Start Up No.1437: new Honor phones to struggle for chips, UK government accused of blocking FOI, Covid’s smart mutation, and more


Facebook can tweak its algorithm so that better-quality news becomes more prominent. Yet won’t make it permanent. CC-licensed photo by vhines200 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. Why are there concession stands and concession speeches? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook struggles to balance civility and growth • The New York Times

Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel:

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[In the days following the US election, as Trump falsely claimed widespread electoral fraud] the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasizing the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or N.E.Q., a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism.

Typically, N.E.Q. scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.

It was a vision of what a calmer, less divisive Facebook might look like. Some employees argued the change should become permanent, even if it was unclear how that might affect the amount of time people spent on Facebook. In an employee meeting the week after the election, workers asked whether the “nicer news feed” could stay, said two people who attended.

…The trade-offs came into focus this month, when Facebook engineers and data scientists posted the results of a series of experiments called “P(Bad for the World).”

The company had surveyed users about whether certain posts they had seen were “good for the world” or “bad for the world.” They found that high-reach posts — posts seen by many users — were more likely to be considered “bad for the world,” a finding that some employees said alarmed them.

So the team trained a machine-learning algorithm to predict posts that users would consider “bad for the world” and demote them in news feeds. In early tests, the new algorithm successfully reduced the visibility of objectionable content. But it also lowered the number of times users opened Facebook, an internal metric known as “sessions” that executives monitor closely.

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At this point it’s becoming trivial to say that Facebook is utterly toxic, but it truly is. My forthcoming book will go into more detail. (The cover there is a placeholder, and the publication date might – will? – come forward. The topic is what it’s all about, though.)
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New Honor expected to capture 2% smartphone market share in 2021 due to limited foundry capacity • TrendForce

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Despite the change of ownership [sold by Huawei to a Shenzhen company], however, “new Honor” still has to cope with the shortage of foundry capacity in 2021, leading to a forecasted market share of 2%, while Huawei’s market share is expected to reach 4%. It should be pointed out that Apple is expected to capture some demand that was previously aimed at Huawei’s high-end smartphones. At the same time, Huawei’s Chinese competitors Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo are expected to ramp up device production. Hence, the volume of new smartphones coming from these sources will exceed the estimated market share gap left by Huawei. Also, if the smartphone market does not have sufficient demand to accommodate the overly inflated production plans in 2021, then brands may have to readjust their production targets.

Huawei had been adopting a coopetition strategy with Honor, which comprised of resource sharing and independent operation, and the latter is expected to return swiftly to the smartphone market through cooperation with channels under its preexisting model of independent operation. However, US sanctions remain as the most pressing concern for new Honor, as they affect its component procurement, R&D, product design, and GMS (Google Mobile Services) integration. Whether new Honor will be free to undertake these activities due to its split from Huawei remains to be seen.

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A great deal now hinges on what Joe Biden’s administration does in January. Reverse the sanctions on Huawei as an olive branch? Or hold them as a bargaining chip against China for who knows what in return?
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This Week in Apps: Apple slashes commissions, Twitter launches Fleets, warnings about Parler • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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According to App Annie data, around 98% of all iOS developers in 2019 (meaning, unique publisher accounts) fell under the $1m annual consumer spend threshold. This supports Apple’s claims that the “vast majority” of developers would benefit. This group of developers accounts for 567,000 unique apps, or 93% of all apps generating revenue through in-app purchases.

Combined, their revenues represented just under 8% of the overall App Store revenue share — in other words, it’s money Apple could stand to lose.

App Annie also found that the group of mid-range developers who are “nearing” that $1 million threshold is really small. The data indicates roughly 0.5% of developers are making between $800,000 and $1 million. And just over 1% are in the $500,000-$800,000 range.

Most developers have much smaller revenue streams, with 87.7% making less than $100,000 in 2019.

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Useful for understanding that Apple decision to cut commissions (for developers who apply) to 15% from 30% if they have revenues of less than $1m. It sounds like app revenue is extremely bimodal – most of it under $100,000 and then a significant number of really big companies doing well over $1m. Apple will have known this for absolutely ages, meaning it could pick its time to introduce this. It could probably announce a fresh “under $500k” lower-commission tier at some future point without doing much harm to revenues, and gaining the PR benefit again.
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UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information • openDemocracy

Peter Geoghegan, Jenna Corderoy and Lucas Amin:

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The British government has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit in Michael Gove’s office that instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Experts warn that the practice could be breaking the law – and openDemocracy is now working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force Gove’s Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how its secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit operates. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting”.

This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments “to protect sensitive information”, and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and many more, as well as researchers from Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and elsewhere.

The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments – effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public.

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They could always use the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow site, which lets you file FOI claims; though they’re all publicly visible, there are so many that you could effectively hide. And would the Cabinet Office know that they were coming from a journalist? Again, you could adopt an identity. If you’re going to fight Orwellian methods, you have to fight fire with fire.
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Parler is growing but conservatives are not ready to leave Twitter • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman:

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“Stop the Digital Inquisition! JOIN PARLER,” tweeted Dan Bongino, a Parler investor and right-wing star who consistently ranks among Facebook’s top-performing link posts nationwide, on Nov. 11, one of his 90 tweets that day — the same day he posted on Parler 51 times.

Madison Gesiotto, a pro-Trump commentator who tweeted to her 190,000 followers that she was “sick of big tech censorship,” has posted five times to Parler but 95 times to Twitter since declaring (in a tweet) that social media is “worse than ever before!”

Perhaps that’s understandable. Conservative provocateurs have mastered the art of getting attention and amplifying opinions on the very social networks they so roundly criticize. But Parler’s rise highlights how the polarized national debate could even further splinter the American Internet, in the same way that news sources and digital social circles have split into parallel partisan realities.

…Parler and Gab now average about 5 million views a month, which makes them, in social media terms, microscopic. Their combined traffic worldwide last month was 0.05% of Facebook’s and 0.22% of Twitter’s, SimilarWeb data show. But Andrew Torba, Gab’s chief executive, said Parler’s growth further validates the “alt-tech ecosystem.”

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The numbers underplay the effect of those networks being small. Metcalfe’s Law says that the effect of a network grows proportionally to the square of the number of users. On Twitter, you can have colossal effect; on Parler, barely any. Smaller social networks have less impact. Simple as that.
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Right-wing social media had to divorce from reality • The Atlantic

Renée DiResta:

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The president himself, while tweeting about how the election was being stolen, amplified accounts that touted OANN and Newsmax as places to find accurate reporting on the truth about his election victory.

And on Parler, the conspiracy-mongering has grown only more frenzied as Trump makes state-by-state fraud allegations. In addition to concerns about Sharpies, the social network abounds with rumors of CIA supercomputers with secret programs to change votes, allegations of massive numbers of dead people voting, claims of backdated ballots, and assorted other speculations that users attempt to coalesce into a grand unified theory of election theft.

How far these ideas spread depends in part on whether mainstream social-media outlets keep moderating content as closely as they did during this election season. For most of Trump’s term, Facebook and others had been loath to crack down on even baseless conspiracy theories, including those repeated by the president himself.

Freedom of expression, the argument went, covers the right to think and say even floridly false things, which were best addressed through corrections and counter-speech. Yet the major platforms concluded that misleading theories about the election were a distinct class of misinformation because of their potential to cause significant harm to the body politic. As the split between reality-based information outlets and those catering to pro-Trump bitter-enders has widened, the distribution of their content is becoming significantly siloed.

This could have two major effects: It may limit the spread of conspiracy theories and reduce the possibility that Facebook and YouTube recommendation algorithms will draw casual users into the world of QAnon. But the bifurcation also raises the possibility that, among those who gravitate to niche platforms like Parler, the discussion may grow even more extreme.

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As above, I think that if there is a move away from the big social networks to smaller ones, then that will actually be a good thing: less fertile space, and though the echo might be intense, it won’t reach anyone who hasn’t already bought into the nonsense.
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We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it • Tim Harford

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We all have a tendency to think with our hearts rather than our heads, and that tendency is sharpened, not dulled, by a vociferous argument. Wishful thinking, tribal loyalty, and tortured logic are ever-present pitfalls, but the pits yawn wider and deeper once a few alpha chimps are yelling at each other about “covidiots” and “face-nappies.”

A disheartening autumn provides us with an interesting case in point. At the end of August, the virus seemed to be in retreat. The prevalence survey published by the Office for National Statistics on 4th September, covering late August, suggested that infections had fallen to 36 per million people per day in England. Even for the highly vulnerable, the risk of taking a day out was looking small. But then each new week showed a large increase, and by 25th September, the estimate of infections was up to 175 per million people per day—mostly in the under-35s, and mostly in London and the north of England.

Those are the facts. But the facts were not of much interest: cabinet ministers blamed the public, lockdown sceptics blamed false positives, and newspaper columnists mocked the government for reversing its stance from “get back to the office” to “actually, stay at home.”

Everyone got their zingers in, but an ordinary citizen, trying to weigh up the health risks she faces, her responsibility to keep others safe, and the threats to her livelihood, is none the wiser. The personal risk remains low for most people, but the fact that cases have risen so rapidly suggests that we have a real challenge on our hands.

The truth, it turns out, is complicated. But complicated is no way to win a shouting match. If we want to understand the virus—and, for that matter, anything else in a complex world—we must first give up on the illusion that what passes for public “debate” is about anything more than scoring cheap points, which inevitably come at the cost of the whole truth.

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Harford is arguably the UK’s Zeynep Tufekci, and I say that as a marker of great respect. (He’s got a new book out: How To Make The World Add Up. It might make a good Christmas present for a friend.)
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Why Newsmax supports Trump’s false voter-fraud claims • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner interviews Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, the deluded media outlet which reckons it’s good policy to pretend Trump hasn’t lost the election:

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Chotiner: I think we know that America’s voting systems are not pristine and shouldn’t be unquestioned. I think the problem is just saying that it was fraudulent, and that the election was stolen. I think that’s the main problem.

Ruddy: I think in very close elections, you might be able to make that claim, if it’s not properly done.

IC: But you’re the head of a news organization, and so if you want to just send reporters to investigate this and prove this, fine, but the Trump Administration in court is not actually showing any of these things. They’re just making the claims, and then not producing any evidence.

CR: Well, I think, for instance, they’ve been showing that there were issues with the mail-in ballots, the process by which they were counted. There was a story that indicated the rejection rates on absentee ballots and mail-in ballots was a lot lower in this election, in many of these swing states. That’s unusual. Now, is that indicative of fraud? I would say it’s not a direct indication, but it’s suggestive. And it’s something that we should look at. [A Times story on the low rejection rates suggested that there were multiple factors, including simplified voting requirements and greater enthusiasm and attentiveness among voters.]

IC: But that’s something that journalists could investigate, rather than making broad claims about it.

CR: Yeah. Well, I think before we even make the claim, we should say, “Hey, look at this anomaly. Why is this the case?” And we start asking about it. But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s great for news. The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.

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Basically: claiming fraud is great for clicks! Who cares if it’s a lie and we don’t actually bother to investigate it? Essentially, a form of free riding on Trump’s delusional nonsense. Useful to know what democracy is up against, though.
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Early coronavirus mutation made it harder to stop, evidence suggests • The New York Times

James Glanz, Benedict Carey and Hannah Beech:

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one mutation near the beginning of the pandemic did make a difference, multiple new findings suggest, helping the virus spread more easily from person to person and making the pandemic harder to stop.

The mutation, known as 614G, was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City. Within months, the variant took over much of the world, displacing other variants.

For months, scientists have been fiercely debating why. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory argued in May that the variant had probably evolved the ability to infect people more efficiently. Many were skeptical, arguing that the variant may have been simply lucky, appearing more often by chance in large epidemics, like Northern Italy’s, that seeded outbreaks elsewhere.
But a host of new research — including close genetic analysis of outbreaks and lab work with hamsters and human lung tissue — has supported the view that the mutated virus did in fact have a distinct advantage, infecting people more easily than the original variant detected in Wuhan, China.

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Outbreaks grew faster, infections happened more quickly. That might, partially, explain why China was less affected if it managed an efficient lockdown. (Though I thought the mutation was called D614G – the replacement at locus 614 of glycine where previously there was aspartic acid residue; it’s on the spike. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Thread by @BethanyAllenEbr on Thread Reader App • Thread Reader App

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a reporter for Axios:

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According to sources I have spoken to with knowledge of the matter, this Washington Post story does not accurately characterize Apple’s position on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

It is not accurate to say that Apple’s aim is to water down key provisions of the bill, and it is not accurate to characterize Apple as lobbying against the bill.

(And no, the sources I am citing are not a strident email from Apple’s PR department).

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You’ll recall that I was a bit dubious about that article: it seemed to accuse Apple of things that it said it was diametrically opposed to, and it wasn’t named in the Act, unlike a number of other companies. (Thread Reader App lets you create a single page from a Twitter thread: to get it to happen, respond to any of the tweets in the thread you want “unrolled” with “@threadreaderapp unroll please” and it will respond so that your off-Twitter friends, or those who just want a simpler life, can read it in one gulp.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1436: the misinformation superspreaders, an infinite quilt, GM quits Trump, Snapchat tries to TikTok, and more


Having this many books – especially if you haven’t read them – is a good, not bad, thing. CC-licensed photo by Geoff Coupe 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. Certified. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How misinformation ‘superspreaders’ seed false election theories • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:

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New research from Avaaz, a global human rights group, the Elections Integrity Partnership and The New York Times shows how a small group of people — mostly right-wing personalities with outsized influence on social media — helped spread the false voter-fraud narrative that led to those rallies.

That group, like the guests of a large wedding held during the pandemic, were “superspreaders” of misinformation around voter fraud, seeding falsehoods that include the claims that dead people voted, voting machines had technical glitches, and mail-in ballots were not correctly counted.
“Because of how Facebook’s algorithm functions, these superspreaders are capable of priming a discourse,” said Fadi Quran, a director at Avaaz. “There is often this assumption that misinformation or rumors just catch on. These superspreaders show that there is an intentional effort to redefine the public narrative.”

Across Facebook, there were roughly 3.5 million interactions — including likes, comments and shares — on public posts referencing “Stop the Steal” during the week of Nov. 3, according to the research. Of those, the profiles of Eric Trump, Diamond and Silk and Mr. Straka accounted for a disproportionate share — roughly 6%, or 200,000, of those interactions.

…In order to find the superspreaders, Avaaz compiled a list of 95,546 Facebook posts that included narratives about voter fraud. Those posts were liked, shared or commented on nearly 60 million times by people on Facebook.

Avaaz found that just 33 of the 95,546 posts were responsible for over 13 million of those interactions. Those 33 posts had created a narrative that would go on to shape what millions of people thought about the legitimacy of the U.S. elections.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company had added labels to posts that misrepresented the election process and was directing people to a voting information center.

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Very much what we always suspect: a tiny number of idiots direct a larger number of idiots.

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GM flips to California’s side in pollution fight with Trump • Associated Press

Tom Krisher:

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General Motors is switching sides in the legal fight against California’s right to set its own clean-air standards, abandoning the Trump administration as the president’s term nears its close.

CEO Mary Barra said in a letter Monday to environmental groups that GM will no longer support the Trump administration in its defense against a lawsuit over its efforts against California’s standards. And GM is urging other automakers to do the same.

The move is a sign that GM and other automakers are anticipating big changes when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Already at least one other large automaker, Toyota, said it may join GM in switching to California’s team.

In her letter, Barra wrote that the company agrees with Biden’s plan to expand electric vehicle use. Last week, GM said it is testing a new battery chemistry that will bring down electric vehicle costs to those of gas-powered vehicles within five years.

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So subtly and completely indicative that they see the power draining away from Trump by the minute.
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Snapchat officially launches in-app TikTok competitor called Spotlight • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Snap is finally ready to compete with TikTok and will pay creators to post on the platform. The company is officially announcing a new section of Snapchat today called Spotlight that’ll surface vertical video content from users that’s more meme-like and jokey instead of the day-in-the-life content Snap previously encouraged. Imagine, basically, TikTok but in Snapchat.

To entice people to post snaps regularly, the company says it’ll divvy up $1 million between the most popular creators on the app per day through the end of 2020. This means if someone has a particularly viral video, they might earn a large chunk of the $1 million pot. It doesn’t matter whether that person has a massive number of subscribers; the amount people receive is primarily based on unique views compared to other snaps that day. Users can continue to earn from their video if it’s popular for multiple days at a time.

Spotlight, which will have its own dedicated tab in the app, is launching in 11 countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Australia. The videos you’ll see in the section can be up to 60 seconds long and, as of right now, cannot be watermarked. That means people can’t just download their (or others’) viral TikToks and upload them to Snapchat.

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First Instagram, now Snapchat. I don’t think either is going to emulate TikTok’s success; you can’t achieve what it has by half measures. You have to commit completely to the algorithmic function driving what people are shown. Neither Instagram nor Snapchat is willing to do that because their basic product isn’t like that.
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The value of owning more books than you can read • Big Think

Kevin Dickinson:

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I love books. If I go to the bookstore to check a price, I walk out with three books I probably didn’t know existed beforehand. I buy second-hand books by the bagful at the Friends of the Library sale, while explaining to my wife that it’s for a good cause. Even the smell of books grips me, that faint aroma of earthy vanilla that wafts up at you when you flip a page.

The problem is that my book-buying habit outpaces my ability to read them. This leads to FOMO and occasional pangs of guilt over the unread volumes spilling across my shelves. Sound familiar?

But it’s possible this guilt is entirely misplaced. According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.

Taleb laid out the concept of the antilibrary in his best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He starts with a discussion of the prolific author and scholar Umberto Eco, whose personal library housed a staggering 30,000 books.

When Eco hosted visitors, many would marvel at the size of his library and assumed it represented the host’s knowledge — which, make no mistake, was expansive. But a few savvy visitors realized the truth: Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.

Eco stated as much. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, he found he could only read about 25,200 books if he read one book a day, every day, between the ages of ten and eighty. A “trifle,” he laments, compared to the million books available at any good library.

Drawing from Eco’s example, Taleb deduces: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” [Emphasis original]

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So can we treat those open browser tabs that we’re going to get round to some time soon, honest, as the electronic equivalent? I’ve got a few hundred somewhere.
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I created my own YouTube algorithm (to stop me wasting time) • Towards Data Science

Chris Lovejoy:

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I love watching YouTube videos that improve my life in some tangible way. Unfortunately, the YouTube algorithm doesn’t agree. It likes to feed me clickbait and other garbage.

This isn’t all that surprising. The algorithm prioritises clicks and watch time.

So I set out on a mission: could I write code that would automatically find me valuable videos, eliminating my dependence on the YouTube algorithm?

Here’s how it went.

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Essentially, he created a straight algorithm version of the neural network(s) that YouTube uses to come up with its “Watch Next” system. Except he felt his was better.
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Zoomquilt

An infinitely zooming image. Try it if you don’t believe me. There’s also a live wallpaper for Android if you want.
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How close is humanity to the edge? • The New Yorker

Corinne Purtill:

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[Toby] Ord places the risk of our extinction during the 21st century at one in six—the odds of an unlucky shot in Russian roulette. Should we manage to avoid a tumble off the precipice, he thinks, it will be our era’s defining achievement. The book catalogues many possible catastrophes. There are the natural risks we’ve always lived with, such as asteroids, super-volcanic eruptions, and stellar explosions. “None of them keep me awake at night,” Ord writes.

Then there are the large-scale threats we have created for ourselves: nuclear war, climate change, pandemics (which are made more likely by our way of life), and other novel methods of man-made destruction still to come. Ord is most concerned about two possibilities: empowered artificial intelligence unaligned with human values (he gives it a one-in-ten chance of ending humanity within the next hundred years) and engineered pandemics (he thinks they have a one-in-thirty chance of bringing down the curtain).

The pandemic we are currently experiencing is the sort of event that Ord describes as a “warning shot”—a smaller-scale catastrophe that, though frightening, tragic, and disruptive, might also spur attempts to prevent disasters of greater magnitude in the future.

Unlike doomsday preppers who seem, on some level, to relish the idea of social breakdown, Ord believes in humanity’s potential for greatness.

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I’m not sure I do, but let’s hum along as though he’s correct.
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A simple theory of why Trump did well • The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie:

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At the risk of committing the same sin as other observers and getting ahead of the data, I want to propose an alternative explanation for the election results, one that accounts for the president’s relative improvement as well as that of the entire Republican Party.

It’s the money, stupid.

At the end of March, President Trump signed the Cares Act, which distributed more than half a trillion dollars in direct aid to more than 150 million Americans, from stimulus checks ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households below a certain income threshold) to $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits. These programs were not perfect — the supplement unemployment insurance, in particular, depended on ramshackle state systems, forcing many applicants to wait weeks or even months before they received assistance — but they made an impact regardless. Personal income went up and poverty went down, even as the United States reported its steepest ever quarterly drop in economic output.

Now, the reason this many Americans received as much assistance as they did is that Democrats fought for it over the opposition of Republicans who believed any help beyond the minimum would degrade the will to work for whatever wage employers were willing to pay. “The moment we go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say, ‘I don’t need to go back to work because I can do better someplace else,’ ” Senator Rick Scott of Florida argued on the floor of the Senate.

But voters, and especially the low-propensity voters who flooded the electorate in support of Trump, aren’t attuned to the ins and outs of congressional debate. They did not know — and Democrats didn’t do a good enough job of telling them — that the president and his party opposed more generous benefits. All they knew is that Trump signed the bill (and the checks), giving them the kind of government assistance usually reserved for the nation’s ownership class.

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Makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. Ironic: the coronavirus that everyone thought would sink him for certain instead made a lot of people think they were doing great.
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I should have loved biology • jsomers

James Somers:

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In his “Mathematician’s Lament,” Paul Lockhart describes how school cheapens mathematics by robbing us of the questions. We’re not just asked, hey, how much of the triangle takes up the box?

That’s a puzzle we might delight in. (If you drop a vertical from the top of the triangle, you end up with two rectangles cut in half; you discover that the area inside the triangle is equal to the area outside.) Instead, we’re told that if you ever find yourself wanting the area of a triangle, here’s the procedure:

Biology is like that, but worse because it’s a messier subject. The facts seem extra arbitrary. We’re told to distinguish “lipid bilayers” from “endoplasmic reticula” without understanding why we care about either in the first place.

Enormous subjects are best approached in thin, deep slices. I discovered this when first learning how to program. The textbooks never worked; it all only started to click when I started to do little projects for myself. The project wasn’t just motivation but an organizing principle, a magnet to arrange the random iron filings I picked up along the way. I’d care to learn about some abstract concept, like “memoization,” because I needed it to solve my problem; and these concepts would lose their abstractness in the light of my example.

Biology is no different. Learning begins with questions. How do embryos differentiate? Why are my eyes blue? How does a hamster turn cheese into muscle? Why does the coronavirus make some people much sicker than others?

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1435: a plethora of fakes, America’s stupid coup, Apple explains more about the M1, Twitter to pass @POTUS to Biden, and more


Could the Apple Watch be responsible for Apple’s slowly falling hardware margins? CC-licensed photo by Dave Winer 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. Quorate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This X Does Not Exist

Kashish Hora:

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Using generative adversarial networks (GAN), we can learn how to create realistic-looking fake versions of almost anything, as shown by this collection of sites that have sprung up in the past month.

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Remember “This Face Does Not Exist”, with its GAN-generated human face of no human that had ever lived? This does it for cars, Stack Exchange questions, My Little Ponies, MPs, satire (?), words… and many more. These imagined worlds are well-populated. How soon before we can’t tell the difference?
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I lived through a stupid coup. America is having one now • Medium

Indi Samarajiva:

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As one recovering coup victim [in Sri Lanka] to another, let me tell you this. The first step is simply accepting that you’ve been coup’d. This is hard and your media or Wikipedia may never figure this out (WTF does constitutional crisis mean? Is murder a legal crisis?), but it’s nonetheless true. The US system is weird, but people voted for a change of power. One person is refusing to accept the people’s will. He’s taking power that doesn’t belong to him. That’s a coup.

Americans are so caught up with the idea that this can’t be happening to them that they’re missing the very obvious fact that it is.

What else do you call Donald Trump refusing to leave, consolidating control of the military, and spreading lies across the media? That, my friends, is just a coup. You take the power, you take the guns, and you lie about it. American commentators say “we’re like the third world now” as if our very existence is a pejorative. Ha ha, you assholes, stop calling us that. You’re no better than us. The third world from the Sun is Earth. You live here too.

America, in fact, is worse than us. America’s democracy is a lightly modified enslavement system that black people only wrested universal franchise from in 1965. It’s frankly a terrible democracy, built on voter suppression of 94% of the population, full of racist booby traps and prone to absurd randomness. For example, your dumbass founders left enough time [for the new President] to get to Washington by horse. Four months where a loser could hold power, later reduced to two. This is a built-in coup.

Think about it. Your system gives the loser all the power and guns for two whole months. Almost every modern democracy changes power the next day, to avoid the very situation you’re in.

America constitutionally coups itself every election and it only doesn’t go bad by custom. America is a shitty and immature democracy, saved only by the fact that they didn’t elect equally shitty and immature Presidents. Until now.

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Powerful piece, and he’s absolutely right: the US system is designed to fail, and it’s only good manners that has kept it from collapsing this long.
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Apple’s missing profits – the usual suspects • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Greenberg tries to figure out why Apple’s gross hardware margins have been declining since 2015:

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Apple launched Apple Watch in 2015 and Airpods in late 2016 (in Apple’s 2017 Fiscal Year). When Airpods first came out, it was hard to buy them, with multi-month wait times. At the time, many ascribed the delay to the popularity of the devices, and they were very popular. However, a more likely reason for the delay was that Apple was having a hard time manufacturing them. Something about production, maybe the perfectly rounded case or maybe the miniaturization of circuitry in the earbuds, was driving up defect rates. Another way to spell manufacturing problems is increased cost of goods sold. If 10% or 20% of devices are defective, that can often be enough to wreck the profitability of a device, and our guess is that Apple’s initial manufacturing rates were worse than that. Apple Watch seems to have less problems in manufacturing, but we suspect these also had poor gross margins to start out.

We believe these devices are now manufacturing at good yields. But there is the possibility that the margins on these products are poorer than the average iPhone or Mac. And as they have grown strongly, it is possible that they are weighing down margins. And this leads to our next suspect – mix shift.

Mix shift refers to the blended gross margin. If you are selling high margin products and then start selling lower margin devices, the average price of your devices falls . No discounts or price reductions involved, but prices, and thus gross margins, fall when everything is averaged out. As noted above, part of this is the growth of possibly lower-margin Wearables. But there is more to the story.

The graph below shows revenue growth by geography, again the base year is 2013. The standout feature of this chart is China. A combination of Trade War patriotism and resurgent strength among Chinese brands drove a reduction in Apple’s growth in China. This is important as we believe Apple’s iPhone sales in China skew heavily towards higher priced devices. So declines in China also likely brought down blended gross margins.

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All makes sense. Meanwhile, Services revenues (and especially profits) are moving things along nicely.
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“We are giddy”—interviewing Apple about its Mac silicon revolution • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

»

What Apple needed was a chip that took the lessons learned from years of refining mobile systems-on-a-chip for iPhones, iPads, and other products then added on all sorts of additional functionality in order to address the expanded needs of a laptop or desktop computer.

“During the pre-silicon, when we even designed the architecture or defined the features,” Srouji recalled, “Craig and I sit in the same room and we say, ‘OK, here’s what we want to design. Here are the things that matter.'”

When Apple first announced its plans to launch the first Apple Silicon Mac this year, onlookers speculated that the iPad Pro’s A12X or A12Z chips were a blueprint and that the new Mac chip would be something like an A14X—a beefed-up variant of the chips that shipped in the iPhone 12 this year.

Not exactly so, said Federighi: “The M1 is essentially a superset, if you want to think of it relative to A14. Because as we set out to build a Mac chip, there were many differences from what we otherwise would have had in a corresponding, say, A14X or something.

“We had done lots of analysis of Mac application workloads, the kinds of graphic/GPU capabilities that were required to run a typical Mac workload, the kinds of texture formats that were required, support for different kinds of GPU compute and things that were available on the Mac… just even the number of cores, the ability to drive Mac-sized displays, support for virtualization and Thunderbolt.

“There are many, many capabilities we engineered into M1 that were requirements for the Mac, but those are all superset capabilities relative to what an app that was compiled for the iPhone would expect.”

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There’s also a terrific explanation of why the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA), which lumps all the RAM for the CPU and the GPU in one place on the SoC, is more effective than the split form you get with discrete components. This may be partly responsible for the huge leap in performance even with what spec-hungry people think is small amounts of RAM.

Oh, and on The Windows Question, Federighi says: “that’s really up to Microsoft. We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.”
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Post-lockdown SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening in nearly ten million residents of Wuhan, China • Nature Communications

Chuanzhu Lv, Fujian Song, Xiaoxv Yin, Zuxun Lu and others:

»

Here, we describe a city-wide SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening programme between May 14 and June 1, 2020 in Wuhan. All city residents aged six years or older were eligible and 9,899,828 (92.9%) participated.

No new symptomatic cases and 300 asymptomatic cases (detection rate 0.303/10,000, 95% CI 0.270–0.339/10,000) were identified.

There were no positive tests amongst 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic cases. 107 of 34,424 previously recovered COVID-19 patients tested positive again (re-positive rate 0.31%, 95% CI 0.423–0.574%). The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Wuhan was therefore very low five to eight weeks after the end of lockdown.

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First: that’s an amazing testing program: nearly 10 million tests in two weeks, or more than 700,000 per day. The UK at that time was managing about 150,000 tests, though there was substantial double-counting (fewer than 150,000 people were tested).

Second: nobody tested positive from asymptomatic cases.

Third: the reinfection rate is tiny – 3 in a thousand.
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Are you a seal? • Benedict Evans

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There is a theory that when a shark bites a surfer, this is because they look like a seal, especially from 50 feet underwater. The shark circles, comes close, and sometimes it takes a bite out of a leg, and sometimes it takes a bite out of the surfboard and gets a mouthful of fibreglass. Generally, it realises the mistake and leaves, though this may or may not be any consolation to the surfer. 

I think about this theory a fair bit when I talk to big companies worried that Amazon or Google seem to circling around them, getting closer, and bumping into their legs. Maybe you look like a seal. And of course, maybe you are a seal. 

What does it mean to look like a ‘seal’, in this analogy, or indeed to be one? Well, a trillion dollar company with tens of thousands of engineers runs lots of projects and experiments, and there are lots of things that theoretically they could do, and that they might explore. But you have to ask not ‘would it be a problem for me if they got into my industry?’ but rather ‘would it make any sense for them to get into my industry?’ 

How do you tell if it would make sense for them? I’d suggest a few overlapping questions.

«

His thesis is that just because big companies *could* do all the things that some small companies do, that doesn’t mean they *will*:

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if Google can turn your business into a trivial part of Google, it will try. If it would have to recreate your entire company inside Google, it probably won’t.

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A useful way to think about how and whether startups might get acquired, or not.
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Is Apple Silicon ready ?

A list of apps people use, and whether they’ve been updated to run ARM-native. Long list, and updated frequently.

Also useful: Does it ARM? which does the same thing, but a bit less elegantly.
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Twitter to give @POTUS account to Biden on Inauguration Day whether or not Trump concedes • National Review

Brittany Bernstein:

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President-elect Joe Biden will receive the @POTUS Twitter account on Inauguration Day, even if President Trump refuses to concede, the social-media platform announced Friday.

“Twitter is actively preparing to support the transition of White House institutional Twitter accounts on Jan. 20, 2021,” a spokesman for the company said.

Those accounts include @POTUS, which has more than 32 million followers, as well as @whitehouse, @VP, @FLOTUS, and other official handles.

“As we did for the presidential transition in 2017, this process is being done in close consultation with the National Archives and Records Administration,” the spokesman added.

The agency will archive existing tweets from the Trump administration and the account will be reset to zero tweets. However, Trump has relied much more upon his personal Twitter account, which has 89 million followers, during his time in the White House.

«

The wheels grind slow but they grind very fine.
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Apple lobbies against Uighur forced labor bill • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Apple lobbyists are trying to weaken a bill aimed at preventing forced labor in China, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter, highlighting the clash between its business imperatives and its official stance on human rights.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would require US companies to guarantee they do not use imprisoned or coerced workers from the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, where academic researchers estimate the Chinese government has placed more than 1 million people into internment camps. Apple is heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturing, and human rights reports have identified instances in which alleged forced Uighur labor has been used in Apple’s supply chain.

The staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many US companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

“What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, which has supported the bill. “They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability.”

«

The proposed Act sounds like a good idea. I just wonder slightly about the framing of this story. Apple was one of “many” US companies which oppose it? Others seem to include Patagonia (surprisingly), Coca-Cola and Costco, all named in the Act, while Apple isn’t. Apple said “We abhor forced labor and support the goals of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We share the committee’s goal of eradicating forced labor and strengthening US law”.

As to “human rights reports have identified instances”, the only reference I can find is a July story about a company called O-Film, which was accused by Washington of using forced labour; Apple says it checked it and found nothing. Strange how it’s popped up in this story.
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Why the DOJ has a strong case against Google • The Federalist Society

Rachel Bovard:

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While consumers can change their search functions from the default, Google observed in a 2018 strategy document that once the default setting is in place, particularly on their phones, “people are much less likely” to swap out Google for something else.

Every major antitrust investigation into Google, from the United Kingdom, to Australia, to the European Union, has emphasized the importance of defaults in creating monopolies. In Russia, of all places, the search market is finally becoming competitive after the country’s Federal Antimonopoly Service removed Google’s ability to prevent Android phone manufacturers from changing the default search engine to anything but Google.

Google has secured its exclusivity as a default setting in the computer-browser market. As the complaint notes, “with the exception of Microsoft, most browser developers have agreed with Google to preset its search engine as the default search provider.”

The company has a dominant grip on licensing and distribution agreements with manufacturers and carriers of mobile devices that have search functionality. According to the complaint, “roughly 60% of all search queries are covered by Google’s exclusionary agreements.”

On mobile devices, it’s more than 80%. This is due to Google’s exclusive deal with Apple to be the default search option on its mobile devices, and a deal with other mobile distributors which offered its Android operating system for “free”—but with a series of interlocking agreements ensuring Google remains dominant in the massive Android ecosystem.

…[to claim] that it’s not Google’s fault that its search product is everywhere—that it’s merely the device manufacturers and web browsers choosing, without incentive, to do it—is counterfactual. Google has negotiated exclusionary agreements to ensure it is the default setting on the majority of devices and browsers sold in the United States, and in a manner that precludes competitors from challenging Google, or even developing in the first place.

«

I’m still dubious about the merits – as argued – of this case. Google developed Android; it gets to reap the benefits. On Apple’s platform, others could bid to be the default. (On Firefox, Yahoo did, successfully, under Marissa Mayer.) Which other search providers are actually trying to challenge Google? This case is about 15 years too late.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the writer Dominic Brown got in touch about the proposal on solar power stations in space, and my comment that you wouldn’t want to get in the way of the down-power beam. He emailed to say: “Back in the 1970s, when this was originally proposed, the suggestion was to float the receiving antenna offshore, or on a lake. Aircraft can fly through it safely, for the same reason lightning strikes are not terribly dangerous—an aluminum tube is an excellent Faraday cage. With a little care it should be possible to keep boats, swimmers, etc. out of the beam landing zone. Then you have the orbital transmitter cut out if it ceases to receive feedback from the rectenna—if the beam wanders for some reason, it turns off. What you then do with the energy being generated by your solar cells, I’m not too sure, but you can probably just turn it into heat resistively—net heating can’t be any greater just having the panels sitting in space absorbing sunlight.

“I imagine the remaining problem would be birds flying into the beam. You don’t need a ton of those receivers, though, and you want them in geostationary orbits, which means equatorial—and there’s no shortage of substantially bird-free deserts quite near the equator.

“To be honest, though, I think the big problem here is getting the cost of launch down far enough. Ultimately it has to be cheaper than just building nuclear power plants to do the same job—those may be costly, especially if you want to site them far from the users of the power in uninhabited places, but at the moment they’re not as costly as putting everything in orbit.”

Many thanks for that

Start Up No.1434: Facebook says it catches more hate speech, Stadia has a birthday, solar power from space?, BuzzFeed buys HuffPo, and more


Noooo! Your one-word emails are polluting the atmosphere, according to some bonkers analysis. CC-licensed photo by Martin Sharman 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. Counted and certified. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook AI catches 95% of hate speech; company still wants mods back in office • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:

»

About 95% of hate speech on Facebook gets caught by algorithms before anyone can report it, Facebook said in its latest community-standards enforcement report. The remaining 5% of the roughly 22 million flagged posts in the past quarter were reported by users.

That report is also tracking a new hate-speech metric: prevalence. Basically, to measure prevalence, Facebook takes a sample of content and then looks for how often the thing they’re measuring—in this case, hate speech—gets seen as a percentage of viewed content. Between July and September of this year, the figure was between 0.10% and 0.11%, or about 10-11 views of every 10,000.

Facebook also stressed—in both its news release and in a call with press—that while its in-house AI is making strides in several categories of content enforcement, COVID-19 is having a continued effect on its ability to moderate content.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our content-review workforce, we are seeing some enforcement metrics return to pre-pandemic levels,” the company said. “Even with a reduced review capacity, we still prioritize the most sensitive content for people to review, which includes areas like suicide and self-injury and child nudity.”

The reviewers are critical, Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen told press in a call. “People are an important part of the equation for content enforcement,” he said. “These are incredibly important workers who do an incredibly important part of the job.”

Full-time Facebook employees who are employed by the company itself are being told to work from home until July 2021 or perhaps even permanently.

In the call with reporters, Rosen stressed that Facebook employees who are required to come in to work physically, such as those who manage essential functions in data centers, are being brought in with strict safety precautions and personal protective equipment, such as hand sanitizer, made available.

Moderation, Rosen said, is one of those jobs that can’t always be done at home. Some content is simply too sensitive to review outside of a dedicated workspace where other family members might see it, he explained, saying that some Facebook content moderators are being brought back into offices “to ensure we can have that balance of people and AI working on those areas” that need human judgement applied.

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And yet there’s still plenty that people might call hate speech left there. The problem is always that the standards applied are essentially American; it’s a sort of cyber-monoculture, a cyber-imperialism, where when you go on Facebook you’re living in Facebookland, which applies its own culture – borrowed heavily from the US.
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Stadia is a year old today — and it’s still not a viable alternative to console and PC gaming • Android Police

Taylor Kerns:

»

With strong fundamentals from the start, I’d assumed Stadia would be a breakout hit by now. Next-gen home consoles have landed, and they are not cheap: the top-of-the-line new PlayStation and Xbox are both 500 bucks. By contrast, the barrier to entry for Stadia is extremely low. If you have an adequate internet connection, it’s practically nonexistent: Destiny 2 is now completely free on Stadia, no subscription required, and you can play it on just about any hardware you have laying around. Google’s been more keen to discount controller/Chromecast bundles lately, too, and it even gave them away for free to YouTube Premium subscribers all over the world — a generous and smart move that surely increased the platform’s brand awareness.

But unless you can’t afford a PlayStation or an Xbox (which, to be clear, is not a possibility I’m discounting —  they’re expensive), there’s very little reason to choose Stadia over either of those consoles. PlayStation 5 has Spider-Man: Miles Morales (with optional ray tracing!) and a new Ratchet & Clank; Xbox Series X has Halo Infinite and Forza. Stadia has… Gylt and a version of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that’s locked at 30 frames per second.

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It’s always about the content, isn’t it. That’s how disruption can work: being able to do what you want on something cheaper.
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Solar power stations in space could be the answer to our energy needs • The Conversation

Amanda Jane Hughes and Stefania Soldini are lecturers in engineering at the University of Liverpool:

»

A space-based solar power station could orbit to face the Sun 24 hours a day. The Earth’s atmosphere also absorbs and reflects some of the Sun’s light, so solar cells above the atmosphere will receive more sunlight and produce more energy.

But one of the key challenges to overcome is how to assemble, launch and deploy such large structures. A single solar power station may have to be as much as 10 kilometres squared in area – equivalent to 1,400 football pitches. Using lightweight materials will also be critical, as the biggest expense will be the cost of launching the station into space on a rocket.

One proposed solution is to develop a swarm of thousands of smaller satellites that will come together and configure to form a single, large solar generator. In 2017, researchers at the California Institute of Technology outlined designs for a modular power station, consisting of thousands of ultralight solar cell tiles. They also demonstrated a prototype tile weighing just 280 grams per square metre, similar to the weight of card.

Recently, developments in manufacturing, such as 3D printing, are also being looked at for this application. At the University of Liverpool, we are exploring new manufacturing techniques for printing ultralight solar cells on to solar sails. A solar sail is a foldable, lightweight and highly reflective membrane capable of harnessing the effect of the Sun’s radiation pressure to propel a spacecraft forward without fuel. We are exploring how to embed solar cells on solar sail structures to create large, fuel-free solar power stations.

…Another major challenge will be getting the power transmitted back to Earth. The plan is to convert electricity from the solar cells into energy waves and use electromagnetic fields to transfer them down to an antenna on the Earth’s surface. The antenna would then convert the waves back into electricity. Researchers led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have already developed designs and demonstrated an orbiter system which should be able to do this.

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Nice idea. Wouldn’t want to get in the way of the energy beam.
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BuzzFeed to acquire HuffPost in stock deal with Verizon Media • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey:

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BuzzFeed Inc. has agreed to acquire Verizon Media’s HuffPost in a stock deal, the companies said Thursday, uniting two of the larger players in digital media as companies across the sector search for ways to jump-start growth.

The acquisition is part of a larger deal between BuzzFeed and Verizon Media, a unit of Verizon Communications. Under the pact, the companies will syndicate content on each other’s platforms and look to jointly explore advertising opportunities. Verizon Media will get a minority stake in BuzzFeed as a result of the tieup, the companies said.

Verizon Media is also making an undisclosed cash investment in BuzzFeed in addition to the stock deal for HuffPost, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder and chief executive, will run the combined company. BuzzFeed will lead the search for a new editor in chief of HuffPost.

In a joint statement, the companies said BuzzFeed and HuffPost have complementary audiences and will benefit from greater scale. Financial terms for the deal weren’t disclosed, including the valuation for HuffPost.

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Peretti was one of the founders of HuffPo (along of course with Arianna Huffington, who exploited the get-people-to-write-for-free model so popular in 2005 for all she was worth). Now, tougher questions get asked about how sites will wash their faces. It’s still a challenge for Buzzfeed, and it’s hard to know how HuffPo will manage: it’s become commoditised beyond redemption.
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Italian police use Lamborghini to transport donor kidney 300 miles in two hours • Jalopnik

Elizabeth Blackstock:

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In what may be one of the most Italian things that has ever happened, the Italian State Police rushed a donor kidney from Padua to Rome for a transplant in a Lamborghini Huracan. Last week’s journey is around 300 miles, but with the help of a specially-outfitted supercar, the police made it happen in just about two hours at an average speed of 143 mph—and that’s a journey that normally takes around six.

The police posted a video of the Lambo after the completed journey, and it is just delightful.

Yes, the Italian Police own a Lamborghini and use it as a regular ol’ patrol vehicle most of the time. It’s outfitted with lights, a police computer, and other equipment for traffic stops and arrests. That said, though, the machine isn’t exactly ideal for the day-to-day (where, exactly, do you intend to put someone that you’ve arrested?). It’s still cool as hell for these more extreme circumstances, though.

But for this specific instance, the frunk came in handy. The police force turned it into a refrigerated compartment for organ transport or the delivery of other temperature-sensitive medical supplies.

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Not seized from drug dealers; they actually buy Lambos for the police force from time to time.
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Thanks for polluting the planet: emails blamed for climate change • Financial Times

George Parker, Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan and Leslie Hook:

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British officials working on plans to tackle climate change have alighted on a new threat to the planet: millions of unnecessary emails sent every day, including those that say nothing more than “thanks”.

The UK, which is hosting the UN COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow next year, is looking at innovative ways to cut carbon emissions — and the footprint left by web users has drawn its attention.

Officials have been particularly taken by research suggesting that more than 64m unnecessary emails are sent by Britons every day, pumping thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere owing to the power they consume.

“We’ve been looking at research suggesting that if you reduced those emails by just one a day, you would save a lot of carbon,” said one person involved in COP26 preparations.

The issue of unnecessary emails was raised in a recent paper from the National Cyber Security Centre, a London-based agency charged with making the country’s online life secure. The NCSC declined to comment.

…One piece of open source information referred to by officials relates to research commissioned by Ovo Energy last November, which suggested that if each person in the UK sent one fewer email a day it could cut carbon output by more than 16,000 tonnes a year.

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Absolutely flipping barking mad. This would only be true if people were powering their machines on and off in order to send those emails. In reality, the machines were on anyway. The emails are a marginal load. Just now, Apple Mail is using 0.0% of the CPU on my eight-year-old machine. But the machine’s using energy.

If this is the quality of analysis in the runup to COP26, we’re all toast.
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Sign up • Logic School

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We welcome all tech workers — whether you’re a project manager, warehouse worker, software engineer, or ride share driver. Applicants must not be full time K-12 or university students. 

When is Logic School?

Logic School runs for twelve (12) weeks, from March 8 through May 31st, 2021. 

What will I learn by the end of 12 weeks?

• Be comfortable discussing structural inequities, and if/when tech has deepened structural inequities with your community, co-workers and the broader public.
• Gain hands-on experience in advocating for change in tech through working towards a Logic School final project.
• Have reflected on your theory of change, and who your community is.
• Feel confident in advocating and articulating (through writing or other forms) inequities in tech.
• Be familiar and knowledgeable about a range of writing and research on tech and the tech industry, especially from the fields of critical race theory, economics and sociology.
• Be part of a supportive network and community in the tech industry who you can seek advice and encouragement from in the future, especially in discussing race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality/nationality/class across the industry’s internal and external practices.
• Be part of strengthening and building forms of collective action that will solidify into new practices and infrastructures throughout the industry.

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Free, thanks to the Omidyar Network. Can someone sign Mark Zuckerberg up for it? (Or you could join if you’ve got the time..)
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Google RCS global, Messages testing end-to-end encryption • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

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In mid-2019, Google decided to take over and speed up the launch of RCS. A little over 17 months later, Google announced today that it has completed a global rollout of RCS, while Messages will start testing end-to-end encryption.

RCS, or Rich Communication Services, allows for advanced messaging features like typing indicators, read receipts, higher-resolution photos and videos, larger group conversations, and interactive experiences with businesses.

Since carriers were taking quite some time to implement this big upgrade over SMS/MMS, Google last year stepped in by offering its cross-compatible RCS implementation directly to Messages users around the world. It started in the UK and France, with a major expansion to the US that November.

Google today has completed a global rollout of RCS for all Android phones. As such, those with carriers lacking support can download the Google Messages app from the Play Store. That said, availability “in some cases” depends on device and service providers. You’ll see an in-app prompt to enable or can visit Settings – Chat features.

To mark that occasion, Google is addressing one of the biggest criticisms about the standard its consumer messaging strategy is relying on. Google Messages will soon start testing end-to-end encryption in one-to-one conversations.

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Of course, you’ll both need to have encryption capability enabled on your phones. This comes as the British government is wittering on again about “terrorists” and “paedophiles” using encryption. Pretty soon, if this is enabled (query: will Apple include it?) everyone will be using encrypted messaging all the time, though don’t expect those confirmation texts you get to use it anytime soon. (Google’s using the Signal encryption protocol.) At Android Police, they complain that “Since Apple won’t bring iMessage to Android, and since RCS and the Universal Profile are open standards Apple could implement at any time, either way, it’s on Apple to plug the gap here, as its lack of action on either front widens the messaging gap between the closed iOS bubble and the rest of the world.” Now, in case you’re wondering why you might want a default encryption system for phone messages, read on…
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Messaging app Go SMS Pro exposed millions of users’ private photos and files • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

»

Security researchers at Trustwave discovered the flaw in August and contacted the app maker with a 90-day deadline to fix the issue, as is standard practice in vulnerability disclosure to allow enough time for a fix. But after the deadline elapsed without hearing back, the researchers went public.

Trustwave shared its findings with TechCrunch this week.

When a Go SMS Pro user sends a photo, video or other file to someone who doesn’t have the app installed, the app uploads the file to its servers, and lets the user share a web address by text message so the recipient can see the file without installing the app. But the researchers found that these web addresses were sequential. In fact, any time a file was shared — even between app users — a web address would be generated regardless. That meant anyone who knew about the predictable web address could have cycled through millions of different web addresses to users’ files.

Go SMS Pro has more than 100 million installs, according to its listing in Google Play.

TechCrunch verified the researcher’s findings. In viewing just a few dozen links, we found a person’s phone number, a screenshot of a bank transfer, an order confirmation including someone’s home address, an arrest record, and far more explicit photos than we were expecting, to be quite honest.

Karl Sigler, senior security research manager at Trustwave, said while it wasn’t possible to target any specific user, any file sent using the app is vulnerable to public access. “An attacker can create scripts that could throw a wide net across all the media files stored in the cloud instance,” he said.

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Why So Many Pictures Of Genitals, Traumatised Security Researchers Ask God. Still, now you see why RCS might be useful.
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YouTube will run ads on some creator videos, but it won’t give them any of the revenue • The Verge

Julie Alexander:

»

Starting today, YouTube will begin running ads on some creators’ videos, but it won’t give them a portion of the ad revenue because they’re not big enough to be enrolled in its Partner Program.

When advertisements run on YouTube videos, those creators typically receive a portion of the revenue through their role in YouTube’s Partner Program. With the new monetization rules, a creator who is not in the partner program “may see ads on some of your videos,” according to an update to the platform’s Terms of Service.

Prior to the update, YouTube says these videos only received ads in limited circumstances, like if they were monetized by a record label as part of a copyright claim. The update will mostly affect smaller creators without a huge viewership; YouTube’s Partner Program requires creators to have accrued 4,000 total hours of watch time over the last 12 months and have more than 1,000 subscribers.

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Shorter version: YouTube’s keeping more of its ad revenue for itself.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1433: how Finland and Norway beat Covid, Google Pay relaunches (again?), why is sand soft?, Chrome speeds up, and more


Oil companies fuelled vehicles; now they want your money to take carbon out of the atmosphere. CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic 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. If you can handle them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Finland and Norway avoid Covid-19 lockdowns but keep the virus at bay • WSJ

Bojan Pancevski:

»

In the north of Europe, Finland and Norway boast the West’s lowest rates of mortality linked to Covid-19 and a low incidence of coronavirus infections even though they have kept their economies and societies largely open while lockdowns returned to the continent.

While Sweden has captured global attention with its refusal to adopt mandatory restrictions—a policy now being reversed in the face of spiraling infections and deaths—its two northern neighbors now stand out as the closest Western equivalents to Asian nations that have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

Their recipe: a brief, targeted lockdown in March, followed by tight border controls with mandatory testing and quarantine for all travelers.

Elsewhere in Europe, strict lockdowns in the spring helped bring infections down, but as most of the continent reopened borders, summer travelers turned into incubators for a new and bigger wave of infections, according to epidemiologists and policy makers. Even as governments reimpose draconian restrictions, borders across Europe remain largely open.

The Nordic policy mix could offer lessons for Western governments that are scrambling to bridge the gap until vaccines become widely available and whose latest lockdowns are causing public frustration and exacting a rising economic toll.

“Life is much closer to normal here than in most countries,” said Katja Kähkönen, a theater director from Tampere in Finland. Ms. Kähkönen’s new piece premiered on Saturday in front of a reduced audience under distancing rules that have roughly halved the number of people allowed to attend concerts and dine at restaurants.

After the show, she and her colleagues visited an Italian restaurant while a rock concert was taking place in a nearby bar—a scene now unimaginable in most European countries.

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Something about the fable of the tortoise and the hare, maybe.
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Google Pay’s massive relaunch makes it an all-encompassing money app • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

Google Pay for both Android and iOS is relaunching with a giant array of new features. It turns the app from something that most people think of as a tap-to-pay card repository or peer-to-peer payment system into a much more ambitious service. The new app begins rolling out across the United States today.

The new version of the app will have three new tabs: “Pay,” which includes peer-to-peer payments as well as your transaction history using tap-to-pay; “Explore,” which will be a place where Google will offer deals and discounts; and finally, “Insights,” which will allow you to connect your bank accounts to get a searchable overview of your finances.

You will even be given the option to allow Google Pay to crawl your Gmail inbox and your Google Photos account to look for receipts. Google will use OCR technology to auto-scan them and integrate them into your finance tracking.

In 2021, Google will partner with some banks to directly offer fully online checking and savings accounts inside Google Pay — a service Google is calling “Plex.”

Not all of these services are strictly new for Google, but this will mark the first time they’re unified into a single app. In doing so, Google Pay is now arguably a direct competitor to a wide array of other apps and services, including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash, Intuit’s Mint, Simplifi, Truebill, Shop, and also online banks like Ally. That is a lot of companies that will have to contend with Google making a high-profile push into their market.

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Isn’t trying to compete with so many things overreach? And that’s quite a lot of delving into your personal accounts that you have to allow.
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Oil companies want to get even richer sucking their own emissions out of the air • Vice

Jennifer Johnson:

»

Last week, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports sounded the apocalypse alarm, claiming the planet may have already passed a “point of no return” for global heating.

To stop the “self sustaining” melting of permafrost, its authors contend that humanity must now build 33,000 plants to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air. The paper was rapidly rebuked by climate scientists, who claimed that the model it’s based on is overly simplistic.

What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that CO2 must be drawn out of the atmosphere to keep temperatures within manageable limits. Most climate change mitigation pathways that warn warming must be limited to 1.5C or 2C include some form of carbon dioxide removal, be it via a mass reforestation programme or a more futuristic scheme.

Technologies which might help us don’t exist on a large scale yet, but there are a number of organisations developing them today. Ironically, a lot of our would-be saviours are fossil fuel producers – the companies that put so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.

In late October, a consortium of six energy firms – including Shell, BP and French oil giant Total – announced intentions to develop a huge carbon capture and storage (CCS) project off of England’s east coast. The initiative will see the companies siphon off the CO2 emissions from industrial facilities at Teesside and Humberside, and pipe them into a saline aquifer beneath the bed of the North Sea. Theoretically, they would stay locked away there forever, instead of being released into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect.

If successful, the consortium says it could eventually sequester almost half of the UK’s industrial emissions beneath the North Sea. The project is meant to be up and running by 2026. With only around 20 CCS facilities in operation around the world, it could constitute a major step forward for the technology. However, questions about the true environmental credentials of CCS remain.

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Often forgotten that it’s not enough to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere; you need to remove them too in order to ameliorate warming.
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What makes sand soft? • The New York Times

Randall Munroe (who writes the XKCD strip):

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No one understands how sand works.

That may sound absurd, but it’s sort of true. Understanding the flow of granular materials like sand is a major unsolved problem in physics.

If you build an hourglass and fill it with sand grains with a known range of sizes and shapes, there is no formula to reliably predict how long the sand will take to flow through the hourglass, or whether it will flow at all. You have to just try it.

Karen Daniels, a physicist at North Carolina State University who studies sand and other granular materials — a field actually called “soft matter” — told me that sand is challenging in part because the grains have so many different properties, like size, shape, roughness and more: “One reason we don’t have a general theory is that all of these properties matter.”

But understanding individual grains is only the start. “You have to care not just about the properties of the particles, but how they’re organized,” Dr. Daniels said. Loosely packed grains might feel soft because they have room to flow around your hand, but when the same grains are packed together tightly, they don’t have room to rearrange themselves to accommodate your hand, making them feel firm. This is part of why the surface layers of beach sand feel softer than the layers underneath: the grains in the deeper layers are pressed closer together.

Our failure to find a general theory of sand isn’t for lack of trying. For everything from agricultural processing to landslide prediction, understanding the flow of granular materials is extremely important, and we just aren’t very good at it.

“People who work in particulate handling in chemical engineering factories can tell you that those machines spend a lot of time broken,” Dr. Daniels said. “Anyone who’s tried to fix an automatic coffee grinder knows they get stuck all the time. These are things that don’t work very well.”

Luckily, we’re not totally in the dark, and can say a few things about what makes sand softer or harder.

«

Absorbing read. All the things we have learned during lockdown.
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Google’s latest Chrome update delivers ‘largest performance gain in years’ • The Verge

Chris Welch:

»

Google is wrapping up 2020 with what it claims are major performance enhancements to the company’s Google Chrome browser. “This month’s update represents the largest gain in Chrome performance in years,” Matt Waddell, Chrome’s director of product, wrote in a blog post. Sounds pretty exciting on the surface, no? Waddell says a slew of under-the-hood changes and optimizations have led to boosts to Chrome on several fronts.

The first has to do with tabs. Chrome now will prioritize your active tab over the others in the background, “reducing CPU usage by up to 5x and extending battery life by up to 1.25 hours (based on our internal benchmarks).” Google goes into greater detail on just what it’s doing to keep tabs in check (hint: it involves throttling JavaScript) at the Chromium blog. “We’ve done this without sacrificing the background features that users care about, like playing music and getting notifications.”

But even opening Chrome should feel faster. The browser now launches 25% faster — hopefully to where you’ll notice the difference. It loads pages up to 7% faster, “and does all of this using less power and RAM than before.”

«

Or, you know, buy an M1 Mac and see it load faster and use less CPU. But how many people honestly notice how quickly a browser launches? Who launches it more than once a month?
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Google yanks Apple Silicon Chrome port after browser is found to ‘crash unexpectedly’ • The Register

Matthew Hughes:

»

Google’s attempt to launch its Arm port of Chrome for Apple Silicon Macs got off to a rocky start after it was forced to pull the browser over stability concerns.

“Earlier today we updated our Chrome download page to include a new version of Chrome optimized for new macOS devices featuring an Apple processor,” Googler Craig wrote on the Chrome support pages. “We’ve discovered that the version of Chrome made available for download today may crash unexpectedly.”

At the time of writing, the macOS ARM64 port of the browser remains unavailable. Folks now face two options: use the standard x86_64 version, which will run happily on their Arm Mac via the Rosetta 2 emulation layer, or if they managed to download the Apple Silicon port, use a workaround that involves giving Chrome access to the Mac’s Bluetooth radio.

The emulated version shouldn’t prove unbearably slow. Benchmarks of Apple’s latest in binary translation tech shows Rosetta2 is roughly 20% slower than the native equivalents. Given this is a fairly brisk chip to begin with, performance is roughly comparable to what you’d get with a well-specced last-generation Mac.

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Very weird that they wouldn’t have spotted this much earlier. Didn’t they have M1 Macs to test it on? Did they just do it on the DTKs (Mac minis with A14 iPad chips) and hope that would suffice? But there’s been a revised build which, it says, will do the job.
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Apple will reduce App Store cut to 15% for most developers starting January 1st • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Apple on Wednesday announced a reduction to its longstanding App Store commission rate — one of the most substantial changes to how iOS developers earn money in the history of the iPhone maker’s digital app marketplace — as part of a new program for small businesses.

The new App Store Small Business Program, as it’s called, will allow any developer who earns less than $1m in annual sales per year from all of their apps to qualify for a reduced App Store cut of 15%, half of Apple’s standard 30% fee, on all paid app revenue and in-app purchases.

The company says the “vast majority” of iOS app developers should be able to access the program, but Apple declined to say what percentage of its more than 28 million registered app makers would qualify. Apple also declined to specify how much of its App Store revenue would be affected by the reduced commission.

«

Strange how they haven’t gone for a marginal (tax) rate where you’d pay 15% on the first $1m and then 30% after that – it would remove the incentive to simply take your app off the Store when you hit $999,999.

Even so, it’s inching down towards 15%, doing it in stages (the second year of subscriptions is now at that level since 2016) – a sort of unboiling the frog.
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Climate deniers are claiming EVs are bad for the environment — again. Here’s why they’re wrong • DeSmog

Dana Drugmand:

»

scientists recently warned that if the country has any hope of reaching the Paris climate targets of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), 90% of all light-duty cars on the road must be electric by 2050.

But the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a longtime disseminator of disinformation on climate science and supported by petroleum funding sources including the oil giant ExxonMobil and petrochemical billionaire Koch foundations — dismisses this imperative and instead tries to portray electrified transport as environmentally problematic in a paper titled, “Would More Electric Vehicles Be Good for the Environment?

“This is a grab bag of old and misleading claims about EVs [electric vehicles],” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you want to answer this question [posed by the report’s title], you have to also look at the question of what are the impacts of the current gasoline and diesel transport system, and this report just ignores that.”

The CEI report is authored by Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the institute who has a long track record of casting doubt on the science of climate change and the severity of climate risk. He subtly expresses this dismissal of the climate threat in the introduction of his paper, writing: “Niche status for EVs is not good enough for those who consider climate change an existential threat, especially since transportation contributes nearly one-third of American emissions of carbon dioxide.”

According to David Pomerantz, executive director of the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, Lieberman and CEI are not credible authorities on matters of climate policy, like increasing electric vehicle adoption, given their embrace of anti-science ideology.

“If someone has spent much of their career denying climate change is a problem, and now that person writes an opinion piece masquerading as a white paper essentially saying ‘EVs are bad because they don’t do enough to address climate change’ — and that person is writing on behalf of an entity funded by oil companies — perhaps we ought not take their arguments, all of which have been made and debunked before, in good faith,” Pomerantz told DeSmog via email.

Reichmuth agreed that Lieberman’s paper doesn’t appear to be written in good faith. “This is designed to try to create a both-sides, ‘I’m just asking questions’ narrative to slow the transition to electric vehicles down,” he said. “This isn’t a real assessment.”

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Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where right-wing Americans are all in favour of improving the environment. It would be nice to visit.
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Amid Utah’s COVID-19 surge, conspiracy theorists who don’t believe the increase in cases tried to enter a Utah ICU • Yahoo News

Azmi Haroun:

»

With Utah posting record hospitalizations, according to the Utah Department of Health, conspiracy theorists tried to enter a hospital to prove the recent COVID-19 case surge was a hoax.

Utah is recruiting medical professionals from out of state and has reported that 85% of its intensive-care-unit beds are being used, with almost half related to COVID-19.

According to the statement from Intermountain Healthcare, “although these situations are few and isolated, stopping attempts to gain inappropriate access and responding to fake conspiracy theories diverts attention from providing lifesaving care provided at the hospitals.”

Conspiracy theorists have been attempting to sneak into the intensive-care unit at a hospital in Provo, Utah, according to the local news station KSL.

At a Provo City Council meeting last week, the Utah Valley Hospital administrator Kyle Hansen was providing an update on the hospital’s COVID-19 response and said roughly five people attempted to sneak into the hospital, questioning whether the ICUs were full, KSL reported.

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It would be a fabulous irony if they then caught it and found themselves inside there, wouldn’t it. Do Americans latch onto conspiracy theories more tightly than other people?
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Marissa Mayer is back and she wants to fix your address book • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

»

Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on Wednesday announced the launch of Sunshine, a consumer software start-up that is debuting with an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence.

Sunshine is Mayer’s first venture and return to the spotlight since stepping down from her role as Yahoo chief executive after the company’s $4.48bn sale to Verizon in 2017.

At launch, Mayer’s start-up is rolling out Sunshine Contacts, an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence to find and merge duplicate contacts, fill out incomplete information and continually keep that data up to date. The app integrates with the iOS Contacts app as well as Gmail and will be free to all iOS users with an invitation.

“The idea is that Sunshine Contacts basically becomes the brain that operates your contacts,” Mayer told CNBC. “Contacts, in our view, should be a living, changing thing.”

The app is also designed to make it easy to share your contact information with others, or keep that data updated for others. One feature, for example, allows users to change their contact info within the app and push it as an update to others who have their information and use Sunshine Contacts.

“As I’ve been working on contacts, some days I just get really upset and concerned that there are thousands of people out there who still have my Google email address or Yahoo email address,” said Mayer, before demonstrating the feature.

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Sigh. Not now, Marissa.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1432: Facebook labels don’t stop Trump’s lies spreading, when will Twitter ban him?, Apple’s M1 machines benchmarked, and more


Unable to cope with being cut off from manufacturers and vendors, Huawei has sold its Honor low-cost smartphone business to a Shenzhen company. CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch 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 laughed out of court. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook labels on Trump’s lies do little to stop spread • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac:

»

The labels Facebook has been putting on false election posts from President Donald Trump have failed to slow their spread across the platform, according to internal data seen by BuzzFeed News.

In the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election, Trump has repeatedly spread false information questioning President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — and been rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook. The company has attempted to temper this by adding labels to the false claims directing people to accurate information about the election and its results.

But this has done little to prevent Trump’s false claims from going viral on Facebook, according to discussions on internal company discussion boards. After an employee asked last week whether Facebook has any data about the effectiveness of the labels, a data scientist revealed that the labels — referred to as “informs” internally — do very little to reduce them from being shared.

”We have evidence that applying these informs to posts decreases their reshares by ~8%,” the data scientists said. “However given that Trump has SO many shares on any given post, the decrease is not going to change shares by orders of magnitude.”

The data scientist noted that adding the labels was not expected to reduce the spread of false content. Instead, they are used “to provide factual information in context to the post.”

“Ahead of this election we developed informational labels, which we applied to candidate posts with a goal of connecting people with reliable sources about the election,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement, adding that labels were “just one piece of our larger election integrity efforts.”

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Letting destabilising lies spread effectively unchecked: it’s hard to portray Facebook’s effect positively, really.
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Statement • Huawei

»

Huawei’s consumer business has been under tremendous pressure as of late. This has been due to a persistent unavailability of technical elements needed for our mobile phone business. Huawei Investment & Holding Co., Ltd. has thus decided to sell all of its Honor business assets to Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology Co., Ltd. This sale will help Honor’s channel sellers and suppliers make it through this difficult time.

Once the sale is complete, Huawei will not hold any shares or be involved in any business management or decision-making activities in the new Honor company.

This move has been made by Honor’s industry chain to ensure its own survival. Over 30 agents and dealers of the Honor brand first proposed this acquisition.

Since its creation in 2013, the Honor brand has focused on the youth market by offering phones in the low- to mid-end price range. During these past seven years, Honor has developed into a smartphone brand that ships over 70 million units annually.

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No price put on this. In theory, Huawei’s smartphone business should be worth billions and billions, but I wonder if the Chinese government encouraged a bank to help Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology with a friendly-terms loan. (There’s still the high-end smartphone business which it appears to have retained.)

And whether, if Joe Biden’s administration makes some sort of deal with China, whether Huawei will take its business back just as abruptly.
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Will Twitter ban Trump? • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

»

This year, Twitter did start moderating the president—and misinformation in general—meaningfully for the first time. In the spring, when Trump spread blatant disinformation about the coronavirus, the company slapped warning labels on his tweets. (It also briefly suspended his son Donald Trump Jr. for sharing a video that claims hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19.) Throughout the summer and fall, President Trump’s lies about mail-in voting and election fraud have been appended with notes about the disputed claims and links to real information. Since November 4, the president has tweeted (or retweeted himself) more than 120 times. So far, about 40 of these tweets come with a warning label. (This is not counting the claims of election fraud he has retweeted from other people.)

Now he is two months away from losing exemption from Twitter’s rules—theoretically going back to the same treatment as anyone else. “[The world-leader] policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions,” a Twitter spokesperson confirmed in a statement. Twitter has spent the past year putting checks on the president’s speech, adding friction to the process by which conspiracy theories spread, and labeling false information for what it is. But it hasn’t yet gone nuclear. The company is in a bind: Banning Trump after he leaves office would be interpreted as an aggressive political act by much of the right. It might drive him and his followers to other, more insular parts of the internet, where delusions and lies would go unchecked by the mainstream. But allowing him to keep spreading dangerous misinformation would be hypocritical, and, frankly, bad for the company’s image.

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It’s only a matter of time. It will happen gradually – there will be a limited suspension for a tweet that must be deleted, and eventually something will tip it over. Yet Trump won’t want to lose his bully pulpit, so he might try to be careful. Twitter though is going to be aching for some reason to end the embarrassment.
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Facebook didn’t fully enforce call to arms rule for events • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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In August, following a Facebook event at which two protesters were shot and killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mark Zuckerberg called the company’s failure to take down the event page asking militant attendees to bring weapons “an operational mistake.” There had been a new policy established earlier that month “to restrict” the ability of right-wing militants to post or organize in groups, Facebook’s CEO said, and under that rule, the event page should have been removed.

BuzzFeed News has learned, however, that Facebook also failed to enforce a separate year-old call to arms policy that specifically prohibited event pages from encouraging people to bring weapons to intimidate and harass vulnerable individuals. Three sources familiar with the company’s content moderation practices told BuzzFeed News that Facebook had not instructed third-party content moderators to enforce a part of its call to arms policy that was first established in June 2019.

“What we learned after Kenosha is that Facebook’s call to arms policy didn’t just fail,” said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization that pressured Facebook to create the rule. “It was never designed to function properly in the first place.”

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Primary energy vs final energy: why replacing fossil fuels won’t be so hard • Bloomberg

Akshat Rathi:

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The average efficiency of coal power plants globally is about 33%, according to the World Coal Association. That is, only a third of the energy stored in the black lumps is converted to electricity. Many modern internal combustion engine cars have an efficiency of about 20%, transforming only a fifth of gasoline’s energy into motion.

Why should something as dry and technical as energy-measurement warrant attention? Because misunderstanding it dramatically overplays the difficulty of meeting global clean-energy goals.

Let’s first define the terms. “Primary energy” is the measure of energy as found in nature, say blocks of coal or crude oil. “Final energy” is what’s available for us to use in the form of gasoline or electricity. And “useful energy” is the fraction that’s converted to, for example, move a car or light up a room.

Even though fossil fuels meet roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy demand, they are responsible for only 60% of its useful energy, according to BNEF. Put another way, 20% of the world’s primary energy demand today is met by non-fossil sources—and those sources are responsible for 40% of the world’s useful energy.

…As the world consumes more energy from renewables in the form of electricity, it manages similar economic output while consuming less primary energy. Generating electricity from solar and wind is highly efficient, and motors inside electric vehicles convert more than 80% of the energy stored in batteries into motion.

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The maths seems reassuring, yet we never seem to be any closer to changing things.
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Yeah, Apple’s M1 MacBook Pro is powerful, but it’s the battery life that will blow you away • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:

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The M1 MacBook Pro runs smoothly, launching apps so quickly that they’re often open before your cursor leaves your dock. 

Video editing and rendering is super performant, only falling behind older machines when it leverages the GPU heavily. And even then only with powerful dedicated cards like the 5500M or VEGA II. 

Compiling projects like WebKit produce better build times than nearly any machine (hell the M1 Mac Mini beats the Mac Pro by a few seconds). And it does it while using a fraction of the power. 

This thing works like an iPad. That’s the best way I can describe it succinctly. One illustration I have been using to describe what this will feel like to a user of current MacBooks is that of chronic pain. If you’ve ever dealt with ongoing pain from a condition or injury, and then had it be alleviated by medication, therapy or surgery, you know how the sudden relief feels. You’ve been carrying the load so long you didn’t know how heavy it was. That’s what moving to this M1 MacBook feels like after using other Macs. 

Every click is more responsive. Every interaction is immediate. It feels like an iOS device in all the best ways. 

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He says the battery life is a minimum of two to three times that of previous Mac portables. And they were pretty good.
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1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions – study • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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Frequent-flying “‘super emitters” who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to a study.

Airlines produced a billion tonnes of CO2 and benefited from a $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage they caused, the researchers estimated. The analysis draws together data to give the clearest global picture of the impact of frequent fliers.

Only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018 and 4% flew abroad. US air passengers have by far the biggest carbon footprint among rich countries. Its aviation emissions are bigger than the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany and Australia, the study reports.

The researchers said the study showed that an elite group enjoying frequent flights had a big impact on the climate crisis that affected everyone.

They said the 50% drop in passenger numbers in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic should be an opportunity to make the aviation industry fairer and more sustainable. This could be done by putting green conditions on the huge bailouts governments were giving the industry, as had happened in France.

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These frequent flyers aren’t called “pilots” by any chance, are they? I mean, they’re the source of the trouble.
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The rise and fall of Getting Things Done • The New Yorker

Cal Newport:

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the productivity pr0n movement continued to thrive because the overload culture that had inspired it continued to worsen. G.T.D. was joined by numerous other attempts to tame excessive work obligations, from the bullet-journal method, to the explosion in smartphone-based productivity apps, to my own contribution to the movement, a call to emphasize “deep” work over “shallow.” But none of these responses solved the underlying problem.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable.

There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped [Merlin] Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.

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I often tell people that your email inbox is a to-do list written by someone else, and that you should treat it with the disdain that that implies. (But there’s an ever-burgeoning market for to-do list apps.)
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Apple hits back at European activist complaints against tracking tool • Reuters

Kirsti Knolle:

»

Noyb’s complaints were brought against Apple’s use of a tracking code, known as the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), that is automatically generated on every iPhone when it is set up.

The code, stored on the device, makes it possible to track a user’s online behaviour and consumption preferences – vital in allowing companies to send targeted adverts.

“Apple places codes that are comparable to a cookie in its phones without any consent by the user. This is a clear breach of European Union privacy laws,” Noyb lawyer Stefano Rossetti said.

Rossetti referred to the EU’s e-Privacy Directive, which requires a user’s consent before installation and using such information.

Apple said in response that it “does not access or use the IDFA on a user’s device for any purpose”.

It said its aim was to protect the privacy of its users and that the latest release of its iOS 14 operating system gave users greater control over whether apps could link with third parties for the purposes of targeted advertising.

The Californian tech giant said in September it would delay plans to launch iOS 14 [with IDFA blocking] until early next year.

Apple accounts for one in every four smartphones sold in Europe, according to Counterpoint Research.

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Mark Zuckerberg said banning Steve Bannon from the platform for advocating for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray is ‘not what our policies would suggest’ • Yahoo

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated during Tuesday’s virtual congressional hearing that the firm will not suspend Steve Bannon’s account following his call for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be beheaded in a November 5 video.

In the hearing, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the video did violate Facebook’s policies, which is why the firm took the video down. But when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked if Facebook would suspend the former Trump advisor’s account, Zuckerberg said the company would not.

“Senator, no, that’s not what our policies would suggest that we should do in this case,” Zuckerberg said in Tuesday’s hearing.

Bannon went after Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray in a video of his podcast on November 5, which he recirculated on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and YouTube. He slammed the two for disagreeing with President Donald Trump and said “I’d put their heads on pikes” outside of the White House to warn other federal officials.

Facebook removed the video, but Zuckerberg then reportedly told employees in an all-hands meeting [last week] that Bannon hadn’t violated enough of the company’s policies to be booted from the platform. 

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Three strikes and you’re.. not out. Four. OK, five. Well, look, there’s definitely a line and don’t cross it, OK? We’ll tell you when you do. (Twitter banned Bannon permanently for the same comments.)
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A court ruling in Austria could censor the internet worldwide • Slate

Jennifer Daskal:

»

A little more than a year ago, I wrote with concern about the risk that a single EU court within single EU member state would become the censor for the world. That fear has now become reality. In a ruling in September, first reported on Thursday, the Austrian Supreme Court ordered, pursuant to local defamation rules, that Facebook remove a post insulting a former Green Party leader, keep equivalent posts off its site, and do so on a global scale.*

The case started with an April 2016 Facebook post, in which a user shared an article featuring a photo of Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, then-chair of Austria’s Green Party, along with commentary labeling her a “lousy traitor,” “corrupt oaf,” and member of a “fascist party,” apparently in response to her immigration policies. This is core, protected speech in the United States. But it was deemed defamation under Austrian law. And in a series of rulings, Austrian courts ordered that Facebook take down and keep off any such post, and do so around the world.

Facebook complied, but only in part.  Employing what is known as geoblocking, it made the particular post that had been identified inaccessible to users within Austria. But it objected both to the global reach of the order and to the obligation to look for and keep other, equivalent posts off their site. And it argued that the order violated the applicable EU’s e-Commerce Directive, which prohibits EU member states from imposing general monitoring obligations on tech companies like Facebook.

In an October 2019 ruling, the European Court of Justice sided with Austria—concluding that the e-Commerce Directive did not stand in the Austrian court’s way (a ruling that is hard to reconcile with the text of the directive, for reasons I won’t rehash now). The CJEU ruling set two limits, albeit minimal, on EU member state courts. First, the obligation to look for and take down equivalent content must be issued with sufficient specificity to eliminate the need for independent provider assessment of that content—a criteria that, as I and others have argued previously is premised on a largely misguided assessment of the ability and precision of filtering tools. Second, any worldwide injunction must comport with “relevant international law.”

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International law is getting very, very confusing but the emerging reality is that the only options are not to operate in certain countries, or comply with what they demand. Facebook’s success bites it again.
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FCPX performance on M1 chip • MacRumors Forums

»

This is from a photographer in Australia. He got the device today and posted this on Weibo in Chinese. I guess I’ll translate a bit.

Exporting H.264 Sony 10 bit 422 footage with just one rec709 lut takes:

– 11 minutes and 30 seconds on his iMac Pro with Vega 56 and 128gigs of ram.
– 10 minutes and 20 seconds on the new MacBook Pro with 8gigs of ram took. Wow.

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(FCPX = Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, used by video editors all the time.) There is more discussion and more benchmarks in the thread, but this suggests that even with minimal RAM the M1 can leave Intel chips in the dust. If word gets around fast enough (and among pro users it surely will), Apple might have trouble selling its Intel-based high-end machines because people will see that the lower-end ones smoke them already, and will hold out for the M*-based versions. The M* Mac Pro will be quite something, on this basis.

There’s also this Twitter thread comparing a compiler run on a M1 MacBook Air to a 16in (Intel) MacBook Pro. Developers are going to want to have their tools running on it, but might be happy with x86 emulation.

Meanwhile Anandtech have looked at the M1 Mac mini and conclude that Apple “hit it out of the park”, as it now beats Intel and is level with AMD’s best.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yes, the former president of the US is actually Barack Obama, not Barack Obaba. Thanks to all those who pointed out the error.

Start Up No.1431: Obama frets for US democracy, US military buys app data, Apple faces Facebook’s nemesis, M1 emulation outpaces Intel Macs, and more


Strava has added about 2 million users during lockdown – many probably unaware how it shares their workouts. CC-licensed photo by Lee Simpson 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. No, really. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Obama fears for our democracy • The Atlantic

Jeffrey Goldberg:

»

Trump, Obama noted, is not exactly an exemplar of traditional American manhood. “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”

…He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. It was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, he said, who helped unleash the populist wave: “The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”

The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”

He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”

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There’s also a Q+A which is a reminder of what a coherent president sounds like. And will sound like after January.
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How the US military buys location data from ordinary apps • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

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The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.

Through public records, interviews with developers, and technical analysis, Motherboard uncovered two separate, parallel data streams that the U.S. military uses, or has used, to obtain location data. One relies on a company called Babel Street, which creates a product called Locate X. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a branch of the military tasked with counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and special reconnaissance, bought access to Locate X to assist on overseas special forces operations. The other stream is through a company called X-Mode, which obtains location data directly from apps, then sells that data to contractors, and by extension, the military.

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Always useful for targeting people with drone strikes.
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Apple addresses privacy concerns surrounding app authentication in macOS • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

security researcher Jeffrey Paul shared a blog post titled “Your Computer Isn’t Yours,” in which he raised privacy and security concerns related to Macs “phoning home” to Apple’s OCSP server. In short, Paul said that the OCSP traffic that macOS generates is not encrypted and could potentially be seen by ISPs or even the U.S. military.

Apple has since responded to the matter by updating its “Safely open apps on your Mac” support document with new information, as noted by iPhoneinCanada. Here’s the new “Privacy protections” section of the support document in full:

»

macOS has been designed to keep users and their data safe while respecting their privacy.

Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked. We have never combined data from these checks with information about Apple users or their devices. We do not use data from these checks to learn what individual users are launching or running on their devices.

Notarization checks if the app contains known malware using an encrypted connection that is resilient to server failures.

These security checks have never included the user’s Apple ID or the identity of their device. To further protect privacy, we have stopped logging IP addresses associated with Developer ID certificate checks, and we will ensure that any collected IP addresses are removed from logs.

«

«

Quite a thing for Apple to be pressured into making this announcement. Since Catalina its app oversight has become a lot more intrusive (Catalina would send a hash of anything – even terminal commands – to Apple to see whether it was malware). Does iOS do the same? Because nobody seems to have noticed it if so.
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Apple targeted by privacy campaigner who took on Facebook • Bloomberg

Aoife White and Stephanie Bodoni:

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Apple’s ad tracking is the target of two complaints to Spanish and German authorities by a privacy advocate whose earlier legal battles are forcing Facebook to change the way it transfers data.

Noyb, a group founded by privacy activist Max Schrems, is accusing Apple of unlawfully installing so-called identification for advertisers on its devices. The service helps Apple and apps track users’ behavior and their consumption preferences without their consent, the group said.

“With our complaints we want to enforce a simple principle: trackers are illegal, unless a user freely consents,” Noyb lawyer Stefano Rossetti said in a statement on Monday. “Smartphones are the most intimate device for most people and they must be tracker-free by default.”

Schrems made a name for himself as a law student by taking on Facebook over the safety of people’s data when it was shipped to the US. He won a landmark European Union court ruling in 2015 and his complaints led to a second key judgment in July that has forced regulators on both sides of Atlantic to rethink data transfer rules. The EU’s revamped data protection rules in 2018 opened the door to mass lawsuits, which led to the creation of Noyb and a promise by Schrems to “look for the bigger cases” with the biggest impact.

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Schrems tends to pick cases that he can win, and he’s determined as hell. Apple might want to start thinking about how it’s going to handle a loss here.
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Apple Silicon M1 emulating x86 is still faster than every other Mac in single core benchmark • MacRumors

Frank McShan:

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The first native benchmarks of Apple’s M1 chip appeared on the Geekbench site last week showing impressive native performance. Today, new benchmarks have begun showing up for the M1 chip emulating x86 under Rosetta 2.


Single Core Mac benchmarks

The new Rosetta 2 Geekbench results uploaded show that the M1 chip running on a MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM has single-core and multi-core scores of 1,313 and 5,888 respectively. Since this version of Geekbench is running through Apple’s translation layer Rosetta 2, an impact on performance is to be expected. Rosetta 2 running x86 code appears to be achieving 78%-79% of the performance of native Apple Silicon code.

Despite the impact on performance, the single-core Rosetta 2 score results still outperforms any other Intel Mac, including the 2020 27-inch iMac with Intel Core i9-10910 @ 3.6GHz.

Initial benchmarks for the MacBook Air running M1 natively featured a single-core score of 1,687 and multi-core score of 7,433. Additional benchmarks with M1 have since surfaced and are available on Geekbench.

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Not usually a fan of benchmarks but these are at least – uh – Apples to Apple comparisons.
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Sweden bans public events of more than eight people • The Local

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Sweden on Monday announced a ban on public events of more than eight people at a press conference where ministers urged the population to “do the right thing”.
The new limit is part of the Public Order Act and therefore is a law, not a recommendation like many of Sweden’s coronavirus measures. People who violate the ban by organising larger events could face fines or even imprisonment of up to six months.

The law change will come into effect on November 24th and will initially apply for four weeks.

“It’s going to get worse. Do your duty and take responsibility to stop the spread of infection. I’ll say it again. It’s going to get worse. Do your duty and take responsibility to stop the spread of infection,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the press conference on Monday.

Sweden’s limit on attendees at public events was reduced to 50 in March, and was raised to 300 in late October for certain types of seated events only — although several regions chose to keep the lower limit of 50.

The ban applies to public events such as concerts, performances, and sports matches, but not to places like schools or workplaces or to private gatherings. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said “we can’t regulate every social gathering” but urged people to follow the new limit at all kinds of events. 

“There should not be social situations with more than eight people even if they are not formally affected by the law. This is the new norm for the whole society, for all of Sweden. Don’t go to the gym. Don’t go to the library. Don’t have dinners. Don’t have parties. Cancel,” he said.

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Sweden bends to the inevitable. Its strategy, held up by many as the ideal way forward, has actually been pretty disastrous. Even its economy hasn’t done well compared to its neighbours.
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Strava raises $110m, touts growth rate of two million new users per month in 2020 • TechCrunch

Darrell Etherington:

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Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added over 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.

Strava has 70 million members already according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities – all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.

The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity – though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.

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Another sign that people don’t notice the privacy invasion much.
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Can history predict the future? • The Atlantic

Graeme Wood:

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[Jared] Diamond and [Yuval] Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. [Peter] Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping— is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”— the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: more and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

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Anyway, how’s your day shaping up?
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Twitter names famed hacker ‘Mudge’ as head of security • Reuters

Joseph Menn:

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Social media giant Twitter TWTR.N Inc, under increased threat of regulation and plagued by serious security breaches, is appointing one of the world’s best-regarded hackers to tackle everything from engineering missteps to misinformation.

The company on Monday named Peiter Zatko, widely known by his hacker handle Mudge, to the new position of head of security, giving him a broad mandate to recommend changes in structure and practices. Zatko answers to CEO Jack Dorsey and is expected to take over management of key security functions after a 45- to 60-day review.

In an exclusive interview, Zatko said he will examine “information security, site integrity, physical security, platform integrity – which starts to touch on abuse and manipulation of the platform – and engineering.”

Zatko most recently oversaw security at the electronic payments unicorn Stripe. Before that, he worked on special projects at Google and oversaw handing out grants for projects on cybersecurity at the Pentagon’s famed Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA).

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That’s a storied CV, but the problem will be to instil a culture, not to be a famous figurehead. Twitter’s security problems are much more about the sloppy culture that has been there for years and which led to the colossal hack of a few months ago.
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New lawsuit: why do Android phones mysteriously exchange 260Mb a month with Google via cellular data when they’re not even in use? • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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Google on Thursday was sued for allegedly stealing Android users’ cellular data allowances though unapproved, undisclosed transmissions to the web giant’s servers.

The lawsuit, Taylor et al v. Google [PDF], was filed in a US federal district court in San Jose on behalf of four plaintiffs based in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the hope the case will be certified by a judge as a class action.

The complaint contends that Google is using Android users’ limited cellular data allowances without permission to transmit information about those individuals that’s unrelated to their use of Google services.

Data sent over Wi-Fi is not at issue, nor is data sent over a cellular connection in the absence of Wi-Fi when an Android user has chosen to use a network-connected application. What concerns the plaintiffs is data sent to Google’s servers that isn’t the result of deliberate interaction with a mobile device – we’re talking passive or background data transfers via cell network, here.

“Google designed and implemented its Android operating system and apps to extract and transmit large volumes of information between Plaintiffs’ cellular devices and Google using Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances,” the complaint claims. “Google’s misappropriation of Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances through passive transfers occurs in the background, does not result from Plaintiffs’ direct engagement with Google’s apps and properties on their devices, and happens without Plaintiffs’ consent.”

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Like you, I thought “it’ll be in the EULA”, but the plaintiffs say not. There’s a lot of data quietly pinging around there.
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Electric-truck pilot in Sweden slashes carbon footprint • Trucking Info

HDT staff:

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Oatly started using the battery-electric trucks to move Oatly’s products from its production facilities in Sweden, to destinations within the local market.

Sweden-based Einride may have attracted the most attention for its electric, autonomous cargo Pods, but it’s also developing regular electric trucks. Oatly is one of the first companies in the world to operate a full fleet of Einride electric trucks daily, on-site. 

During the first month of operation, the trucks have driven over 8,600 electric km (about 5,344 miles) and as a result have saved over 10,500 kg, or 23,149 pounds, of CO2 compared to diesel. 

The collaboration between the two sustainability-minded companies was first announced in May 2020 and took less than six months to come to fruition. It currently runs around the clock at Oatly’s Swedish facilities, and is coordinated by the Einride intelligent freight mobility platform for maximum efficiency and emissions reduction.

“This partnership debunks the myth that electric trucks cannot handle heavy loads,” said Robert Falck, CEO and founder of Einride. “When supported by intelligent software, heavy loads and long distances are entirely possible, and our freight mobility platform has proven this already with its ability to coordinate all details of the Oatly vehicle transport in real-time. We measure minute-by-minute, everything from drivers, pallets, loading bays, route choices, and loading points to make electric trucks both smart and profitable for our partners.”

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Since I wondered about electric artics yesterday. (Thanks David Joffe for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1430: Apple’s M1 benchmarked (fast!), whither Intel?, electric vans on the way, the cursed treasure, Parler’s data grab, and more


Life inside the British civil service under Dominic Cummings – now gone – was no cakewalk. CC-licensed photo by duncan c on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. That’s actually one million, according to Kayleigh McEnany. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Intel’s disruption is now complete • Medium

James Allworth:

»

The causal mechanism behind disruption that Grove so quickly understood was that even if a disruptive innovation started off as inferior, by virtue of it dramatically expanding the market, it would improve at a far greater rate than the incumbent. It was what enabled Intel (and Microsoft) to win the computing market in the first place: even though personal computers were cheaper, selling something that sat in every home and on every desk ends up funding a lot more R&D spend than selling a few very expensive servers that only existed in server rooms.

Similarly, Apple’s initial foray into chips didn’t produce anything that special in terms of silicon. But it didn’t need to — people were happy to just have a computer that they could keep in their pocket. Apple has gone on to sell a lot of iPhones, and all those sales have funded a lot of R&D. The silicon inside them has kept improving, and improving, and improving. And their fab partner, TSMC, has gone along with them for the ride.

Finally, today marks the day where, for Intel, those two lines on the graph intersect. Unlike the last time the two lines intersected in the personal computer market, Intel is not the one doing the disrupting. And now, it’s just a matter of time before the performance of ARM-based chips continues its march upmarket into Intel’s last refuge: the server business.

Things are not going to go well for them from here on out.

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Apple Silicon M1 chip in MacBook Air outperforms high-end 16in MacBook Pro • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

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Apple introduced the first MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini with M1 Apple Silicon chips last Monday, and the first benchmark of the new chip appears to be showing up on the Geekbench site.

The M1 chip, which belongs to a MacBook Air with 8GB RAM, features a single-core score of 1687 and a multi-core score of 7433. According to the benchmark, the M1 has a 3.2GHz base frequency.

When compared to existing devices, the M1 chip in the MacBook Air outperforms all iOS devices. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone 12 Pro earned a single-core score of 1584 and a multi-core score of 3898, while the highest ranked iOS device on Geekbench’s charts, the A14 iPad Air, earned a single-core score of 1585 and a multi-core score of 4647.

In comparison to Macs, the single-core performance is better than any other available Mac, and the multi-core performance beats out all of the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro models, including the 10th-generation high-end 2.4GHz Intel Core i9 model. That high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro earned a single-core score of 1096 and a multi-core score of 6870.

Though the M1 chip is outperforming the 16-inch MacBook Pro models when it comes to raw CPU benchmarks, the 16-inch MacBook Pro likely offers better performance in other areas such as the GPU as those models have high-power discrete GPUs.

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And that’s the model which doesn’t have thermal headroom, because it hasn’t got a fan. These machines are going to be insanely fast – though users will still be the same old plodders.
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The Ford E-Transit is, you guessed it, an all-electric Transit • Top Gear

Greg Potts:

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the maximum payloads that the different versions of E-Transit can take are also remarkably similar to those of its internal-combustion-engined siblings. The standard van form of the E can carry up to 1,616kg of tat, with stronger chassis cab models upping that to 1,967kg.

The largest enclosed van option also offers 15.1 cubic metres of cargo space, which is exactly the same as the equivalent diesel L4H3 Transit. That’s down to the battery being located underneath the body. 

Aha, the battery – that’s surely our cue to talk drivetrains. Said battery is a 67kWh job which provides a range of 217 miles on the combined WLTP cycle. As an aside, Ford says that’s roughly three times the distance that the average European fleet driver covers on a daily basis. Oh, and there’ll be an eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty. 

The electric motor is a 265bhp, 317lb ft unit which powers the rear wheels, and there’s an Eco Mode that limits top speed and acceleration for an 8-10% improvement in efficiency. 

There’s also AC and DC-fast charging, with DC offering up to 115kW and the ability to top-up the battery from 15% to 80% in around 34 minutes. The onboard 2.3kW power source is a neat touch too – allowing users to charge tools or power equipment at jobsites. 

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When a workhorse van like this turns electric, things are changing. And like so many other vehicles, it’s making lots of short runs rather than long continuous motorway drives. (It will surely be a long while before we see articulated lorries with an electric drivetrain.)
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The reality of civil service life under Cain and Cummings • Daily Mail Online

Neil Tweedie:

»

When the call from Downing Street came in, I was dozing. I’d fallen asleep the previous night with my black government-issued mobile on my chest, while trying to catch up on the endless emails that are the bane of a special adviser’s life.

A minute or so of pleasantries and then down to business. ‘These leaks about travel corridors, mate. If they carry on, we are going to have to start shooting people.’

I liked the official issuing this unsubtle threat — still do — but was irked by the implication that my department, Transport, was furtively generating unfavourable coverage of the Government’s quarantine strategy for people flying into the UK during the pandemic.

Whatever the objections to quarantine — and it was having a devastating impact on our airlines and airports — it was a settled policy, and we at the Department for Transport (DfT) were duty bound to make it work. So, no leaks, no negative briefing. We stuck to that.

Something else irritated me — the schoolboy Mafioso language meant to instil fear. Shooting people, for God’s sake. I mean, grow up.

But that exchange was par for the course in the new world I’d joined, a world where bullying and intimidation were the norm. A world utterly dominated by Dominic Cummings, chief policy adviser to the PM, and his ally Lee Cain, the Downing Street director of communications.

And that early-morning call would set in train the events leading to my sacking by Cain.

After 25 years in national newspapers, I’d taken the job of media special adviser — otherwise known as a spad — with some trepidation. Journalism is a tough world, but in most regards it is an uncomplicated one.

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Tweedie saw “the corrosive effect of a clique who revelled in strong-arm tactics and the use of secret media briefings to force through their agenda. A government cannot preach morality in public life when it tolerates abuse within its own ranks. The two cannot be separated. I witnessed this abuse of power first-hand, and it was not pretty.” In case you think he’s some shrinking violet, he used to work at the Daily Mail – recognised among journalists as the most brutal place to work in British (possibly world) journalism.

What he describes about how government works isn’t how it used to work at all.
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The curse of the buried treasure • The New Yorker

Rebecca Mead:

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On June 2, 2015, two metal-detector hobbyists aware of the area’s heritage, George Powell and Layton Davies, drove ninety minutes north of their homes, in South Wales, to the hamlet of Eye, about four miles outside Leominster. The farmland there is picturesque: narrow, hedgerow-lined lanes wend among pastures dotted with spreading trees and undulating crop fields. Anyone fascinated by the layered accretions of British history—or eager to learn what might be buried within those layers—would find it an attractive spot. English place-names, most of which date back to Anglo-Saxon times, are often repositories of meaning: the name Eye, for example, derives from Old English, and translates as “dry ground in a marsh.” Just outside the hamlet was a rise in the landscape, identified on maps by the tantalizing appellation of King’s Hall Hill.

Powell, a warehouse worker in his early thirties, and Davies, a school custodian a dozen years older, were experienced “detectorists.” There are approximately twenty thousand such enthusiasts in England and Wales, and usually they find only mundane detritus: a corroded button that popped off a jacket in the eighteen-hundreds, a bolt that fell off a tractor a dozen years ago. But some detectorists make discoveries that are immensely valuable, both to collectors of antiquities and to historians, for whom a single buried coin can help illuminate the past. Scanning the environs of King’s Hall Hill, the men suddenly picked up a signal on their devices. They dug into the red-brown soil, and three feet down they started to uncover a thrilling cache of objects: a gold arm bangle in the shape of a snake consuming its own tail; a pendant made from a crystal sphere banded by delicately wrought gold; a gold ring patterned with octagonal facets; a silver ingot measuring close to three inches in length; and, stuck together in a solid clod of earth, what appeared to be hundreds of fragile silver coins.

«

This is a long, absorbing read which shows that sometimes the worst thing that can happen is that you achieve your dearest wish.
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Parler makes play for conservatives mad at Facebook, Twitter • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey:

»

Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, is among the company’s financial backers, according to people familiar with the matter. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

…Ms. Mercer said in a separate post that she and [Parler CEO John] Matze “started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended.” She said the effort is an answer to what she called the “ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords.”

The company’s user base more than doubled to 10 million in under a week, making it difficult for its roughly 30-person staff to keep up with the flood of new sign-ups.

“You’d fix one thing, and another would blow out,” Mr. Matze said. “We’re now solid at this point.”

Other allies of President Trump have joined Ms. Mercer in framing Parler’s rapid growth as a rebuke to major tech platforms’ efforts to more aggressively label content or restrict the reach of posts that the platforms deemed misleading or dangerous. Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo announced she was quitting Twitter for Parler, where she has amassed more than 1 million followers. Conservative talk show host Dan Bongino—who is both one of Facebook’s most popular content creators and an investor in Parler—heralded its growth as “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

Both of them have continued to post on Facebook and Twitter, though, raising the question of whether Parler will eventually complement or replace larger platforms with much bigger audiences.

«

Parler is a huge data grab: it’s intended to collect as much personal data as it can from the users, because they’re mostly die-hard Trump supporters and so can be useful to whatever political scheme the Mercers (or Trumps) want to aim them at. And as pointed out by Ryan Broderick last week, nobody actually quits Twitter or Facebook voluntarily if they have a following of any size.
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How a post-election crisis was manufactured in Pennsylvania • CNNPolitics

Marshall Cohen:

»

All eyes fell on Pennsylvania, with millions of still-uncounted votes. The delay was largely caused by Republican state lawmakers who defied local officials and nonpartisan experts, and refused to let counties process mail ballots before Election Day, as is allowed in other states.

So the election went into overtime. As the days crept by, Trump’s massive election night lead of 700,000 votes slowly disappeared as Pennsylvania’s 67 counties churned through their mail-in ballots, revealing a narrow win for Biden. This predictable shift gave rise to a bevy of conspiracy theories, disinformation and baseless accusations of voter fraud, stoked chiefly by the President.

Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania has now eclipsed Trump’s winning margin from 2016. If mail ballots had been counted first – not last – the trajectory of the entire election would’ve looked different.
“If they would’ve just given us 48 hours to open envelopes and stack absentee ballots, we would’ve delivered a result on election night – easy,” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, told CNN. “Why wouldn’t they agree to something so perfunctory and bureaucratic? Because every Republican in that food chain wanted chaos, and that’s exactly what they got.”

«

Lots of finger-pointing in the rest of the analysis, but the weird reality that election counting could become a partisan issue shows how the US is slowly sliding towards complete dysfunction.
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New device puts music in your head — no headphones required • Associated Press

Louise Dixon:

»

Imagine a world where you move around in your own personal sound bubble. You listen to your favorite tunes, play loud computer games, watch a movie or get navigation directions in your car — all without disturbing those around you.

That’s the possibility presented by “sound beaming,” a new futuristic audio technology from Noveto Systems, an Israeli company. On Friday it will debut a desktop device that beams sound directly to a listener without the need for headphones.

The company provided The Associated Press with an exclusive demo of the desktop prototype of its SoundBeamer 1.0 before its launch Friday.

The listening sensation is straight out of a sci-fi movie. The 3-D sound is so close it feels like it’s inside your ears while also in front, above and behind them.

Noveto expects the device will have plenty of practical uses, from allowing office workers to listen to music or conference calls without interrupting colleagues to letting someone play a game, movie or music without disturbing their significant others.

The lack of headphones means it’s possible to hear other sounds in the room clearly.

The technology uses a 3-D sensing module and locates and tracks the ear position sending audio via ultrasonic waves to create sound pockets by the user’s ears. Sound can be heard in stereo or a spatial 3-D mode that creates 360 degree sound around the listener, the company said.

«

Ultrasound to beam sound specifically to one person or location has been around for quite a while; I get the impression it’s just always been expensive. And there’s no indication this won’t be expensive too. But in our lockdown world, maybe we’ll like sound that only one person can hear. (Via John Naughton.)
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Coronavirus emerged in Italy earlier than thought, Italian study shows • Reuters

Giselda Vagnoni:

»

Italian researchers’ findings, published by the INT’s scientific magazine Tumori Journal, show that 11,6% of 959 healthy volunteers enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020, had developed coronavirus antibodies well before February.

A further specific SARS-CoV-2 antibodies test was carried out by the University of Siena for the same research titled “Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the pre-pandemic period in Italy”.

It showed that four cases dated back to the first week of October were also positive for antibodies neutralizing the virus, meaning they had got infected in September, Giovanni Apolone, a co-author of the study, told Reuters.

“This is the main finding: people with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests but had also antibodies able to kill the virus,” Apolone said.

“It means that the new coronavirus can circulate among the population for long and with a low rate of lethality not because it is disappearing but only to surge again,” he added.

Italian researchers told Reuters in March that they reported a higher than usual number of cases of severe pneumonia and flu in Lombardy in the last quarter of 2019 in a sign that the new coronavirus might have circulated earlier than previously thought.

«

Hmm. Two possibilities: it really was circulating in Italy as far back as September or October; or the antibodies that they’ve detected aren’t specific to SARS-Cov-2, but to coronavirus(es) generally. (And there does seem to be evidence that some people have an immune response despite never being exposed.) There should be clearer data from those pneumonia cases. There’s also the question of how it got there, if the first outbreak was in China, and why it didn’t have a bigger outbreak much sooner.
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Does Apple really log every app you run? A technical look • Jacopo Jannone

»

Apple’s launch of macOS Big Sur was almost immediately followed by server issues which prevented users from running third-party apps on their computers. While a workaround was soon found by people on Twitter, others raised some privacy concerns related to that issue.

[Jeff Johnson tweeted: “Hey Apple users: If you’re now experiencing hangs launching apps on the Mac, I figured out the problem using Little Snitch.
It’s trustd connecting to http://ocsp.apple.com
Denying that connection fixes it, because OCSP is a soft failure.
(Disconnect internet also fixes.)”]

OCSP stands for Online Certificate Status Protocol1. As the name implies, it is used to verify the validity of a certificate without having to download and scan large certificate revocation lists. macOS uses OCSP to make sure that the developer certificate hasn’t been revoked before an app is launched.

As Jeff Johnson explains in his tweet above, if macOS cannot reach Apple’s OCSP responder it skips the check and launches the app anyway – it is basically a fail-open behaviour. The problem is that Apple’s responder didn’t go down; it was reachable but became extremely slow, and this prevented the soft failure from triggering and giving up the check.

It is clear that this mechanism requires macOS to contact Apple before an app is launched. The sudden public awareness of this fact, brought about by Apple’s issues, raised some privacy concerns and a post from security researcher Jeffrey Paul2 became very popular on Twitter.

«

It turns out that it’s not a hash of the program, but relates to the developer certificate. Very watchful indeed. There’s still a use for Little Snitch, clearly. (I haven’t updated to Big Sur; let others find these pain points.)
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Google shutting down Expeditions, moving VR to A&C app • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

»

Almost every tech company was invested in virtual reality five years ago and saw it as the future. One Google effort was to use VR as a means to let students go on virtual field trips. Expeditions is now being folded into the Google Arts & Culture app as the dedicated experience shuts down next year.

Google said: “With this product, educators took students on new adventures to experience far-away places, travel back in time or learn about cultures unlike their own. It has been truly magical to see how educators and students alike incorporated our VR tours into their imaginative curriculums.”

Google announced today it will “no longer support the Expeditions app.” Additionally, it will be removed from Google Play and the App Store after June 30, 2021.

The Expeditions Pioneer Program launched in 2015 as a limited access experience for educators. A year later Google made the app available for all on Android, but continued to sell dedicated Expedition kits that included a tablet, phones, virtual reality viewers, and router.

«

Sure would like to know how much use it got. Can’t imagine that it’s been growing despite all this. Another one takes the trip up the mountain road to the farm where all the old animals go. When do we agree that VR just hasn’t cut through?
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Apple HomePod mini review: playing small ball • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

»

When the HomePod originally launched, it felt like Apple was operating in a completely different world from the rest of the smart speakers, one that didn’t make sense for a lot of people. The HomePod mini at least feels like it’s in the same ballpark as the rest.

At $100, compared to the original HomePod’s $350 launch price, the mini is priced low enough that you can envision buying more than one and spreading them throughout your home. It does most of the things you expect a smart speaker to do and sounds good when doing them. If you’re already fully bought into Apple’s ecosystem, including services, it’s hard to fault the HomePod mini’s price or capabilities. It also provides an escape from some of the privacy concerns and baggage that come with the Echo or Nest smart speakers, including the increasingly common ads that show up in Alexa’s responses.

But it feels like Apple is still two years or more behind Amazon and Google when it comes to smart speakers. And compared to the equally priced Echo and Nest Audio, the HomePod mini struggles to keep up in both sound quality and features.

«

Remarkably, he says that Siri is faster than Alexa or Google to respond to a request or command, which must be a first in a review. Sound seems to be adequate. The voice detection ability of the HomePod is remarkable – you can have a lot of loud ambient noise and it will still pick up the “Hey Siri” bit.
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Start Up No.1429: the pointlessness of Parler, US pauses TikTok shutdown, Apple’s boom year, Google’s sound AI fixer, and more


No no no! Apple’s chiefs are insistent that Big Sur does not mean touchscreen Macs are on the way.CC-licensed photo by Sean O%27Sullivan 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. Nearer to January. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Here come the maid boys nyaaaa ლ(=ↀωↀ=)ლ • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick writes a newsletter of links, and he looked at why lots of crybaby American conservatives are heading to “alternative social network” Parler:

»

I was curious what Parler considered “active,” so I clicked through to [Senator Ted] Cruz’s page. He’s posted once a day this week, most likely to capitalize on people leaving Facebook and Twitter, but before that, Cruz’s last post was October 20. His posts are all extremely boring.

In terms of design, Parler is a pretty standard Twitter clone. Instead of tweets, posts are called “parleys,” which, lol ok, sure. The site also has a “Suggested” hashtag widget. The top ones this morning were #Bitcoin, #Meme, #Videogames, and #Twexit lol. I was curious what kind of incredible discourse I’ve been missing out on. So I clicked on #Twexit.

And the top post was porn!

There’s something nice about how when a bunch of conservatives make a social network, it will, without fail, immediately fill up with porn bots.

The whole platform seems to be full of spam though. When I clicked on #Bitcoin, the top posts were all just QAnon slurry.

The idea that the American right wing will all migrate to Parler is, of course, a total farce. Thanks to the political influence of both Gamergate and Trump’s weaponization of Twitter, there actually isn’t a coherent way to express right-wing ideology anymore without online harassment and abuse at its center. Being a Republican without antagonizing liberals is like doing improv without an audience. It’s the reason subreddits and 4chan boards constantly go on raids, invading left-wing Twitter threads and attacking progressive Tumblr users. Without an Other to demonize, and then vanquish, the entire movement would feel completely hollow, pointless, and, most detrimentally for Trump and his allies, boring.

Social media is a video game and Parler is a map without enemies to defeat. So, no, Parler will not catch on. Just as Gab never caught on. But we can let these miserable con artists pretend for a while! See you guys when we all migrate to the next free speech platform.

«

I love the phrase “QAnon slurry”, which captures it so neatly. But that need to have an opposition to push against – it’s the essence of politics. Improv without an audience indeed. (Via Alex Hern.)
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Commerce Department announces stay of TikTok shutdown order • WSJ

John McKinnon:

»

The Commerce Department said Thursday that it won’t enforce its order that would have effectively forced the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing app to shut down, citing a federal court ruling in Philadelphia.

The department’s action delays implementation of a regulation, set to take effect Thursday, that would have barred US companies such as Apple Inc. from offering TikTok as a mobile app, and companies including Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. from offering web-hosting service for TikTok—moves that would effectively make it inoperable.

In making its decision, the Commerce Department cited a preliminary injunction against the shutdown last month by US District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia in a suit brought by three TikTok stars: comedian Douglas Marland, fashion guru Cosette Rinab and musician Alex Chambers.

The Commerce Department statement said that the shutdown order won’t go into effect “pending further legal developments.”

In the Philadelphia case, Judge Beetlestone said the government action “presents a threat to the ‘robust exchange of informational materials’” and therefore likely exceeds the government’s authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the law the Trump administration has relied on to take action against TikTok.

«

So predictable, really. We were told it was a national security matter. Now it doesn’t matter. The whims of a child who lost interest.
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Apple’s first in-house SoC for Macs projected to propel yearly MacBook shipment to 17.1m units in 2021 • TrendForce

»

Owing to the rise of the stay-at-home economy brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, yearly Apple MacBook shipment for 2020 is expected to reach 15.5 million units, a 23.1% increase YoY, according to TrendForce’s latest investigations.

Thanks to the November 11 release of the new Mac models and the Apple Silicon M1 processor, MacBook shipments are expected to set a record high in 2021 by reaching 17.1m units and potentially growing by more than 10% YoY.

…TrendForce indicates that, based on the forecasted 1.9% YoY growth in global notebook computer shipment for 2021, Apple’s market performance is outstanding in comparison. Not only will the company benefit from its in-house processor and increase its MacBook shipment next year, but Apple is also projected to increase its share in the global notebook market from 8% in 2020 to 8.7% in 2021.

«

That doesn’t seem like a big hike in share given the big rise in forecast sales, but all the other PC vendors have been having a good lockdown too. Even so, 2020 is going to be the biggest year for the Mac bar none. Until 2021, of course.
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How Apple made its new M1 chip, the latest MacBooks – and used its past to decide its future • The Independent

Andrew Griffin:

»

it’s still the case that fans repeatedly speculated that Apple was going to do something more profound to the Mac: turn it into something like the iPad, for instance, or use the transition to radically alter how its laptops work. Apple has repeatedly insisted that it thinks the laptop form factor is valuable and distinct from touchscreens like the iPad, but people haven’t always believed them.

This has led to ideas including the theory that Apple had redesigned its new macOS to make way for touch screen Macs. The Big Sur aesthetic borrows from the iPhone and iPad – buttons are bigger, with more space, which numerous commentators pointed out would make them perfect for manipulating with your fingers – but not because of some secret plan to change the way the Mac works, [Apple software chief Craig] Federighi says.

“I gotta tell you when we released Big Sur, and these articles started coming out saying, ‘Oh my God, look, Apple is preparing for touch’. I was thinking like, ‘Whoa, why?’

“We had designed and evolved the look for macOS in a way that felt most comfortable and natural to us, not remotely considering something about touch.

“We’re living with iPads, we’re living with phones, our own sense of the aesthetic – the sort of openness and airiness of the interface – the fact that these devices have large retina displays now. All of these things led us to the design for the Mac, that felt to us most comfortable, actually in no way related to touch.

“I’ve never felt more comfortable moving across our family of devices as a user, which I do hundreds of times a day than I do now, moving between iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and macOS Big Sur. They all just feel of a family – there’s just less cognitive load to the switching process.

“It’s just they all feel like the natural instantiation of the experience for that device. And that’s what you’re seeing not some signaling of a future change in input methods.”

«

That seems pretty specific that Apple’s not going to make the Mac touchable. But what does that mean for iOS apps running on it? And you know too that when they decide that they are going to make it touch-based – well, the time was just right. A couple of years off at least though.
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Google’s SoundFilter AI separates any sound or voice from mixed-audio recordings • VentureBeat

Kyle Wiggers:

»

Researchers at Google claim to have developed a machine learning model that can separate a sound source from noisy, single-channel audio based on only a short sample of the target source. In a paper, they say their SoundFilter system can be tuned to filter arbitrary sound sources, even those it hasn’t seen during training.

The researchers believe a noise-eliminating system like SoundFilter could be used to create a range of useful technologies. For instance, Google drew on audio from thousands of its own meetings and YouTube videos to train the noise-canceling algorithm in Google Meet. Meanwhile, a team of Carnegie Mellon researchers created a “sound-action-vision” corpus to anticipate where objects will move when subjected to physical force.

SoundFilter treats the task of sound separation as a one-shot learning problem. The model receives as input the audio mixture to be filtered and a single short example of the kind of sound to be filtered out. Once trained, SoundFilter is expected to extract this kind of sound from the mixture if present.

«

There are some samples alongside the story. They’re sort of impressive.
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COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool

»

This site provides interactive context to assess the risk that one or more individuals infected with COVID-19 are present in an event of various sizes. The model is simple, intentionally so, and provided some context for the rationale to halt large gatherings in early-mid March and newly relevant context for considering when and how to re-open. Precisely because of under-testing and the risk of exposure and infection, these risk calculations provide further support for the ongoing need for social distancing and protective measures. Such precautions are still needed even in small events, given the large number of circulating cases.

«

Under very heavy load, and so giving lots of timeouts. But when it works, it gives you an idea of how much to be worried. Though I’d insist there’s a big difference between indoor and outdoor events.
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Donations under $8K to Trump ‘election defense’ instead go to president, RNC • Reuters

Jarrett Renshaw, Joseph Tanfani:

»

As President Donald Trump seeks to discredit last week’s election with baseless claims of voter fraud, his team has bombarded his supporters with requests for money to help pay for legal challenges to the results: “The Left will try to STEAL this election!” reads one text.

But any small-dollar donations from Trump’s grassroots donors won’t be going to legal expenses at all, according to a Reuters review of the legal language in the solicitations.

A donor would have to give more than $8,000 before any money goes to the “recount account” established to finance election challenges, including recounts and lawsuits over alleged improprieties, the fundraising disclosures show.

The emailed solicitations send supporters to an “Official Election Defense Fund” website that asks them to sign up for recurring donations to “protect the results and keep fighting even after Election Day.”

The fine print makes clear most of the money will go to other priorities.

«

Nothing, but nothing can be allowed to interfere with the grift. And if it goes to the legal challenges? That’s wasted too. They’re all going to fail. Even if all the claims magically held up, they would account for a few hundreds of votes. Biden leads by thousands in the key states. Every day the story is about how Trump has lost. And he won’t move on from it.
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Steve Bannon caught running Facebook misinformation network • Gizmodo

Whitney Kimball:

»

Steve Bannon has been outed for his involvement in running a network of misinformation pages on Facebook. Who could have possibly seen this coming.

Facebook has talked a big game about monitoring election misinformation, and yet the independent activist network Avaaz said it had to alert the company to the pages before it removed them for coordinated inauthentic behavior. The group didn’t need an army of 35,000 moderators to figure this out, and yet Facebook consistently fails to spot the troublemakers that journalists and researchers with less funding and staff seem to keep spotting. As they say: makes you think.

Avaaz said that it alerted Facebook to the pages on Friday night. By that time, in aggregate, Avaaz says the top seven pages—Brian Kolfage, Conservative Values, The Undefeated, We Build the Wall Inc, Citizens of the American Republic, American Joe, and Trump at War—had collectively gained over 2.45 million followers. In some cases, Bannon and Brian Kolfage, co-conspirator in the “We Build the Wall, Inc.” fundraiser/alleged scam, were co-admins.

Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran told Gizmodo that its team identified the Bannon ring by running an “influencer analysis,” keeping tabs on frequent guests on Bannon’s podcasts and pages affiliated with Bannon’s former “We Build the Wall” grift. Avaaz, which is comprised of 40 investigators and data analysts, has kept tabs on habitual misinformers and their coordinated sharing through custom software.

They noticed that the Bannon-related pages tended to publish content at the same time and linked to the Populist Press, an even more right-wing Drudge Report copycat trafficking in disproven election fraud claims. The pages avoided warning labels by laundering links through the Populist Press domain rather post the original URLs for stories Facebook had already flagged as misinformation. Avaaz says they’d previously alerted Facebook to a network of 180 Bannon-connected pages and groups which have been sharing misinformation.

«

As she says, who could have possibly seen this coming apart from absolutely everyone who has watched how Bannon has been flailing around over the past few months. It’s always astonishing how Facebook isn’t able to spot high-profile extreme right-wingers running misinformation/disinformation networks.
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Exclusive: senior US cybersecurity official tells associates he expects to be fired • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

»

Separately, Bryan Ware, assistant director for cybersecurity at CISA, confirmed to Reuters that he had handed in his resignation on Thursday.

Krebs has drawn praise from both Democrats and Republicans for his handling of the US election, which generally ran smoothly despite persistent fears that foreign hackers might try to undermine the vote.

But he drew the ire of the Trump White House over a website run by CISA dubbed “Rumor Control” which debunks misinformation about the election, according to the three people familiar with the matter.

White House officials have asked for content to be edited or removed from the website, which has pushed back against numerous false claims about the election, including that Democrats are behind a mass election fraud scheme. In response, CISA officials have refused to delete accurate information.

In particular, one person said, the White House was angry about a CISA post rejecting a conspiracy theory that falsely claims an intelligence agency supercomputer and program, purportedly named Hammer and Scorecard, could have flipped votes nationally. No such system exists, according to Krebs, election security experts and former U.S. officials.

«

You might remember that supercomputer from earlier in the week. The Trump administration: where people get fired for sticking to the verifiable truth. And there goes your assistant director for cybersecurity.
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Biden’s transition is stacked with tech players • Protocol

Emily Birnbaum and Anna Kramer:

»

Joe Biden’s transition is absolutely stacked with tech industry players, according to a list of Biden agency review teams released Tuesday.

There’s no one on this new list from Facebook, Google or Apple (although there are people from those companies involved in the broader transition), but there’s definitive Silicon Valley representation and thought leaders on tech issues involved in shaping the future of the federal government. We went through the list so you don’t have to.

«

Amazon, AirBnB, Lyft, LinkedIn, Sidewalk Labs (a Google spinoff), Uber, Stripe, Dropbox, Dell (Dell! Such old tech), Tableau, Figma, and also Nicole Wong who is former Google and Twitter and also formerly Obama’s deputy chief technology officer. I’m not even sure if the current White House has a chief technology officer.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1428: Google to start charging for 15GB+ Photos, Schmidt disses social, our splintering realities, frack the moon!, and more


Can’t get to a randomly chosen classical concert? Don’t worry, there’s a Chatroulette spinoff for that. CC-licensed photo by Krashna 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. Doubled up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google Photos will end its free unlimited storage on June 1st, 2021 • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

After five years of offering unlimited free photo backups at “high quality,” Google Photos will start charging for storage once more than 15GB on the account have been used. The change will happen on June 1st, 2021, and it comes with other Google Drive policy changes like counting Google Workspace documents and spreadsheets against the same cap. Google is also introducing a new policy of deleting data from inactive accounts that haven’t been logged in to for at least two years.

All photos and documents uploaded before June 1st will not count against that 15GB cap, so you have plenty of time to decide whether to continue using Google Photos or switching to another cloud storage provider for your photos. Only photos uploaded after June 1st will begin counting against the cap.

Google already counts “original quality” photo uploads against a storage cap in Google Photos. However, taking away unlimited backup for “high quality” photos and video (which are automatically compressed for more efficient storage) also takes away one of the service’s biggest selling points. It was the photo service where you just didn’t have to worry about how much storage you had.

As a side note, Pixel owners will still be able to upload high-quality (not original) photos for free after June 1st without those images counting against their cap. It’s not as good as the Pixel’s original deal of getting unlimited original quality, but it’s a small bonus for the few people who buy Google’s devices.

Google points out that it offers more free storage than others — you get 15GB instead of the paltry 5GB that Apple’s iCloud gives you — and it also claims that 80% of Google Photos users won’t hit that 15GB cap for at least three years.

«

Of course if you rush to fill up that 15GB now, you’ll start having to pay (or see your photos not uploaded?) immediately. So what’s happening here? Storage must have become cheaper and cheaper – over five years, you’d expect the price per GB is perhaps one-quarter of what it was at the start. Which in turn implies that the number of photos being stored is exploding, and this is an attempt to cap the most egregious use. Typically, you’ll find about 1% of users are taking up 90% of the excess use.
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Facebook, QAnon and the world’s slackening grip on reality • The Guardian

Alex Hern, with a long read:

»

“Our busiest time of the year is New Year’s Eve,” says Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, over a Zoom call from her London home. “And we were seeing the equivalent of New Year’s Eve every single day.” It was, she says, the inevitable result of having “almost the entire planet at home at the same time”.

Rachel agrees. “I believe the lockdown played a huge part in altering people’s perception of reality,” she says. When Covid restrictions came in, the rules of social interaction were rewritten. We suddenly stopped meeting friends in pubs, at the coffee point or by the school gates, and our lives moved online. And for many of us, “online” meant “on Facebook”.

I first heard Rachel’s story from QAnonCasualties, a forum on the social news site Reddit where she, and thousands like her, have congregated to seek advice and support after their loved ones fell into the cult. Her first post, in July this year, was titled: “I’ve finally reached the end of my tether.” She described a marriage of 25 years, and a family with four grownup children, being shattered by a husband who had sunk “further and further into this [QAnon] conspiracy”.

“It’s got the stage where I no longer understand him or even recognise him,” she wrote. Others echoed her story. Posts with titles such as “Grieving my dad while he’s still alive” and “Today I filed for divorce from my QAnon-obsessed husband” rub shoulders with pleas for help from those who still hope they can win loved ones back.

Beyond the heartbreak and anguish on QAnonCasualties, there is a common thread: a feeling that their friends and relatives are inhabiting a different reality.

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And who is enabling that split reality? You’re probably ahead of me there. There is a worrying tendency for people to head down rabbit holes once they get even a small part of an idée fixe – eg that coronavirus isn’t that dangerous – which gets amplified.
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Former Google CEO calls social networks ‘amplifiers for idiots’ • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Gerrit de Vynck:

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Former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said the “excesses” of social media are likely to result in greater regulation of internet platforms in the coming years.

Schmidt, who left the board of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. in 2019 but is still one of its largest shareholders, said the antitrust lawsuit the U.S. government filed against the company on Tuesday was misplaced, but that more regulation may be in order for social networks in general.

“The context of social networks serving as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended,” Schmidt said at a virtual conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Unless the industry gets its act together in a really clever way, there will be regulation.”

Google’s YouTube has tried to decrease the spread of misinformation and lies about Covid-19 and US politics over the last year, with mixed results. Facebook and Twitter have also been under fire in recent years for allowing racist and discriminatory messages to spread online.

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Wouldn’t say that YouTube has been that successful if that’s really what it’s been doing. But it’s quite a departure for Schmidt, who used to be the ultimate Pollyanna about the benefits of people getting online, to be so directly critical of social networks. I can’t think of a previous occasion where he’s been so biting about them.
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Concert Roulette

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Concert Roulette
Click to watch a random concert!

Or only show me:
• Renaissance
• Baroque
• Classical
• Romantic
• 20th Century
• Contemporary

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Neat. I got Haydyn and then something modern involving an accordion and an audience that were possibly being held hostage, judging by the expressions on their faces. (This one.)

Also: classical orchestras are just tribute bands for old music. You know I’m right.
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UK firm to turn moon rock into oxygen and building materials • The Guardian

Ian Sample:

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When astronauts return to the moon in the next decade, they will do more with the dust than leave footprints in it.

A British firm has won a European Space Agency contract to develop the technology to turn moon dust and rocks into oxygen, leaving behind aluminium, iron and other metal powders for lunar construction workers to build with.

If the process can be made to work well enough, it will pave the way for extraction facilities on the moon that make oxygen and valuable materials on the surface, rather than having to haul them into space at enormous cost.

“Anything you take from Earth to the moon is an added weight that you don’t want to carry, so if you can make these materials in situ it saves you a lot of time, effort and money,” said Ian Mellor, the managing director of Metalysis, which is based in Sheffield.

Analyses of rocks brought back from the moon reveal that oxygen makes up about 45% of the material by weight. The remainder is largely iron, aluminium and silicon. In work published this year, scientists at Metalysis and the University of Glasgow found they could extract 96% of the oxygen from simulated lunar soil, leaving useful metal alloy powders behind.

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It is faintly thrilling to think of this happening. What would be better would be if they can set up facilities that run without direct supervision. The moon as a fuel store: like they promised in the stories.
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TikTok says it’s been waiting weeks for a Trump response on US ban • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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ByteDance on Tuesday appealed to a federal appellate court seeking to overturn a sweeping Trump administration order requiring the company to divest itself of its popular TikTok platform—at least in the United States. The order is scheduled to take effect tomorrow. But ByteDance says that it has been weeks since it has heard from the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States about ByteDance’s plan to address the government’s concerns without shutting TikTok down.

ByteDance has proposed selling a share of TikTok to Oracle and giving the company’s US division more autonomy. These changes were designed to address the government concerns that American TikTok users could be subjected to Chinese government surveillance or other meddling.

“For a year, TikTok has actively engaged with CFIUS in good faith to address its national security concerns, even as we disagree with its assessment,” TikTok said in a media statement. “In the nearly two months since the president gave his preliminary approval to our proposal to satisfy those concerns, we have offered detailed solutions to finalize that agreement—but have received no substantive feedback on our extensive data privacy and security framework.”

The August 14 order establishing tomorrow’s November 12 deadline allowed ByteDance to seek a further 30-day extension. ByteDance says it requested an extension but hasn’t received an answer. So it’s now asking the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the issue.

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The Trump admin has forgotten all about this, and hasn’t got the bandwidth to think about two things at once. Maybe if Trump could just concede, they could get on and do something else.
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The world could learn a lot from how Africa is handling Covid-19 • WIRED UK

Munyaradzi Makoni:

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There is no single reason for Africa’s seemingly remarkable escape. For one, Africa isn’t a homogenous lump of land. Its 54 countries are ethnically and socially diverse. Yet, across the continent, there are some trends that hint at why deaths from Covid-19 remain so low. The median age in Africa, where more than 60% of people are under the age of 25, is about half of that in Europe. This has played a significant role, says Denis Chopera, a public healthcare expert at the Africa Research Institute in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He also points to Africa’s warm climate and the potential of pre-existing immunity in some communities. “Africa has a high burden of infectious diseases, including coronaviruses, and it is possible that there is some cross-immunity which protects Africans from severe Covid-19,” Chopera says. The WHO has made similar suggestions.

Across the continent, high rates of tuberculosis, HIV, polio and Ebola, have also ensured a wealth of well-trained medical professionals and, crucially, the infrastructure and expertise to handle a pandemic. “The experience has come in handy, especially in countries such as South Africa where contact tracing already existed for tuberculosis,” says Chopera. “These were repurposed to combat Covid-19.”

To date, the continent has recorded 1.7 million infections. The number, as is the case across the world, is likely much higher. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Cape Town collected 2,700 samples during the city’s pandemic peak in late July and early August. A startling 40% of the people tested had Covid-19 antibodies.

That picture varies across Africa. Between the end of April and mid-May, researchers tested the blood samples from more than 3,000 people in Kenya. They found that 5.6% had Covid-19 antibodies. In the popular tourist city of Mombasa nearly 10% of donors had antibodies. At the time, official figures in Kenya stood at 2,093 cases and 71 deaths.

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The west ought to learn from Africa. Will it? Of course not. When has the west listened to lessons coming out of Africa over anything at all? I honestly can’t think of a single instance.
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Improperly installed Ring doorbells are catching on fire • Ars Technica

Jim Slater:

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Approximately 350,000 Ring doorbells sold in the North American markets are subject to a safety recall issued yesterday. Specifically, improperly installed 2nd-generation Ring doorbells can catch fire, causing property damage and potential burn hazards. This is a fairly unusual recall, however—and one that doesn’t require consumers to return their devices.

As long as the Ring doorbells were installed using the screws provided with the devices themselves, they’re fine. The issue is that quite a few homeowners substituted their own screws for the ones included in the package—and longer screws may reach places inside the Ring device that they shouldn’t, causing a short-circuit that can lead to overheating or fire.

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Quite amazing, really: the screws provided will do the job precisely, and they don’t secure the device to the wall – they’re to anchor it to the bracket which is secured to the wall. Some people are astonishingly bad at DIY and understanding systems, yet also confident that they’re good at both. The Dunning-Kruger effect in action.
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Theta is a record-setting entry in 2020’s wild hurricane season • The Verge

Justine Calma:

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2020 shattered another record when subtropical storm Theta, the 29th named storm this season, developed overnight in the Northeast Atlantic. There has never been an Atlantic hurricane season on record with more storms strong enough to earn a name.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) burned through its regular list of storm names nearly two months ago and had to resort to using Greek letters to label storms this year for only the second time in its history. This is the first time Theta has ever been used as a storm name.

The last time the WMO resorted to Greek letters was in 2005, which held the previous record for the most named storms in a single season. That year will still be known for one of the most devastating storms in American memory, Hurricane Katrina. Katrina and four other names were retired that year, which happens when a storm is so deadly or costly that the WMO deems it inappropriate to reuse the moniker.

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Time is so short to deal with this.
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US election results: why the polls got it wrong • Vox

Dylan Matthews talks to the experienced pollster David Shor, who puts it like this:

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it turns out that people who answer surveys are really weird. They’re considerably more politically engaged than normal. I put in a five-factor test [a kind of personality survey] and they have much higher agreeableness [a measure of how cooperative and warm people are], which makes sense, if you think about literally what’s happening.

They also have higher levels of social trust. I use the General Social Survey’s question, which is, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” The way the GSS works is they hire tons of people to go get in-person responses. They get a 70% response rate. We can basically believe what they say.

It turns out, in the GSS, that 70% of people say that people can’t be trusted. And if you do phone surveys, and you weight, you will get that 50% of people say that people can be trusted. It’s a pretty massive gap. [Sociologist] Robert Putnam actually did some research on this, but people who don’t trust people and don’t trust institutions are way less likely to answer phone surveys. Unsurprising! This has always been true. It just used to not matter.

It used to be that once you control for age and race and gender and education, that people who trusted their neighbors basically voted the same as people who didn’t trust their neighbors. But then, starting in 2016, suddenly that shifted. If you look at white people without college education, high-trust non-college whites tended toward [Democrats], and low-trust non-college whites heavily turned against us. In 2016, we were polling this high-trust electorate, so we overestimated Clinton. These low-trust people still vote, even if they’re not answering these phone surveys.

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Putnam was the one who wrote “Bowling Alone”, about how Americans were losing social cohesion. This looks like the continuation of that, but tilted around one party.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: many apologies for the lack of email on Wednesday. WordPress’s interface hasn’t been very helpful since it was updated and definitely won yesterday’s round.