Start Up No.1357: how Britain turned blind eye to Russian interference, our Covid future, Microsoft disses the App Store, and more


Need to buy a parrot? In Bangladesh, you’ll start looking on Facebook, where F-commerce happens. CC-licensed photo by Peter Miller 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. Uninfluenced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Russia report reveals UK government failed to investigate Kremlin interference • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:

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The British government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, according to the long-delayed Russia report.

The damning conclusion is contained within the 50-page document from parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which said ministers in effect turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption. It said the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time, and it made clear that no serious effort was made to do so.

“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know,” said Stewart Hosie, a Scottish National party MP who sits on the cross-party committee. “The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered. We were told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn’t looked for it.”

The committee, which scrutinises the work of Britain’s spy agencies, said: “We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference”. It contrasted the response with that of the US.

…Committee members noted that publicly available studies have pointed to “the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories” on the Russia Today and Sputnik TV channels at the time of the vote, and “the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’” on Twitter, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.

There was “credible open source commentary” that Russia undertook “influence campaigns” relating to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but despite this, no effort was made to look at the Kremlin threat to British democracy until after the Brexit vote.

It was only after Russia hacked US Democratic party emails in July 2016 that any assessment appeared to have been made – and the document suggests that some sort of exercise was conducted after the 2017 general election.

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The indifference – because Russian donors were funnelling so much money into the Tory party coffers – is utterly disgraceful. It’s also corrupt. Money corrupts everything, but it corrupts politics before anything else.
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Coronavirus: harmful lies spread easily due to lack of UK law • BBC News

Marianna Spring, disinformation reporter:

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Misleading and harmful online content about Covid-19 has spread “virulently” because the UK still lacks a law to regulate social media, an influential group of MPs has said.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee urged the government to publish a draft copy of promised legislation by the autumn.

It follows suggestions the Online Harms Bill might not be in force until 2024.

The group’s chairman said tech firms could not be left to self-regulate. “We still haven’t seen correct legislative architecture put in place, and we are still relying on social media companies’ consciences,” said Julian Knight. “This just is not good enough. Our legislation is not in any way fit for purpose, and we’re still waiting. What I’ve seen so far has just been quite a lot of delay.”

Google and Facebook have said they have invested in measures to tackle posts that breach their guidelines. But the report has already been welcomed by the children’s charity NSPCC.

“The committee is right to be concerned about the pace of legislation and whether the regulator will have the teeth it needs,” said Andy Burrows, its head of child safety online policy.

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The government has made noises about “online harms” for years. But does nothing about it.
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Covid could become the new common cold • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

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Babak Javid, a professor of immunology at the University of California San Francisco says that “the only definitive data we have with immunity and coronaviruses” comes from studies from a few decades ago, so-called “human challenge” studies, in which people were deliberately given the common cold and then their immune responses were tracked. 

Crucially, they found that if patients had detectable levels of antibodies before they were given the virus, they were immune. But, as you’d expect, people who didn’t have the antibodies got a cold — and then developed antibodies. The studies found, as with the current coronavirus, that the number of antibodies in the bloodstream then tailed off rapidly. 

A year later, the scientists tried infecting them again. They “were virologically affected”, says Javid – that is, if you swabbed them and tested for a virus, you would find it — but “they had no symptoms whatsoever, even in people with no antibody response”. The period in which they were themselves infectious appears to have been much shorter, as well.

Part of what’s going on here is that antibodies are only part of your body’s immune response to infection.

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There’s plenty more, and you’ll learn a lot about immune responses, and a good simile for why you want high thresholds for false positives. Very informative, which is more than you can say about many articles on this topic.
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In Bangladesh, everything is bought and sold through Facebook • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:

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After most of the management classes Kabir taught at a university in Dhaka were canceled or moved online, he suddenly had plenty of time to focus on his passion project: becoming a part-time bird breeder. Sitting in his three-bedroom apartment one day, Kabir keyed in the phrase “Buy-sell birds Dhaka” on Facebook and joined about half a dozen groups dedicated to avian retail.

“Breeding pair. Age: 20 days. Contact by phone or inbox” read one post, alongside images of a pair of grayish-brown cockatiels. Another seller, located in the Kallyanpur neighborhood in Dhaka, posted pictures of yellow-feathered lutino cockatiels, with the Bengali phrase hat bodol hobe — which loosely translates as “to change hands.” The wording was intended to circumvent a Facebook algorithm that, to prevent wildlife trafficking, automatically takes down posts with “buy” or “sell” in the description. If an interested buyer did contact an owner, the next step was to haggle over the price of the bird on Facebook Messenger.

Kabir bought his first pair of birds from the 3,000-person Facebook group A.S.ককাটেল পাখি হাত বদল — “A.S. Cockatiel changes hands.” For that purchase, the seller delivered the birds in person to collect them, and Kabir paid in cash. He was so pleased with his decision that he bought 24 more pairs over the next two weeks, including breeds such as Gouldian finches, Bengalese finches, and crested Bengalese finches. Each pair cost anywhere between $15 and $60, depending upon the breed and its age. “At one point, I started running out of space to accommodate all the birds, and sent about half a dozen Bengalese finches, along with some Gouldians, to my fiancee’s place,” he recalled. Finally, he gave in and bought a large birdcage.

From discovery to delivery, this whole process happened on Facebook.

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Evading Facebook algorithms; and the whole space of “F-commerce” – Facebook commerce.
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Microsoft president raised Apple issues to House Antitrust group • Bloomberg

Dina Bass:

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Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith raised concerns to U.S. lawmakers about what the company regards as Apple Inc.’s anti-competitive behavior around its app store, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Smith, who is also chief legal officer, was invited by the House of Representatives’s antitrust subcommittee to share his experiences around Microsoft’s own antitrust battle with the U.S. government in the late 1990s. During the conversation, which occurred weeks ago, he discussed the company’s issue with Apple, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussion was private.

The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will hold a hearing with the CEOs of Apple, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google-parent Alphabet Inc. on July 27. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment Monday.

Smith said last month that regulators should examine app store rules, which he called a far higher barrier to fair competition than Microsoft’s Windows operating software when it was found guilty of antitrust violations 20 years ago. While Smith didn’t name Apple in that public interview, a Microsoft spokesperson said later the executive was referring to the iPhone maker.

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Wonder what Microsoft is trying to get out of this. A smaller cut on iOS sales, at a guess.
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3D Book Image CSS Generator

Sebastien Castiel created this neat little page which generates a CSS-only animation of a book – any book. Grab an image and URL from Amazon and away you go. Very neat.
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China may retaliate against Nokia and Ericsson if EU countries move to ban Huawei • WSJ

Liza Lin, Stu Woo and Lingling Wei:

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China’s Ministry of Commerce is mulling export controls that would prevent Nokia and Ericsson from sending products it makes in China to other countries, the people said. One person added that this was a worst-case scenario that Beijing would use only if European countries came down hard on Chinese suppliers and banned them from their 5G networks.

Last week, the U.K., which left the EU earlier this year, ordered its wireless carriers to stop buying Huawei 5G equipment by the end of 2020 and to remove Huawei 5G equipment from its networks by the end of 2027.

The EU hasn’t banned Huawei, but took a softer stance in January by releasing 5G cybersecurity recommendations that member states could voluntarily adopt to restrict Huawei’s presence in each country. It is expected to soon publish a report detailing how its 27 member states have adopted them.

The EU’s biggest country, Germany, isn’t expected to decide whether to bar Huawei from its 5G networks until September at the earliest.

The Chinese Commerce Ministry said last Thursday that the country will take necessary measures to protect the legitimate rights of Chinese companies, in response to a recent ban on Huawei by the British government. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“This kind of action could backfire by frightening some foreign tech companies into moving manufacturing out of China,” said Jim McGregor, the Greater China chairman of advisory and advocacy consulting firm APCO Worldwide.

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China isn’t a big market for Nokia or Ericsson; this will just accelerate any plans they might have had to move manufacturing out of China, and it’s also going to make other companies think the same. I wonder what the planning meetings are like inside Apple.
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Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens amid shortages, currency collapse • The Washington Post

Liz Sly:

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Known as an oasis of prosperity and relative stability during the past decade of Middle East turmoil, Lebanon is descending into poverty, despair and potentially chaos. Economists are now predicting a Venezuela-style collapse, with acute shortages of essential products and services, runaway inflation and rising lawlessness — in a country at the heart of an already unstable region.

The Lebanese pound has lost over 60% of its value in just the past month, and 80% of its value since October. Prices are soaring and goods disappearing.

Bread, a staple of the Lebanese diet, is in short supply because the government can’t fund imports of wheat. Essential medicines are disappearing from pharmacies. Hospitals are laying off staff because the government isn’t paying its portion, and canceling surgeries because they don’t have electricity or the fuel to operate generators.

Newly impoverished people are taking to Facebook to offer to trade household items for milk. Crime is on the rise. In one widely circulated video, a man wearing a coronavirus mask and wielding a pistol holds up a drugstore and demands that the pharmacist hand over diapers.

“Lebanon is no longer on the brink of collapse. The economy of Lebanon has collapsed,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Lebanese model established since the end of the civil war in 1990 has failed. It was a house of glass, and it has shattered beyond any hope of return.”

The implications are worrying, he said. Lebanon occupies a uniquely fragile position as a country in a state of war with one of its neighbors (Israel), located next door to another war (Syria’s) and in the crosshairs of the conflict between the United States and Iran.

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Sometimes the news just isn’t good.
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WSJ journalists ask publisher for clearer distinction between news and opinion content • WSJ

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg:

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A group of journalists at The Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones staffers sent a letter on Tuesday to the paper’s new publisher, Almar Latour, calling for a clearer differentiation between news and opinion content online, citing concerns about the Opinion section’s accuracy and transparency.

The letter, signed by more than 280 reporters, editors and other employees says, “Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.”

The letter cites several examples of concern, including a recent essay by Vice President Mike Pence about coronavirus infections. The letter’s authors said the editors published Mr. Pence’s figures “without checking government figures” and noted that the piece, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” was later corrected.

The letter says many readers don’t understand that there is a wall between the Journal’s editorial page operations, which have been overseen by Paul Gigot since 2001, and the news staff, which is overseen by Editor in Chief Matt Murray. Mr. Murray was also copied on the letter.

The letter proposed more prominently labeling editorials and opinion columns on the website and mobile apps, including the line “The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion pages are independent of its newsroom.” It also suggests removing opinion pieces from the “Most Popular Articles” and “Recommended Videos” lists on the website, and creating a separate “Most Popular in Opinion” list.

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I love how the staff wrote the letter and it’s published in the Business section. But they’re completely right. The WSJ’s Opinion section has long been full of loose-screw nonsense, yet its news stories – breaking the Stormy Daniels payoff, for example, and much more around how National Enquirer suppressed negative stories about Trump – have been first-class.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1356: how to troll American partisans, rear windows on the world, Covid vaccine first steps, Twitter hackers missed out, and more


Is GPT-3 a foretaste of something like HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey? CC-licensed photo by James Vaughan 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. Not a joke. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The troll: a fake flag burning at Gettysburg was only his latest hoax • The Washington Post

Shawn Boburg and Dalton Bennett:

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[Adam] Rahuba once claimed that activists were planning to desecrate a Confederate cemetery in Georgia, The Post found. He seeded rumors of an organized effort to report Trump supporters for supposed child abuse. And he promoted a purported grass-roots campaign to confiscate Americans’ guns.

These false claims circulated widely on social media and on Internet message boards. They were often amplified by right-wing commentators and covered as real news by media outlets such as Breitbart News and the Gateway Pundit.

The hoaxes, outlandish in their details, have spurred fringe groups of conspiracy-minded Americans to action by playing on partisan fears. They have led to highly combustible situations — attracting heavily armed militia members and far-right activists eager to protect values they think are under siege — as well as large mobilizations of police.

…Some of Rahuba’s hoaxes have taxed law enforcement agencies and put bystanders in danger. In Gettysburg this year, a local pastor wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt was surrounded by armed counterprotesters until officers accompanied him out of the park for his own safety. Three years ago, an armed man who went to Gettysburg in response to a purported flag burning Rahuba had promoted on Facebook accidentally shot himself in the leg with a revolver.

Rahuba dismissed concerns that his efforts had harmed people or put them at risk.

“The message here was that any idiot on the Internet can get a bunch of people to show up at a Union cemetery with a bunch of Confederate flags and Nazi tattoos on their necks that just make them look foolish,” he said.

He also had little sympathy for the man who shot himself. “There’s some comedic value to that happening,” Rahuba said.

Rahuba, a lifelong resident of the Pittsburgh area, said he began trolling in high school. Using a dial-up modem, he and a group of friends posed as a 12- or 13-year-old girl in online chat rooms to lure older men to meetings, he said. In his telling, the men arrived to find Rahuba and his friends mocking them.

“It made me realize that people will believe the most unrealistic nonsense on the Internet,” he said.

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I have to say I’m with Rahuba on this. If people are so stupid as to believe this junk – and the outlets that amplify it – then that’s on them. If people didn’t do stupid things, they wouldn’t be made to look like fools. (See also bitcoin, below.)
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GPT-3, etc. • Marginal REVOLUTION

Tyler Cowen:

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I am increasingly convinced that Scott Alexander was right that NLP and human language might boostrap a general intelligence. A rough criteria for AGI might be something like (i) pass the Turing test, and (ii) solve general problems; the GPT-3-AI-Dungeon examples above appear to accomplish preliminary versions of both.

GPT was published in June 2018, GPT-2 in February 2019, GPT-3 in May 2020.

As best I can tell GPT -> GPT2 was ~10x increase in parameters over ~8 months, and GPT2 -> GPT3 was ~100x increase of parameters over ~14 months. Any number of naive projections puts a much more powerful release happening over the next ~1-2yrs, and I also know that GPT-3 isn’t necessarily the most powerful NLP AI (perhaps rather the most popularly known.)

When future AI textbooks are written, I could easily imagine them citing 2020 or 2021 as years when preliminary AGI first emerged,. This is very different than my own previous personal forecasts for AGI emerging in something like 20-50 years…

p.s. One of the users above notes that AI Dungeon GPT-3 (“Dragon”) is a subscription service, something like ~$6 a week. MIE.”

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AGI = artificial general intelligence (HAL 9000, all that kind of thing)
GPT-3 = latest version of an AI system that is astounding everyone who comes into contact with it because it’s so damn human-like, at least in what it does with text.

Yes, you can start worrying now. If GPT-3 becomes cheap, you’ll never (for example) be able to trust that the comments on a story, or the reviews on a site, were written by a human. Or that the story was written by a human. Or anything. This blogpost suggests you curb your enthusiasm. Given that it’s essentially regurgitating the English-language web, it’s also got terrible inbuilt biases.

Like HAL 9000 did, after all.
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WindowSwap

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Open a new window somewhere in the world.

Let’s face it. We are all stuck indoors. And it’s going to be a while till we travel again.

Window Swap is here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else’s window, somewhere in the world, for a while.

A place on the internet where all we travel hungry fools share our ‘window views’ to help each other feel a little bit better till we can (responsibly) explore our beautiful planet again.

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This is really lovely – 10-minute HD videos (with sound) taken from peoples’ windows all over the world. A sort of nice, relaxing version of Chatroulette. (See the About page for more details.)
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Oxford coronavirus vaccine triggers immune response, trial shows • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

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The results were “a really important milestone” on the path to a vaccine, said the study’s lead author, Prof Andrew Pollard. They showed the vaccine was very well tolerated, he added. “We are seeing exactly the sort of immune responses we were hoping for, including neutralising antibodies and T-cell responses, which, at least from what we’ve seen in the animal studies, seem to be those that are associated with protection.”

The problem is, he said: “We just don’t know what level is needed if you meet this virus in the wild, to provide protection, so we need to do the clinical trials and to work that out.”

Hopefully researchers would find out from the trials to come, added Pollard, which would help all vaccine developers.

“We don’t know what high is. We’ve got immune responses that we can measure, we can see the virus being neutralised when the antibodies are tested in the laboratory, but we don’t know how much is needed. I mean it’s encouraging but it’s only the first milestone on this long path,” he said.

Ideally the vaccine would protect against any infection, but scientists already accept it may reduce the severity of the disease instead, meaning people would be less likely to become very sick and die.

The volunteers have been followed up for eight weeks so far after immunisation. A further question is how long any immune response will last – if for only six months or a year, people might need regular booster shots.

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So it’s good news, but we’re only a little way down a long road. Two more phases to go, and then ramping up production, and actually injecting people. This time next year?
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USS University • No Mercy, No Malice

Scott Galloway:

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There is a dangerous conflation of the discussion about K-12 and university reopenings. The two are starkly different. There are strong reasons to reopen K-12, and there are stronger reasons to keep universities shuttered. University leadership needs to evolve from denial (“It’s business as usual”) past bargaining (“We’ll have a hybrid model with some classes in person”) to citizenship (“We are the warriors against this virus, not its enablers”). 

Think about this. Next month, as currently envisioned, 2,800+ cruise ships retrofitted with white boards and a younger cohort will set sail in the midst of a raging pandemic. The density and socialization on these cruise ships could render college towns across America the next virus hot spots.

Why are administrators putting the lives of faculty, staff, students, and our broader populace at risk? 

The ugly truth is many college presidents believe they have no choice. College is an expensive operation with a relatively inflexible cost structure. Tenure and union contracts render the largest cost (faculty and administrator salaries) near immovable objects. The average salary of a full professor (before benefits and admin support costs) is $104,820, though some make much more, and roughly 50% of full-time faculty have tenure. While some universities enjoy revenue streams from technology transfer, hospitals, returns on multibillion dollar endowments, and public funding, the bulk of colleges have become tuition dependent. If students don’t return in the fall, many colleges will have to take drastic action that could have serious long-term impacts on their ability to fulfill their missions. 

That gruesome calculus has resulted in a tsunami of denial. 

Universities owning up to the truth have one thing in common: they can afford to.

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Thinking of them as giant cruise ships certainly puts it into a grim perspective. (K-12 is what Britons call secondary school: children at that age seem to be asymptomatic.)
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David Shor’s unified theory of the 2020 election • NY Mag

Eric Levitz with a fascinating (long) interview with a longtime election strategist:

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Mitt Romney and Donald Trump agreed on basically every issue, as did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And yet, a bunch of people changed their votes. And the reason that happened was because the salience of various issues changed. Both sides talked a lot more about immigration, and because of that, correlation between preferences on immigration and which candidate people voted for went up. In 2012, both sides talked about health care. In 2016, they didn’t. And so the correlation between views on health care and which candidate people voted for went down.

So this means that every time you open your mouth, you have this complex optimization problem where what you say gains you some voters and loses you other voters. But this is actually cool because campaigns have a lot of control over what issues they talk about.

Non-college-educated whites, on average, have very conservative views on immigration, and generally conservative racial attitudes. But they have center-left views on economics; they support universal health care and minimum-wage increases. So I think Democrats need to talk about the issues they are with us on, and try really hard not to talk about the issues where we disagree. Which, in practice, means not talking about immigration.

…What’s powerful about nonviolent protest — and particularly nonviolent protest that incurs a disproportionate response from the police — is that it can shift the conversation, in a really visceral way, into the part of this issue space that benefits Democrats and the center left. Which is the pursuit of equality, social justice, fairness — these Democratic-loaded concepts — without the trade-off of crime or public safety.

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Altogether fascinating about what politicians can and can’t effect through campaigning.
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Exclusive: Twitter hackers could have stolen a whole lot more bitcoin • Forbes

Billy Bambrough:

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Coinbase, the largest U.S. bitcoin and cryptocurrency exchange with around 35 million users around the world, has said it prevented just over 1,100 Coinbase customers from sending a total of 30.4 bitcoin, worth almost $280,000, to the scam.

“We noticed within about a minute of the Gemini and Binance tweets,” Philip Martin, Coinbase chief information security officer, said during a phone interview. Bitcoin exchanges Gemini and Binance were both targeted early on by the hackers, just before Coinbase itself.

Only 14 Coinbase users were able to send around $3,000 worth of bitcoin to the scam bitcoin address before Coinbase blacklisted it, according to Martin.

“It was a vanishingly small group of Coinbase users that tried to send bitcoin to the scam address,” Martin said, adding that the San Francisco-based exchange, which is reportedly gearing up for a stock market listing that could come as early as this year, often blacklists the bitcoin and cryptocurrency addresses used by giveaway scammers.

Other bitcoin exchanges, including New York-based Gemini, owned by the Winklevoss twins, San Francisco-based Kraken and Binance, of no fixed address, all confirmed they stopped funds from flowing into the hacker’s bitcoin address—though their combined users didn’t attempt to send anywhere near as much as Coinbase.

“This hack shows that security is about layers of protection,” Jesse Powell, chief executive of Kraken, said via email. “Somebody has to be watching the admins and setting up alerts to watch for these vulnerabilities.”

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I’m now thinking that the overlap of dim bulbs and bitcoin users is quite a bit larger than I thought. Also that the script kiddies who did the hack knew more about the value of what they were doing than most people suspected.
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Government admits breaking privacy law with NHS test and trace • The Guardian

Sarah Marsh and Alex Hern:

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The UK government broke the law in rolling out its test-and-trace programme without a full assessment of the privacy implications, the Department of Health and Social Care has admitted after a legal challenge.

The Guardian can reveal the programme has already led to three data breaches involving email mishaps and unredacted personal information being shared in training materials.

“The reckless behaviour of this government in ignoring a vital and legally required safety step known as the data protection impact assessment (DPIA) has endangered public health,” said Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group (ORG). “We have a ‘world beating’ unlawful test-and-trace programme.

“A crucial element in the fight against the pandemic is mutual trust between the public and the government, which is undermined by their operating the programme without basic privacy safeguards. The government bears responsibility for the public health consequences.”

A DPIA is required before carrying out any “high risk” processing of personal data. The government had previously argued that the test-and-trace programmes, which involves carrying detailed personal information from patients across the country, did not qualify as high risk, until the ORG threatened to take it to court over the claim.

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World-beatingly unlawful.
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FAQ: Should you delete TikTok? Here’s everything you need to weigh the real privacy risks • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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“Protecting the privacy of our users’ data is of the utmost importance to TikTok,” said spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn. “TikTok collects much less U.S. user information than many of the companies in our space and stores it in the U.S. and Singapore. We have not, and would not, give it to the Chinese government.”

My takeaway: TikTok doesn’t appear to grab any more personal information than Facebook. That’s still an appalling amount of data to mine about the lives of Americans. But there’s scant evidence that TikTok is sharing our data with China, and we should be wary of xenophobia dressed up as privacy concerns.

I don’t mean to excuse China’s record of online repression — it’s possible China will force TikTok to change its practices in the future. For now, it comes down to whether you inherently distrust data mining from Chinese-owned companies more than data mining from U.S.-owned ones. Just remember: companies in China probably make your phone, laptop and TV, too.
Let’s dive into the specifics.

…Its US privacy policy also says it gathers your country location, Internet address and the type of device you’re using. If you give it permission, it will also grab your exact location, your phone’s contacts and other social network connections, as well as your age and phone number.

That all adds up to a profile of you useful not only to target ads, but also to understand who you are, who your friends and family are, what you like, what you find funny and what you say to your friends.

Jackson, from Disconnect, said the app sends an “abnormal” amount of information from devices to its computers.

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Lockdown was a boon for Spotify. Now musicians are fighting back • WIRED UK

Will Pritchard:

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imagine payouts are calculated monthly and in June 2020 Apple Music is paying out £100 to rights holders. If 10% of the total streams on the platform for that month were Ariana Grande songs, then Grande – or the rights holder for those recordings, which in this case is Universal subsidiary Republic Records – would receive 10% of the total payout pot, or £10. The same method applies to songwriters, although these rights are typically owned separately (and, again, often by a major label entity). This way of dividing payments means the most popular artists (those with the most streams) receive a chunk of revenue from users of the platform who haven’t played any of their songs.

Under this system, the Ariana Grande stan who pays £10 a month for Apple Music and plays ‘thank u, next’ on repeat all week also has a far greater influence on who gets paid what than, for instance, their dad who also pays £10 a month but only uses Apple Music to stream his favourite Paul Weller album to wind down at the weekend. Effectively, the Paul Weller fan is supplementing Ariana’s income when the Apple Music cheque lands.

This is a simplified explanation of the process, since streaming platforms also give a different weighting to streams from paying, premium subscribers versus free users who listen to the service with ads, for instance – that adds another level of complexity to the breakdown, but broadly the system works as described.

It means that most of your ten pound subscription actually goes to Ed Sheeran or Drake or Lady Gaga rather than the other musicians whose music you may have been listening to.

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This really is how it works, and it feels so wrong. Under the old system when you bought someone’s LP, CD or download, they’d get their cut. (Yes I know I know record label contracts evil awful terrible exploitative. But.) The streaming payment system is so unfair to artists. Further reading. (Thanks G for the links.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1355: TikTok halts London HQ plan, how Twitter was hacked, the AI deciding patient care, 32 clipboard-snooping apps, and more


The EU is investigating whether Alexa, Siri and Google Home might threaten consumer rights (not consumers). CC-licensed photo by Stock Catalog 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. Unsubstantiated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TikTok halts talks on London HQ amid UK-China tensions • The Guardian

Phillip Inman:

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The Chinese social media firm TikTok has pulled back from talks to site the headquarters for its non-China business in the UK, threatening the creation of 3,000 jobs, as fears grow of a tit-for-tat trade war between London and Beijing.

Its parent company, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, had spent months in negotiations with the Department for International Trade and No 10 officials to expand operations in addition to the near 800 employed by TikTok.

It is understood talks were suspended after ByteDance executives cited the “wider geopolitical context” following the UK government’s ban on Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from developing Britain’s 5G mobile phone network.

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Pretty much kills off any claim that TikTok isn’t a Chinese company. And that the Chinese government isn’t pushing it hither and thither.
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Hackers tell the story of the Twitter attack from the inside • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper and Kate Conger:

»

four people who participated in the scheme spoke with The Times and shared numerous logs and screen shots of the conversations they had on Tuesday and Wednesday, demonstrating their involvement both before and after the hack became public.

The interviews indicate that the attack was not the work of a single country like Russia or a sophisticated group of hackers. Instead, it was done by a group of young people — one of whom says he lives at home with his mother — who got to know one another because of their obsession with owning early or unusual screen names, particularly one letter or number, like @y or @6.

The Times verified that the four people were connected to the hack by matching their social media and cryptocurrency accounts to accounts that were involved with the events on Wednesday. They also presented corroborating evidence of their involvement, like the logs from their conversations on Discord, a messaging platform popular with gamers and hackers, and Twitter.

Playing a central role in the attack was “Kirk”, who was taking money in and out of the same Bitcoin address as the day went on, according to an analysis of the Bitcoin transactions by The Times, with assistance from the research firm Chainalysis.

But the identity of Kirk, his motivation and whether he shared his access to Twitter with anyone else remain a mystery even to the people who worked with him. It is still unclear how much Kirk used his access to the accounts of people like Mr. Biden and Mr. Musk to gain more privileged information, like their private conversations on Twitter.

«

I do wonder whether Musk, Biden or Obama would do any confidential work by DM. (Biden surely doesn’t run his own account.) Script kiddies’ obsession with getting control of accounts with single or a couple of letters is quite strange, but a real driving force.
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Seven ‘no log’ VPN providers accused of leaking – yup, you guessed it – 1.2TB of user logs onto the internet • The Register

Shaun Nichols:

»

A string of “zero logging” VPN providers have some explaining to do after more than a terabyte of user logs were found on their servers unprotected and facing the public internet.

This data, we are told, included in at least some cases clear-text passwords, personal information, and lists of websites visited, all for anyone to stumble upon.

It all came to light this week after Comparitech’s Bob Diachenko spotted 894GB of records in an unsecured Elasticsearch cluster that belonged to UFO VPN.

The silo contained streams of log entries as netizens connected to UFO’s service: this information included what appeared to be account passwords in plain text, VPN session secrets and tokens, IP addresses of users’ devices and the VPN servers they connected to, connection timestamps, location information, device characteristics and OS versions, and web domains from which ads were injected into the browsers of UFO’s free-tier users.

«

Never ever ever ever ever believe VPN companies which tell you that they don’t keep logs.
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Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant in the spotlight as Europe launches Internet of Things investigation • ZDNet

Daphne Leprince-Ringuet:

»

The organization’s commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced the launch of a sector probe to make sure that the companies behind smart products and digital assistants aren’t building monopolies that could threaten consumer rights in the EU.

Vestager named Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, but also Deutshe Telekom’s Magenta as the voice assistants “at the centre of it all”. While the technologies have great potential, the commissioner warned that they should be deployed carefully.

“We’ll only see the full benefits – low prices, wide choice, innovative products and services – if the markets for these devices stay open and competitive. And the trouble is that competition in digital markets can be fragile,” said Vestager.

In Europe, the total number of smart home devices was around 108 million at the end of 2019 and is forecast to reach 184 million devices by 2023. The value of the smart home market is expected to almost double in the next four years to more than €27bn ($30.8bn).

With Internet of Things (IoT) products carrying out tasks ranging from fitness tracking to front door unlocking, connected devices are set to become a huge part of users’ everyday lives. Vestager stressed the need to “act in good time” to avoid monopoly from bigger players, which would lead to consumers being denied a fair choice when buying the devices.

“We have seen this type of conduct before,” said Vestager. “This is not new. So we know there’s a risk that some of these players could become gatekeepers of the Internet of Things, with the power to make or break other companies.”

«

Already thinking hard about Google’s takeover of Fitbit.
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Facebook beats NSO’s attempt to crush WhatsApp malware suit • MSN

Malathi Nayak:

»

WhatsApp and its parent Facebook can press ahead with a lawsuit accusing Israeli spyware maker NSO Group of creating accounts to send malware to mobile phones of 1,400 people to snoop on them.

US District Judge Phyllis Hamilton on Thursday denied NSO’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. NSO unsuccessfully argued the court lacked jurisdiction because the company was immune to legal action as a contractor of foreign governments. NSO is an agent of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, according to Facebook’s complaint.

Hamilton did, however, grant NSO’s request to dismiss a claim that NSO wrongfully interfered with WhatsApp servers.

“The complaint does not detail any actual harm caused by defendants’ program or access to WhatsApp’s computers or servers,” she said. But she gave Facebook 21 days to revise and refile that allegation in Oakland federal court.

Hamilton also disagreed with NSO’s argument that Facebook didn’t include its foreign customers as parties to the suit.

WhatsApp welcomed the ruling. “The decision also confirms that WhatsApp will be able to obtain relevant documents and other information about NSO’s practices,” a spokesperson for the company said.

«

Could get juicy if WhatsApp gets a close look at NSO’s documents; that’s the company that has hacked a number of activists for authoritarian regimes. The FBI has been investigating NSO since at least 2017.
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Patients aren’t being told about the AI systems advising their care • Stat News

Rebecca Robbins:

»

At a growing number of prominent hospitals and clinics around the country, clinicians are turning to AI-powered decision support tools — many of them unproven — to help predict whether hospitalized patients are likely to develop complications or deteriorate, whether they’re at risk of readmission, and whether they’re likely to die soon. But these patients and their family members are often not informed about or asked to consent to the use of these tools in their care, a STAT examination has found.

The result: Machines that are completely invisible to patients are increasingly guiding decision-making in the clinic.

Hospitals and clinicians “are operating under the assumption that you do not disclose, and that’s not really something that has been defended or really thought about,” Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen said. Cohen is the author of one of only a few articles examining the issue, which has received surprisingly scant attention in the medical literature even as research about AI and machine learning proliferates.

In some cases, there’s little room for harm: Patients may not need to know about an AI system that’s nudging their doctor to move up an MRI scan by a day, like the one deployed by M Health Fairview, or to be more thoughtful, such as with algorithms meant to encourage clinicians to broach end-of-life conversations. But in other cases, lack of disclosure means that patients may never know what happened if an AI model makes a faulty recommendation that is part of the reason they are denied needed care or undergo an unnecessary, costly, or even harmful intervention.

«

Although is this so very different from the doctors who they don’t see deciding, whose biases aren’t known?
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How to lie with data visualisation • (seen on Twitter)

Andisheh Nouraee:

»

In just 15 days the total number of #COVID19 cases in Georgia is up 49%, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the state’s data visualization map of cases. The first map is July 2. The second is today. Do you see a 50% case increase? Can you spot how they’re hiding it?

«

Click through and have a look at the graphics. A crime against data visualisation. Georgia’s state government says that “this chart is meant to aid understanding [of] whether the outbreak is growing, leveling off or declining”. In fact it does nothing of the sort. It’s almost possible to think that the error is due to the software automatically assigning numbers each time to create five “buckets” while keeping the colours the same – meaning the growing numbers of cases in specific places don’t show up.

But given that Georgia’s governor essentially wants to open the place up even as cases are soaring, I’ll go with “intentional”.

You can also read a blogpost insisting “no, it’s not intentional, this critique is totally unfair”. I disagree with it: any competent person producing dataviz will know how their software works, and avoid misleading people.
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TikTok and 32 other iOS apps still snoop your sensitive clipboard data • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

Recent headlines have focused particular attention on TikTok, in large part because of its massive base of active users (reported to be 800 million, with an estimated 104 million iOS installs in the first half of 2018 alone, making it the most downloaded app for that period).

TikTok’s continued snooping has gotten extra scrutiny for other reasons. When called out in March, the video-sharing provider told UK publication The Telegraph it would end the practice in the coming weeks. Mysk said that the app never stopped the monitoring. What’s more, a Wednesday Twitter thread revealed that the clipboard reading occurred each time a user entered a punctuation mark or tapped the space bar while composing a comment. That means the clipboard reading can happen every second or so, a much more aggressive pace than documented in the March research, which found monitoring happened when the app was opened or reopened.

«

I’ve thought more about this. By its nature, the clipboard has to be open to everything on the system without having to be given permission – as John Gruber said on a recent episode of the Dithering podcast, the keystroke you use to paste is just that, a keystroke to achieve something, not a granting of permission in its own right.

Maybe it makes better sense to treat the clipboard as always potentially unsafe, and so not put your password on there. (Though I’d like to know how iOS’s password autofill on web pages functions: does that populate the clipboard? In which case that’s bad.)

The list of apps eagerly grabbing content off the clipboard with gay abandon is pretty alarming, though. Games apps particularly, but also a meditation app. Why, exactly?
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Explaining the Cloudflare outage on July 17, 2020 • Cloudflare blog

John Graham-Cumming is CTO of Cloudflare :

»

Today a configuration error in our backbone network caused an outage for Internet properties and Cloudflare services that lasted 27 minutes. We saw traffic drop by about 50% across our network. Because of the architecture of our backbone this outage didn’t affect the entire Cloudflare network and was localized to certain geographies.

The outage occurred because, while working on an unrelated issue with a segment of the backbone from Newark to Chicago, our network engineering team updated the configuration on a router in Atlanta to alleviate congestion. This configuration contained an error that caused all traffic across our backbone to be sent to Atlanta. This quickly overwhelmed the Atlanta router and caused Cloudflare network locations connected to the backbone to fail.

«

In financial markets, this would be called “fat finger trouble”. There it loses millions of pounds/euros/dollars (ever noticed how fat fingers never make huge profits?); here it knocks out the internet. Should we give the job to GPT-3 in future?
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Inside Trump’s failure: the rush to abandon leadership role on the virus • The New York Times

Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland, Eric Lipton, Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger:

»

On April 14, the country passed what the group saw as a milestone, administering its three millionth test. Inside the West Wing, Mr. Kushner was insistent on that point: Given their assumption that infections would not surge again until the fall, there was enough testing ability out there.

Those outside experts who disagreed were largely brushed off. In mid-April, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, urged a top administration official to embrace his call for conducting 500,000 coronavirus tests a day — far more than was happening at the time.

The official, Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the administration’s testing czar, who had been delivering upbeat descriptions of the nation’s growing testing capacity, eventually conceded to Dr. Jha that his plan seemed to be needed. But he made clear the federal government was not prepared to get there quickly.

“At some point down the road,” is what Dr. Jha said Admiral Giroir told him.

“My take is that Jared Kushner believes that this is not something that the White House should get too involved in,” Dr. Jha recalled. “And then the president believes that it is better left up to the states.”

«

Trump, Kushner and all the other fools are completely out of their depth on any normal day; on this, they’re so utterly unsuitable to the job they might as well be trying to swim the Atlantic. Deborah Birx’s reputation will never recover from her Pollyanna role. Meanwhile, people are dead who could otherwise be alive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1354: EU rejects data transfer to the US, the Twitter in depth, TSMC cuts out Huawei, should TikTok be blocked?, and more


What if the Trinity test, where the first atom bomb was exploded, had gone… wrong? CC-licensed photo by Kelly Michals 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 12 links for you. Not radioactive. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

EU court rejects data transfer tool in Max Schrems case • Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary:

»

Europe’s top court has declared an arrangement under which companies transfer personal data from the European Union to the US invalid due to concerns about US surveillance powers.

The ruling in the long-running battle between Facebook, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner and the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems found that the so-called Privacy Shield agreement does not offer sufficient protection of EU citizens’ personal data.

“The limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities . . . are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law,” the court said in a statement.

The ruling is a blow to the thousands of companies, including Facebook that rely on the Privacy Shield to transfer data across the Atlantic, and to the European Commission, as it unpicks an arrangement it designed with US authorities to allow companies to comply with EU data protection law.

“Like many businesses, we are carefully considering the findings and implications of the decision of the Court of Justice in relation to the use of privacy shield and we look forward to regulatory guidance in this regard,” said Facebook’s associate general counsel, Eva Nagle.

«

And so the merry-go-round continues once again. All I expect is a ton of emails saying companies have updated their privacy policy, and buttons on web pages giving you a single option but to agree to the data transfer.
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Hackers convinced Twitter employee to help them hijack accounts • Vice

Joseph Cox:

»

The accounts were taken over using an internal tool at Twitter, according to the sources, as well as screenshots of the tool obtained by Motherboard. One of the screenshots shows the panel and the account of Binance; Binance is one of the accounts that hackers took over today. According to screenshots seen by Motherboard, at least some of the accounts appear to have been compromised by changing the email address associated with them using the tool.

In all, four sources close to or inside the underground hacking community provided Motherboard with screenshots of the user tool. Two sources said the Twitter panel was also used to change ownership of some so-called OG accounts—accounts that have a handle consisting of only one or two characters—as well as facilitating the tweeting of the cryptocurrency scams from the high profile accounts.

Twitter has been deleting some screenshots of the panel and has suspended users who have tweeted them, claiming that the tweets violate its rules.

The panel is a stark example of the issue of insider data access at tech companies. Whereas in other cases hackers have bribed workers to leverage tools over individual users, in this case the access has led to takeovers of some of the biggest accounts on the social media platform and tweeted bitcoin related scams in an effort to generate income.

The screenshots show details about the target user’s account, such as whether it has been suspended, is permanently suspended, or has protected status.

«

Remember that the Saudi regime used Twitter employees to spy on activists. This is a problem with internal security systems; Twitter needs some sort of two-factor system for its own employees, apparently. Which creates all sorts of headaches.
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Twitter hack 2020 was probably done by a bitcoiner – but not a savvy one • CoinDesk

Leigh Cuen:

»

“As much as I can tell by the evidence I see right now, the attackers did not understand the value of the information that they had,” ClearSky CEO Boaz Dolev told CoinDesk. “We need to find a way to build a more resilient audience that won’t believe anything they see in a certain format is true. It’s a new era where we need new tools to understand what is true.”

That said, with an audience reach of over 375 million followers, the hacked accounts only ensnared 421 bitcoin transactions, with only 17 of those transactions valued above $1,000. Roughly half of the transactions hailed from North American exchange accounts.

Whoever is behind the Twitter Hack of 2020, which collected bitcoin by hijacking the accounts of everyone from Barack Obama to Elon Musk, Dolev said it doesn’t appear to be a state actor or a terror group. 

So far the evidence suggests the attackers were well-versed in crypto culture, using inside jokes like spending up to 6.15 bitcoin, a popular meme reference, and tweeting about paid Telegram groups. 

“Based on the history of the first destination address of the CryptoForHealth scam addresses, the scammers have a history of gambling on BitMEX and Coinbase usage,” said the privacy-centric team behind Samourai Wallet. 

«

375 million followers, 421 transactions. I guess we know how many truly stupid people there are in the world.
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No, you couldn’t have made more money than the Twitter hacker • Fort & Forge

Rahul Sridhar:

»

The hackers got full access to all Twitter-verified accounts, meaning that they should have had access to their direct messages. Surely this is much more valuable than just posting a fake tweet? Think about the incalculable damage caused by the Sony leaks or watch this hypothetical-but-still-terrifying Tom Scott video about a world in which Gmail password-checking was turned off for a day.

It’s definitely true that there are gobs of interesting material lurking in verified users’s DMs that they wouldn’t want seeing the light of day, but it’s a little tricky to make money from this. The most obvious method is blackmail. Exfiltrate the messages from the most popular users and threaten that you’ll release them in full if they don’t send X BTC to Y address.

This would definitely make some amount of money, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort. Firstly, it’s hard to judge ahead of time which accounts have the juicy DMs. Large, high-profile accounts like Joe Biden’s are run by a whole social media team and probably don’t exchange sensitive information via Twitter. Smaller accounts probably do have more interesting gossip, but might be less willing or able to pay as a result.

Then there’s the problem of actually exfiltrating and storing all the data, sending individual messages to each of the users you hack, tracking who has and hasn’t paid, and actually releasing the leaked material publicly. It’s a lot of operational overhead that may, in the end, net you less money than the dumb Bitcoin scam.

«

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What if the Trinity test had failed? • Restricted Data

Alex Wellerstein on the anniversary (on Thursday) of the first nuclear test, and a counterfactual consideration: what if it hadn’t worked as they anticipated?

»

The scientists had high confidence that the gun-type design would work, and it was easier to confirm the principles behind it without a full-scale test. Would their confidence have been shaken? If their diagnostics of the Trinity test told them that the detonator system had worked as planned, then they might have worried that their deeper understanding of a fission bomb was incorrect. But if they thought it was just an assembly problem — something unique to the implosion design — then they’d probably have still been confident about the gun-type arrangement. 

But the policymakers and military brass would probably have been a lot less confident. Outside of Groves, none of the other military leaders had a deep understanding of the bomb, and several expressed extreme pessimism about its prospects prior to Trinity. A Trinity failure would have reinforced these perspectives. It’s possible they might have judged the entire thing not ready for prime time, and scuttled any use plans until they were confident that it wouldn’t be an embarrassment.

And a failed Trinity would, as noted, probably mean that they would have extreme delays in their plutonium bomb capabilities. I think they’d still want to use the uranium bomb as soon as possible. But they’d know that they would not be able to follow it up with more attacks for some time. Maybe they’d try to bluff about that, or maybe they’d just downplay how much destruction they’d be delivering that way, I don’t know. But I think they’d consider it a pretty different situation.

«

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TSMC plans to halt chip supplies to Huawei in 2 months • Nikkei Asian Review

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

»

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. on Thursday confirmed it has suspended processing new orders from key customer Huawei Technologies to comply with U.S. export regulations, but said it can still achieve more than 20% revenue growth this year thanks to strong demand for 5G smartphones, infrastructure and high-performance computing applications.

The world’s biggest contract chipmaker also said it is ramping up capital spending for 2020, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We are complying fully with the new [U.S.] regulations. We did not take any new orders [from Huawei] since May 15,” TSMC Chairman Mark Liu told an investors conference, confirming an earlier report by the Nikkei Asian Review. “Although the regulation just finished its public comment period, the BIS [Bureau of Industry and Security] did not make a final ruling change. Under this circumstance, we do not plan to ship wafers [to Huawei] after Sept. 14.”

Under the tightened export control rule, non-U.S. chip companies must apply for licenses to use American technology and tools to supply to Huawei, the biggest Chinese tech company. TSMC and other chipmakers were not allowed to process new orders from Huawei or its chip design arm HiSilicon after May 15 without a license and must ship any orders already in the pipeline before Sept. 14.

«

Noose tightening for Huawei. Either it will become completely independent, or it will die.
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The US military is using online gaming to recruit teens • The Nation

Jordan Uhl:

»

“Have a nice time getting banned, my dude,” Army recruiter and gamer Joshua “Strotnium” David told me right before he booted me from the US Army’s Twitch channel. I had just reminded viewers of the United States’ history of atrocities around the globe, and helpfully provided a link to the Wikipedia page for US war crimes.

Was I undiplomatic? Sure. But if the military is going to use one of the world’s most popular platforms to recruit kids, then it shouldn’t be able to do so without some pushback. Right now, with the support of Twitch, gamers with the US military are spending hours with children as young as 13, trying to convince them to enlist.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force all stream on Twitch using dedicated e-sports teams. These teams are comprised of skilled gamers who compete in tournaments for cash prizes. While members of military e-sports teams offer the regular gaming skill set, they’re also on-screen talent and recruiters. Instead of approaching a recruiter behind a table in a school cafeteria, kids can hang out with one who is playing their favorite video games and replying to their chat messages for hours on end.

…The practices employed on Twitch by military e-sports teams are part of a system by which recruiters target children in unstable and/or disadvantaged situations. Recruiters take advantage of the poor seeking steady income, the vulnerable longing for stability, and the undocumented living in fear because of their citizenship status. Now, at a time when all those factors are magnified by a pandemic that has left half the country out of work and over 30% unable to afford their housing payments, conditions are ripe for recruiters to prey on anxious youth..

«

The US military has been using videogames as a recruitment method for ages. This story got them banned from Twitch.
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Banning TikTok is a terrible idea • SupChina

Samm Sacks:

»

The mere fact that a Chinese company handles U.S. citizen data in and of itself may not necessarily warrant banning investment under CFIUS or blacklisting a specific company for use in the U.S. The U.S. national security risks should be evaluated based on an investigation, with regular audits, to determine (a) what kind of U.S. citizen data is being accessed (for example, metadata, images, geographic data, critical infrastructure data), (b) how that data is being used and what data protection measures are in place to protect the rights and interests of U.S. consumers, and (c) with whom that data is being shared and through what mechanisms. If, based on the outcomes of such an evaluation, the U.S. government cannot verify that the interests and rights of U.S. consumers will be protected, then that company should be prohibited from storing and sharing U.S. personal data.

Such an assessment also must consider what intelligence value the data collected on TikTok’s platform would provide to Beijing. Videos of lip syncing and dancing are of limited strategic use even for an “adversary government” (which the Trump administration is increasingly calling China) — whether to target individuals for coercion or even as used in aggregate form as part of a mass collection effort. In this way, the data security risk posed by TikTok is different from that of Grindr, the gay dating app acquired by a Chinese gaming company deemed a national security threat by CFIUS.

«

The better argument, which he also makes, is that there should be better data security for all sorts of data. But to think that TikTok isn’t any sort of risk comes across as a little nieve.
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Toshiba’s light sensor paves the way for cheap Lidar • IEEE Spectrum

John Boyd:

»

high-end Lidar systems can be expensive, costing $80,000 or more, though cheaper versions are also available. The current leader in the field is Velodyne, whose lasers mechanically rotate in a tower mounted atop of a vehicle’s roof.

Solid-state Lidar systems have been announced in the past several years but have yet to challenge the mechanical variety. Now, Toshiba hopes to advance their cause with its SiPM: a solid-state light sensor employing single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) technology. The Toshiba SiPM contains multiple SPADs, each controlled by an active quenching circuit (AQC). When an SPAD detects a photon, the SPAD cathode voltage is reduced but the AQC resets and reboots the SPAD voltage to the initial value. 

“Typical SiPM recovery time is 10 to 20 nanoseconds,” says Tuan Thanh Ta, Toshiba’s project leader for the technology. “We’ve made it 2 to 4 times faster by using this forced or active quenching method.”

The increased efficiency means Toshiba has been able to use far fewer light sensing cells—down from 48 to just 2—to produce a device measuring 25 μm x 90 μm, much smaller, the company says, than standard devices measuring 100 μm x 100 μm. The small size of these sensors has allowed Toshiba to create a dense two-dimensional array for high sensitivity, a requisite for long-range scanning. 

«

Important waypoint, although this is probably going to be more useful offroad and for drones.
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How to fix the Covid-19 dumpster fire in the US • STAT News

Helen Branswell:

»

The website Covidexitstrategy.org has updated its previously tri-colored U.S. map, which showed states as either green, signifying they are trending better; yellow, making progress; or red, trending poorly. A fourth designation, called “bruised red,” signals states with uncontrolled spread; criteria for this category includes hospitals nearing capacity both in terms of overall beds and ICU space. Already 17 states are wearing bruised red.

The virus suppression gains earned through the painful societal shutdowns of March, April, and May — the flattened epidemiological curves — have been squandered in many parts of the country, dejected public health experts agree. A vaccine for the masses is still months away. What can be done?

One thing is clear, according to public health experts: Widespread returns to lockdown must be a last resort — and may not be doable.

“It would be really a morale breaker,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told STAT. “The stress and strain that people were under during prolonged lockdown is the genesis of why, when they were given the opportunity to try and open up, they rebounded so abruptly. Because what I think happened is, they overshot.”

«

That exit strategy site shows quite what a mess the US is. The article has opinions from health experts, in which the one that would probably make the most sense – but won’t happen – is “consistent consistency” in the messaging about what to do. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Attorney General Barr accuses Hollywood, Big Tech of collaborating with China • Reuters

Sarah Lynch and David Shepardson:

»

U.S. Attorney General William Barr took aim at Hollywood companies, including Walt Disney on Thursday as well as large technology firms like Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Microsoft Corp over company actions with China.

“Corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple have shown themselves all too willing to collaborate with the (Chinese Communist party),” Barr said. He added that Hollywood has routinely caved into pressure and censored their films “to appease the Chinese Communist Party.” The companies and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately comment. Apple declined comment.

“I suspect Walt Disney would be disheartened to see how the company he founded deals with the foreign dictatorships of our day,” Barr said in a speech at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan.

Barr chided U.S. companies for being too willing to take steps to ensure access to the large Chinese market. “The Chinese Communist Party thinks in terms of decades and centuries, while we tend to focus on the next quarterly earnings report,” Barr said. “America’s big tech companies have also allowed themselves to become pawns of Chinese influence.”

…Barr suggested that Apple iPhones “wouldn’t be sold (in China) if they were impervious to penetration by Chinese authorities.” He suggested American tech companies were imposing a “double standard.”

«

Barr is, as so often, talking nonsense. Sure, Hollywood takes financing from China for films, which are then shown there. Google doesn’t operate there. Microsoft and Yahoo have minimal operations. Apple’s products can’t be penetrated, same as the US government can’t penetrate them here (and keeps wailing for help to break into them).
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Russia-linked hackers accused of targeting Covid-19 vaccine developers • Financial Times

Helen Warrell, Clive Cookson and Henry Foy:

»

Hackers backed by the Russian state are targeting pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions in the UK, US and Canada that are conducting Covid-19 vaccine research, British intelligence officials have warned.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, together with Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, blamed the attacks on the cyber espionage group APT29, which it alleged was “almost certainly” working for the Kremlin’s intelligence services. The findings have been endorsed by the US National Security Agency.

Intelligence officials said the group had used a form of malware known as “WellMess” and “WellMail” to steal information on vaccine research and development, and warned that the attacks were likely to continue. Officials would not confirm whether the hacking group had successfully stolen any intellectual property but said UK research facilities were being “well-defended” against the threat.

Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, said it was “completely unacceptable that the Russian intelligence services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic”, adding that Britain would work with international partners to hold the perpetrators to account.

…The new allegations about Russian hacking come ahead of the publication on Monday of the first clinical trial results from Oxford university’s much anticipated Covid-19 vaccine.

The results, which will appear in The Lancet journal, include what one senior Oxford scientist called “terrific preliminary data” on the way the inoculation stimulates immunity.

«

APT29, aka “Cozy Bear”, the Russian state-sponsored hacking group that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1353: hackers hit Twitter, Apple escapes tax bill, the technological genocide in Xinjiang, Zoom thinks big, and more


Fake photos were used to create a “personality” for articles attacking an activist. Who’s behind them? CC-licensed photo by World Economic Forum 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The world’s most technologically sophisticated genocide is happening in Xinjiang • Foreign Policy

Rayhan Asat, Yonah Diamond:

»

With Uighur men detained and women sterilized, the government has laid the groundwork for the physical destruction of the Uighur people. At least half a million of the remaining Uighur children have been separated from their families and are being raised by the state at so-called “children shelters.”

What makes this genocide so uniquely dangerous is its technological sophistication, allowing for efficiency in its destruction and concealment from global attention. The Uighurs have been suffering under the most advanced police state, with extensive controls and restrictions on every aspect of life—religious, familial, cultural, and social. To facilitate surveillance, Xinjiang operates under a grid management system. Cities and villages are split into squares of about 500 people. Each square has a police station that closely monitors inhabitants by regularly scanning their identification cards, faces, DNA samples, fingerprints, and cell phones. These methods are supplemented by a machine-operated system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. The system uses machine learning to collect personal data from video surveillance, smartphones, and other private records to generate lists for detention. Over a million Han Chinese watchers have been installed in Uighur households, rendering even intimate spaces subject to the government’s eye.

The Chinese government operates the most intrusive mass surveillance system in the world and repeatedly denies the international community meaningful access to it. It is therefore incumbent on us to appreciate the nature, depth, and speed of the genocide and act now before it’s too late.

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Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Apple, and others hacked in unprecedented Twitter attack • The Verge

Nick Statt:

»

The Twitter accounts of major companies and individuals have been compromised in one of the most widespread and confounding hacks the platform has ever seen, all in service of promoting a bitcoin scam that appears to be earning its creator quite a bit of money. We don’t know how it’s happened or even to what extent Twitter’s own systems may have been compromised. The hack is ongoing, with new tweets posting to verified accounts on a regular basis starting shortly after 4PM ET.

It all began when Elon Musk’s Twitter account was seemingly compromised by a hacker intent on using it to run a bitcoin scam. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also had his account seemingly accessed by the same scammer, who posted a similar message with an identical bitcoin wallet address. Both accounts are continuing to post new tweets promoting the scam almost as fast as they are deleted. A spokesperson for Gates tells Recode’s Teddy Schleifer, “We can confirm that this tweet was not sent by Bill Gates. This appears to be part of a larger issue that Twitter is facing. Twitter is aware and working to restore the account.”

«

Incredible if there are people who would honestly send money to a bitcoin address just because they see a tweet which says “I am giving back to my fans. All Bitcoin sent to my address below will be sent back doubled.” I mean, there’s intellectually challenged, and there’s utterly stupid. You can see the money moving into it at this page. Apparently more than 200 people were that dim.

Just after the hack, the suggestion is that a Twitter employee admin panel was hacked. It’s that or a third-party app, the common method.
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Deepfake used to attack activist couple shows new disinformation frontier • Reuters

Raphael Satter:

»

Oliver Taylor, a student at England’s University of Birmingham, is a twenty-something with brown eyes, light stubble, and a slightly stiff smile.

Online profiles describe him as a coffee lover and politics junkie who was raised in a traditional Jewish home. His half dozen freelance editorials and blog posts reveal an active interest in anti-Semitism and Jewish affairs, with bylines in the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.

The catch? Oliver Taylor seems to be an elaborate fiction.

His university says it has no record of him. He has no obvious online footprint beyond an account on the question-and-answer site Quora, where he was active for two days in March. Two newspapers that published his work say they have tried and failed to confirm his identity. And experts in deceptive imagery used state-of-the-art forensic analysis programs to determine that Taylor’s profile photo is a hyper-realistic forgery – a “deepfake.”

…Reuters was alerted to Taylor by London academic Mazen Masri, who drew international attention in late 2018 when he helped launch an Israeli lawsuit against the surveillance company NSO on behalf of alleged Mexican victims of the company’s phone hacking technology.

In an article in U.S. Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner, Taylor had accused Masri and his wife, Palestinian rights campaigner Ryvka Barnard, of being “known terrorist sympathizers.”

Masri and Barnard were taken aback by the allegation, which they deny. But they were also baffled as to why a university student would single them out. Masri said he pulled up Taylor’s profile photo. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he said, but something about the young man’s face “seemed off.”

«

Not a deepfake, but certainly a fake. I think we can join the dots on how Masri was targeted. Howcome a news organisation would just take an article from a Uni of Birmingham student, though?
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Zoom introduces all-in-one home communications appliance for $599 • TechCrunch

Ron Miller:

»

The device, dubbed the Zoom for Home – DTEN ME, is being produced by partner DTEN. It consists of a standalone 27in screen, essentially a large tablet equipped with three wide-angle cameras designed for high-resolution video and 8 microphones. Zoom software is pre-loaded on the device and the interface is designed to provide easy access to popular Zoom features.

Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, says that the idea is to offer an appliance that you can pull out of the box and it’s ready to use with minimal fuss. “Zoom for Home is an initiative from Zoom that allows any Zoom user to deploy a personal collaboration device for their video meetings, phone calls, interactive whiteboard annotation — all the good stuff that you want to do on Zoom, you can do with a dedicated purpose-built device,” Smith told TechCrunch.

He says this is designed with simplicity in mind, so that you pull it out of the box and launch the interface by entering a pairing code on a website on your laptop or mobile phone. Once the interface appears, you simply touch the function you want, such as making a phone call or starting a meeting, and it connects automatically.

«

Clearly they’re thinking that *waves hands all this* is going to go on and on. Doubt they’ll find any buyers in business while the China rhetoric is getting louder and louder, until Zoom corrals off its servers there.
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Apple adds audio to Apple News, along with in-house daily podcast • Axios

Sara Fischer:

»

Apple is adding new audio features to both its free Apple News and subscription Apple News+ services, including a short daily podcast, produced and narrated by its own editorial staff.

Apple is doubling down on its commitment to human and editorial curation of news content, something its rival tech partners have mostly been slower to do.

The podcast, called “Apple News Today,” will be seven to eight minutes long, and offered free to Apple News users on weekdays.

It will be hosted by two former journalists who now work as Apple News editors, Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino.

“Apple News Today” will exist exclusively within the Apple News app, meaning Apple won’t make it available on rival platforms like Spotify.

Apple will also produce roughly 20 audio stories a week for Apple News+ subscribers, based off narrations of mostly long-form stories from publishing partners.

«

Is this meant to make people more likely to subscribe to News+? I don’t get it. Somehow this feels like makework for the folk they’ve got curating stuff at Apple News.
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Apple wins major tax battle against EU • WSJ

Valentina Pop and Sam Schechner:

»

Apple won a major battle with the European Union when the bloc’s second-highest court on Wednesday sided with the US company over a €13bn ($14.8bn) tax bill that EU antitrust officials had said the company owed to Ireland.

The decision was a rebuke to Margrethe Vestager, who is leading the charge at the European Commission to rein in alleged abuses by big tech companies including Apple, Alphabet’s Google, and Amazon.

But Wednesday’s setback may at the same time embolden Ms. Vestager and other EU leaders in their push to create new regulations for tech companies, because they already argue that existing rules are insufficient to bring big tech companies to heel in areas ranging from competition to taxes.

The case stems from a 2016 decision by the European Commission, the bloc’s top antitrust enforcer, which said that Ireland must recoup €13bn in allegedly unpaid taxes between 2003 and 2014, money the commission said constituted an illegal subsidy under the bloc’s strict state-aid rules.

The General Court swept aside that reasoning, saying it annulled the decision because the commission had failed to meet the legal standards in showing that Apple was illegally given special treatment.

«

Surprising: this seemed like a lock at the time.
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MP who beat Chris Grayling to intelligence chair role loses Tory whip • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:

»

One source said Grayling “didn’t see it coming” as the nine members of the MPs’ committee voted five to four in favour of Lewis, with the four opposition members all voting against Grayling.

A furious Downing Street responded by stripping the whip from Lewis – a Tory MP since 1997 – “because he worked with Labour and other opposition MPs to his own advantage”.

The committee, responsible for oversight of Britain’s spy agencies, has agreed to meet again before recess and is expected to discuss publishing the long-delayed report into Russian interference in British politics.

Grayling had been the prime minister’s choice for months, but his appointment was controversial even amongst Conservatives because of his error-prone record as a cabinet minister.

He presided over the collapse of Northern and Thameslink rail services and the granting of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company with no ships.

As justice secretary, he part-privatised the probation service and banned prisoners from receiving books from relatives, a measure that was overturned in the courts. He was also a prominent supporter of leave in the 2016 referendum campaign.

«

Simply the most hilarious story in British politics. Grayling is known as “Failing Grayling” because of all the screwups he’s overseen. And now he screws up getting selected for a plum job that the government wanted him to do – heading the Intelligence and Security Committee. And now the government has taken away its hold over the Tory MP who did get in. Let all dunderheads fail in the same way.
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Wirecard boasted of hundreds of partnerships. Some were less than meets the eye • WSJ

Caitlin Ostroff:

»

Wirecard’s former Chief Executive Markus Braun, now accused by German prosecutors of falsely inflating revenues, put a high priority on issuing news releases, according to former employees. Business unit leaders would get regular calls from the investor relations team demanding things to announce, according to one employee. Some joked internally that these releases were Wirecard’s real product.

A lawyer for Mr. Braun didn’t respond to requests for comment. The lawyer previously said his client was cooperating fully with prosecutors.

In 2019, Wirecard issued over 100 news releases, while competitors such as Dutch payments processor Adyen NV issued 21 releases and the U.S.’s Discover Financial Services put out 80.

“If you’re just scratching the surface and you look at headlines, you’ll say ‘oh that’s pretty impressive,’” said Neil Campling, head of telecoms, media and technology research at Mirabaud Securities. “If you looked at the details, you’d realize it was absolutely meaningless.”

More than 90 companies identified in Wirecard’s releases responded to The Journal’s inquiries. Many declined to comment. Others confirmed that they had legitimate business with Wirecard. Some said they were Wirecard customers but that the releases overplayed their relationship.

«

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With Trump, invective obscures his policy messages • Los Angeles Times

Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman:

»

the White House spent a good part of the day dealing with a controversy set off by an op-ed column in which Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert.

Fauci “has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on,” Navarro said in his column in USA Today, which appeared Tuesday night online.

White House officials tried to distance the president from the column. Deputy press secretary Alyssa Farah tweeted that it “didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone.” Trump, she continued, “values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration.”

But there’s little doubt that Navarro’s broadside reflected — and appealed to — the president’s own frustration with Fauci, who has not been invited to the Oval Office to brief Trump since early June and whose proposed television appearances often have been blocked by the White House.

According to one administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, Navarro had the president’s permission to write the column.

“Not only was he authorized by Trump, he was encouraged,” the official said.

«

Navarro’s column begin “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on”. He rather kills his argument by suggesting that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treament: the study he quotes isn’t an RCT (randomized controlled trial). But there’s a simple explanation: Navarro’s a grifter who says things his boss wants to hear.
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12 things I learned by switching from the 13-inch MacBook Pro to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro • Macworld

Michael Simon:

»

My setup was as high-end as you could get: a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and cellular connectivity, a Magic Keyboard, and Apple Pencil—a setup that’s more expensive than the 13-inch MacBook Pro I got it in 2016. It looked great on my desk and felt every bit like the future Apple sells. When I snapped the iPad into its magnetic enclosure, I truly hoped it could replace my MacBook with a sleek, modern, and versatile device.

Sadly, it didn’t work out. I spent more time fighting my iPad than loving it, and when push came to shove, it was just too difficult to get things done as quickly and efficiently as I do on my Mac. Some of it is muscle memory, of course, but there are still fundamental issues with the iPad that prevent it from being the work-first device Apple wants it to be. So I’m giving it up.

While there’s a lot to like about the iPad Pro and Apple’s whole tablet experience, it isn’t as simple as a trackpad being the missing link between it and the Mac.

«

His two main criticisms are that it was hard to work with photos, and hard to work with text. That seems like it would cover the work you’d want to do. Though I don’t think that the week he gave it is quite enough – and also, you need to think hard about what apps you’re going to use. Cross-platform ones are a good idea, for instance.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1352: more on Facebook’s pseudoscience ads, TikTok as warfare, the trouble with VC money, Google’s ATAP lives!, and more


UK networks have been told by the government to remove these pieces. Very, very slowly. CC-licensed photo by Christoph Scholz 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to fight health ‘cures’ online • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

»

Stories like [Anne Borden King’s, featured here yesterday after she got pseudoscience junk ads on Facebook after posting about her cancer diagnosis] feel distressingly familiar. Internet grifters looking to make money have been responsible for spreading false vaccine conspiracies online or selling illegal drugs. And because our health is a perennial anxiety, there’s a big market for false hope.

“You can’t get rid of the impetus for pseudoscience, but you can stop a lot of vulnerable people from being exploited,” Borden said.

First, let’s discuss what Facebook can do to stop this. “Only take as many ads as they have time for humans for review,” Borden said. “That’s the only ethical thing they can do.”

This one is a doozy. Advertising online tends to be more automated than it is for TV or newspapers. Facebook and Google do have people and computer systems to weed out some inappropriate ads, but many are purchased without much human intervention.

Borden is essentially saying that automated advertising is too risky, at least for health-related products.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company rejected ads with claims that fact checkers rated as false, and that it didn’t “allow ads claiming to cure incurable diseases.”

Like many proposed fixes for our popular internet hangouts, Borden’s suggestion boils down to making social media more like conventional media. That’s what critics of Facebook or other online companies mean when they say that these companies should add context to politicians’ inflammatory statements posted on their sites, or that they shouldn’t be a forum for all ideas.

«

I’d been in touch with Borden King yesterday (for a book I’m working on) – she’s clearly had a busy time. The extent of the pseudoscience exploitation, and the length of time it’s been going on, is just staggering. And in her words to me, “Facebook is the worst.”
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The TikTok war • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

»

[TikTok] censored #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd, blocked a teenager discussing China’s genocide in Xinjiang, and blocked a video of Tank Man. The Guardian published TikTok guidelines that censored Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the Falun Gong, and I myself demonstrated that TikTok appeared to be censoring the Hong Kong protests and Houston Rockets basketball team.

The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?

«

Ben’s position on this is entirely reasonable and well-argued, though there’s also the corollary: Facebook will promote adverts by politicians for free if there’s a lot of engagement. Is that also propaganda?
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Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need • MIT Technology Review

Elizabeth MacBride:

»

it has become clearer that things many people thought about life in America aren’t true. The nation wasn’t ready for a pandemic. It hasn’t made much progress on providing justice for all, as the riots provoked by police brutality in late May reminded us. And it is hard to claim that it remains the world’s most innovative economy. Software and technology are only one corner of the innovation playground, and the US has been so focused on the noisy kids in the sandbox that it has failed to maintain the rest of the equipment. 

People who really study innovation systems “realize that venture capital may not be a perfect model” for all of them, says Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation, which supports inventors and entrepreneurs building physical products.

In the United States, she says, 75% of venture capital goes to software. Some 5 to 10% goes to biotech: a tiny handful of venture capitalists have mastered the longer art of building a biotech company. The other sliver goes to everything else—“transportation, sanitation, health care.” To fund a complete system of innovation, we need to think about “not only the downstream invention itself, but what preceded it,” Dahl says. “Not only inspiring people who want to invent, but thinking about the way products reach us through companies.”

Dahl told me about a company that had developed reusable protective gear when Ebola emerged, and was now slowly ramping up production. What if it had been supported by venture funds earlier on?

That’s not going to happen, Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock, a leading VC firm, told me: “Money is going to flow where returns are. If software continues to have returns, that’s where it will flow.” Even with targeted government subsidies that lower the risks for VCs, he said, most people will stick with what they know.

«

Big deep dive, but the real lesson is that VCs simply don’t have diverse enough lives to understand where the opportunities are.
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China malware: sorry, techno geeks, there still is no place to hide • China Law Blog

Steve Dickinson:

»

In The Chinese Government is Accessing YOUR Network Through the Backdoor and There Still is NO Place to Hide, I explained how Chinese banks are requiring their account holders to install malware which allows the Chinese government to see All account holder data — financial or otherwise. We received the usual set of comments we get whenever we right about the lack of data protection in China:

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when “every country does the same thing.” First off, this is a blog about China. Second, not every country does the same thing. Third, your data in China goes to the Chinese government, not to Facebook or to Google and last we looked, neither Facebook nor Google have virtually unlimited power to imprison you.

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when there isn’t anything anyone can do about it and would not we all (including YOUR law firm) be better off just keeping our mouths shut. Yes, we would all be better keeping our mouths shut and just acting like this is not a problem and continuing to encourage companies to go into China strictly for the money. But that is just not how we roll.

• You are international lawyers, not data security specialists and you just don’t know all the easy workarounds out there that will enable you to have a China bank account and give no data to the Chinese government. I will address these comments in this post

«

Quite wild that the Chinese government installs malware. And it’s dramatic malware too which does an end-run around Windows user protection.
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Inside Google’s secretive ATAP research lab • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

»

From Samsung’s “Air View” feature to the Leap Motion controller, various approaches to interacting with a screen without touching it have been around for years. But ATAP director of engineering Ivan Poupyrev and head of design Leo Giusti—who spearhead Jacquard as well as Soli—took a fresh look at the challenge of interpreting such gestures. The goal was to create something that was intuitive, power-efficient, capable of working in the dark, and (by not using a camera) privacy-minded. The enabling technology they settled on: radar.

If Google had required Soli to prove its worth in two years, it might never have emerged from the lab. It was “a little insane to say we are going to put radar—60 gigahertz radar!—onto a chip,” Kaufman says. And even if ATAP did manage the feat, that was a long way from being able to suss out specific gestures being made by a human being.

“We spent the first years exploring this new material that is the electromagnetic spectrum,” says Giusti. “We really didn’t think about use cases at the very beginning. So it’s kind of different from a normal product development cycle. This was truly research and development.”

Once the Soli team was ready to consider specific real-world scenarios, it envisioned using Soli in smartwatches, where screens are dinky and traditional touch input can be tough to pull off. “We just needed a target,” says Poupyrev. “And we focused a lot on small gestures and fine finger motions, just to [be] super aggressive.” Eventually, the researchers began experimenting with the technology’s possibilities in smartphones—though at first, the requisite technology ate up so much internal space that an early prototype had no room for a camera.

After multiple iterations, ATAP had a Soli chip that looks tiny even when sitting next to a pushpin. That’s what went into the Pixel 4 to enable its Motion Sense features.

«

Which, I’m guessing, pretty much nobody uses. It’s the biannual visit to ATAP. Google’s obsession with having wild and crazy hardware is really strange, given how little hardware it offers, or sells. One of the ideas mentioned here – shouldn’t your Google Home know to wait until you’re back in the room to say the cooking timer’s finished? – sounds smart. Then you realise you could just do it with a phone or a smartwatch. I’m not sure they’re asking the right questions.
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Huawei decision ‘may delay 5G by three years and cost UK £7bn’ • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:

»

Matthew Howett, the founder of the research firm Assembly, said: “Mobile phone operators have so far cherry-picked the major urban areas to deploy 5G, but changing the rules now will mean delays for the rest of the country.”

Previous research conducted by Assembly on behalf of the telecoms firms BT, Vodafone, O2 and Three, concluded the UK would suffer an economic hit of £6.8bn from not deploying 5G and risk falling behind continental Europe.

“We also thought it would set the UK back 18 to 24 months, but [UK culture secretary Oliver] Dowden went further and said it would be three years,” Howett said. “Anywhere where coverage is already poor is now going to have to wait longer.”

However, BT said that despite “logistical and cost implications”, it thought it could continue “without a significant impact on the timescales we’ve previously announced”.

After Dowden said it would cost mobile phone companies an extra £2bn, a source at one of the major operators said that would inevitably have a knock-on impact on the already fragile economics of rural communications.

Dowden was responding to a decision made by the Trump administration in May to ban Huawei from using US microchips, which meant the UK could no longer be confident the Chinese company’s technology did not pose a security risk.

One Whitehall official described the US sanctions as “a game changer”, while another said Britain had been surprised by how draconian they were. “This was at the harder end of expectations,” they said.

The prime minister has become embroiled in an intense geopolitical row over Huawei, in which Trump has demanded the Chinese company be kicked out of the UK, claiming it poses a long-term security risk.

«

The mobile operators are also saying it will slow down the deployment of 5G in rural areas. Speaking as someone in a rural area, I’d be happy for them just to get the 4G deployment solid.
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Why is a tech executive installing security cameras around San Francisco? • The New York Times

Nellie Bowles:

»

[Chris Larsen’s] apartment on Russian Hill has a trophy view of San Francisco Bay and the tight curves of Lombard Street. But also: the crews coming in to rob tourists’ cars, right in the middle of the day. Mr. Larsen watches the police drive by, and the criminals arriving 15 seconds later, smashing the vehicles’ windows and stealing luggage.

“They don’t care at all — they don’t care if they’re being seen,” Mr. Larsen said. “It’s brazen.”

His father-in-law’s car was robbed. Mr. Larsen’s own car windows were smashed. When a group of men climbed into his garden and one of them cut the wires on his home security system, while his children were sleeping inside, Mr. Larsen decided that he had had enough.

…Here is what he is doing: Writing checks for nearly $4m to buy cameras that record high-definition video of the streets and paying to have them maintained by a company called Applied Video Solutions The rest is up to locals in neighborhood coalitions like Community Benefit Districts, nonprofits formed to provide services to the area.

Here is how the project works. Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition. The cameras are always recording.

The cameras are not hidden. Mr. Larsen believes they can serve as both deterrent and aid in investigations, but it is difficult to say how effective they have been in reducing overall crime.

«

Too early to say. The initial finding seems to be that cameras installed on one block then push crime a few blocks away. Not quite a solution, but a very common experience.
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Google steers users to YouTube over rivals • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and John West:

»

When choosing the best video clips to promote from around the web, Alphabet’s Google gives a secret advantage to one source in particular: itself.

Or, more specifically, its giant online-video service, YouTube.

Take a clip of basketball star Zion Williamson that the National Basketball Association posted online in January, when he made his highly anticipated pro debut. The clip was popular on Facebook, drawing more than one million views and nearly 900 comments as of March. A nearly identical YouTube version of the clip with the same title was seen about 182,000 times and garnered fewer than 400 comments.

But when The Wall Street Journal’s automated bots searched Google for the clip’s title, the YouTube version featured much more prominently than the Facebook version.

The Journal conducted Google searches for a selection of other videos and channels that are available on YouTube as well as on competitors’ platforms. The YouTube versions were significantly more prominent in the results in the vast majority of cases.

This isn’t by accident. Engineers at Google have made changes that effectively preference YouTube over other video sources, according to people familiar with the matter. Google executives in recent years made decisions to prioritize YouTube on the first page of search results, in part to drive traffic to YouTube rather than to competitors, and also to give YouTube more leverage in business deals with content providers seeking traffic for their videos, one of those people said.

“All else being equal, YouTube will be first,” the person said.

«

Welcome to 2008! Google has been doing this sort of thing for more than a decade.
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Bitcoin is more like ham radio than the early internet • Moneyness

JP Koning:

»

Bitcoin and ham radio are quite similar. They are both clunky and old-fangled. Neither technology is particularly easy to use relative to more mainstream options: ham radio’s user experience is trumped by Whatsapp’s, and Zelle is smoother to use than bitcoin. Go to Youtube an you’ll find thousands of videos explaining how each technology works.

The very feature that makes both ham and bitcoin so confusing is also its strength. They are both decentralized. That is, neither relies on a single omnipresent service provider. Rather, the actual user is 100% in charge of operating the tool. No account necessary. This lack of a gate keeper means that there is no one to soften the user experience. It also means that no one can be excluded from broadcasting a radio message, or transferring some bitcoins. That’s a neat feature.

The ham radio community seems to be quite comfortable with its nicheness. Ham radio operators don’t huddle together and talk about “overthrowing the totalitarian system of smart phones” or “displacing evil email.” There is no ham radio fixes this meme on twitter.

And no wonder. If ham radio were to have gone mainstream by 2025, it would only be because some sort of massive natural disaster, say a meteor strike, has crippled all other forms of communication. No sane ham radio operator would wish this sort of doom scenario on the world.

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That’s a good way to think of it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1351: Facebook’s junk cancer ads, the trouble with efficiency, California quake odds rise, Google’s walled garden, and more


Blue LEDs: efficient, but really quite vexing if they’re on you a lot. CC-licensed photo by Bill Strong 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. Short rations. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I have cancer. Now my Facebook feed is full of ‘alternative care’ ads • The New York Times

Anne Borden King:

»

Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t.

«

Just as worth reading is an earlier piece that Borden King co-wrote in April which points out how social media allows these junk companies to sell their stuff.
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Chance of big San Andreas quake increased by Ridgecrest temblors • Los Angeles Times

Rong-Gong Lin II:

»

A new study suggests that last year’s Ridgecrest earthquakes increased the chance of a large earthquake on California’s San Andreas fault.

The study, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America on Monday, says there is now a 2.3% chance of an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the next 12 months on a section of the 160-mile-long Garlock fault, which runs along the northern edge of the Mojave Desert.

That increased likelihood, in turn, would cause there to be a 1.15% chance of a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault in the next year.

Those odds may seem small. But they’re a substantial jump from what the chances were before last year’s Ridgecrest, Calif., earthquakes, whose epicenters were about 125 miles northeast of downtown L.A.

The new odds mean a large quake on the Garlock fault is now calculated to be 100 times more likely — rising from 0.023% in the next year to 2.3%.

«

That’s quite a big change. A year ago, what would you have thought were the chances of a pandemic cratering economies? 2.3%?
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Google search upgrades make it harder for websites to win traffic • Yahoo

Gerrit De Vynck:

»

In the early 2000s, the company’s search engine offered a simple deal: Produce quality information and Google will send you traffic so you can make money showing ads. Reinvest some of that cash to make better experiences, and the web will grow, giving Google more territory to explore and organize.

“Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective,” Page and co-founder Sergey Brin wrote when the company went public in 2004. Ads would be few, helpful and unobtrusive, they said. 

This deal has been slowly changing, though. A turning point came in June 2019. That was when more than half of searches kept users on Google for the first time, rather than sending people to other sites through a free web link or an ad, according to data from digital marketing company Jumpshot.

“We’ve passed a milestone in Google’s evolution from search engine to walled-garden,” said Rand Fishkin, who has advised businesses on how to work with Google’s search engine for nearly two decades. “They used to be the good guys.”

On smartphones, the change has been more pronounced. From June 2016 to June 2019, the proportion of mobile searches that led to clicks on free web links dropped to 27% from 40%. No-click searches, which Fishkin says suggests the user found the information they needed on Google, rose to 62% from 56%. Meanwhile, clicks on ads more than tripled, Jumpshot data show. 
When the search engine can give straightforward answers and save users a click, it will do that, and some sites have embraced this as a new way to gain traffic, according to Danny Sullivan, public liaison for Google’s search team. The company knows “the best information is coming from the web” and it wants to support the ecosystem, he added.

«

From search engine to walled garden is a good way to put it. Google never wants to let you out.
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Just too efficient • ongoing

Tim Bray on having seen a couple of street sweepers in Beijing in 2019 pausing to tell each other a story and have a smoke:

»

You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:
Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.
Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.
Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process.
Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

The end-game: efficiency, taken to the max, can get very dark.

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And he then goes on to show you just how dark.
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Why are LED indicator lights (especially blue lights) so annoying? • Tedium

Ernie Smith:

»

There’s a light on the front of my TV set—a 55-inch TCL Roku TV set, of the kind that people who just want an inexpensive big TV buy—that I find annoying. It seems like a light that exists basically for show. A lot of our electronics have these annoying lights, especially set-top boxes that don’t really do much more than sit there most of the time.

Yes, indicator lights are useful—a quick way of knowing whether your laptop is charging or you’ve gotten a notification of some kind—but they can be maddening when they’re too in-your-face. Recently, a follower of mine on Twitter, Michael Krakovskiy, posed what I thought was an amazing suggestion regarding these flashing lights, along with loud buzzing noises and internet access: a company should actively develop products without them, and specialize in it. (Somewhat in jest; he did suggest a router without internet access.)

How did we get here, to a place where indicator lights became a constant annoyance? And how do we get out?

«

Fascinating article on how blue became the colour.
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Aircraft: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR)

»

Recharging of the devices and/or the batteries on board the aircraft is not permitted. Each battery must not exceed the following:

(i) For lithium metal batteries, a lithium content of 2 grams; or

(ii) For lithium ion batteries, a Watt-hour (Wh) rating of 100 Wh.

«

Why this? Because, as @push_hl points out, the 16in MacBook Pro already has a battery with the maximum size you can take on an aircraft (yes, OK, who’s going on an aircraft soon, but), and claims a battery life of 11 hours.

This means that the Apple Silicon Macs can’t use the space saved by using a SoC for battery. (Well, they might, but there’s a limit.) But the laptops can’t really get thinner – that’s limited by the keyboard key travel. My guess, along with others, is the addition of 4G modems, touch screens in future, and Face ID.
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Hulu’s ‘Mrs. America’ explores Phyllis Schlafly’s long shadow • The Atlantic

Sophie Gilbert:

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During the 1970s, Schlafly was camera-ready pith in pearls and a pie-frill collar, a troll long before the term existed, who’d begin public speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend, because she knew how much it riled her feminist detractors. Armed only with a newsletter and a seeming immunity to shame, Schlafly took a popular bipartisan piece of legislation—the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms men and women as equal citizens under the law—and whipped it up into a culture war as deftly as if she were making dessert.

For all her efforts, she actually won very little—she was too toxic for a plum Cabinet post, and too early for a prime-time cable-news show. After her heyday, only glimmers of Schlafly lingered in mainstream culture. The character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who once worked full-time lecturing women on the sanctity of staying home, was partly inspired by her. By the time a hagiographic biography of Schlafly was published in 2005, reviewers deduced that although her impact on the ugliness of American politics had been profound, her manipulation of grassroots resentment (not to mention her isolationism and hostility toward immigrants) had rendered her fogyish and obsolete in the George W. Bush era.

The other great irony of Schlafly is that she died in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump, a leader anointed in her image, beat the first female candidate for president of the United States. Like it or loathe it, the new Hulu series Mrs. America makes clear, we are living in a moment that Schlafly begot.

«

A fabulous exploration of how we got to where we are today. As the alternative headline says, we’re just living in her world. Unfortunately.
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SoftBank explores options for chip designer Arm Holdings • WSJ

Dana Cimilluca and Cara Lombardo:

»

SoftBank bought Arm, which designs microprocessors that power most of the world’s smartphones, in 2016. At the time it was SoftBank’s largest-ever acquisition.

SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son hailed the acquisition as a “paradigm shift” at the company, enabling it to take advantage of the potential of the Internet of Things, which refers to the connectivity of everyday devices. But sales of the software that Arm developed for managing connected devices have been relatively flat, excluding a boost from acquisitions.

Arm last week said it planned to transfer two IoT-services units into new entities that would be owned and operated by SoftBank as part of a move to focus on its core semiconductor-IP business. The company said it expected the transfer, if approved, to be finalized by the end of September.

SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, which invests in tech companies and holds a 25% stake in Arm, has in the past considered transferring the stake back to SoftBank because fund executives believe the tech company’s lackluster revenue growth has been a drag on the overall valuation of its portfolio.

SoftBank’s earnings have been battered recently by huge losses at the Vision Fund, undermining plans to raise a second big investment vehicle.

«

The thing about Arm is that it was never going to be a big-growth business; it’s an intellectual property company.
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Traditional PC shipments continue to grow amid global economic slowdown • IDC

»

“The strong demand driven by work-from-home as well as e-learning needs has surpassed previous expectations and has once again put the PC at the center of consumers’ tech portfolio,” said Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers. “What remains to be seen is if this demand and high level of usage continues during a recession and into the post-COVID world since budgets are shrinking while schools and workplaces reopen.”

“Early indicators suggest strong PC shipments for education, enterprise, and consumer, muted somewhat by frozen SMBs,” said Linn Huang, research vice president, Devices and Displays at IDC. “With inventory still back ordered, this goodwill will continue into July. However, as we head deeper into a global recession, the goodwill sentiment will increasingly sour.”

«

Putting the brakes on the optimism a little, then. IDC says PC shipments rose 11.2% to 72.3m units (and put Apple 4th with a 7.7% share of the market. That’s near a historic high (which nudged over 8% in 2017).

Gartner puts the growth a lot lower, at 2.8%, and ditto for shipments at 64.8m. The two companies disagree about who was biggest (HP or Lenovo?), how many computers Apple shipped (over 5m, less?) but at least agree that lots of laptops were sold.

Also possibly relevant: Digitimes says “Apple is set to significantly increase its new MacBook Pro orders in late third-quarter 2020 and will see its overall MacBook shipments rise over 20% sequentially in the third quarter, according to sources from the upstream supply chain.” That sounds to me like the 13in MacBook Pro will be replaced with a 14in Apple Silicon MacBook Pro in the fourth quarter.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1350: Facebook mulls political ad ban, time to quit Chrome, is Big Sur fun?, Mueller on Stone, AI to make you polite, and more


An Apple ARM chip (in an iPod): what will chips like these do to Intel and OEMs once they’re in Macs? CC-licensed photo by htomari 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. Rounded. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook mulls political-ad blackout ahead of US election • Bloomberg via Yahoo News

Kurt Wagner:

»

Facebook is considering imposing a ban on political ads on its social network in the days leading up to the U.S. election in November, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

The potential ban is still only being discussed and hasn’t yet been finalized, said the people, who asked not to be named talking about internal policies. A halt on ads could defend against misleading election-related content spreading as people prepare to vote. Still, there are concerns that an ad blackout may hurt “get out the vote” campaigns, or limit a candidate’s ability to respond widely to breaking news or new information.

This would be a big change for Facebook, which has so far stuck to a policy of not fact-checking ads from politicians or their campaigns. That’s prompted criticism from lawmakers and advocates, who say the policy means ads on the platform can be used to spread lies and misinformation. Civil rights groups also argue the company doesn’t do enough to remove efforts to limit voter participation, and a recent audit found Facebook failed to enforce its own voter-suppression policies when it comes to posts from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Facebook shares briefly dipped after Bloomberg‘s report, before recovering to close Friday at a record $245.07. Hundreds of advertisers are currently boycotting Facebook’s marketing products as part of a protest against its policies.

Ad blackouts before elections are common in other parts of the world, including the U.K., where Facebook’s global head of policy, Nick Clegg, was once deputy prime minister. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

…Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former top security executive, said Friday that any political ad ban could benefit Trump. “Eliminating online political ads only benefits those with money, incumbency or the ability to get media coverage,” he tweeted. “Who does that sound like?”

«

How long is Facebook going to mull this, exactly? Stamos is right that Trump would get coverage, but this time that might not be anything like 2016. And in 2016, social media was surely a factor for some people.
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Quit Chrome. Safari and Edge are just better browsers for you and your computer • WSJ

Joanna Stern tried out both Edge on Windows (and Mac) and Safari on the Mac, and found that both were as fast or faster than Chrome, and used significantly less battery, and of course also don’t spy on you:

»

Maybe you’re stuck with Chrome, either because of your crucial work web apps, or because you like it and believe the browser (and Google) can improve.

“I view performance on Chrome as a journey not a destination,” said Max Christoff, director of Chrome browser engineering. “This is an ongoing investment in improvements to speed, performance and battery life.” When I shared my test results, he said three big improvements were due in the next few months.

Chrome will soon be updated to limit the power that resource-heavy ads can consume. A new optimization will allow the most performance-critical parts of the software to run even faster. And, perhaps most significant, Chrome will improve “tab throttling” by better prioritizing active tabs and limiting resource drain from tabs in the background. Mr. Christoff said this will have a “dramatic impact on battery and performance.” He says he’s specifically encouraged by early tests on Mac laptops.

«

I suspect those tests are against the old version of Chrome, rather than the new version of Edge or Safari. The difference in her battery tests are more than an hour for both Edge and Safari over Chrome. Google used to have a great browser, but somewhere along the way they got lost. (Firefox, meanwhile, comes out worst of the four.)
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The comeback of fun in visual design • Applypixels

Michael Flarup:

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With the redesign of macOS 11 Big Sur, Apple has made many interface changes and updated the appearance of apps. Materials and dimensionality has made its way back into the interface —and every single app icon for every application and utility that Apple ships with macOS has been redesigned with depth, textures and lighting. This is a big deal. Probably bigger than most people realise.

As with all big shifts in design, you’re going to get a lot of noise. People will try to co-opt this new direction and attempt to label it as something it’s not (looking at you neomorphism). People will find fault with the execution. People will disagree that there’s even a change. There’ll be snark. There’ll be a period of adjustment. There’s a lot to talk about— but I think most of it misses the point.

This is a philosophical change in the role of visual design and one some of us have been working towards for a long time. It’s just the beginning, but I think we’re on the cusp of a new era.

«

OK, though the new era seems to involve inconsistency (the chess piece and the hard drive and the loupe are on differently tilted planes) and the defiance of gravity (notice the liquid in the eyedropper on the bottom row).
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Apple ‘Arms’ Macs with Apple Silicon • Counterpoint Research

Brady Wang, at the analysts:

»

Future Macs:

• PCB components will be more compact in future laptop Macs, including MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. This will allow the new Macs to use the up-to-date high-performance processors and other components in a smaller package, leaving more room for battery packs
• New Macs may adopt BGA-SSD or even raw NAND that will be managed directly by Apple Silicon. This can save some space and costs of controllers
• Since the ARM core will consume less power, it will not require a large fan as in Intel-based Macs. The saved space will be used for the battery as well
• The functions of Macbook Air and iPad Pro will become very close. The former is like a clamshell laptop and the latter is like a detachable laptop
• Future Macs are expected to integrate more sensors, such as 3D sensing and ultra-wideband (UWB). The SoC here will incorporate more powerful NPUs to process the image captured by iPhone 12 and iPad Pro
• Although the cost of Apple Silicon is lower than Intel’s CPU, the price of future Macs will not necessarily be cheaper than the current models. On the other hand, the price may increase because of the new design with additional sensors and chips.

«

Like Wang, I don’t expect the prices to come down. Apple’s pricing is part of its branding; it’s not exactly a Veblen good, but the intent is always to pick a price that sets it apart.

The latest episodes of the Accidental Tech Podcast and Upgrade have a lot of discussion about what the ARM Macs (as everyone is calling them, absent a better name for now) will look like: the slap-your-head obvious point is that they’ll have rounded screens (rather like an iPhone) because that’s how the Big Sur operating system looks.

I wonder about the expected emphasis on battery life. How long does one need, exactly? 15 hours? 24 hours?
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Apple Silicon: the passing of Wintel • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

»

what are Dell, HP, Asus, and others going to do if Apple offers materially better laptops and desktops and Microsoft continues to improve Windows on ARM Surface devices? In order to compete, PC manufacturers will have to follow suit, they’ll “go ARM” because, all defensive rhetoric aside, Apple and Microsoft will have made the x86 architecture feel like what it actually is: old.

This won’t happen overnight and there will be an interesting mess of x86 and ARM SoC machines fighting it out in the marketplace. Large organizations need continuity and would balk at the prospect of servicing two kinds of Windows machines and apps. As usual, they’ll downplay Apple’s advantage and curse Microsoft for causing trouble. But if the newer machines are actually better, rogue members within these organizations will sneak in new devices and software; they always do.

We now come to Intel’s reaction. Not what they’ll say when the trouble really starts, which could be soon.
Intel execs know they missed the Smartphone 2.0 revolution because of culture blindness. They couldn’t bear to part with the high margins generated by the x86 cash cow; they couldn’t see that lower margins could be supported by unimaginable volume. Now, Intel is facing a more serious problem: The x86 commands high margins not because of the chip, but because of the Intel/Windows duopoly, meaning that, all other thangs being equal, chips not running Windows get lower margins than an x86 CPU. Now that union, that advantage is about to disappear. Intel will face ARM-based SoCs running Windows on ARM with applications, in PC-like quantities, at lower prices.

This leaves Intel with one path: if you can’t beat them, join them.

«

I think it was Ben Thompson who said that Intel should have taken the opportunity to make ARM chips for Apple. Instead it will be forced to if Apple shows that ARM chips get better battery life or power in the same package. Which it pretty surely will.
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Why millennial Harry Potter fans reject J. K. Rowling • The Atlantic

Helen Lewis:

»

The Millennial generation has grown up in a world shaped by the gains of the ’80s, when a rainbow coalition of queer activists, feminists, and left-wingers took on the establishment and religious right: AIDS denialists, golf-club sexists, segregation sympathizers, and televangelists ranting about Sodom. The lines are not so easily drawn now, and the modern left finds it hard to parse clashes between two oppressed groups, such as conservative Muslim parents and LGBTQ-friendly school curricula.

Much of the fan commentary following Rowling’s article has focused on what the Harry Potter series was “really about,” and whether its author has betrayed those principles. To outsiders, these discussions can seem bizarre—arguments about fascism and eugenics play out with references to goblins and Polyjuice Potions—but they are a reflection of how deeply some Millennials have been shaped by Rowling’s world.

This emotional synthesis of reader and writer happens only with books we love when we are young. (I am sad, but strangely relieved, that my own beloved Terry Pratchett is safely dead.) On The Leaky Cauldron, one commenter argued against presenting “sanitized news coverage in the way the ministry and news media do in light of Voldemort’s return.” Another replied that Voldemort demonized mudbloods and muggles for not inheriting wizarding ability: “Guess who else is demonising people for not having the correct blood to be who they say they are?” Rowling gave these fans the tools they use to think about the world. Now they are having to unstitch themselves from her universe, and discover where Harry Potter ends and they begin. It’s a wrench at least as big as leaving home.

«

Lewis, as ever, sets out the landscape in a way that lets you feel you’re safely overhead in a helicopter.
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Robert Mueller: Roger Stone remains a convicted felon, and rightly so • The Washington Post

Mueller led the long long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election:

»

Based on our work, eight individuals pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial, and more than two dozen Russian individuals and entities, including senior Russian intelligence officers, were charged with federal crimes.

Congress also investigated and sought information from [Roger] Stone. A jury later determined he lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.

The jury ultimately convicted Stone of obstruction of a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness. Because his sentence has been commuted, he will not go to prison. But his conviction stands.

Russian efforts to interfere in our political system, and the essential question of whether those efforts involved the Trump campaign, required investigation. In that investigation, it was critical for us (and, before us, the FBI) to obtain full and accurate information. Likewise, it was critical for Congress to obtain accurate information from its witnesses. When a subject lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable. It may ultimately impede those efforts.

We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false.

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Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Stone, Michael Flynn – all guilty. What a bunch.
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AI wants to make your writing more polite • CNET

Leslie Katz:

»

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised a technique that’s designed to automatically make written communication more polite. Rather than merely scanning text for politeness, as past computational linguistics methods have, this one actually changes directives or requests that use either impolite or neutral language by restructuring them or adding words to make them more well-mannered. “Say that more politely,” for instance, might become “Could you please say that more politely?”
But it’s not just about using words or phrases such as “please” and “thank you,” said Shrimai Prabhumoye, a doctoral student at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute and one of the authors of a research paper on the method

Sometimes, it means making language a bit less direct, so that instead of saying “you should do X,” the sentence becomes something like “let us do X.”

…At the heart of their experiment is a dataset of 1.39 million sentences analyzed for politeness and labeled with a politeness score. The team then developed a “tag and generate” approach, which identifies sentences that are outright impolite, or could just use a manners boost, and tweaks them with words and phrases Emily Post would be more approving of.

“Yes, go ahead and remove it” becomes “Yes, we can go ahead and remove it.” Adding “we,” the researchers explain, creates the sense that the burden of the request is shared by speaker and addressee.

«

But:

»

The CMU team’s dataset comes from a surprising, though rather appropriate, source: emails exchanged by employees at Enron, the Texas-based energy company at the center of a high-profile accounting fraud scandal that brought into question the accounting practices of many corporations.

«

Over time might it turn, say, “let’s book this” to “let’s put this into an offshore vehicle off the books”? (Here’s the actual paper.)
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Free math apps – used by over 100 million students and teachers worldwide • GeoGebra

»

GeoGebra Math Apps:
Get our free online math tools for graphing, geometry, 3D, and more!

«

I link to this simply because it looks like the sort of thing that could be useful for anyone who wants to create some resources. 3D Calculator, graphing calculator, and all sorts.
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Benedict’s Newsletter • Benedict Evans

»

Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter about what’s happening in technology that actually matters, and what it means. I pick out the news and ideas that you don’t want to miss in all the noise, and give them context and analysis.

I’ve been writing it since 2013, and there are now 150,000 subscribers. It’s pretty good.

Starting from the summer of 2020, I’m adding a premium tier.

Every Sunday night, premium subscribers get an exclusive weekly column, in-depth analysis, and a chart, plus everything that mattered in tech. They also have access to the archive of all past issues. You can join for $10 a month or $100 a year, or you can buy a lifetime membership.

«

Until the end of the month the free tier will include the paid-for content, as a taster. With 150,000 subscribers, that’s going to be costly just to send out. Paid-for email newsletters are the new websites.

In case you’re wondering – the lifetime membership is for 25 years. Discuss whether that’s Evans’s expected lifetime, his expected working lifetime, or yours.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: The suggestion that Parler (the sinkhole for right-wingers chucked off Twitter) might offer $20,000 to “left-wing influencers” turns out not to be quite accurate. Instead, one would have to join and then “The company will judge the best one, based on engagement with the
community, and pay that person the reward.” In other words, trade your good name by doing free labour for them, and wonder about the judging process. Sounds well worth missing. (Thanks Seth for the update.)

Start Up No.1349: UK’s chaotic paper Covid trail, Facebook as gaslighter, draw that circle!, a real virus for Macs?, Quibi’s diehards, and more


UK telcos are warning that ripping out Huawei gear in a hurry could mean no signal on mobiles. CC-licensed photo by evan p. cordes on Flickr.

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

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

Coronavirus: The inside story of how UK’s ‘chaotic’ testing regime ‘broke all the rules’ • Sky News

Ed Conway and Rowland Manthorpe:

»

As Britain sought to assemble its coronavirus testing programme, all the usual rules were broken.

In their effort to release rapid data to show the increase in testing capacity, officials from Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “hand-cranked” the numbers to ensure a constant stream of rising test numbers were available for each day’s press conference, Sky News has been told.

An internal audit later confirmed that some of those figures simply didn’t add up.
According to multiple sources, the data collection was carried out in such a chaotic manner that we may never know for sure how many people have been tested for coronavirus.

“We completely buffed the system,” says a senior Whitehall figure. “We said: forget the conventions, we’re putting [this data] out.”

Sky News has learned that in the early days of mass COVID-19 testing, the statistical problems were so deep that one minister sat at their desk with Excel spreadsheets in front of them, calling round to try to collect data to use in each daily press conference.

Even as Health Secretary Matt Hancock struggled to get the number of tests carried out up to 100,000 a day by the end of April, the collection of those testing statistics was still so primitive that they were being compiled with pen and paper.

«

“World-beating”, indeed.
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When a critic met Facebook: ‘what they’re doing is gaslighting’ • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel spoke to Rashad Robinson, who spoke to Facebook about its civil rights audit:

»

Robinson: I believe we’re not going to win this fight through policies that Facebook puts in place. Yes, there are things Facebook could do tinkering on the margins. And, honestly, the only reason I’m at the table is because we don’t have the legislative and regulatory levers to pull right now. So I feel I need to be there. But the big fixes need those levers.

If there were not rules of the road for car companies around safety and seatbelts we wouldn’t get safety from the auto industry just because. They’d probably say things like Facebook says right now. “89% of seatbelts work!” [Facebook told Robinson that 89% of hate speech is caught before users report it.] And we’d say, ’that’s not good enough!’ And they’d say, well it’s a B-plus!’ The point is that there are regulations enforcing that accountability that Facebook does not have.

Q: You were instrumental in pushing Facebook for a public civil rights audit. What’s your reaction to the audit?
RR: The audit speaks to just how much Facebook’s incentive structure is broken. I keep thinking about the fact that the decisions around political speech and violations to rules goes through the team at the company that is the most political — who are in charge of dealing with lobbyists and Washington operators like Joel Kaplan [Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and a former Republican staffer and lobbyist].

And so then they consistently say things to me like, “Well, you just don’t like Republicans.” And I say, “I don’t think these issues should go through anyone who is primarily a political animal and operates inside D.C. politics.” I won’t pretend there are two equal sides of the issue. Joel Kaplan has political leanings that would make it harder for my grandfather to vote. And so if you put him in charge of voter suppression content, that’s an issue.

«

Kaplan is going to become a bigger and bigger point of tension between Facebook and the outside world in the coming months.
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Conflict Culture is making social Unsocial • On my Om

Om Malik:

»

The internet has removed the limitations of space on the print media. It might have started with the blogs, and later embraced by The Huffington Post. Today, the opinion pages of respected dailies, have also become expressive, and thus veering towards, not having a real impact, but as tools to keep the readership base close. Whether it is on the right or the left, everything has become infotainment. 

Just as daytime talk shows and cable news talk shows, the internet too has become the colosseum. The post-social internet is no different than daytime television and cable news. About a decade ago, I wrote about the future where we will all be starring in a movie called me. I was excited about the sources going direct. “In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention,” I wrote, and that it was going to become the “defining the ethos for the new internet-connected age as we go along.”

Fast forward to today, that desire has mutated into a new dangerous form. The conflict culture has not only infected the social platforms but also started to consume the host body. Whether it is the president, or a maverick entrepreneur, a delusional rapper, self-important investor, a media personality – they are now hosts of their shows.

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Circular

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Draw a freehand circle, then click analyze to see how close you got to a perfect circle. Reset to start over

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This is damn difficult with a trackpad. (I got 12,000-plus points for something that looked like a scone.) Great way to lose some time, though.
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‘UK faces mobile blackouts if Huawei 5G ban imposed by 2023’ • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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While it now seems likely the government will opt for a ban of some sort, the question is when it will come into effect. Some Tory backbenchers are urging a deadline to be set before the 2024 general election – and there has been speculation that it could be as soon as 2023.

But Vodafone and BT – which both use Huawei’s products in their networks – said this would be hugely disruptive. “To get to zero in a three-year period would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country,” said Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology and information officer.

He explained the logistics involved in bringing in cranes and shutting off streets to replace masts, base stations and other Huawei equipment meant that the only way to meet the timespan would be to switch over multiple sites in an area at the same time.

3G signals would not be affected as the EE network uses Nokia kit to provide that service.
Vodafone made a similar case – it uses Huawei’s kit in its 2G, 3G. 4G and 5G networks.

“[Customers] would lose their signal, sometimes for a couple of days, depending on how big or how intrusive the work to be carried out is,” said Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK’s head of networks.

“I would say a five-year transition time would be the minimum,” Mr Watson added: “A minimum of five years, ideally seven.”

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Apple promises to support Thunderbolt on its new ARM Macs • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Apple has yet to offer Thunderbolt support on any products outside of Intel-powered Macs — Apple’s ARM-based iPad Pro, in particular, stands out as featuring a regular USB-C port, not a Thunderbolt 3 connector. Apple’s ARM-based Developer Transition Kit also only features standard USB-C ports.

The news comes as Intel detailed its upcoming Thunderbolt 4 standard, which will be based on the USB4 spec standard and which uses the same USB-C connector that Thunderbolt 3 already does today. Both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 offer more guaranteed features (like the ability to power external monitors, or charge laptops) compared to the standard USB 3 and USB4 standards that they’re built off of, and offer a consistency that regular USB-C standards can often be sorely lacking in.

Thunderbolt 4, in particular, offers the same 40 Gbps speeds that Thunderbolt 3 had offered, but adds even stricter hardware requirements for manufacturers: devices will have to be able to support either two 4K displays or one 8K display, and allow for PCIe data transfer speeds of up to 32 Gbps — which should be a boon for external storage and external GPUs.

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Not surprising that the DTKs don’t have Thunderbolt 3, since they’re using iPad Pro chips. But including it (and Thunderbolt 4) in Apple Silicon Macs would be a way to distinguish them from iPads, apart from anything.

Also, 8K displays? I don’t think I’ve even got 8K eyes.
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EvilQuest Mac malware ‘is after your data, not your money’ • Macworld UK

Anders Lundberg:

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researchers at SentinelOne have examined the encrypted files and discovered that the files themselves contain their encryption keys, making it straightforward to decrypt them. The company has already released a small freeware program that restores all files encrypted by EvilQuest.

Malwarebytes has researched the program more deeply and reports that the whole extortion function can in fact be a distraction to divert attention from the real goal: stealing data.

The malware sometimes downloads a Python script that goes through the entire home folder and uploads a long line of files to the control server, completely unencrypted.

Patrick Wardle’s continued investigations into the malware show that it also appears to be the first genuine virus for Mac since Mac OS X was released nearly 20 years ago.

Once the program has installed itself on the Mac, it runs a process that looks up all executable files in the affected home folder and adds a new bit of malicious code to the beginning of the file which will then run every time that file is run.

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That the files contain their own encryption keys makes this like the very, very, very first piece of ransomware, the AIDS Trojan, back in 1989, which did almost the same thing. As for the malware part – I thought Apple’s malware checker would spot this, but I guess not.
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Hong Kong downloads of Signal surge as residents fear crackdown • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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The secure chat app Signal has become the most downloaded app in Hong Kong on both Apple’s and Google’s app stores, Bloomberg reports, citing data from App Annie. The surging interest in encrypted messaging comes days after the Chinese government in Beijing passed a new national security law that reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy and could undermine its traditionally strong protections for civil liberties.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China came with a promise that China would respect Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years following the handover. Under the terms of that deal, Hong Kong residents should have continued to enjoy greater freedom than people on the mainland until 2047. But recently, the mainland government has appeared to renege on that deal.

Civil liberties advocates see the national security law approved last week as a major blow to freedom in Hong Kong. The New York Times reports that “the four major offenses in the law—separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries—are ambiguously worded and give the authorities extensive power to target activists who criticize the party, activists say.” Until now, Hong Kongers faced trial in the city’s separate, independent judiciary. The new law opens the door for dissidents to be tried in mainland courts with less respect for civil liberties or due process.

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The problem with Signal (as Ben Thompson and John Gruber discussed on their Dithering podcast) is that it’s completely tied to your phone, and your phone number. Lose your phone (or SIM) and you’re stuffed – and that SIM or phone might be the vector for your messages to be viewed.
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Google and Amazon are inadvertently funding Covid conspiracy sites to the tune of $25m • Forbes

Isabel Togoh:

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The research shows ads from organizations including Merck, Loreal, Canon and the British Medical Association, a trade union for U.K. doctors, appeared on pages featuring conspiracy theory content.

“Based on our findings, ads for big brands have been found funding stories that tout debunked and dangerous cures, undercut government lock-down measures, equate track-and-trace apps with state surveillance, and traffic in theories that the Chinese government and the global elite should be blamed for the virus’ spread,” the GDI said.

The figures exclude advertising on disinformation on social media and video platforms, the GDI said, meaning the real numbers could be far higher.

The study was based on the GDI’s analysis of 480 English language sites between January and June this year, whose content was dominated by coronavirus misinformation, and which also carried adverts. The GDI made conservative estimates, and warned that their figures are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg.” They also estimate that ad revenue may have been skewed by a spike in overall web traffic sparked by more people being at home and searching for news online, as well as a decline in ad spend due to the pandemic.

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The research is by the Global Disinformation Index, and I found it at the Internet Archive – weirdly it wasn’t on the blog because Bloomberg was getting some sort of exclusive.

This story plays out again and again.
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Quibi reportedly lost 90% of early users after their free trials expired • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Streaming service Quibi only managed to convert a little under 10% of its early wave of users into paying subscribers, says mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower. According to the firm’s new report on Quibi’s early growth, the short-form video platform signed up about 910,000 users in its first few days back in April. Of those users, only about 72,000 stuck around after the three-month free trial, indicating the app had about an 8% conversion rate.

That’s not too bad. But compare it to the streaming video industry’s most successful debut of the last few years, Disney Plus, and the resulting picture is a grim one for Quibi, which has struggled both to find a hit among its mobile-centric shows and gain traction with its desired younger, TikTok-loving demographic, despite the surge in screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Sensor Tower, Disney managed to convert a comparable 11% of early free trials users, but that was of out of whopping 9.5 million people the firm estimates signed up for Disney Plus in its first three days of availability in the US and Canada. Since then, Disney has added tens of millions more subscribers and now enjoys more than 50 million paying users as of April thanks in part to its international expansion.

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I’m surprised that it’s as many as 72,000, though don’t ignore the likelihood that lots of them have completely forgotten ever signing up and will unsubscribe when they notice.
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Update on the upcoming Wink Subscription • Wink Blog

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We want to share updates about our Wink subscription – a vital change for Wink that will enable us to provide our customers with a strong and growing smart home experience. The change will bring about expanded support for new brand integrations and continue to bring enhancements through firmware and software updates.

Please know that we have adjusted our timelines since our initial announcement on May 6th to allow users more opportunity to make considerations. We were able to extend our service so that subscriptions will now begin on Monday, July 27th, 2020. All users who have not already subscribed will need to visit subscription.wink.com to sign up.

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Previously on Wink, which does a sort of smart home hub thing, but is running low on money. Was the delay was because they were trying to raise fresh funding, or because they wanted to get the news to spread a bit further? Either way, I doubt many more people will sign up. Maybe if they did a bundle with Quibi?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1348: Facebook runs into more trouble, how WW2 plane crashes improved design, Trump rally blamed for Covid ramp, and more


Rejoice! Gary Larson is drawing new cartoons on his website. CC-licensed photo by Robert Couse-Baker 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. Keeping my distance. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s own civil rights auditors said its policy decisions are a ‘tremendous setback’ • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski:

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The civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinize its civil rights record on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited and scathing indictment of the social media giant’s decisions to prioritize free speech above other values, which they called a “tremendous setback” that opened the door for abuse by politicians.

The report criticized Facebook’s choice to leave several posts by President Trump untouched, including three in May that the auditors said “clearly violated” the company’s policies prohibiting voter suppression, hate speech and incitement of violence.

The conclusions by Facebook’s own auditors are likely to bolster criticism that the company has too much power and that it bends and stretches its rules for powerful people. Though Facebook frequently says it listens to experts when making judgment calls, the company’s decisions on recent posts by Trump and others suggest that is not always the case on critical matters of free expression.

“When you put free expression on top of every other consideration, I think civil rights considerations take more of a back seat,” said Laura Murphy, a civil rights lawyer and independent consultant who led the two-year audit.

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Same day as this came out, on the day Sheryl Sandberg said that the company “stands firmly against hate”, Buzzfeed News finds that for four days it’s been running a fearmongering ad from a white nationalist Facebook Page.
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New work by Gary Larson • TheFarSide.com

Yes, it’s Gary Larson:

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a few years ago—finally fed up with my once-loyal but now reliably traitorous [because it kept getting blocked] pen—I decided to try a digital tablet. I knew nothing about these devices but hoped it would just get me through my annual Christmas card ordeal. I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again. I was stunned at all the tools the thing offered, all the creative potential it contained. I simply had no idea how far these things had evolved. Perhaps fittingly, the first thing I drew was a caveman.

The “New Stuff” that you’ll see here is the result of my journey into the world of digital art. Believe me, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me. I hail from a world of pen and ink, and suddenly I was feeling like I was sitting at the controls of a 747. (True, I don’t get out much.) But as overwhelmed as I was, there was still something familiar there—a sense of adventure. That had always been at the core of what I enjoyed most when I was drawing The Far Side, that sense of exploring, reaching for something, taking some risks, sometimes hitting a home run and sometimes coming up with “Cow tools.” (Let’s not get into that.)

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His new stuff is just as good as ever.
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How the dumb design of a WWII plane led to the Macintosh • WIRED

Cliff Kuang:

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Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes.

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The straight line element to the Mac, and other things, is remarkable, yet logical.
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Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 • The Hill

Rachel Frazin:

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The task force’s broad plan includes a goal of eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, achieving net-zero emissions for all new buildings by 2030, and making energy-saving upgrades to as many as 4 million buildings and 2 million households within five years. 

Some of the recommendations released Wednesday set more specific targets than the former vice president’s current climate plan, which calls for a shift away from coal-fired electricity, halving the carbon footprint of buildings by 2035 and starting a national program aimed at affordable energy efficiency retrofits in homes.

The group is one of several “unity task forces” made up of supporters of Sanders and Biden that is making platform recommendations as Biden courts favor from the progressive faction of the party. 

…The climate panel is co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a leading proponent of the Green New Deal, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

“The Unity Task Force urges that we treat climate change like the emergency that it is and answer the crisis with an ambitious, unprecedented, economy-wide mobilization to decarbonize the economy and build a resilient, stronger foundation for the American people,” the document says.

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The power plants could be quite the challenge. The coal plants are effectively dead already, but there’s a lot of CCGT plants out there, or being planned – even though renewables will be cheaper by the time they’re ready.
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Health official: Trump rally ‘likely’ source of virus surge • Associated Press

Sean Murphy:

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President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa that drew thousands of people in late June, along with large protests that accompanied it, “likely contributed” to a dramatic surge in new coronavirus cases, Tulsa City-County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said Wednesday.

Tulsa County reported 261 confirmed new cases on Monday, a one-day record high, and another 206 cases on Tuesday.

Although the health department’s policy is to not publicly identify individual settings where people may have contracted the virus, Dart said those large gatherings “more than likely” contributed to the spike.

“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Dart said.

A spokesman for the Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What comment could they offer? “Sorry for ignoring all the advice on social distancing”?
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China’s superpower dreams are running out of money • Foreign Policy

Salvatore Babones:

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when Western media reported in December that China was pressuring a reluctant Pakistan to resume work on the stalled China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, they failed to mention that China is unwilling to finance the construction itself. Similarly, China wants to build a new port in Myanmar, but it is reluctant to pay for it. China signed a Transit and Transport Agreement with Nepal in 2015 but has yet to build a single mile of road or railway in the landlocked Himalayan country. It’s the same story in Africa and Eastern Europe: China continues to announce grand projects but has been unwilling to offer enough money to actually get them off the ground.

China’s financing problems are nowhere more apparent—and less acknowledged—than in its military budgets. Analyses from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest that Chinese defense spending may actually fall in real terms in 2020. Given China’s elevated pace of military operations on several borders, spending constraints must be putting serious pressure on acquisitions budgets. It is impossible for anyone outside China’s defence establishment to know what is really going on, but circumstantial evidence suggests that many of China’s big-ticket weapons programs have been put on go-slow.

For example, China is believed to have built only 50 or so J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighters. The J-20 program now seems to be experiencing serious development problems, limiting production for the foreseeable future. This compares to America’s stock of 195 F-22 and 134 F-35 fifth-generation fighters, with continuing annual production of more than 100 F-35s, even after coronavirus delays.

Similarly, China once planned to deploy six U.S.-style aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035. Aside from the Soviet-surplus training carrier Liaoning, China currently has only one conventionally powered ski-jump carrier, with a second under construction. Plans for four nuclear-powered carriers have been delayed indefinitely due to “technical challenges and high costs.”

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Being a superpower is also super-expensive.
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Why corporate America gave up on R&D • Marker on Medium

Kaushik Viswanath talks to the authors of a study which suggests that American companies are giving up on effective R&D:

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Sharon Belenzon (one of the authors): Companies are withdrawing from research, and I don’t think you can compensate for that with science created in universities and small firms. More importantly, leading economists have argued that what makes America unique is the strong link between technology and science generated by a diverse capitalist system. The diversity of institutions that engage in R&D are key. I am worried that we are losing such diversity in return for greater efficiency through specialization.

Q: What are the reasons behind that loss of diversity? Why do corporations no longer find it as desirable to engage in research?

Ashish Arora: There are two big factors. One is there are alternative sources of knowledge now, like the university system and startups, but the other big issue is that research is an unnatural activity inside a company. Companies are set up mostly to produce and deliver goods and services to the marketplace, not to have activities running that have no defined deliverables, with horizons of four to six years, not six to 18 months.

In the golden period of corporate research, the early successes like DuPont’s development of nylon generated a lot of goodwill. Because of those early successes, corporations agreed to keep funding them. But at some point, that goodwill runs out.

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Italian Alps’ pink snow is a cute sign of environmental disaster • Earther

Yessenia Funes:

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the dusty pink layer atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps is more sinister than it looks. Algae has dyed the snow a bizarre color. The otherworldly look could end up speeding up the melt of snow and glaciers in the fragile mountain region.

Pink snow is usually a spring and summer phenomenon, requiring the right amount of light, warmth, and water to grow. Usually, the algae are inactive while under the snow and ice, but once melt season hits, the normally stark landscape bursts with color.

Biagio Di Mauro, a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told Earther in an email that the bloom on Presena Glacier is an example of Chlamydomonas nivalis, a type of algae found in the Alps as well as polar regions from Greenland to the Antarctic. It’s more commonly referred to as watermelon snow, and it could be having an impact on snowmelt.

That’s because the whiter the snow, the more effective it is at bouncing the sun’s rays back into space, keeping things cool. Global warming is already doing enough harm to polar and mountain regions without algae coming and making it all the worse. A study published last year showed that up to half of the Alps’ glaciers could disappear this century as temperature rise.

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Our self-destruction will be heralded by more and more beautiful sunsets.
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Apple is planning to build its own GPUs, too, but playing quiet for now • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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Apple has already told us that it will finish its switch to Intel hardware in about two years, and the company has announced its initiative for that process. It has made no equivalent commitment to GPU hardware.

Yes, Apple has experience in building its own mobile GPUs, but scaling up a GPU design isn’t like scaling up a CPU design. Assuming Apple’s A12Z isn’t a huge departure from the A12X, we can expect a die size of 122mm2. Die size on a larger chip like the Core i9-10900K (comparing monolithic die to monolithic die) is 206.1mm2. Only modestly bigger.

122mm2 doesn’t even get the ball rolling, in terms of a high-end GPU. The RTX 2080 Ti has a die size of 775mm2. Even AMD’s Radeon VII, while much smaller, is a 331mm2 design. It’s also not an accident that Intel has taken years to bring a discrete GPU to market, despite the fact that Tiger Lake systems with Xe-class graphics are expected to ship in the very near future. Just as it takes time to scale up a CPU design, it takes time to scale up a GPU design, too.

What may happen is this: Apple may launch its own laptop / desktop ARM CPU, with its own Apple silicon, while simultaneously supporting AMD (most-likely) GPUs on higher-end Mac hardware. So long as we’re talking about an SoC, it makes obvious sense for Apple to field its own silicon. The question is, will Apple start building its own discrete add-in cards? It would have to, if it wants to supply top-end graphics performance.

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Watching people try to figure out what the hell Apple is going to do with Apple Silicon is a lot of fun. I’m filing this one away to come back to when Apple tips its hand – some time later this year.
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Your next Samsung phone may not come with a charger in the box • SamMobile

“Adrian F”:

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You can always count on your new smartphone to come with a charger in the box. However, it now seems that we’re moving towards a future where that might not be the case. According to a new report from South Korea, future Samsung phones may not ship with a charger.

Samsung ships hundreds of millions of smartphones every single year. Dropping the charger from even half of its lineup is going to result in major cost reductions for the company. It may also enable the company to price its affordable devices even more aggressively.

According to the report, Samsung is discussing plans to exclude the charger from the box components for some smartphones. If it decides to go ahead with this, we might see the first Samsung phones to ship without a charger starting next year.

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First reaction: I wonder where they got that idea? Second reaction: this isn’t going to be as easy for Samsung as for Apple, which has a single connector standard. Some older Samsung phones will be micro-USB. It’s not clear quite when they switched over to USB-C.

But as for “major cost reductions” – nope. As Neil Cybart pointed out in his newsletter, chargers cost a few dollars at most. Hundreds of millions of dollars can get eaten up in marketing or other costs; it’s a rounding error.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified