Start Up No.1,175: a social network that helps democracy, Facebook’s News problem, who is Mike Pompeo exactly?, the trouble with dark mode, RCS’s mess, and more

An electric kettle: reducing the grid voltage saves a lot of energy, but doesn’t cost much time. CC-licensed photo by Lee Haywood on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a social network could save democracy from deadlock • BBC News

Carl Miller:


It began in 2014, when Taiwan was split by a trade bill. As in Hong Kong today, many feared the law would bring their country closer to China. Protestors entered its parliament and started a weeks-long occupation that became known as the Sunflower Revolution because they used the flower to represent a symbol of hope.

“I was there the night before they burst in,” Audrey Tang told me. She was a leading member of Taiwan’s burgeoning scene of civic hackers who joined the protests. And in the wake of the occupation, the government asked for their help.

Some of the civic hackers were invited to join the government and Tang became Taiwan’s digital minister.
Their aim was to design a new process that people from across political divides could join and express their views. But crucially, the process had to produce a consensus that the government could turn into new laws and regulations.

Their creation was called vTaiwan – with the “v” standing for virtual – a platform where experts and other interested parties can deliberate contentious issues. It works by first seeking to crowdsource objective facts from those involved. Then users communicate with each other via a dedicated social media network called, which lets them draft statements about how a matter should be solved, and respond to others’ suggestions by either agreeing or disagreeing with them.

Once a “rough consensus” has been reached, livestreamed or face-to-face meetings are organised so that participants can write out specific recommendations.

The platform’s first test was to regulate Uber.


Yes, of course they should have done this before Brexit, and really ought to do it now.
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iPadOS’s discoverability trouble • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:


Without getting into the embarrassing details about the klutziness that makes me a good product tester because I tend to do things that knowledgeable users already know how to do, I’m confused and frustrated by all of these “possibilities”. For relatively simple tasks such as using multiple apps side by side or opening more than one window for an app such as Pages, the iPad support site is cryptic and, in some cases, just plain wrong. As just one example, the on-line guidance advises: “go to Settings > General > Multitasking & Dock…”. Trouble is, the General section of Settings on my iPad Pro doesn’t have a Multitasking & Dock section. A little bit of foraging gets me to the Home Screen & Dock section where, yes, the Multitasking adjustments are available.

On the positive side, one now has a real Safari browser, equivalent in most regards to the “desktop” version, and the ability to open two independent windows side by side.

Because I feel self-conscious about my mental and motor skills, I compared notes with a learned friend, a persistent fellow who forced himself to learn touch typing by erasing the letters on his keyboard. He, too, finds iPadOS discoverability to be severely lacking. There are lot of new and possibly helpful features but, unlike the 1984 Mac, not enough in the way of the hints that menu bars and pull-down menus provide. It all feels unfinished, a long, long list of potentially winning features that are out of the reach of this mere mortal and that I assume will remain undiscovered by many others.


Yup. It can be really confusing, and I speak as one who has used an iPad Pro for years. Touch interfaces ought to be simpler; the absence of a menu bar system creates a problem.
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Why will Breitbart be included in ‘Facebook News’? • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


Facebook’s decision to include Breitbart among its select publishers is clarifying, though perhaps not in the way many critics have suggested. It’s not an indicator of secret political bias; instead, it’s a small window into how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook see the world. Here, the realms of government and media aren’t levers to achieve some ideological goal — they’re mere petri dishes in which to grow the Facebook organism. And when it comes to Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg’s end game, nothing is more important than growth.

Growth has always been the end game for Facebook. The company’s onetime internal credo, “Move fast and break things,” was about a need for rapid, sometimes reckless innovation in service of adding more users, market share and ad dollars, while its early mission statement, “Make the world more open and connected,” was a friendly way of expressing a desire for exponential growth. The company’s new mission statement, “Bring the world closer together,” is a friendlier way of saying the same thing — after all, you can’t bring people closer together if you don’t acquire them as active users first. Growth at any cost is a familiar mantra inside Facebook as well, as an internal memo surfaced last year by BuzzFeed News revealed; subsequent investigations by The Times detailed a company “bent on growth.”

But the costs of this growth — election interference, privacy violations — are passed on to users, not absorbed by Facebook, which takes a reputational hit but generally maintains, if not increases, market share and value. The real threat to Facebook isn’t bad P.R., it’s alienating its user base.

Through this lens, it makes perfect sense that Facebook should want to publicly court conservative audiences that seethe at what they perceive as Facebook’s liberal bias. And while the outcomes of Facebook’s decisions have serious political consequences, Mr. Zuckerberg and his fellow decision makers at the company view their decision to choose both publishers and off-the-record dining partners in terms of user acquisition strategy.


Smart take. (Though it might also be user retention strategy. Breitbart appeals to the old and jaded; Facebook wants to keep them tuned in.)
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Mark Zuckerberg struggles to explain why Breitbart belongs on Facebook News • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


Breitbart has been criticized for repeated inaccurate and incendiary reporting, often at the expense of immigrants and people of color. Last year, Wikipedia declared it an unreliable source for citations, alongside the British tabloid Daily Mail and the left-wing site Occupy Democrats.

That’s led to questions about why Breitbart belongs on Facebook News, a feature that will supposedly be held to far tougher standards than the normal News Feed. In a question-and-answer session after the interview, Zuckerberg told Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan that Facebook would have “objective standards” for quality.

“Most of the rest of what we operate is helping give people a voice broadly and making sure that everyone can share their opinion,” he said. “That’s not this. This is a space that is dedicated to high-quality and curated news.”

But when New York Times reporter Marc Tracy asked how including Breitbart served that cause, Zuckerberg emphasized its politics, not its reporting. “Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives,” he said. Zuckerberg reiterated that these perspectives should comply with Facebook’s standards, and he was cagey about Breitbart’s presence, saying that “having someone be possible or eligible to show up” doesn’t guarantee frequent placement. “But I certainly think you want to include a breadth of content in there,” he said.


Wikipedia serves as the useful arbiter here. Let’s not pretend that Breitbart produces high-quality and curated news. Zuckerberg seems to be scared of right-wing complaints.
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Wait eight seconds longer for your kettle – and cut your carbon bill • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:


Under plans to lower the voltage of energy grids across the north-west of England, about 45,000 homes can expect to shave £60 from their annual electricity bills. The scheme could save millions of pounds on energy a year and cut carbon emissions without people noticing any difference, says the local network company.

During “Smart Street” trials over four years, engineers for Electricity North West found they could carefully lower the grid’s voltage by enough to save on energy without noticeably slowing household appliances or causing light bulbs to flicker.

“Nobody noticed the changes until they were given their bill and suddenly found out they’d been using less electricity,” said Steve Cox, the company’s engineering director.

“If we reduced the voltage by a few percent, then a full kettle might take eight seconds longer to boil. If we boost the voltage, it might boil eight seconds faster. But within the typical time it takes to boil a kettle, say two minutes, this really isn’t noticeable.”

“Voltage control” is well established in some states in the US, but Electricity North West will be the first network in the UK to reduce its voltage towards the lower end of the normal 220V to 240V range.


The only issue I’m particularly aware of is that some cheaper LED bulbs might flicker (as they note). Otherwise, seems like a clever idea.
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The FTC fosters fake reviews, its own commissioners say • Ars Technica

Paris Martineau:


Saoud Khalifah, CEO of the fraudulent-review tracking company FakeSpot, says the number of companies padding their online ratings using reviews generated by bots, ghostwriters, or other schemes has increased dramatically over the past four years.

“When I started [looking into] this in 2015, it wasn’t as big as it is today,” said Khalifah. “Today, it has reached epidemic proportions—whether you’re looking at Sephora, Walmart, Amazon—it’s like a plague right now.”

Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter of the Federal Trade Commission say it’s about to get a lot worse, and they know who to blame: their own agency. The FTC this week brought its first case against a company for enlisting its employees in a coordinated fake-review campaign to boost sales. Chopra and Slaughter say the decision reached by their fellow commissioners could usher in even more review fraud. The settlement did not require the company to admit fault, notify customers of the fraud, or turn over any ill-gotten gains.

“Dishonest firms may come to conclude that posting fake reviews is a viable strategy, given the proposed outcome here,” Chopra said in a statement dissenting from the FTC’s decision, joined by Slaughter. “Honest firms, who are the biggest victims of this fraud, may be wondering if they are losing out by following the law. Consumers may come to lack confidence that reviews are truthful.”


News flash: consumers already lack that confidence.
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Identification of anonymous MRI research participants with face-recognition software • New England Journal of Medicine


With the use of publicly available software, reconstructed facial images from deidentified cranial MRI scans were matched to photographs of individual study participants 83% of the time as the first choice from a panel of photographs. This raises the possibility of identifying anonymous research participants.


This is the summary of the article. I don’t have access to read the whole thing, but it seems worth noting as a staging point: you’re recognisable in all sorts of places.
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The human cost of your smartphone • OneZero

Aimee Pearcy:


Cobalt is primarily produced by reducing the byproducts of copper and nickel mining. It’s expensive, and manufacturers have spent a long time searching for an alternative, but for the foreseeable future, it remains an essential component in all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

The copper belt found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its neighboring country Zambia yields most of the world’s cobalt production, and it is where most companies source the chemical. This is also where the worst human rights violations occur because many of the mines are controlled by armed groups.

The DRC alone produces at least 50% of the world’s cobalt. Around 20% of the DRC’s cobalt is extracted by hand in a process called “artisanal mining.” The remainder is produced by large industrial mines that are typically owned by foreign companies — many of which are Chinese. China also owns most of the companies that buy products from the children who work at these mines. The hours are long, the conditions are bad, and the wages are very low.

A 2016 investigation by Amnesty International revealed that several major electronics brands were not even attempting to carry out the most basic inspections to make sure child labour wasn’t used to mine the cobalt for phones. These brands included Apple (which has a net worth of more than $1trn), Samsung (also with a net worth of more than $1trn), and Sony (with a net worth of about $74bn).


So it would be better if all the mines were industrial, yes?
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If you have any of these 17 dangerous apps on your iPhone, delete them right now • BGR

Andy Meek:


Mobile security company Wandera issued a report Thursday afternoon identifying 17 apps in Apple’s App Store infected with clicker Trojan malware, all of which are tied to the same India-based developer.

By Friday morning, Apple confirmed they’d been booted from the App Store.

Apple told at least one news outlet that 18 apps were removed following the report, but Wandera appears to believe that double-counts one of the apps, with the firm noting in its findings that its “initial list of infected apps included two instances of cricket score app ‘CrickOne’ that were hosted on different regional App Stores and contain distinct metadata.” Upon review, Wandera found that those apps use the same codebase.

This comes one day after we noted that another security company had uncovered the existence of some 42 adware-filled Android apps that racked up millions of downloads before Google kicked them off the Google Play Store.


The story does have a list of the apps, so it’s worth clicking through just in case. Adware (or Trojan adware, which does the work invisibly) is the E.coli of the app world: it indicates you’ve got a functioning ecosystem. If nobody bothers to make it for your platform, you’re basically dead. (It was always an indicator of the poor health of Windows Phone.)
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AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have finally agreed to replace SMS with a new RCS standard • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


RCS, if you don’t know, is wickedly complicated on the backend from both a technical and (more importantly) a political perspective. But the CCMI’s goal [the CCMI is the “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative”, involving the four major US carriers] is to make all that go away for US consumers. Whether or not it can actually pull that off is more complicated.

First and foremost, CCMI intends to ship a new Android app next year that will likely be the new default messaging app for Android phones sold by those carriers. It will support all the usual RCS features like typing indicators, higher-resolution attachments, and better group chat. It should also be compatible with the global “Universal Profile” standard for RCS that has been adopted by other carriers around the world.

Garland says the CCMI will also work with other companies interested in RCS to make sure their clients are interoperable as well — notably Samsung and Google. That should mean that people who prefer Android Messages will be able to use that instead, but it sounds like there may be technical details to work out to make that happen.

Google is a fascinating and perhaps telling omission from the press release.


Which is odd given that Google has been pushing RCS as hard as it can as a kinda-sorta iMessage competitor for Android. As Bohn points out, carriers in the UK and France haven’t been interested, so Google did it there itself using its own servers (for Android). But if you can’t offer cross-platform communication, ie no adoption by Apple too, RCS becomes just another messaging service option on Android – of which there are gazillions, and WhatsApp the most popular.
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Pompeo was riding high—until the Ukraine Mess exploded • WIRED

Garrett Graff:


[Mike] Pompeo’s life as secretary of state is carefully plotted, his days planned to the minute and fueled at all hours by Diet Coke. In military precision, he typically runs a few minutes early. The first time we spoke, he told aides to extend our interview by three minutes, then used precisely two minutes and 48 seconds of that additional time.

While he has gained brownie points for engaging internally with career foreign-service diplomats, Pompeo normally inhabits such a small world of aides that they fret over even telling banal stories about him lest they be identified easily. (My request for an example of his storied behind-the-scenes sense of humor resulted in two separate conference calls with multiple officials, and yielded no publishable anecdote.) The Pompeos socialize little in Washington; among other Trump administration figures, they spend the most time with Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, one of the few other cabinet officials to have stayed in Trump’s administration since the beginning.

Inside the State Department, Pompeo’s approach to the mission at hand has been to bring partisan politics into day-to-day diplomacy, seeming to castigate and reverse nearly every policy of Trump’s predecessors, from climate change and Iran to even the policy on South America. He often appears to go out of his way to score political points and denigrate the approach of the Obama administration. In interviews he has described his work on Hezbollah as “cleaning up for what the previous administration failed to do,” and the Trump administration’s support of Venezuela’s opposition leader as “precisely the opposite of the way that the Obama administration behaved” during the 2009 pro-democracy protests in Iran, known as the Green Movement.


As Graff points out, Pompeo is one of the last men standing: only Steven Mnuchin (Treasury) and Stephen Miller (vile immigration policies and spray-on hairdos for TV) have lasted as long in the administration. Pompeo has no politics of his own any more. It’s just Trump’s words coming out of his mouth – which makes the Ukraine compromise somehow appropriate. (And he’s a really slippery customer.)

Also noted: Pompeo’s resolve to reverse all those former policies has backfired colossally, in Iran, North Korea and South America.
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Is dark mode good for your eyes? Here’s why you may want to avoid it • Android Authority

Adamya Sharma offers a few reasons why you might want to avoid Dark Mode (if you have astigmatism, as 30% of people do, which makes it harder to read light-on-dark text; because it makes the iris muscles work harder) and also this:


You know the feeling when you’re comfortably sleeping in a dark room and someone suddenly draws open the curtains to flood the room with sunlight? You feel a sudden shock in that moment because your iris hasn’t adjusted to the amount of light it needs to take in.

When you view things in dark mode for a prolonged period of time, say a few months, your eyes get accustomed to letting in less light. Because of this, when you do look at a bright screen from time to time, you feel a sense of discomfort.

This comes from personal experience. I’ve been using dark mode across my phone, PC, and tablet for about three months now. When I described my growing aversion to bright screens to a surgeon friend, he explained that this is a pretty common phenomenon when the eyes get conditioned to dark mode.

Thankfully, he told me that this increase in sensitivity to brightness isn’t a permanent issue and will resolve itself if I start using white screens more often. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance.


I’m picturing a growing number of optometrists sighing as another “dark mode” patient comes in.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

21 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,175: a social network that helps democracy, Facebook’s News problem, who is Mike Pompeo exactly?, the trouble with dark mode, RCS’s mess, and more

  1. RCS was never going to be a quick thing. It’s got the huge advantage of not being platform-dependent and of falling back to SMS very gracefully, both of which Imessage lacks.

    I think Google set it up in France and the UK as a warning shot to telcos, it wouldn’t take much to set it up wwide, actually it already works via a rather simple config file edit. I’m fairly sure Google will end up rolling it out themselves, they’re just making sure to let Telco sleep on it because politics.
    I’ve been using it for a while, and it’s what you want most in an SMS replacement: painlesss and transparent. I’ll start pushing it to heavy users in a few months.

    • “It’s got the huge advantage of not being platform-dependent and of falling back to SMS very gracefully, both of which Imessage lacks.”
      It’s true that iMessage is platform-dependent, by design, but it falls back to SMS/MMS seamlessly.
      I assume that Google’s implementation means it knows whether an IMEI or SIM number is connected to a Google device, and if the recipient is then it routes it as RCS; if not it forwards it to the carrier’s normal SMS/MMS gateway, as carriers already do for inter-carrier SMS/MMS. (It was a big thing in the UK when carriers got interop for MMS in 2005.) Wonder what happens if you enable RCS on a SIM in an Android phone and then switch the SIM to an iPhone.

      • You can stop wondering: RCS checks *in real time* if the recipient has RCS, and sends texts if he doesn’t for any reason (iPhone, no wifi, no data, new phone w/o RCS app…). Which is failproof, and better than what Imessage does, I remember a whole mess of “don’t forget to deregister from Imessage before changing phones or you’re screwed”.

      • How exactly does it “check”?

        As to iMessage, you’re misdescribing. If you change platform, then yes, your SIM+IMEI is still registered as able to receive iMessages on Apple’s servers, but won’t arrive on a compatible platform, so the message effectively sits forever on Apple’s servers waiting for the SIM+IMEI to wake up so they can receive it. The messages you *send* will be texts. So you have to deregister your SIM/IMEI combo from Apple’s servers to prevent people sending you iMessages that never arrive. (I’d guess that platform change is now so small that this is a rare event anyway.)
        But when you’re using iMessage, if for some reason the recipient doesn’t have data services but does have an active SIM, the message goes as an SMS.

      • I assume the server checks the same way it does typing indicators: by asking the recipient, in this instance for some kind of RCS ACK/sign of RCS life. If no such sign is forthcoming (within a few minutes ?), off goes the SMS.

        I’m not misdescribing anything: swapping a SIM to a different platform breaks things with Imessage, doesn’t break things with RCS. Unless you do voodoo beforehand.
        It’s OK, Apple isn’t perfect all the time, and in this case, pain when you leave their platform is probably not a bug, but a feature, they’re vindictive/mean that way – no Google-like Takeout either, IIRC.

  2. The Ipados usability issues are a sad instance of history repeating itself: a UI outgrowing both its original purpose and its target audience.
    Undiscoverability is fine when there’s 3 things to discover (back, home and menu) and clickable stuff is obvious because scarce. When you’re moving your phone, monotasking, browsing-and-games UI to desktop replacement, too much UI stuff becomes available.
    Ios was never that good at ergonomics to start with (Android’s 3-buttons setup is vastly superior, also the freely-organizable home screen). Android is inheriting most of the same issues though, because UI designers are fashion victims. Getting a fully exposed UI would probably waste to much space, but we should at least get a UI cheat sheet that reveals all the available controls on the currently displayed screen. Or Clippy ;-p

  3. Re. Dark Mode bashing. No single display setting will be best for everyone. There are other issues with staring at a bright screen all day, and at night. As for getting used to it… well, yes, that happens. People are supposed to get out some too, the real world is still in light mode last I checked.

    • “the real world is still in light mode last I checked.”
      Only half the time. Not even that at present in the northern hemisphere: presently on Dark Mode more than 12hr/day.

  4. Yeah there is a definite problem of discoverability in iPad OS. I understand why Apple wanted to avoid lazily bringing over familiar Mac interfaces to a touch OS but I think they have to accept you cannot beat a Menu Bar when it comes to having a visual clue to extra features and how to initiate them.

    • And there seems to be a similar problem, in the other direction, with stuff brought over from iOS to the new macOS Catalina. I haven’t upgraded, but listening to the latest Gruber podcast, he outlines all sorts of annoyances such as date pickers that use the iOS interface, lack of Cmd-A to “select all”, and so on – things which aren’t discoverability, but a combination of feasibility/usability.

      • Yeah I heard the same. And the increase in Warnings a la Windows Vista 🙈

        The issues wont affect me anyway as…

        ‘Luckily’ my Mac Mini and Macbook Air are too old to be upgraded to Catalina (I’m in no hurry anyway to abandon the full version of Photoshop I spent £700 on and runs great on my old hardware)

  5. The dark mode scare-story is weird – I tend to invoke a dark mode of reading when it’s dark and have things light when the environment is brighter. I’ve done this manually for years before the system-wide setting came about. Seems like common-sense to me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • To each his own. I go Dark all the time, bit then I’ve been accused of being a vampire, I also wander my home in the dark (makes the old place a bit surprising/entertaining, and I haven’t gotten hurt much yes). Contratedb the habit w/the first Galaxy Note (which was AMOLED + battery-challenged), and to my surprise I was liking the green-on-black or amber-… look. I was already a sentimental old foggy 10 years ago.
      Also, I find dark mode more readable even in bright sunlight, of which there’s a lot in my Provence.

    • Would like to know if every Android phone in use from 5 years ago has got the correct GPS setup (because this is about the GPS rollover, mostly). Pretty impossible to tell from the Android version distribution. There seem to be some.

      • That’s what, the 3rd iOS update this month ? 1stbwas full of hugs, 2nd full of bug fixes, and this one hasbemjis, support for BT earbuds (?)..
        Wenget it, iOS gets LOTS of updates. Maybe there can be too much of a good thing ? ;-p

      • I don’t have any info any any Android phone being *bricked* by the issue as it seems iPhones 5 are.
        On Android everything I’ve seen talks of an App issue, not an OS, not a Google Services, issue. And directs to update the apps and that’s it, and even if you don’t the GPS will fail, not the whole phone.

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