Start Up No.1,011: Facebook’s moderation horror, inside Theranos’s dying days, hands on Huawei’s foldable, and more

Room-temperature superconductivity (unlike this): has the US Navy found it? CC-licensed photo by Argonne National Laboratory on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Isn’t that cool? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America • The Verge

Casey Newton, with a stunning piece of journalism about the subcontractors doing content moderation for Facebook:


For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office…

…Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that [subcontractor] Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.


The detail – about how the moderators themselves become radicalised by the content they have to watch – is horrifying.
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Our commitment to our content reviewers • Facebook Newsroom

Justin Osofsky is Facebook’s VP of Global Operations:


A lot of the recent questions are focused on ensuring the people working in these roles are treated fairly and with respect. We want to continue to hear from our content reviewers, our partners and even the media – who hold us accountable and give us the opportunity to improve. This is such an important issue, and our Global Ops leadership team has focused substantial attention on it and will continue to do so.

However, given the size at which we operate and how quickly we’ve grown over the past couple of years, we will inevitably encounter issues we need to address on an ongoing basis. Today, we already have mechanisms in place with our partners who run these sites to make sure any concerns being reported are the uncommon exception and never the norm.


“Even the media”. Gee, thanks. The core problem isn’t the media, or the content reviewers; it’s that Facebook foolishly assumes everyone’s lovely to each other, even while it’s brutal to its own people or contractors.
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Navy files for patent on room-temperature superconductor •

Troy Carter:


A scientist working for the U.S. Navy has filed for a patent on a room-temperature superconductor, representing a potential paradigm shift in energy transmission and computer systems.

Salvatore Cezar Pais is listed as the inventor on the Navy’s patent application made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday.

The application claims that a room-temperature superconductor can be built using a wire with an insulator core and an aluminum PZT (lead zirconate titanate) coating deposited by vacuum evaporation with a thickness of the London penetration depth and polarized after deposition.
An electromagnetic coil is circumferentially positioned around the coating such that when the coil is activated with a pulsed current, a non-linear vibration is induced, enabling room temperature superconductivity.

“This concept enables the transmission of electrical power without any losses and exhibits optimal thermal management (no heat dissipation),” according to the patent document, “which leads to the design and development of novel energy generation and harvesting devices with enormous benefits to civilization.”


Umm. Will believe it when I see it working.
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“She never looks back”: inside Elizabeth Holmes’s final months at Theranos • Vanity Fair

Nick Bilton:


Immediately after returning to California, Holmes decided that [nine-week-old husky puppy acquired following a transcontinental flight] Balto would hardly leave her side on the quest to save Theranos. Each day, Holmes would wake up with Balto at the nearly empty Los Altos mansion that she was renting about six miles from her company’s headquarters. (Theranos covered the house’s rent.) Soon after, one of her two drivers, sometimes her two security personnel, and even sometimes one of her two assistants, would pick them up, and set off for work. And for the rest of the day, Balto would stroll through the labs with his owner.

Holmes brushed it off when the scientists protested that the dog hair could contaminate samples. But there was another problem with Balto, too. He wasn’t potty-trained. Accustomed to the undomesticated life, Balto frequently urinated and defecated at will throughout Theranos headquarters. While Holmes held board meetings, Balto could be found in the corner of the room relieving himself while a frenzied assistant was left to clean up the mess.

Around this same time, Holmes says that she discovered that Balto—like most huskies—had a tiny trace of wolf origin. Henceforth, she decided that Balto wasn’t really a dog, but rather a wolf. In meetings, at cafés, whenever anyone stopped to pet the pup and ask his breed, Holmes soberly replied, “He’s a wolf.”


This pretty much sums it all up.
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Don’t get clever with login forms • Brad Frost

Frost has many examples of how to be annoying; this one struck me:


3: don’t get funky with magic links

I think this may have started with Slack, but I’m seeing other digital products like Notion (which I love by the way) send users a temporary password to their email in order to login. I can appreciate the cleverness of this pattern as it avoids the rigamarole of users having to remember yet another password and building out all the “Forgot password” flow stuff. But.

This pattern is incredibly tedious. 1. Enter email into login form. 2. Open new tab or switch programs. 3. Open your inbox. 4. Find message from service (if you don’t get distracted by other emails first). 5. Open message. 6. Copy gobbledygook password. 7. Go back to website. 8. Paste in gobbledygook password. 9. Submit login form. Holy shit.

This doesn’t work at all with password managers, which is incredibly annoying as I want to lean on password managers to, uh, manage my passwords. With the advent of design systems we talk a lot about consistency. But it’s not just about creating consistency within your own ecosystem, it’s about being consistent with the rest of the internet.

It forces users to learn a new convention – Users learn patterns (login, checkout, navigation, etc) by experiencing them again and again in many applications over many years. While I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever innovate, it’s important to recognize users come to your product or service with a lifetime of hard-earned knowledge about how to use the internet. When we try to get too clever we force users to learn new conventions which slows them down (at least initially).


We have to log in so often it’s worth getting it really right.
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You do not need blockchain: eight popular use cases and why they do not work • Smartdec

Ivan Ivanitskiy:


1. Supply chain management
Let’s say you ordered some goods, and a carrier guarantees to maintain certain transportation conditions, such as keeping your goods cold. A proposed solution is to install a sensor in a truck that will monitor fridge temperature and regularly transmit the data to the blockchain. This way, you can make sure that the promised conditions are met along the entire route.

The problem here is not blockchain, but rather sensor, related. Being part of the physical world, the sensor is easy to fool. For example, a malicious carrier might only cool down a small fridge inside the truck in which they put the sensor, while leaving the goods in the non-refrigerated section of the truck to save costs.

I would describe this problem as: Blockchain is not Internet of Things (IOT).

We will return to this statement a few more times.


Quite a few.
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How to decarbonize America — and the world • TechCrunch

Ramez Naam:


Solar panels and electricity-producing wind farms have been around for decades. Yet, for most of that time, they’ve been a far more expensive way to produce electricity than burning coal or natural gas. Germany changed that. Starting in 2010, Germany’s Energiewende legislation heavily subsidized solar and wind. That, in turn, drove utilities and home owners and corporations to purchase solar and wind. And that, in turn, made the technology cheaper. As prices fell, other nations – first European nations, then the US, and then China – jumped into the fray, enacting more ambitious policies that further brought down the price of solar and wind (and now batteries and electric cars).

Why did subsidies bring down the price of technology? Because industry scale leads to industry learning and innovation, and that, in turn, leads to lower cost ways to manufacture, deploy, and manage new technologies. We’ve seen this for a century. Almost all technologies improve via Wright’s Law, often referred to as the learning curve or the experience curve. In the late 1930s, Theodore Paul Wright, an aeronautical engineer, observed that every doubling of production of US aircraft brought down prices by 13%. Since then, a similar effect has been found in nearly every technology area, going back to the Ford Model T.

Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling. Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs.


There’s a lot more – and plenty more diagrams.
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Huawei Mate X hands-on: our foldable future • The Verge

Vlad Savov:


There are still huge questions about what the software UX will be like, how durable and scratch-resistant that wraparound display will be over the long term, and how long the battery will last if you use this 5G tablet to its fullest. I can’t answer those today, but I can tell you what I know about the Huawei Mate X so far.

The Mate X’s OLED display is plastic, not glass as with most smartphones today. That’s going to be an unavoidable feature of all foldable devices going forward, because glass doesn’t like to fold. Nothing about the plastic surface gave me trouble or cause for concern, however. It has comparable friction and identical responsiveness to a regular glass-covered phone, and the only issue is the potential for more scratches owing to the plastic’s softness.

Viewing angles, contrast, color saturation, vibrancy, and uniformity all look as good as you’ll find in most smartphones today. I find the plastic display to be a little less reflective than its glass counterparts, which I like and prefer.

As to the all-important question of whether I can see or feel the spine in the middle of the screen where the fold happens, the answer is “no.” My time with the Mate X hasn’t yet been long enough to make that a categorical statement, but this is definitely the flattest foldable I’ve yet come across…

…The shape of the Mate X when it’s semi-open is great for perching it up on a surface — you can basically use the thinner rear part of the display as a kickstand.

…The hinge feels almost gritty in its operation. There’s no tactile smoothness to speak of, you just have to kinda shove it open. I suppose Huawei prioritized durability with this design, as the hinge has plenty of resistance and feels like it will withstand a lot of opening and closing — it just won’t feel particularly elegant or smooth while doing it.


Having an “outie” (the fold screen on the outside) is going to lead to tons of scratches in no time.
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Florida doctor and mom Free Hess exposes suicide tips hidden in clips on YouTube and YouTube Kids • The Washington Post

Lindsey Bever:


minutes into the clip from a children’s video game, a man appeared on the screen — offering instructions on how to commit suicide.

“I was shocked,” [paediatrician and mother Free] Hess said, noting that since then, the scene has been spliced into several more videos from the popular Nintendo game Splatoon on YouTube and YouTube Kids, a video app for children. Hess, from Ocala, Fla., has been blogging about the altered videos and working to get them taken down amid an outcry from parents and child health experts, who say such visuals can be damaging to children.

One on YouTube shows a man pop into the frame. “Remember, kids,” he begins, holding what appears to be an imaginary blade to the inside of his arm. “Sideways for attention. Longways for results.”

“I think it’s extremely dangerous for our kids,” Hess said about the clips Sunday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “I think our kids are facing a whole new world with social media and Internet access. It’s changing the way they’re growing, and it’s changing the way they’re developing. I think videos like this put them at risk.”

…Andrea Faville, a spokeswoman for YouTube, said in a written statement that the company works to ensure that it is “not used to encourage dangerous behavior and we have strict policies that prohibit videos which promote self-harm.”


Yeah, those policies aren’t working. Pay attention, YouTube: Not. Working. Hess has documented more of this stuff.
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Huawei frightens Europe’s data protectors; America does, too • Bloomberg

Helen Fouquet and Marie Mawad:


The Cloud Act (or the “Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act”) addresses an issue that came up when Microsoft in 2013 refused to provide the FBI access to a server in Ireland in a drug-trafficking investigation, saying it couldn’t be compelled to produce data stored outside the US.

The act’s extraterritoriality spooks the European Union – an issue that’s become more acute as trans-Atlantic relations fray and the bloc sees the US under Trump as an increasingly unreliable ally.

Europe may seek to mitigate the impact of the law by drawing on a provision in the act that allows the US to reach “executive agreements” with countries allowing a mutual exchange of information and data. The European Commission wants the EU to enter into talks with the US, and negotiations may start this spring.

France and other EU countries like The Netherlands and Belgium are pushing for the bloc to present a common front as they struggle to come up with regulations to protect privacy, avert cyber attacks and secure critical networks in the increasingly amorphous world of information in the cloud.

A Dutch lawmaker at the European Parliament, Sophie in ’t Veld, recently expressed frustration at what she called the EU’s “enormous weakness” in the face of the US’s “unlimited data hunger.”

“Because of the Cloud Act, the long arm of the American authorities reaches European citizens, contradicting all EU law,” she said. “Would the Americans accept it if the EU would grant itself extraterritorial jurisdiction on US soil? And would the Commission also propose negotiations with Russia or China, if they would adopt their own Russian or Chinese Cloud Act?”


Got to love the tortuous de-acroynmisation of American legislation (can anyone recall what the “Patriot” bit in the Patriot Act stands for). The US has acted extraterritorially in the UK for as long as I’ve been writing about computing, which is a very long time. What’s changed is the EU’s willingness to block it, legally.

(Minor stylistic niggle: Bloomberg writes “U.S.” for United States but “EU” for European Union. Both are abbreviations. Why only dots for one? Extraterritorial punctuation? Anyhow, I remove them.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,011: Facebook’s moderation horror, inside Theranos’s dying days, hands on Huawei’s foldable, and more

  1. re Logins: on a related note, Google is making Web-wide (and app-wide of course) TouchID logins possible via FIDO2
    In the usual Android fashion, no OS update is necessary (this is not iOS), it works on Android 7.0 and above.

    I’m unclear if I want this or not: I’m leery of logins being dependent on a single device, and I assume my fingerprint will be locked to one device (if only because it would be unsafe to share it across devices, plus the internals of each brand/model of each fingerprint scanner must differ and I haven’t heard of a standard encoding for fingerprints).

    I already go through a few hoops to have 2FA work off 3 devices (main and backup phone, plus main tablet) which is usually feasible: you can scan the famous barcode several times that one time it is displayed; you have to scan it on the various devices right away since you can’t get that barcode ever again afterwards. This work for all cases but one (whatsapp I think ? or Instagram ?) which insists on using a text not a barcode. Duh. Probably whatsapp: same weird thinking as not allowing more than 2 connected devices…

    Anyhooo… passwords are a bane, hopefully this will help solve the issue. Needs 99.9% support, and cross-device sync I think.

  2. re. plastic screens: can’t they make them easily and cheaply swappable ? I assume it’s even harder to do perfectly than putting a screen protector (dust, bubbles, alignment, …) but if it can be done even only in-store for 40-ish bucks in 5 minutes, it’d be OK with paying when the screen gets to ugly, or at resale/gift away time. Plenty of people use broken screens, just scratches would be an improvement ;-p

    I don’t know how tightly the plastic is bound to the AMOLED, I would assume not too much because the last thing you want on foldable stuff is more thickness and several layers that can’t glide against each other.

    Also, apparently Huawei has some kind of case for that phone, more like a bumper that protects the screen and corners. Might solve 50% of falls ?

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