Start Up No.1,177: Facebook staff revolt on political ads, Normal’s ransomware fixer, deja Vue, Oz’s face plan for porn, and more

Crumbling infrastructure in the US is a “technical debt” that needs repaying – which will cost trillions. CC-licensed photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr.

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

Dissent erupts at Facebook over hands-off stance on political ads • The New York Times

Mike Isaac:


The letter was aimed at Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his top lieutenants. It decried the social network’s recent decision to let politicians post any claims they wanted — even false ones — in ads on the site. It asked Facebook’s leaders to rethink the stance.

The message was written by Facebook’s own employees.

Facebook’s position on political advertising is “a threat to what FB stands for,” the employees wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “We strongly object to this policy as it stands.”

For the past two weeks, the text of the letter has been publicly visible on Facebook Workplace, a software program that the Silicon Valley company uses to communicate internally. More than 250 employees have signed the message, according to three people who have seen it and who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation.

While the number of signatures on the letter was a fraction of Facebook’s 35,000-plus work force, it was one sign of the resistance that the company is now facing internally over how it treats political ads.

Many employees have been discussing Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to let politicians post anything they want in Facebook ads because those ads can go viral and spread misinformation widely. The worker dissatisfaction has spilled out across winding, heated threads on Facebook Workplace, the people said…

…The letter… laid out product changes and other actions that Facebook could take to reduce the harm from false claims in advertising from politicians. Among the proposals: changing the visual design treatment for political ads, restricting some of the options for targeting users with those ads, and instituting spending caps for individual politicians.


Restricting targeting would go a long way. Don’t allow targeting, except as well as TV or print allows (ie not very)? Microtargeting is a serious problem, allied to the lies told in ads. This topic is not going away.
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Alex Stamos on Facebook, politics and design • CJR

Alex Stamos, ex-Facebook security, in conversation with Mathew Ingram:


Some of the core issues at the company around both data protection and speech come from decisions made in the 2009-2012 era of Facebook, when the company was struggling for revenue in the run-up to the IPO. Those decisions might have been appropriate when a core use of the product was as a life-support system for Farmville, but they needed to be revisisted by the time Facebook had become the most important medium for political speech in much of the world.
I would have rather seen Mark said “I started this thing in my dorm room and things have really changed. We are going to be better at understanding those changes and trying to predict what will happen instead of reacting.”

My second problem with his speech is that he did the same thing that a lot of Facebook’s critics do: he compressed all of the different products into this one blob he called “Facebook”. That is not a useful frame for pretty much any discussion of how to handle speech issues.

Facebook, Inc., a Delaware corporation, operates a product called Facebook along with WhatsApp and Instagram. If you dive into the product called “Facebook”, you will find that it is actually something like a dozen different products strung together. Those products share the same backend and code base, but they are designed and developed by different teams and, more importantly, have very different safety, security and trust models.


Both the format and the content is worth looking at.
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The ransomware superhero of Normal, Illinois • ProPublica

Renee Dudley:


There are almost 800 known types of ransomware, and [27-year-old Michael] Gillespie, mostly by himself but sometimes collaborating with other ransomware hunters, has cracked more than 100 of them. Hundreds of thousands of victims have downloaded his decryption tools for free, potentially saving them from paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom.

“He took that deep dive into the technical stuff, and he just thrives on it,” said Lawrence Abrams, founder of a ransomware assistance website called “Every time a new ransomware comes out, he checks it out. ‘Can it be decrypted? Yes, it can be decrypted. OK, I’ll make the decryptor.’ And it’s just nonstop. He just keeps pumping them out.”

Gillespie downplays his accomplishments. “IT moves so fast, there’s always something to learn, and there’s always someone better than you,” he said.

Gillespie’s tools are available on, and they can be accessed through a site he created and operates, called ID Ransomware. There, victims submit about 2,000 ransomware-stricken files every day to find out which strain has hit them and to obtain an antidote, if one exists.


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Sony Interactive Entertainment to shut down Playstation Vue • PlayStation.Blog


Over four years ago, we made a bold decision to change the rules and revolutionize the traditional TV-viewing experience in the U.S. with PlayStation Vue. We set the bar high and sought to innovate an established industry by delivering a modern TV experience. By completely rethinking live and on demand television, we offered an incredible user experience that allowed viewers to discover and watch content in completely new ways.

Today we are announcing that we will shut down the PlayStation Vue service on January 30, 2020. Unfortunately, the highly competitive Pay TV industry, with expensive content and network deals, has been slower to change than we expected. Because of this, we have decided to remain focused on our core gaming business.


“It’s all everyone else’s fault that you wouldn’t buy our $50-per-month package that was like everyone else’s but pricier.” Disappointed customers reckoned to number about half a million.
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Sea-level rise could flood hundreds of millions more than expected • MIT Technology Review

James Temple:


By the end of this century, rising oceans will almost certainly flood the lands where tens of millions of people live as accelerating climate change warms the waters and melts ice sheets.

But precise estimates of the vulnerable populations depend on precise measurements of the planet’s topography, to understand just how close to sea level communities have settled.

A new study that seeks to correct for known errors in earlier elevation models finds that researchers might have been undercounting the number of people exposed to rising tides by hundreds of millions. That’s three to four times more people than previously projected, depending on the specific scenarios.

If these higher estimates prove correct, it will dramatically increase the damages and casualties from sea-level rise, swell the costs of adaption efforts like constructing higher seawalls, and escalate mass migration away from the coasts.


All this is important, and the research is impressive. But any story that begins “by the end of this century” – ie, in just over 80 years – is going to struggle to enthrall the average reader, I think.
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California’s fires and PG+E’s toxic debt • The Atlantic

Alexis C. Madrigal:


Almost everywhere you look in the built environment, toxic technical-debt bubbles are growing and growing and growing. This is true of privately maintained systems such as PG&E’s and publicly maintained systems such as that of Chicago’s Department of Water Management. It’s extremely true of roads: Soon, perhaps 50% of Bay Area roads will be in some state of disrepair, not to mention the deeper work that must occur to secure the roadbeds, not just the asphalt on top.

Then there are the sewers and the wastewater plants. Stormwater drains. Levees. And just regular old drinking water. Per capita federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen precipitously since the 1970s. Cities are forced to make impossible decisions between funding different services. And even when they do have the money they need, officials make bad or corrupt decisions. So, water systems in the United States have built up a $1trn technical debt, which must be paid over the next 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in the Great Lakes states. One investigation, by American Public Media, found that from 2007 to 2018 Chicago residents’ water bills tripled, and Cleveland residents’ doubled. In Detroit, a city with a median income of less than $27,000, the average family paid $1,151 for water.

At these rates, poor residents are far more likely to have their water shut off, and the systems still aren’t keeping up with the maintenance they need. Runaway technical debt makes it nearly impossible to pay the “interest,” which is just keeping the system running, let alone to start paying down the principal or start new capital projects.

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6trn to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.


Remember all the “infrastructure weeks” that Trump had? How he promised that he’d sort it out? Yet another bleak lie. Instead, the US got a rising deficit and tax cuts for the rich.
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Australia proposes face scans for watching online pornography • The New York Times

Jamie Tarabay:


The Australian government has proposed using a facial recognition system it is developing to verify that people who seek to watch pornography online are of legal age.

Current law in Australia does not prohibit minors from viewing pornography. But the federal government is considering proposals that would require people to prove their age before watching the material.

Under the proposal from the Department of Home Affairs, a computer user’s face would be matched to images from official identity documents. It does not say how the user would submit a facial image at the beginning of each online session.

The proposal drew immediate objections as a potential infringement of Australians’ privacy. “I think people should be very concerned about any government department that’s seeking to store this kind of information,” said Senator Rex Patrick, a centrist lawmaker from the state of South Australia.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions about the proposal, and the attorney general’s office, when asked to comment on the legal ramifications of the system, directed all questions to Home Affairs…

…This is not the first time the department has proposed a use for facial recognition systems. Last year, it pushed facial verification as a way to crack down on online identity fraud. It also rejected suggestions that warrants would be necessary for access to the country’s facial recognition database.


There’s no way at all that this could possibly be spoofed or go horribly wrong, is there. None at all.
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AirPods Pro unboxing videos: design, sound, ear tip fit test, and more • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


The first AirPods Pro unboxing videos have surfaced on YouTube from tech reviewers Marques Brownlee, Justine Ezarik, and Safwan Ahmedmia.

The reviewers were all impressed with sound quality and active noise cancellation, with Brownlee saying noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro is roughly on par with the new Beats Solo Pro. As for fit, Ahmedmia found the AirPods Pro with in-ear tips to be more comfortable than the regular AirPods.

Brownlee’s video provides a first look at the new Ear Tip Fit Test, a feature that checks the fit of the AirPods Pro in your ear to determine which size ear tips provides the best seal and acoustic performance. Ear Tip Fit Test can be accessed by tapping the info icon next to your AirPods Pro in Settings > Bluetooth.

Apple says advanced algorithms work together with the inward-facing microphones in each AirPod to measure the sound level in the ear and compare it to what is coming from the speaker driver. In just seconds, the algorithm detects whether the ear tip is the right size and has a good fit, or should be adjusted.

AirPods Pro come with a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box, compared to USB-A for the regular AirPods. Also included in the box is a wireless charging case, silicone ear tips in three sizes, and documentation.


The choice of USB-C is interesting: does it charge if you use USB-A? Or is this because more of the chargers Apple is selling are USB-C? Also notable that Apple’s media approach now is so focussed on early access to YouTubers.
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New 13.2 update bricking some HomePods [update pulled by Apple] • MacRumors

Juli Clover:


We thought that the perceived HomePod issues may have been linked to an Apple Music outage lasting for a few hours today right after the 13.2 software came out, but that may not be the case.

Some people with affected HomePods have already contacted Apple Support and have been able to arrange replacement devices. From Reddit:


My update worked but the voice recognition wasn’t working so I removed it from Apple home. Then I tried to factory reset it and boom. Hit a brick wall. Quite literally. Home pod is now bricked. Been into support earlier this evening and they are sending me a box to send it in for repair.


Given the multitude of reports about malfunctioning HomePods, those that have not updated to the new software should avoid doing so. If you have updated, you should avoid resetting your HomePod at the current time or removing it from the Home app.

Update: It appears that Apple has pulled the 13.2 update, and in a support document, is recommending that those who have already upgraded to 13.2 avoid resetting their HomePod or removing it from the Home app. Those who have reset their HomePods will need to contact Apple support for help.


I’ve got a HomePod software update which has been “requested” for the past 24 hours and hasn’t gone away, but hasn’t installed either. No idea what to do. Resetting sounds dangerous. Pray to the update gods that it will sort itself out?
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Dark energy: new experiment may solve one of the universe’s greatest mysteries • The Conversation

Bob Nichol is professor of astrophysics at the University of Portsmouth:


the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) was the first dedicated redshift survey telescope to measure over a million galaxy redshifts, mapping the large scale structure in the universe to unprecedented detail.

The SDSS maps included hundreds of superclusters and filaments and helped make an unexpected discovery – dark energy. They showed that the matter density of the universe was much less than expected from the Cosmic Microwave Background, which is the light left over from the Big Bang. That meant there must be an unknown substance, dubbed dark energy, driving an accelerated expansion of the Universe and become increasingly devoid of matter.

The combination of all these observations heralded a new era of cosmological understanding with a universe consisting of 30% matter and 70% dark energy. But despite the fact that most physicists have now accepted that there is such a thing as dark energy, we still do not know its exact form.

There are several possibilities though. Many researchers believe that the energy of the vacuum simply has some particular value, dubbed a “cosmological constant”. Other options include the possibility that Einstein’s hugely successful theory of gravity is incomplete when applied on the huge scale of the entire universe.

New instruments like DESI will help take the next step in resolving the mystery. It will measure tens of millions of galaxy redshifts, spanning a huge volume of the universe up to ten billion light years from Earth. Such an amazing, detailed map should be able to answer a few key questions about dark energy and the creation of the large scale structures in the universe.

For example, it should be able to tell us if dark energy is just a cosmological constant. To do this it will measure the ratio of pressure that dark energy puts on the universe to the energy per unit volume. If dark energy is a cosmological constant, this ratio should be constant in both cosmic time and location. For other explanations, however, this ratio would vary. Any indication that it is not a constant would be revolutionary and spark intense theoretical work.


Still surprised that dark energy isn’t a staple plot Macguffin of thriller/action/superhero/SF films.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,177: Facebook staff revolt on political ads, Normal’s ransomware fixer, deja Vue, Oz’s face plan for porn, and more

  1. re. USB-C charging: the “charging” part of USB-C is handled by the Power Delivery protocol (there’s a 2.0, and maybe a 3.0 not sure).
    – That protocol got its start on USB-A;
    – not all USB-A connectors implement it but some do (contrast w/ USB-C: PD is optional on that plug too, but more-though-not-most implement it)
    – PD allows for more current than baseline, but USB will supply baseline charging current in any case, and my guess would be that with such a small battery that’s all the buds and their case need, actually that’s probably all they can handle.
    – Apple went USB-C so you can charge also off a Mac or (maybe ?) iPad. They got enough flack for not including that cable w/ iPhones. Anker sells very good $10 cables with swappable connectors, cost to make must be $3, that should be in the box of $500+ gizmos.

  2. France is still stuck in the (let’s call a spade a spade, no one’s ever complained about catholic nuns) visible-signs-of-Islam quagmire. It’s crazy to see progressives adopt the same line as regressives: ban them ! Now a parent can’t supervise a school outing if wearing a scarf let alone a chador. Previously, boys have been banned from pools (speedo mandatory, no shorts), girls from pools and beaches (burkini banned), and state employees (whole lot of them in France) can’t dress “religiously”.
    I’m all for helping women from under patriarchy’s thumb, and trying to deflate anything religious. But telling people what they mustn’t wear is as authoritarian as telling what they must wear. Sure, we should try to convince them not to, but not force them… what’s next, sending the French police to Saudi Arabia to learn how to police dress code ?
    Also, how are kids supposed to be exposed to “others” if others get banned from public life ? They get the “muslim terrorists” angle daily on TV and FB because that’s what sells, school outings are the best opportunity to get the “good food and love” side. For sheltered kids, maybe the only opportunity.
    I get that laicity must trump (sorry) freedom of religion, in France not only can you not deny a cake, a shop got closed for refusing to sell alcohol. But if people want to be idiots and build their (objectionable) identities via dress, let them. And if we want to regulate clothing, I’m more bothered by my preteen niece’s visible G-String than by any woman’s headscarf.

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