Start Up: Facebook goes local, government realises Brexit will hurt, web giants seek antitrust salve, Trump’s 5G nixed, and more


Traffic jams are a longstanding feature of London’s streets – but Uber and the like won’t solve it, because it’s about geometry. Photo by Leonard Bentley on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Our next update on our 2018 focus to make sure Facebook isn’t just fun • Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg:

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We’re making a series of updates to show more high quality, trusted news. Last week we made an update to show more news from sources that are broadly trusted across our community. Today our next update is to promote news from local sources.

People consistently tell us they want to see more local news on Facebook. Local news helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives. Research suggests that reading local news is directly correlated with civic engagement. People who know what’s happening around them are more likely to get involved and help make a difference.

When I traveled around the country last year, one theme people kept telling me is how much we all have in common if we can get past some of the most divisive national issues. Many people told me they thought that if we could turn down the temperature on the more divisive issues and instead focus on concrete local issues, then we’d all make more progress together.

Starting today, we’re going to show more stories from news sources in your local town or city.

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Um, Mark? You and Google have sucked up all the money for ads for local news. They’ve been shedding reporters at an amazing rate. People might want to see local stuff (though they’re probably lying to you) but there isn’t going to be much chance to see it if nobody writes it.
link to this extract


The UK government’s own Brexit analysis says the UK will be worse off in every scenario outside the EU • Buzzfeed

Alberto Nardelli has a big scoop:

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The government’s new analysis of the impact of Brexit says the UK would be worse off outside the European Union under every scenario modelled, BuzzFeed News can reveal.

The assessment, which is titled “EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing” and dated January 2018, looked at three of the most plausible Brexit scenarios based on existing EU arrangements.

Under a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, UK growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years compared to current forecasts, according to the analysis.

The “no deal” scenario, which would see the UK revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, would reduce growth by 8% over that period. The softest Brexit option of continued single-market access through membership of the European Economic Area would, in the longer term, still lower growth by 2%.

These calculations do not take into account any short-term hits to the economy from Brexit, such as the cost of adjusting the economy to new customs arrangements.

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The government didn’t deny this:

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A government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “We have already set out that the government is undertaking a wide range of ongoing analysis in support of our EU exit negotiations and preparations.

“We have been clear that we are not prepared to provide a running commentary on any aspect of this ongoing internal work and that ministers have a duty not to publish anything that could risk exposing our negotiation position.”

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link to this extract


A conversation about how public transport really works • FT Alphaville

Jarrett Walker spoke to Izabella Kaminska of the FT’s Alphaville; he blogs at HumanTransit.org, where he continues the campaign to inform the world about the physical constraints of urban geometry:

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transport is fundamentally a physical, spatial problem. It is not fundamentally a communications problem or to the extent that it was a communications problem, we’ve gone most of the way, I think, in taking that friction out of the system. And what Uber is discovering, I think, what a lot of these tech firms are discovering is that taking that friction out of the system did not transform the fundamental reality of space and the math of labour and so on, which have really been the facts that have determined what’s possible in passenger transport and will continue to determine those things.

No, of course, the driverless car people will say, no, cars will fit closer together and they’ll be smaller and so we’ll fit more of them over the bridge but that’s a linear solution to an exponential problem. The other dimension of this problem that you must keep in mind is the problem of what we, in the business, call induced demand. And induced demand is the very simply idea that when you make something easier, people are more likely to do it and this is why, for example, when you widen a motorway, the traffic gets worse or it fills up to the same level of congestion that you had before…

…I don’t want to deny the fact that being in the city, being on public transport, having the richness of interacting with a great diversity of people is not always fun; it means you get to interact with some crazy people and some difficult people but more importantly, it is simply the deal that life in a city is. There is no other way for everyone to live in a city. There is a way for elites to live in a city without having to interact with people; you can come and go in limousines; you can come and go to your penthouse by helicopter.

And this is where we get to the problem of elite projection, which is the danger of very fortunate people, whose taste and experience is, therefore, extremely unusual, using their own tastes to determine how a city should be designed; that’s a fundamental problem but, I think, I want to acknowledge the fact that life in the city has its own difficulties, that you don’t always want to deal with the company of strangers. But even more fundamentally, that is simply the deal you signed onto when you decided to live in a city, rather than in a suburb where you can drive your car everywhere and only see people you intend to see.

There’s a tremendous risk and when you think about this idea, this fantasy that at some point, Uber will scale to the point that they can bring their prices down to the point that everyone can afford them.

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The whole interview is terrific (and not behind the usual FT paywall). Highly recommended.
link to this extract


Internet giants try to soften antitrust rules in credit card case • Bloomberg

Joshua Brustein:

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A trade group representing Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., Google, and Uber Technologies Inc. has taken sides in a Supreme Court battle over credit card fees because the internet giants want to shape the future of antitrust rules in their favor.

The top U.S. court is set to hear oral arguments on the lawsuit—Ohio vs. American Express—next month. The dispute started in 2010, when states and the federal government sued American Express Co. for forbidding merchants from steering customers to credit cards that charge lower fees.

The government said this discouraged competition and led to artificially high card fees. American Express argued its business was a two-sided marketplace that must balance the desires of merchants against the need to attract cardholders. The extra fees American Express charged went in part to offer airline miles and other perks to shoppers, the company argued. What looked like bullying merchants was actually just enthusiastic competition against Mastercard Inc. and Visa Inc. for users. 
 
The dispute has no direct connection to Silicon Valley. But it could heavily influence any future antitrust action against tech firms, many of which run two-sided digital marketplaces. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week, the Computer and Communications Industry Association said a ruling against American Express would threaten innovation by hampering marketplaces that have to please multiple groups with differing priorities. 

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Because the big platforms now are about two-sided markets – chokepoints, in simpler language – they’d want something that reassures them.
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Trump team idea to nationalize 5G network to counter China is rejected • Reuters

David Shepardson:

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The option of a nationalized 5G network was being discussed by Trump’s national security team, an administration official said on Sunday.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday that discussions were at “the very earliest stages” to ensure a “secure network,” and “absolutely no decisions” have been made.

The government has blocked a string of Chinese acquisitions over national security concerns and the 5G network concept is aimed at addressing what officials see as China’s threat to U.S. cyber security and economic security.

But the option was rejected by several of those who would have a say.

“Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by Trump, said in a statement on Monday.

CTIA, the trade group that represents AT&T Inc (T.N), Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N), Apple Inc (AAPL.O), Sprint Corp (S.N) and others, said in a statement on Monday that the “government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”

Carriers have already spent billions of dollars acquiring spectrum and beginning to develop and test 5G networks, which are expected to be at least 100 times faster than current 4G networks and cut latency to less than one thousandth of a second from one one hundredth of a second in 4G, the FCC said.

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That’s going to be inconvenient for those who thought Pai is Trump’s poodle. In reality he’s pretty fiercely free-marketeer, with all that implies.
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From 1,000,000 to Graham’s Number • Wait But Why

We join Tim Urban just after he has introduced readers to the idea of a million. Now he’s going to take you into outer space:

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When we went from 1 to 1,000,000, we didn’t need powers—we could just use a short string of digits to represent the numbers we were talking about. If we wanted to multiply a number by 10, we just added a zero.

But as you advance past a million, zeros start to become plentiful and you need a different notation. That’s why we use powers. When people talk about exponential growth, they’re referring to the craziness that can happen when you start using powers. For example:

If you multiply 9,845,625,675,438 by 8,372,745,993,275, the result is still smaller than 829.

As we get bigger and bigger today, we’ll stick with powers of 10, because when you start talking about really big numbers, what becomes relevant is the number of digits, not the digits themselves—i.e. every 70-digit number is somewhere between 1069 and 1070, which is really all you need to know. So for at least the first part of this post, the powers of 10 can serve nicely as orders-of-magnitude “checkpoints”.

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The maths isn’t particularly hard, but it is mindblowing. Here’s how the post ends:

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Weirdly, thinking about Graham’s number has actually made me feel a little bit calmer about death, because it’s a reminder that I don’t actually want to live forever—I do want to die at some point, because remaining conscious for eternity is even scarier. Yes, death comes way, way too quickly, but the thought “I do want to die at some point” is a very novel concept to me and actually makes me more relaxed than usual about our mortality.

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I’d never come across Graham’s Number before, but having read the article I see what Urban means. Use maths to embrace your mortality!
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What I wish the iPad would gain from the Mac • MacStories

Ryan Christoffel has a list, most of which seem a bit “ehh” to me (multiple instances of an app, more diverse hardware – when there are three different sizes of iPad Pro? – persistent background app privileges [for when the device is plugged into power], more pro first-party apps) and then finally: multi-user support:

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This one’s a no-brainer. Not only is it a feature that traditional computers have had for ages, but it also fits with the way many iPads are used today. Despite their lack of proper multi-user support, iPads are often shared devices in a household. If that isn’t reason enough, how about this: multi-user support already exists on the iPad, but it’s exclusive to education customers. Just bring it to everyone, Apple.

The only potential wrench in this idea is that Face ID will likely arrive on iPad in the near future, and, assuming the technology replaces Touch ID altogether, Face ID’s current limitation to one saved face, and issues distinguishing between family members, would make multi-user support challenging. Apple could always resort to using only passcodes for user login on Face ID-equipped iPads, while letting older iPads with Touch ID use fingerprint authentication, but that seems unlikely – it would behoove Apple to make sure the best multi-user experience is found on the newest, most advanced devices.

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Multi-user support would be great (for parents especially) – but we’re now at seven years after the iPad’s introduction. Apple has had plenty of time to introduce this. It isn’t going to.
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Strava privacy concerns: Here is how to safely use the app • Quartz

Rosie Spinks:

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Last summer, I noticed that male strangers were liking my workouts on the app, despite the fact that I’d enabled what’s called Enhanced Privacy. Because I tend to run the same few routes close to my house regularly—and because, as an urban female who also works on the internet, I am used to all manner of privacy invasion—I grew both concerned and curious. I reached out to Strava and wrote a story for Quartz on the implications of the app’s confusing privacy settings.

While my piece did not focus on Strava’s Heatmap feature hitting the headlines now, it was based on the same concerns. In essence: If you use the app in the default way it’s designed to be used—a social network meets a fitness tracker—you could unknowingly be broadcasting an alarming amount of habitual, location-specific information. That fact, one can assume, is how so many users ended up broadcasting their location from military bases or sensitive locations without realizing it.
This morning, when I created a brand new account with a different email than the account I normally use, I was automatically opted into Heatmaps (see blue tick box below), rather than being asked to consent first. This was via the browser and was not an option in the app, but more this later.

On July 28 last year—one day after I interviewed Strava communications lead Andrew Vontz for my story, and four days before my piece on Quartz was published, on August 1—Strava published this blog post clarifying how to use their privacy policy. Since then, it appears they have also updated the language in the app explaining their privacy settings (Quartz has reached out to find out when they did this and will update the post accordingly). While this may be a positive step, the onus is still very much on you, the user, to make sure you know how your location-based activity is being used.

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For “woman finding her trails being liked by male strangers” substitute “soldier in hostile territory finding his trails being like by unknown sources”. Equally worrying.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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