Start Up No.1201: Wikipedia + Wayback = better, Greenland’s melt worsens, Facebook’s strange way with facts, and more


Amazingly, this company is – in a roundabout way – responsible for a lot of the image compression you see online. CC-licensed photo by Bertrand Duperrin on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Internet Archive is making Wikipedia more reliable • WIRED

Klint Finley:

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The reason people rely on Wikipedia, despite its imperfections, is that every claim is supposed to have citations. Any sentence that isn’t backed up with a credible source risks being slapped with the dreaded “citation needed” label. Anyone can check out those citations to learn more about a subject, or verify that those sources actually say what a particular Wikipedia entry claims they do—that is, if you can find those sources.

It’s easy enough when the sources are online. But many Wikipedia articles rely on good old-fashioned books. The entry on Martin Luther King Jr., for example, cites 66 different books. Until recently, if you wanted to verify that those books say what the article says they say, or if you just wanted to read the cited material, you’d need to track down a copy of the book.

Now, thanks to a new initiative by the Internet Archive, you can click the name of the book and see a two-page preview of the cited work, so long as the citation specifies a page number. You can also borrow a digital copy of the book, so long as no else has checked it out, for two weeks—much the same way you’d borrow a book from your local library. (Some groups of authors and publishers have challenged the archive’s practice of allowing users to borrow unauthorized scanned books. The Internet Archive says it seeks to widen access to books in “balanced and respectful ways.”)

So far the Internet Archive has turned 130,000 references in Wikipedia entries in various languages into direct links to 50,000 books that the organization has scanned and made available to the public. The organization eventually hopes to allow users to view and borrow every book cited by Wikipedia, with the ultimate goal being to digitize every book ever published.

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Start enough projects, and you’ll eventually have one that’s world-beating. But these two are both world-beating.
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Greenland melt involves massive waterfalls encased in ice, raising fears about sea level rise • The Washington Post

Andrew Freedman:

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Scientists are keenly interested in how meltwater on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet — the largest contributor to global sea level rise — acts to speed up the movement of ice toward the sea by lubricating the underside of the ice surface. The new study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that scientists are underestimating the number of melt ponds that partially, and rapidly, drain into the ice sheet each year. This means tweaks may be needed to the computer models used to predict sea level rise from Greenland.

This is the first study to show that partial lake drainage can occur through cracks in the ice, rather than overtopping or other mechanisms, which was previously the assumption. This means even more water is reaching the base of the ice sheet than previously thought.

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We are very, very screwed.
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Coal power becoming ‘uninsurable’ as firms refuse cover • The Guardian

Julia Kollewe:

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The number of insurers withdrawing cover for coal projects more than doubled this year and for the first time US companies have taken action, leaving Lloyd’s of London and Asian insurers as the “last resort” for fossil fuels, according to a new report.

The report, which rates the world’s 35 biggest insurers on their actions on fossil fuels, declares that coal – the biggest single contributor to climate change – “is on the way to becoming uninsurable” as most coal projects cannot be financed, built or operated without insurance.

Ten firms moved to restrict the insurance cover they offer to companies that build or operate coal power plants in 2019, taking the global total to 17, said the Unfriend Coal campaign, which includes 13 environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Client Earth and Urgewald, a German NGO. The report will be launched at an insurance and climate risk conference in London on Monday, as the UN climate summit gets underway in Madrid.

The first insurers to exit coal policies were all European, but since March, two US insurers – Chubb and Axis Capital – and the Australian firms QBE and Suncorp have pledged to stop or restrict insurance for coal projects.

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The rise of solar power is jeopardising the west Australia energy grid, and it’s a lesson for all of Australia • ABC News

Daniel Mercer:

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While much of the debate about the intersection of climate and energy policy is focused on the eastern states — and its national electricity market (NEM) — western Australia (WA) is hurtling towards a tipping point.

At heart of the state’s problem is its isolation.

Unlike states such as South Australia, which has even higher levels of renewable energy, WA cannot rely on any other markets to prop it up during times of disruption to supply or demand.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which runs WA’s wholesale electricity market (WEM), said the islanded nature of the grid in WA made it particularly exposed to the technical challenges posed by solar.

AEMO chief executive Audrey Zibelman said these challenges tended to be most acute when high levels of solar output coincided with low levels of demand — typically on mild, sunny days in spring or autumn when people were not using air conditioners.

On those days, excess solar power from households and businesses spilled uncontrolled on to the system, pushing the amount of power needed from the grid to increasingly low levels.

Ms Zibelman said WA’s isolation amplified this trend because the relative concentration of its solar resources meant fluctuations in supply caused by the weather had an outsized effect.

The only way to manage the solar was to scale back or switch off the coal- and gas-fired power stations that were supposed to be the bedrock of the electricity system.

The problem was coal-fired plants were not designed to be quickly ramped up or down in such a way, meaning they were ill-equipped to respond to sudden fluctuations in solar production.

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Filed under “problems you didn’t expect to have”.
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I ditched Google for DuckDuckGo. Here’s why you should too • WIRED

James Temperton:

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It all started with a realization: Most the things I search for are easy to find. Did I really need the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithms of Google to assist me? Probably not. So I made a simple change: I opened up Firefox on my Android phone and switched Google search for DuckDuckGo. As a result, I’ve had a fairly tedious but important revelation: I search for really obvious stuff. Google’s own data backs this up. Its annual round-up of the most searched-for terms is basically a list of names and events: World Cup, Avicii, Mac Miller, Stan Lee, Black Panther, Megan Markle. The list goes on. And I don’t need to buy into Google’s leviathan network of privacy-invading trackers to find out what Black Panther is and when I can go and see it at my local cinema.

While I continue to use Google at work (more out of necessity, as my employer runs on G-Suite), on my phone I’m all about DuckDuckGo. I had, based on zero evidence, convinced myself that finding things on the internet was hard and, inevitably, involved a fair amount of tracking. After two years of not being tracked and targeted, I have slowly come to realize that this is nonsense.

DuckDuckGo works in broadly the same way as any other search engine, Google included. It combines data from hundreds of sources, including Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia and Bing, with its own web crawler to surface the most relevant results. Google does exactly the same, albeit on a somewhat larger scale. The key difference: DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or user information.

Billed as the search engine that doesn’t track you, DuckDuckGo processes around 1.5 billion searches every month. Google, for contrast, processes around 3.5 billion searches per day. It’s hardly a fair fight, but DuckDuckGo is growing. In 2012 it averaged just 45 million searches per month.

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You can see the growth in DuckDuckGo’s traffic directly. Though I don’t get why he says he continues to use Google at work “more out of necessity”. If search isn’t special on his phone, why on his desktop? Also: DDG’s traffic graph seems to be fractal – the same at every magnification.
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Huawei manages to make smartphones without American chips • WSJ

Asa Fitch and Dan Strumpf:

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees export licenses, last month said U.S.-based chip makers were being granted licenses to resume some other deliveries. The department has received nearly 300 license applications, he said.

Meanwhile, Huawei has made significant strides in shedding its dependence on parts from U.S. companies. (At issue are chips from U.S.-based companies, not those necessarily made in America; many U.S. chip companies make their semiconductors abroad.)

Huawei long relied on suppliers like Qorvo Inc., the North Carolina maker of chips that are used to connect smartphones with cell towers, and Skyworks Solutions Inc., a Woburn, Mass.-based company that makes similar chips. It also used parts from Broadcom Inc., the San Jose-based maker of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips, and Cirrus Logic Inc., an Austin, Texas-based company that makes chips for producing sound.

While Huawei hasn’t stopped using American chips entirely, it has reduced its reliance on U.S. suppliers or eliminated U.S. chips in phones launched since May, including the company’s Y9 Prime and Mate smartphones, according to Fomalhaut’s teardown analysis. Similar inspections by iFixit and Tech Insights Inc., two other firms that take apart phones to inspect components, have come to similar conclusions.

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Impressive. How’s it doing on not using Google software, though?
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How a nude ‘Playboy’ photo has been a mainstay in testing tech for decades • Medium

Corinne Purtill:

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“Once upon a time, I was the centerfold of Playboy,” says the former model, who now goes by the name Lena Forsen, in the film’s final moments. “But I retired from modeling a long time ago. It’s time I retired from tech, too.”

At the peak of Lena’s popularity, the strongest argument in favor of using the image in research was that so many others had done the same. Stripped from its original context, the Lena image was simply a recognizable pattern of pixels that could be manipulated, compressed, and then compared with the results of other compressions of the same image.

“At the height, it was used in everything from journal papers to textbooks,” said Deanna Needell, a mathematics professor at UCLA. “For a long time, I didn’t attend a single conference in image processing where she didn’t appear in someone’s talk. And now it is still, sadly, not uncommon.” To demonstrate that Lena wasn’t the only available face with the right amount of texture and shading, Needell and a colleague used a photograph of the model Fabio Lanzoni in a 2013 paper on image reconstruction.

The real-life implications of a ’70s-era Playboy centerfold being presented as a neutral image was apparent as recently as 2014. Maddie Zug, then a high school junior, was one of a handful of girls in a mostly male artificial intelligence class told to use the Lena image in a coding class assignment.

The teacher emphatically instructed the class not to search for the full image on Google, which of course everyone promptly did. Instantly, the awkward experience of being one of few girls in a room of teenage boys became the intensely awkward experience of being one of few girls in a room of teenage boys snorting and laughing over a picture of a naked lady.

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The 1970s have so much to answer for. The reason why that photo was used? Men brought Playboy to work.
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How a dog called Peter sparked Malta’s political crisis • The Guardian

Juliette Garside:

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A week of arrests and resignations, of drama and fury unlike anything Malta has seen in generations, might not have happened but for the keen nose of a police sniffer dog called Peter.

On Wednesday 13 November, the spaniel was screening passengers when he alerted his handlers to the smell of cash. Lots of it.

Customs reportedly found €210,000 (£178,000) in the belongings of a man preparing to board a flight to Istanbul.

The economic crimes unit were called and a day later, the incident led to the arrest of a taxi driver, Melvin Theuma.

Under questioning by police, Theuma made the sensational claim that he had acted as intermediary in the contract killing of Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Now, as a consequence of Theuma’s claims, the EU’s smallest state is in the throes of its biggest political convulsion since the 1960s, when the former British colony became an independent country.

At the heart of it all is the murder of Caruana Galizia, who died two years ago when a bomb planted under the seat of her rental car was detonated near her home in the village of Bidnija.

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Dogs do not lie. This is why they are good. Malta (where I lived for a while as a child) has really gone to all kinds of hell.
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Facebook issues corrective label on user’s post under new Singapore fake news law • Reuters

Fathin Ungku and John Geddie:

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Facebook said on Saturday it had issued a correction notice on a user’s post at the request of the Singapore government, but called for a measured approach to the implementation of a new “fake news” law in the city-state.

“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information,” said the notice, which is visible only to Singapore users.

The correction label was embedded at the bottom of the original post without any alterations to the text.

The Singapore government said on Friday it had instructed Facebook “to publish a correction notice” on a Nov. 23 post which contained accusations about the arrest of a supposed whistleblower and election rigging.

Singapore, which is expected to call a general elections within months, said the allegations were “false” and “scurrilous” and initially ordered user Alex Tan, who runs the States Times Review blog, to issue the correction notice on the post.

Tan, who does not live in Singapore and says he is an Australian citizen, refused and authorities said he is now under investigation.

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Got that? Now read on.
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Facebook’s only Dutch factchecker quits over political ad exemption • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Facebook’s only Dutch factchecker has quit over the social network’s refusal to allow them to highlight political lies as being false.

The online newspaper Nu.nl had been Facebook’s only factchecking partner in the Netherlands since Leiden University dropped out of the programme last year. The website had sole responsibility for marking Facebook and Instagram news content for Dutch users as being false or misleading, in order to help power the social network’s tools that suppress distribution of misinformation.

According to an NPO 3 interview with Nu.nl’s editor-in-chief, Gert-Jaap Hoekman, the relationship ended over Facebook’s decision to ban it from checking content and adverts posted by politicians. “What is the point of fighting fake news if you are not allowed to tackle politicians?” Hoekman asked.

The organisation has had an uncomfortable relationship with Facebook since May, when Nu.nl labelled an advert from a Dutch politician as “unsubstantiated” – a move that was reversed by Facebook, which enforced its rules against factchecking politicians. But the “final straw”, according to the NPO programme, was when Facebook again pushed the factcheckers to reverse rulings against the far-right Freedom party (PVV) and FvD party.

In a statement, Facebook said: “We value the work that Nu.nl has done and regret to see them go, but respect their decision as an independent business.

“Fighting misinformation takes a multi-pronged approach from across the industry…”

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…but Facebook doesn’t want to wield any of those prongs.
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Silicon Valley braces for belt-tightening • The Information

Cory Weinberg:

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Airbnb racked up heavy losses in the first half of this year as it spent heavily on marketing and adding employees. While it recorded a big profit in the third quarter, three people familiar with the matter said, the rest of the year might not make up for the early performance. It isn’t clear whether Airbnb will make cuts, but investors have increasingly been scrutinizing the company’s high overhead expenses as it prepares to go public next year, two of the people said.

Other startups already have taken steps to tighten their belts. Opendoor, a home-buying service valued at $3.8bn, dramatically slowed a planned expansion to new markets this year, and its CEO has talked publicly about trying to be more frugal. Mattress maker Casper, which is likely to go public next year, recently trimmed staff to conserve cash. The changes, described by people close to the companies, haven’t previously been reported.

Rich Boyle, a general partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners, said startup boards that he sits on have had more discussions in recent months about how to prepare for tougher times, including whether to reduce staff, slow office expansion and invest in fewer new products or services. Those considerations represent a reality check for investors and entrepreneurs accustomed to the last decade of “everything is up and to the right, everything easy to raise,” he said.

The poor IPO performances of Uber and Lyft, and WeWork’s failed attempt to go public, demonstrated that public investors want to see clear pathways to profits. Another factor, he said, was a pullback by SoftBank, which had been plowing money into tech startups since it launched its enormous Vision Fund in 2017.

“There is a sentiment shift,” Boyle said. “We’re entering one of the phases where it’s not growth at all costs.”

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If SoftBank has finally got some accountants who know the meaning of “mark-to-market” and can read a P/L, that’s probably a good thing, even if it means fewer [insert pointless food/pursuit of choice] for startups. Though one also wonders if this is the first cold wind presaging a much colder business climate for everyone.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1201: Wikipedia + Wayback = better, Greenland’s melt worsens, Facebook’s strange way with facts, and more

  1. Nearly every company I deal with (which is in the scientific publishing business) is preparing for a recession by either freezing or eliminating positions. Two full time project managers for example, were replaced by one temp who has a six month contract, and their boss has told them not to expect it to be extended.

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