt to understand the spread of ideas that contribute to vaccine hesitancy, or the act of delaying or refusing a vaccination despite its availability, on social media — a primary source of health information for millions of people. It shows how the company is probing ever more nuanced realms of speech, and illustrates how weighing free speech vs. potential for harm is more tenuous than ever for technology companies during a public health crisis.

…The research explores how to address that tension by studying these types of comments, which are tagged “VH” by the company’s software algorithms, as well as the nature of the communities that spread them, according to the documents. Its early findings suggest that a large amount of content that does not break the rules may be causing harm in certain communities, where it has an echo chamber effect.

The company’s data scientists divided the company’s U.S. users, groups and pages into 638 population segments to explore which types of groups hold vaccine hesitant beliefs. The document did not identify how Facebook defined a segment or grouped communities, but noted that the segments could be at least 3 million people.

Some of the early findings are notable: Just 10 out of the 638 population segments contained 50% of all vaccine hesitancy content on the platform. And in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine hesitant content.

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Wouldn’t it be simplest to block those 111 users? A lot of the problem would be solved. On the 1-9-90 principle (1% of users generate 90% of content, broadly), it would make a huge difference.
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‘No 10 was a plague pit’: how Covid brought Westminster to its knees • The Guardian

Jessica Elgot:

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One of the few people still working in a high-profile job in Westminster who had experience of tackling a pandemic was the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth.

“I was actually in Downing Street for swine flu 10 years ago,” the Labour MP said. “I remember when I first heard of the virus in Wuhan I thought: I wonder if that’s going to be like swine flu. But I obviously didn’t appreciate at that point it would be off the scale.”

Ashworth asked for his first briefing with Whitty in January 2020. By February he was doing “nothing else” but studying the trajectory of the virus, he said. But it was when the health minister Nadine Dorries was confirmed to have Covid on 10 March that the magnitude of the crisis fully dawned on some of those in government.

“The moment we realised this is probably more widespread in the country than we thought is when Nadine Dorries tested positive,” one health official said.

At the time, people were only meant to get tested if they had been to one of the affected areas. “So the original assumption was, she hasn’t been to Italy or China so she hasn’t got Covid, even if she’s got some symptoms. And then she tested positive and I remember thinking: hang on, is this thing spreading much more widely than the people realise?”

On 11 March, the day after Dorries tested positive, Liverpool played Atlético Madrid in front of a crowd of tens of thousands at Anfield. It was also the day of Rishi Sunak’s first budget.

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The Sunak budget probably infected more people, proportionally. Dorries as the Typhoid Mary of the Tory party is fitting. Note how once Boris Johnson got infected and then seriously ill, those in charge lied relentlessly to the public – as they had done pretty much from the start.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified