Start Up No.1,015: AI judges benefit fraud, Excel gets snappy, UCal dumps Elsevier, how Facebook lobbied against privacy, and more

Ocean microphone data suggests the search for Malaysian Airlines MH 370 should have been closer to Madagascar. CC-licensed photo by DVIDSHUB on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. No, you leave the backstop. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Thousands face incorrect benefit cuts from automated fraud detector • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:


Thousands of people could soon be receiving letters threatening to cut off vital housing benefits as they face being incorrectly targeted by a new automated fraud detector.

The government-backed London Counter Fraud Hub, developed by BAE, has been hailed a success after being trialled in four boroughs – Camden, Ealing, Croydon and Islington.

Using vast quantities of data from millions of households, it is designed to target potential fraud cases involving the single person council tax discount, subletting in local authority housing and business rate relief and rating.

Ealing, the lead council for the project, found the automated elements of the system targeting single person discount fraud was 80% effective – which is seen as an acceptable benchmark.

With just over one million claimants of council tax single person discount in London, the London Counter Fraud Hub estimates it will detect around 40,000 fraudulent cases in the first year.

Critics say the 20% error rate is unacceptable as around 8,000 people will receive letters wrongly accusing them of fraud.


80% effective is acceptable? The way that these systems are graded on a curve is remarkable. Recall the local boroughs which were happy with “lie detector” telephone systems a few years ago, yet couldn’t really show that it worked in its own right. I’d like to see the trial results.
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Microsoft Excel will now let you snap a picture of a spreadsheet and import it • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Microsoft is adding a very useful feature to its Excel mobile apps for iOS and Android. It allows Excel users to take a photo of a printed data table and convert it into a fully editable table in the app. This feature is rolling out initially in the Android Excel app, before making its way to iOS soon. Microsoft is using artificial intelligence to implement this feature, with image recognition so that Excel users don’t have to manually input hardcopy data. The feature will be available to Microsoft 365 users.


Very fun – though I’d have thought its biggest use will be for converting PDFs or to grab information out of books and make it more useful.
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University of California terminates subscriptions with world’s largest scientific publisher in push for open access to publicly funded research • University of California


the University of California is taking a firm stand by deciding not to renew its subscriptions with Elsevier. Despite months of contract negotiations, Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s key goal: securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals.

In negotiating with Elsevier, UC aimed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by ensuring that research produced by UC’s 10 campuses — which accounts for nearly 10% of all U.S. publishing output — would be immediately available to the world, without cost to the reader. Under Elsevier’s proposed terms, the publisher would have charged UC authors large publishing fees on top of the university’s multi-million dollar subscription, resulting in much greater cost to the university and much higher profits for Elsevier.

“Knowledge should not be accessible only to those who can pay,” said Robert May, chair of UC’s faculty Academic Senate. “The quest for full open access is essential if we are to truly uphold the mission of this university.”


The first crack in the dam?
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Ocean microphones may have recorded lost Malaysian jet’s crash … thousands of miles from search sites • LiveScience

Tom Metcalfe:


As well as two matching sound events recorded by the CTBTO hydrophones at Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, the researchers found two sound events recorded by the hydrophones at Diego Garcia that could match the sounds of an airliner hitting the ocean.

Their directional bearings and timings indicated that they both occurred somewhere northwest of Madagascar — thousands of miles from the areas where searchers have looked for wreckage of the aircraft.

But the ocean is a noisy place, and Kadri said the underwater sounds might have also been caused by underwater earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, or even by meteorites or space junk falling in the ocean. [Top 10 Greatest Explosions Ever]

However, they were also valid sound signals that could have been created by the crash of Flight 370, he said.


Five years on, and all they’ve found has been some wing parts and engine cowling – off Reunion Island near Madagascar, on the Mozambique coast, Rodriques Island (east of Mauritius, which is east of Madagascar), and Mossel Bay on the Western Cape of South Africa. That suggests that you’d want to look closer to Madagascar – rather than a bit west of Australia, as most of the search was.
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Revealed: Facebook’s global lobbying against data privacy laws • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell:


The documents appear to emanate from a court case against Facebook by the app developer Six4Three in California, and reveal that Sandberg considered European data protection legislation a “critical” threat to the company. A memo written after the Davos economic summit in 2013 quotes Sandberg describing the “uphill battle” the company faced in Europe on the “data and privacy front” and its “critical” efforts to head off “overly prescriptive new laws”.

Most revealingly, it includes details of the company’s “great relationship” with Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister at the time, one of a number of people it describes as “friends of Facebook”. Ireland plays a key role in regulating technology companies in Europe because its data protection commissioner acts for all 28 member states. The memo has inflamed data protection advocates, who have long complained about the company’s “cosy” relationship with the Irish government.

The memo notes Kenny’s “appreciation” for Facebook’s decision to locate its headquarters in Dublin and points out that the new proposed data protection legislation was a “threat to jobs, innovation and economic growth in Europe”. It then goes on to say that Ireland is poised to take on the presidency of the EU and therefore has the “opportunity to influence the European Data Directive decisions”. It makes the extraordinary claim that Kenny offered to use the “significant influence” of the EU presidency as a means of influencing other EU member states “even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role”.


Campbell’s presence on the byline is worth noting: he’s a very well-connected highly experienced journalist who has done a lot on defence and spying in the past. If his contacts have these emails, that’s interesting.
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Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy? • The Guardian

Lily Kuo and Xueying Wang:


Faced with a population that is shrinking and ageing, Chinese policymakers are attempting to engineer a baby boom after more than three decades of a Malthusian family planning regime better-known as the one-child policy. Central policy planners have loosened restrictions on family sizes, and now all married couples can have two children. There is talk of the limits being dropped altogether, and amid aggressive propaganda drives, local officials are experimenting with subsidies and incentives for parents.

But these efforts appear to be too little too late. Birthrates have fallen and are likely to continue to drop as parents like Xu decide against having more children. More young women are pushing back against state propaganda and family pressure, while improving education standards and income levels have delayed marriage and childbirth. Moreover, decades of the one-child policy have made single-child households the norm, experts say.

“China should have stopped the policy 28 years ago. Now it’s too late,” says Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a longtime critic of the family planning policies.

Demographers warn that China’s population will begin to shrink in the next decade, potentially derailing the world’s second-largest economy, with a far-reaching global impact. China’s birthrate last year was at its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, with 15.23 million births, dramatically lower than the 21-23 million officials had expected.


Important for its effects in the next decade.
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Trump’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was apparently forged. Twice • The New York Times

Henrik Pryser Libell:


A total of 329 candidates — 217 individuals and 112 organizations — are being considered for this year’s prize, which will be announced in October. The identities of the candidates are kept secret, and indeed, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prizes, is forbidden from divulging any information about its deliberations for 50 years, and even then, only for scholarship purposes and at its discretion.

But a wrinkle in this time-honoured process — the peace prize was first awarded in 1901 — emerged on Tuesday, when the committee announced that it had uncovered what appeared to be a forged nomination of President Trump for the prize. The matter has been referred to the Oslo police for investigation.

Moreover, the forgery appears to have occurred twice: Olav Njolstad, the secretary of the five-member committee, said it appeared that a forged nomination of Mr. Trump for the prize was also submitted last year — and was also referred to the police. (The earlier forgery was not disclosed to the public at the time.)

Inspector Rune Skjold, the head of the economic crimes section of the Oslo police, said that investigators had been in touch with the FBI since last fall, which suggests that the forged nominations originated in the United States. He said the police believed that the same perpetrator was behind both forgeries…

…A large number of people qualify as nominators for the prize, including heads of state, lawmakers and cabinet ministers of countries around the world; members of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, both based in The Hague; members of the Institute of International Law, based in Ghent, Belgium; university professors of history, social sciences, law, philosophy, theology and religion; certain university leaders; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes; and past recipients of the prize.


Someone faked it so that one of the US nominators appeared to have suggested Trump. Should be easy enough to narrow down?
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No . . . I did not say wind energy is ‘Idiot Power’ • Thomas Homer-Dixon

Homer-Dixon is an environment writer, and there’s a poster with his name being posted on Facebook to try to “prove” that wind power isn’t economical:


The poster [currently circulating on Facebook] includes the following text over my name:

“A two-megawatt windmill contains 260 tonnes of steel requiring 170 tonnes of coking coal and 300 tonnes of iron ore, all mined, transported and produced by hydrocarbons”  “a windmill could spin until it falls apart and never generate as much energy as was invested in building it”

This text is selectively excerpted from a chapter written by David Hughes in Carbon Shift (2009), a book I co-edited. Here’s the full text (the words omitted on the circulated poster are enclosed in square brackets):

“[The concept of net energy must also be applied to renewable sources of energy, such as windmills and photovoltaics.] A two-megawatt windmill contains 260 tonnes of steel requiring 170 tonnes of coking coal and 300 tonnes of iron ore, all mined, transported and produced by hydrocarbons. [The question is: how long must a windmill generate energy before it creates more energy than it took to build it? At a good wind site, the energy payback day could be in three years or less; in a poor location, energy payback may be never. That is,] a windmill could spin until it falls apart and never generate as much energy as was invested in building it.”


That’s some serious lying in the poster. So who’s behind it? What do they have to gain? How do you track one of these things back to their source? (Also: Facebook, once again, considered harmful.)
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Quadriga crypto mystery deepens with “cold wallets” found empty • Bloomberg

Doug Alexander:


Quadriga was primarily run by Cotten, using his laptop, and his widow has described his normal procedures for transactions as moving “the majority of the coins to cold storage as a way to protect the coins from hacking or virtual theft,” according to the March 1 report.

Ernst & Young identified six cold wallet addresses used by Quadriga to store Bitcoin in the past. Five of those wallets haven’t had any balances since April 2018, and a sixth “appears to have been used to receive Bitcoin from another cryptocurrency exchange account and subsequently transfer Bitcoin to the Quadriga hot wallet” on Dec. 3. The only activity since was an inadvertent transfer of Bitcoin into that sixth wallet last month, which was disclosed earlier.

Crypto investors and exchanges often keep their holdings in cold wallets — typically, physical devices disconnected from the web that can be plugged into a computer when needed since internet-connected hot wallets can be vulnerable to hackers.

A preliminary review of transactions of the six wallets using public blockchain records showed that from April 2014 to approximately April 2018, aggregate Bitcoin month end balances in the identified cold wallets ranged from zero to a peak of 2,776 Bitcoin. The average aggregate month end balance over the four-year period was approximately 124 Bitcoin. Some Bitcoin in the wallets appear to have been transferred to accounts at other crypto exchanges.


Other crypto exchanges? This was already suspicious, and now it’s suspect.
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America’s cities are running on software from the ’80s • Bloomberg

Romy Vaghese:


The impetus for change is often public outcry over a crisis, such as the chaotic 2009 crash of a disco-era computer system regulating traffic signals in Montgomery County, Md., or the cyberattacks that brought Atlanta’s government to a standstill last March. And promises to improve are no guarantee of success: Minnesota spent about a decade and $100m to replace its ancient vehicle-licensing and registration software, but the new version arrived with so many glitches in 2017 that Governor Tim Walz has asked for an additional $16m to fix it.

Of course, improvements cost money that constituents don’t always want to pay. “We’re dealing with an irrational public who wants greater and greater service delivery at the same time they want their taxes to be lower,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, an association for municipal tech officials.

In San Francisco the assessor uses a Cobol-based system called AS-400, whose welcome screen reads, “COPYRIGHT IBM CORP., 1980, 2009.” As the city tax rolls jumped 22% over two years, workers were struggling to keep track of the changes on their ancient systems. At one point they fell three years behind. It’s a “lot of manual work” just to perform basic functions, Chu says.

Searches that should seem simple take much longer because of the system’s quirks. If a resident contacts the agency saying her house should have a different assessed value, a worker has to look up the block and identification number that’s technically taxed; there’s no way to filter by address. Also, all street numbers need to have four digits, so 301 Grove St. becomes 0301 Grove St. Another problem: The system doesn’t flag data entry mistakes, such as if a worker misidentified 301 Grove St. as 0031 Grove St.


Got to love the way that the hard-coded systems rule the way people function. (Side note: long time since Cobol appeared here.)
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The fake sex doctor who conned the media into publicizing his bizarre research on suicide, butt-fisting, and bestiality • Gizmodo

Jennings Brown:


A representative of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law told me Sendler was in their database as a student, but he is not listed as a member. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) could not share membership information and couldn’t tell me if he is in the database. But an APA representative asked me for his name and typed it into a computer, while I waited on the phone. A moment later, she told me Sendler could be a member since he has a MD from Columbia and Harvard.

I asked how the she knew that.

It’s on his website, the APA representative told me.

When I told her his website had many proven inaccuracies and he did not actually have an MD in the US, she then said he can’t be an APA member if he doesn’t have an MD from a U.S. school of medicine.

I asked Sendler about this and he would not answer whether or not he is an elected member, and asked me to respect his privacy.

According to Sendler’s website he is the recipient of the “United States President Barack Obama’s Gold Service Award for humanitarian work.” There is no such thing as the President’s Gold Service Award, but there is a President’s Volunteer Service Award. The organization that oversees the award, Points of Light, told me Sendler is not listed as having won the award. Sendler would not provide me with any evidence that he has the award.

Sendler claims he is the chief of sexology at the Felnett Health Research Foundation. I could find no mention of this foundation online outside of Sendler’s personal website, articles he has published, and articles that feature or quote him.


Great journalism. But: will the outlets that published his nonsense delete or retract it? And will they notice this, and not use him again?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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