Start Up No.1,158: Pew Research on social media and news, Reddit moderates harder, Libra backers stepping back?, the location builders, and more


“You mean WannaCry’s main effect was to lead to fewer cancelled appointments? Does that make it good?” CC-licensed photo by DataCorp Technology LTD on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Peachy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Americans are wary of the role social media sites play in delivering the news • Pew Research Center

From a just-released study:

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Almost all Americans – about nine-in-ten (88%) – recognize that social media companies have at least some control over the mix of news people see. And most Americans feel this is a problem: About six-in-ten (62%) say social media companies have too much control over the mix of news that people see on their sites, roughly four times as many as say that they don’t have enough control (15%). Just 21% say that social media companies have the right amount of control over the news people see.

The largest social media platforms control the content on their feeds using computer algorithms that rank and prioritize posts and other content tailored to the interests of each user. These sites allow users to customize these settings, though previous research has found that many Americans feel uncertain about why certain posts appear in their news feed on Facebook specifically. Social media companies have also been public about their efforts to fight both false information and fake accounts on their sites.

While social media companies say these efforts are meant to make the news experience on their sites better for everyone, most Americans think they just make things worse. A majority (55%) say that the role social media companies play in delivering the news on their sites results in a worse mix of news. Only a small share (15%) say it results in a better mix of news, while about three-in-ten (28%) think their efforts make no real difference.

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This will doubtless trigger another replacement of algorithms by humans at one company, and humans by algorithms at another. Though one shocking piece of data is that 28% of Americans say they get news from YouTube.
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Reddit moderation gets update with new anti-bullying rules • Daily Dot

Matthew Hughes:

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today’s change to Reddit’s policies against harassment and bullying is a landmark. In a post to /r/announcements, Reddit administrator landoflobsters explained that abusive behavior would no longer need to meet the criteria of “continued” or “systematic” in order to become actionable by the company.

“Chiefly, Reddit is a place for conversation,” they said. “Thus, behavior whose core effect is to shut people out of that conversation through intimidation or abuse has no place on our platform.”

For the first-time, Reddit also plans to accept reports from “bystanders” who have witnessed abuse but were not the recipient of it. Previously, the company only accepted reports from those who had received inappropriate comments first-hand.

Hoping to assuage the fears of users wary of heavy-handed enforcement, the Reddit representative explained that it’ll attempt to pay attention to context. The site plans to use machine-learning tools to prioritize reports, but these will play no role in actual enforcement. That job will remain in the hands of human moderators.

By lowering the threshold where a post or subreddit becomes objectionable, and allowing anyone to report a post, users will inevitably report more posts. The question remains whether the so-called “Frontpage of the Internet” can cope.

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They’re going to need a bigger moderation team. But: indicative of a wider trend in moderation. First we saw news sites turning off comments; then we saw social media sites cracking down. Now we’re seeing comment sites cracking down.
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A retrospective impact analysis of the WannaCry cyberattack on the NHS • npj Digital Medicine

S. Ghafur, S. Kristensen, K. Honeyford, G. Martin, A. Darzi and P. Aylin:

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Compared with the baseline, there was no significant difference in the total activity across all trusts during the week of the WannaCry attack [on Friday 12 May 2017]. Trusts had 1% more emergency admissions and 1% fewer A&E attendances per day during the WannaCry week compared with baseline.

Hospitals directly infected with the ransomware, however, had significantly fewer emergency and elective admissions: a decrease of about 6% in total admissions per infected hospital per day was observed, with 4% fewer emergency admissions and 9% fewer elective admissions. No difference in mortality was noted.

The total economic value of the lower activity at the infected trusts during this time was £5.9m including £4m in lost inpatient admissions, £0.6m from lost A&E activity, and £1.3m from cancelled outpatient appointments. Among hospitals infected with WannaCry ransomware, there was a significant decrease in the number of attendances and admissions, which corresponded to £5.9 m in lost hospital activity. There was no increase in mortality reported, though this is a crude measure of patient harm.

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This is a remarkable finding, though what it demonstrates is the resilience of the UK healthcare system when only a few organisations are hit, and the attack is brief – the kill switch was found on the same day. It’s possible that Marcus Hutchins (who found the dummy site) saved as many lives as the doctors that day.
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Ransomware forces three hospitals to turn away all but the most critical patients • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Ten hospitals—three in Alabama and seven in Australia—have been hit with paralyzing ransomware attacks that are affecting their ability to take new patients, it was widely reported on Tuesday.

All three hospitals that make up the DCH Health System in Alabama were closed to new patients on Tuesday as officials there coped with an attack that paralyzed the health network’s computer system. The hospitals—DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Northport Medical Center, and Fayette Medical Center—are turning away “all but the most critical new patients” at the time this post was going live. Local ambulances were being instructed to take patients to other hospitals when possible. Patients coming to DCH emergency rooms faced the possibility of being transferred to another hospital once they were stabilized.

“A criminal is limiting our ability to use our computer systems in exchange for an as-yet unknown payment,” DCH representatives wrote in a release. “Our hospitals have implemented our emergency procedures to ensure safe and efficient operations in the event technology dependent on computers is not available.”

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Typically the problem is temporary staff who haven’t been clued up about not clicking on attachments to plausible-looking emails. But ransomware authors are now targeting public sector organisations like this, because they know there are plenty of weak links, and that the public-service requirements they face along with the likely underinvestment in backups means they’re likely to pay up.
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What really happens when you become an overnight millionaire? • Marker

Stephanie Clifford:

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Peter Rahal, a 33-year-old energy-bar impresario who sold RxBar to Kellogg for $600m and became something of a consumer-products legend in the process, stood in the gigantic, spotless kitchen in his new Miami Beach mansion. Behind him, floor-to-ceiling windows revealed his pool, his outdoor bar, and Sunset Harbour. Throughout the house were expensive-looking modernist metal chandeliers; in the kitchen’s drawers, there were gold utensils.

And for dinner, Rahal was eating a can of beans.

Correction: he wasn’t even eating the beans, just showing the dinner-for-one — chickpeas, eggs, avocado — that he makes most nights.

Rahal bought the fully furnished house for about $19m in May. He splits his time between his longtime Chicago apartment and this place; he chose Miami Beach in part because Florida has no personal income tax. There’s a Ferrari 488 and a cream Vespa in the driveway. A housekeeper, who comes daily, keeps the seven bedrooms spotless, though most are usually empty. Upstairs, there are his/hers dressing rooms, and the “hers” — which has a Lucite-leg stool topped with pink tufts sitting forlornly at a vanity — is untouched. It’s as if, when Rahal were sending wire instructions to get his RxBar money from Kellogg, he ticked a box requesting the newly-rich-bachelor package, and this setup fell from the sky.

For a guy who’s been working ferociously for years, it’s a jarring shift. He and a buddy from elementary school started RxBar in 2012 after seeing an improbable opportunity in a very crowded energy-bar market. They concocted their original date-nut-egg-white recipe in Rahal’s mom’s suburban kitchen; ginned up the brand’s package design on a PowerPoint slide; sold the bars to CrossFit gyms in Chicago, then Indiana, then across the Midwest. By the time RxBar became a business with revenues north of $100m, with virtually no outside investment, Rahal was grinding at it from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m daily.

Rahal prides himself on struggle, and he says that’s how he built RxBar into a breakout success. Yet now he exists in a rich-person’s wonderland, where workers appear and disappear on some imperceptible schedule to clean the pool or fix the elevator, where the kitchen’s surfaces are entirely smooth and glossy. The many contradictions now swirling in Rahal’s daily existence are not lost on him. “As life moves forward,” he says, “an easier life isn’t always a better life.”

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Love how he has more money than he knows what to do with, but still chose a location which doesn’t have personal income tax. Because who wants to give their money to help pay for communal items such as roads, libraries, schools, police, fire services and buses? Maybe his next startup could manufacture empathy bars.
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Microsoft Surface event: Surface Duo Phone, Pro 7, Pro X, Laptop 3, Earbuds, Neo • The Verge

I honestly don’t see much point in picking any of these out: they’re all either me-too products (Surface Earbuds! Another iteration of the Surface Laptop!) or so far off – the Surface Neo, slated for “holiday [ie Christmas] 2020” – that it doesn’t seem worth bothering with. Though the Neo is essentially the Microsoft Courier tablet which J Allard suggested back in 2008, but because he thought it shouldn’t run Windows, got squished by Steve Ballmer, then CEO. Times change.
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Visa, Mastercard, others reconsider involvement in Facebook’s Libra network • WSJ

AnnaMaria Andriotis and Peter Rudegeair:

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Privately, US regulators have leaned on Libra’s backers. The Treasury Department sent letters to companies including Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Stripe asking for a complete overview of their money-laundering compliance programs and how Libra will fit into them, people familiar with the matter said.

Dante Disparte, head of policy and communications at the Libra Association, said in an email that the group has held regular meetings with regulators and policy makers to discuss conforming to anti-money-laundering laws and preventing terrorism financing.

Libra Association members, meanwhile, have been pressing Facebook for more information. They have asked Mr. Marcus and other Facebook executives how illegal activities such as money laundering and terrorist financing would be kept off Libra and haven’t received detailed answers, one of the people said.

Mr. Marcus said on Twitter on Tuesday evening that it was “categorically untrue” that detailed information about how to protect the Libra network from illegal activity wasn’t shared.

“I can tell you that we’re very calmly, and confidently working through the legitimate concerns that Libra has raised by bringing conversations about the value of digital currencies to the forefront,” Mr. Marcus said.

It is unclear how many of the initial Libra Association members ultimately will commit to the network. So far, association members have signed nonbinding letters of intent, and they haven’t yet handed over the $10m that Facebook requested from each member to fund the creation of the digital coin and build out the payments network, people familiar with the matter said.

“It’s important to understand the facts here and not any of us get out ahead of ourselves,” Visa Chief Executive Al Kelly said on the company’s earnings conference call in July. “No one has yet officially joined.”

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A cloud on the horizon the size of a man’s fist.
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Ocean plastic waste probably comes from ships, report says • AFP.com

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Most of the plastic bottles washing up on the rocky shores of Inaccessible Island, aptly named for its sheer cliffs rising from the middle of the South Atlantic, probably come from Chinese merchant ships, a study published Monday said.

The study offers fresh evidence that the vast garbage patches floating in the middle of oceans, which have sparked much consumer hand-wringing in recent years, are less the product of people dumping single-use plastics in waterways or on land, than they are the result of merchant marine vessels tossing their waste overboard by the ton.

The authors of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, collected thousands of pieces of waste during visits to the tiny island in 1984, 2009 and again in 2018.

The island is located roughly midway between Argentina and South Africa in the South Atlantic gyre, a vast whirlpool of currents that has created what has come to be known as an oceanic garbage patch.

While initial inspections of the trash washing up on the island showed labels indicating it had come from South America, some 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) to the west, by 2018 three-quarters of the garbage appeared to originate from Asia, mostly China.

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Maybe sort this out before shooting Hong Kong protesters seeking better representation?
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Google – polling like it’s the 90s • Ably Blog: Data in Motion

Matt O’Riordan (who is CEO and co-founder of Ably):

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Ably recently had the pleasure of delivering realtime scoring and commentary updates to fans of the Laver Cup tennis championship, on behalf of Tennis Australia, for the third year in a row.  During the event, I saw that Google embeds live score updates within search results, which is pretty nifty. It seems this first appeared in results sometime in 2016 and received an update for the 2018 World Cup.

Being the curious engineer and realtime geek I am, I jumped in to my browser dev console and started reverse engineering the Google magic.  Given the sheer scale of everything Google does, I was anticipating some off-the-wall micro-optimization work to squeeze out every last byte to minimize bandwidth and energy consumption.  After all Google, has been pioneering the “light web” for years now, with initiatives like AMP, so I expected nothing less

So what did I find? Literally, technology from the 90s.

In this blog post I dive into why Google’s design choices are surprisingly bad in terms of bandwidth demand, energy consumption (battery life and unnecessary contribution to global warming), and ultimately a sluggish user experience.  At Google’s scale, I expected to see the use of common shared primitives such as an efficient streaming pub/sub API, or dogfooding of their own products.

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Certainly seems to be done sub-optimally: 38x higher bandwidth than necessarily, 25x higher latency. Is this the same Google where Page and Brin used to scream for faster loading of the home page?
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Amazon and Apple are quietly building rival networks that know where everything is • WIRED UK

Sophie Charara:

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it’s clear that both Amazon and Apple have embarked on similar missions to extend their control of their customers’ connectivity in and around the home. Amazon’s Sidewalk, which operates on the 900MHz band typically used for amateur radio and emergency services, and Apple’s close-range, ultra-wideband positioning with the U1 are designed to get Amazon out of the home and Apple inside it. Or at least give each company more power in their respective weak areas.

Amazon dominates Google and Apple’s smart-home ecosystems with a base of controllers, sensors and routers, but it abandoned designs on Fire phones years ago; now its Echo Buds and experimental smartglasses are breaking out of the home.

Apple, meanwhile, still doesn’t have the third-party hardware compatibility of its rivals inside the home with HomeKit, but, despite slowing sales, can’t be matched for tight control over software and services on its iPhones, not to mention its existing initiatives around spatial positioning and location like Bluetooth iBeacons.

Many a promising Internet of Things protocol has vowed to fill the gaps between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular but failed to get off the ground, most recently Thread, which is backed by a consortium including Google, Qualcomm and Samsung. Both Amazon and Apple have the hardware scale, though, to build up the base of access points needed to create a useful network before reaching out to, most likely, iOS developers in Apple’s case, and hardware makers already on board with Alexa in Amazon’s case…

…Why so muted then from the two tech giants? Amazon’s Dave Limp described Sidewalk, which has launched for developers, as in the “very early” stages, and Apple, too, hasn’t announced any partners for its indoor positioning yet. In fact, even its own long-rumoured Tag tracker, similar to Tile’s devices, which was said to use the same network of UWB devices as the AirDrop feature instead of Bluetooth and GPS, didn’t make an appearance at the Cupertino launch in September.

It could be that with the privacy-focused techlash of recent years, both are treading carefully in the launch stages. Just look at how Amazon’s acquisition of mesh networking company eero was received earlier this year or the widespread interest in Huawei’s level of involvement with 5G networks. Location tracking in particular is currently the focus of much more granular controls in iOS 13 and Android 10 than ever before.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,158: Pew Research on social media and news, Reddit moderates harder, Libra backers stepping back?, the location builders, and more

  1. Re Surface line. Reasons to pick it:
    1- they’re somewhat me-too products, ie if MS starts to make crap, overprice, … you’re not locked-in to that one OEM
    2- I always wanted to look like princess Leia, those earbuds go a long way towards that. Alas, MS street cred is low, Apple made earcigs OK, Ms won’t make earplates OK.
    3- like most US corps, MS has good firesales at most end-of FY quarter/year.
    4- MS hardware is usually solid, and support above average.

    The dual-screen stuff might be worthwhile when it arrives. 1 extra half-screen above a laptop’s keyboard seems to be getting a bit of traction; Windows makes supporting that fairly automatic.

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