Start Up No.1,029: Kushner’s WhatsApp use queried, Boeing charged for safety update, 8channer regrets, and more


Oh look, it’s Instagram’s algorithm in action. CC-licensed photo by Valerie Hinojosa on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Collision avoidance systems on. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Cummings demands docs on Kushner’s alleged use of WhatsApp for official business • POLITICO

Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney:

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House Democrats are raising new concerns about what they say is recently revealed information from Jared Kushner’s attorney indicating that the senior White House aide has been relying on encrypted messaging service WhatsApp and his personal email account to conduct official business.

The revelation came in a Dec. 19 meeting — made public by the House Oversight and Reform Committee for the first time on Thursday — between Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Rep. Trey Gowdy, the former chairman of the oversight panel, and Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell.

Cummings, who now leads the Oversight Committee, says in a new letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that Lowell confirmed to the two lawmakers that Kushner “continues to use” WhatsApp to conduct White House business. Cummings also indicated that Lowell told them he was unsure whether Kushner had ever used WhatsApp to transmit classified information.

“That’s above my pay grade,” Lowell told the lawmakers, per Cummings’ letter.

Lowell added, according to Cummings, that Kushner is in compliance with recordkeeping law. Lowell told the lawmakers that Kushner takes screenshots of his messages and forwards them to his White House email in order to comply with records preservation laws, Cummings indicated.

Kushner, whom the president charged with overseeing the administration’s Middle East policies, reportedly has communicated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman via WhatsApp.

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Hmm. Kushner’s an utterly talentless ballsack, but I can’t see using WhatsApp as bad – especially compared to using email. There’s no evidence it has ever been cracked. It’s as insecure as your phone login – and you can decide if that’s high or medium or low. Governments all over the place get things done via WhatsApp. I’d always recommend it over email, which offers far more targets to break into.
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It took ten seconds for Instagram to push me into an anti-vaxx rabbit hole • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

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On Wednesday, I created a fresh Instagram account, and followed ‘Beware the Needle’, a user with 34,000 followers which posts a steady stream of anti-vaccination content. I also followed the user’s “backup” account mentioned in its bio, the creator clearly aware that Instagram may soon ban them. Instagram’s “Suggested for You” feature then recommended I follow other accounts, including “Vaccines are Genocide” and “Vaccine Truth.” I followed the latter, and checked which accounts Instagram now thought would be a good fit for me: another 24 accounts that were either explicitly against vaccinations in their profile description, or that posted anti-vaccine content.

They included pseudo-scientists claiming that vaccines cause autism; accounts with tens of thousands of followers promising the “truth” around vaccinations through memes and images of misleading statistics, as well as individual mothers spouting the perceived, but false, dangers of vaccinating children against measles, polio, and other diseases.

“The sheep continue to line up for the massacre. No questions asked,” the caption on a post from “Vaccine Truth” reads.

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Slaves to the algorithm.
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Instagram is full of conspiracy theories and extremism • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:

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When Alex, now a high-school senior, saw an Instagram account he followed post about something called QAnon back in 2017, he’d never heard of the viral conspiracy theory before. But the post piqued his interest, and he wanted to know more. So he did what your average teenager would do: He followed several accounts related to it on Instagram, searched for information on YouTube, and read up on it on forums.

A year and a half later, Alex, who asked to use a pseudonym, runs his own Gen Z–focused QAnon Instagram account, through which he educates his generation about the secret plot by the “deep state” to take down Donald Trump. “I was just noticing a lack in younger people being interested in QAnon, so I figured I would put it out there that there was at least one young person in the movement,” he told me via Instagram direct message. He hopes to “expose the truth about everything corrupt governments and organizations have lied about.” Among those truths: that certain cosmetics and foods contain aborted fetal cells, that the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash was a hoax, and that the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings were staged.

Instagram is teeming with these conspiracy theories, viral misinformation, and extremist memes, all daisy-chained together via a network of accounts with incredible algorithmic reach and millions of collective followers—many of whom, like Alex, are very young.

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YouTubers are fighting algorithms as they try to make good content for kids • Motherboard

Caroline Haskins:

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not all of kids YouTube is a hellscape. In fact, the ecosystem is also home to an entirely different kind of channel: human beings trying to become characters like Mister Rogers, the Wiggles, or a PBS kids show for a new generation. By and large, these YouTubers are striving to make genuinely good, enriching, educational content for children.

These channels are fighting to game YouTube’s algorithm to reach young audiences. According to interviews with several of theseYouTube channels, however, they’re at a structural disadvantage to compete with channels that make massive amounts of animated videos.

“It’s difficult for channels like mine to compete with them too, because they can do like two three videos a day, or at least a few a week,” Mike Moore, who runs Brain Candy TV—an animated learning channel with 186,000 subscribers—told Motherboard in a phone call. “It takes me a month or two to make a video. You don’t get as much watch time from that.”

…To many parents, YouTube is also the cheapest and sometimes only option to keep kids entertained. Millennials, some of whom are becoming new parents, by and large don’t have cable. According to the Pew Research Center, only 31% of people aged 18 to 29 have a cable or satellite subscription, and that number only rises to 52% for people aged 30 to 49.

For parents that need to keep their kids entertained, it seems obvious to lean on YouTube—a free service that doesn’t require cable. YouTube is also accessible on mobile devices, meaning that parents can use it when they travel with their kids.

But YouTube wasn’t constructed to prioritize the development and well-being of young children. It’s an ad-driven business, and it relies on a mystery recommendation algorithm designed to keep people on the site, and viewing ads, for as long as possible. The people competing on the platform to reach children are just pawns within YouTube’s business interests.

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The detail in this piece – about the number of animators, the mindlessness of the content – is quite amazing. Is this how an older generation felt about their children growing up watching TV?
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Newspapers help to radicalise far right, says UK anti-terror chief • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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Britain’s counter-terrorism chief has said far-right terrorists are being radicalised by mainstream newspaper coverage, while also criticising the hypocrisy of outlets such as Mail Online, which uploaded the “manifesto” of the gunman in the Christchurch terror attack.

Neil Basu, one of Britain’s top police officers, said it was ironic that while newspapers have repeatedly criticised the likes of Facebook and Google for hosting extremist content, sites including the Sun and the Mirror rushed to upload clips of footage filmed by the gunman as he attacked two mosques in New Zealand.

“The same media companies who have lambasted social media platforms for not acting fast enough to remove extremist content are simultaneously publishing uncensored Daesh [Islamic State] propaganda on their websites, or make the rambling ‘manifestos’ of crazed killers available for download,” Basu said in an open letter to the media on how to report terrorism.

He appeared to be singling out Mail Online, which uploaded the New Zealand’s terrorist’s 74-page “manifesto” to its website and made the document, which included an explanation of his far-right ideology, available for users to download from one of the world’s biggest news outlets.

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Always worth recalling that radicalisation and polarisation have existed since long before online social networks.
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Doomed Boeing jets lacked two safety features that company sold only as extras • The New York Times

Hiroko Tabuchi and David Gelles:

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The jet’s software system takes readings from one of two vanelike devices called angle of attack sensors that determine how much the plane’s nose is pointing up or down relative to oncoming air. When MCAS detects that the plane is pointing up at a dangerous angle, it can automatically push down the nose of the plane in an effort to prevent the plane from stalling.

Debris from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed on March 10. The angle of attack features could have alerted the pilots if a new software system was malfunctioning.

Boeing’s optional safety features, in part, could have helped the pilots detect any erroneous readings. One of the optional upgrades, the angle of attack indicator, displays the readings of the two sensors. The other, called a disagree light, is activated if those sensors are at odds with one another.

Boeing will soon update the MCAS software, and will also make the disagree light standard on all new 737 Max planes, according to a person familiar with the changes, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been made public. Boeing started moving on the software fix and the equipment change before the crash in the Ethiopia.

The angle of attack indicator will remain an option that airlines can buy. Neither feature was mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. All 737 Max jets have been grounded.

“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

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Now one has to think about all the other “optional” safety features that airlines aren’t deploying because of the cost. How do you find that out?
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After New Zealand shooting, founder of 8chan expresses regrets • WSJ

Robert McMillan:

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[Fredrick] Brennan, a former Brooklynite who cut ties with the site in December, said he believed 8chan’s administrators were too slow to remove the post last week from Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter Brenton Tarrant and posts on the site’s message boards that incite violence. Their reluctance to do so, along with the proliferation of posts on 8chan praising Mr. Tarrant’s actions, have persuaded Mr. Brennan that the toxic, white-supremacist culture that lives on parts of the site could someday be linked to another mass shooting.

“It was very difficult in the days that followed to know that I had created that site,” he said in an interview from the Philippines, where he has lived since 2014. He added: “It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens again.”

Mr. Brennan for years tended to one of the internet’s darkest corners, moderating the site as criticism mounted for its persistently racist content and tolerance for user behavior that was long ago banned by mainstream platforms. The site has also been criticized for users posting child pornography and coordinating aggressive harassment campaigns against critics. Mr. Brennan was an administrator on the site until 2016 and worked for the owners of 8chan until December.

While 8chan is available on the open internet, it is often blocked by corporate firewalls and is no longer indexed by Google’s search engine.

Mr. Brennan, 25 years old, expressed regret that the site had consumed so much of his life. “I didn’t spend enough time making friends in real life,” he said. High-school events and classes in upstate New York didn’t matter to him at all. What mattered was the community of like-minded provocateurs, trolls, libertarians and conservative thinkers he discovered online as a boy and that formed his identity as a young man.

“I just feel like I wasted too much time on this stuff,” he said.

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Famous. Last. Words.
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A robot leg learned to walk by itself without programming, in a scarily short time • Science Alert

Carly Cassella:

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The team claims to have created the first AI-controlled robotic limb that can learn how to walk without being explicitly programmed to do so.

The algorithm they used is inspired by real-life biology. Just like animals that can walk soon after birth, this robot can figure out how to use its animal-like tendons after only five minutes of unstructured play.

“The ability for a species to learn and adapt their movements as their bodies and environments change has been a powerful driver of evolution from the start,” explains co-author Brian Cohn, a computer scientist at USC (University of Southern California).

“Our work constitutes a step towards empowering robots to learn and adapt from each experience, just as animals do.”

Today, most robots take months or years before they are ready to interact with the rest of the world. But with this new algorithm, the team has figured out how to make robots that can learn by simply doing. This is known in robotics as “motor babbling” because it closely mimics how babies learn to speak through trial and error.

“During the babbling phase, the system will send random commands to motors and sense the joint angles,” co-author Ali Marjaninejad an engineer at USC, told PC Mag.

“Then, it will train the three-layer neural network to guess what commands will produce a given movement. We then start performing the task and reinforce good behavior.”

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Cambridge spin-out starts producing graphene at commercial scale • University of Cambridge

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Graphene’s remarkable properties – stronger than steel, more conductive than copper, highly flexible and transparent – make it ideal for a range of applications. However, its widespread commercial application in electronic devices has been held back by the difficulties associated with producing it at high quality and at high volume. The conventional way of making large-area graphene involves using copper as a catalyst which contaminates the graphene, making it unsuitable for electronic applications.

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the Centre for Gallium Nitride in Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, along with his former postdoctoral researchers Dr Simon Thomas and Dr Ivor Guiney, developed a new way to make large-area graphene in 2015.

Using their method, the researchers were able form high-quality graphene wafers up to eight inches in diameter, beating not only other university research groups worldwide, but also companies like IBM, Intel and Samsung.

The three researchers spun out Paragraf in early 2018. Thomas is currently the company’s CEO and Guiney is its Chief Technology Officer, while Humphreys, who has recently moved to Queen Mary University of London, serves as Chair.

Paragraf has received £2.9m in funding to support the development of its first commercial products and moved into premises in February 2018.

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Exciting.
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Your AirPods probably have terrible battery life • The Atlantic

Alana Semuels:

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Of the 3.4m tons of electronic waste generated in America in 2012—an 80% increase from 2000—just 29% was recycled. “Imagine that every single thing in the world has the same life span as a battery, and wore out after 12 to 18 months,” [iFixit founder Kyle] Wiens told me. “It would be catastrophic for consumers and even worse for the planet.”

But, of course, companies design for performance and sales, not life span. They make money when they sell more units, and they’re not financially responsible for disposing of products when consumers are finished using them. Nadim Maluf, the founder of the battery consultancy Qnovo, told me that a decade ago, he went to big tech companies telling them he could help them double the longevity of their products, by extending the battery life of the lithium-ion batteries they were beginning to use. “No one really cared,” he told me. “Extending product life wasn’t consistent with growth on the financial side.”

Apple officials declined to speak on the record for this story. But in 2017, the company announced that it was working toward a closed-loop supply chain, in which 100% of its materials will be recycled or renewed. Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, has said the company wants to keep products in use as long as possible. Apple also encourages consumers to trade in their devices to be recycled, for a small credit: Someone trading in an iPhone 5, for instance, could get $40 off the $999 price of an iPhone XS.

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The “not financially responsible for disposing of products when consumers are finished using them” feels like an externality that should be addressed. But would that involve tracking every device?
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Time to bring Google Shopping case to a close

Ramon Tremosa i Balcells (ALDE, ES) is a member of the European parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs committee:

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More than 18 months ago Google’s abuse of its power in online shopping resulted in a €2.42bn fine from the EU. By promoting its own shopping comparison service at the top of its own search results, Google had crossed the line between being dominant and breaking the law.

Commissioner Vestager told Google it had 90 days to change its ways or face further penalties. “What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules,” she told the world. “It has denied other companies the chance to compete on their merits and to innovate, and most importantly it has denied European consumers the benefits of competition, genuine choice and innovation.”

Over 500 days later it is hard to see that Google has done enough to avoid further action.

According to the few companies that have, so far, survived Google’s abuse of dominance, the market has further deteriorated. The “point of no return” is plainly visible for what is left of Europe’s once prosperous and vibrant shopping comparison industry…

…I’ve already gone on the record to say that technical solutions can stop Google’s abuse without disrupting online shoppers or merchants. A rotation mechanism on the shopping search results page itself could allow the appearance of Google and its competitors. Google would be unable to exploit its search algorithms while users would get greater choice and relevant results.

Indeed, this approach would suit today’s mobile devices, perhaps rebooting the consumer-focused innovation in shopping comparison that died away once Google began to dominate the sector.

If the Commission feels the need, then other more radical options are still on the table. There are, for example, voices calling for the “unbundling” of Google’s various services, breaking up a tech giant that has problems not just in shopping but also in areas such as Android and AdSense.

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Interesting idea about the rotation mechanism, but who would choose who gets to be in it? I still prefer a system where you do well in organic search. It’s honest and nobody adjudicates.
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The new iPad Mini • Daring Fireball

John Gruber reviewing the new 7.9in device, which hadn’t been updated since 2015:

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I’ll refer back to my review of the original iPad Mini from 2012:

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Typing is interesting. In portrait, I actually find it easier to type on the Mini than a full-size iPad. All thumbs, with less distance to travel between keys, it feels more like typing on an iPhone. In landscape, though, typing is decidedly worse. The keyboard in landscape is only a tad wider than a full-size iPad keyboard in portrait. That’s too small to use all eight of my fingers, so I wind up using a four-finger hunt-and-peck style with my index and middle fingers.

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This is even more pronounced now, at least between iPad Mini and iPad Pro (as opposed to iPad Mini and iPad Air) because iPad Pro — inexplicably, as I said — does not support split keyboards, even though they’re bigger devices. I honestly don’t know how anyone is supposed to type on an iPad Pro while holding it in their hands. It’s crazy.

Basically, the iPad Mini knows exactly what it is and the iPad Pros do not — the iPad Pros are lost between the iOS world of conceptual simplicity and the complex world of competing with desktop OSes.

The iPad Mini puts the “pad” in iPad. If you want a device that is bigger than a phone, but smaller and more holdable than a laptop-screen-sized thing for reading and just walking around with, the iPad Mini is it.

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Definitely true you can’t type on a full-size iPad while standing up. (Dictate instead?) The iPad mini is a really beloved device for a lot of people: they find it just the right size, not too bulky, yet not undersized. The aspect ratio means you get a lot of screen.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:1: Yes, “link to this extract” is back! This time with MD5 goodness of the URL to create a unique link, so it *should* work wherever you are. Please note: might be a flop and removed next week.

2: the author of “How AI is changing science” is Dan Falk; Rachel Suggs drew the illustration.

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