Start Up No.1264: CNN finds Russian troll farm in Africa, Magic Leap for sale, coronavirus splits the US, password rules to forget, and more


Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip: an enforced brief encounter didn’t delight the NYT. CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Remember what the Hitchhiker’s Guide says. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

CNN tracks US social media trolls to Ghana, then Russia before 2020 vote – CNN

Clarissa Ward, Katie Polglase, Sebastian Shukla, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Tim Lister:

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In 2016, much of the trolling aimed at the US election operated from an office block in St. Petersburg, Russia. A months-long CNN investigation has discovered that, in this election cycle, at least part of the campaign has been outsourced – to trolls in the west African nations of Ghana and Nigeria.

They have focused almost exclusively on racial issues in the US, promoting black empowerment and often displaying anger towards white Americans. The goal, according to experts who follow Russian disinformation campaigns, is to inflame divisions among Americans and provoke social unrest. The language and images used in the posts – on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – are sometimes graphic.

…In a statement Thursday, Facebook said that its “subsequent assessment benefited from our collaboration with a team of journalists at CNN” and it had “removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 Pages and 85 Instagram accounts for engaging in foreign interference.”

Facebook said: “This network was in early stages of audience building and was operated by local nationals – witting and unwitting – in Ghana and Nigeria on behalf of individuals in Russia. It targeted primarily the United States.”

Facebook says that about 13,200 Facebook accounts followed one or more of the Ghana accounts and around 263,200 people followed one or more of Instagram accounts, about 65% of whom were in the US. Twitter told CNN that it had removed 71 accounts that had 68,000 followers.

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Facebook didn’t allow any political ads by them because they’re outside the US. But they didn’t need ads. They used Facebook.
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Samsung Galaxy Z Flip Review: a folding phone that’s a dud • The New York Times

Brian X Chen:

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Before I say how much I disliked this Samsung phone, let me let you in on a secret about tech product reviews: As gadgets have increased in speed, abilities and price over the last few years, tech companies have given product reviewers like me less time to test them.

When the companies provide us early access to their gadgets, they set a date and time for when reviewers can publish their verdicts before the products are released. More than a decade ago, we got two weeks, which felt like an ideal amount of time to properly explore a device’s pros and cons.

Today, we get about a week at most to try out and write about products like iPhones, Microsoft computers and Google Pixels. Samsung was even stingier: It allowed reviewers to test its new Galaxy Z Flip, a $1,380 smartphone with a foldable screen that debuted in mid-February, for only 24 hours.

This minimized review period screams “Buyer, beware” — especially since some Samsung products have had issues with durability and safety.

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The durability and safety worked out OK in the limited time, but the usability didn’t.
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Many older Americans are playing down the coronavirus threat while others opt for safety • The Washington Post

Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis:

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As the coronavirus continues its spread across the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older Americans are among those who face the highest risk of hospitalization and death, retirees from Florida to Alaska are weighing whether to continue living their normal lives or do whatever it takes to preserve them.

The Villages is one of the largest retirement developments in the United States, with 125,000 residents living on more than 1,000 acres. When asked on the “Villages Friendly Folks” Facebook page how they were managing the coronavirus, a majority of people sided with Przybylowicz, saying the crisis is being overblown.

Against mounting advice from federal and private health experts, many expressed a determination to move forward with travel excursions, such as cruises. But that is getting harder to do.

In recent days, the industry bowed to a federal directive forcing passengers 70 and older to provide a doctor’s note proving their fitness to sail. Two cruise operators, Princess and Viking, suspended operations for 60 days because of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday night, as President Trump was announcing a travel ban from Europe to the United States, hundreds of residents at The Villages freely roamed the sprawling property. Partygoers danced to the live music presented nightly, ignoring the warnings of the CDC to practice social distancing — “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings” and maintaining a distance of about six feet to guard against infection.

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Let us now observe natural selection in action.
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Coronavirus divides tech workers into the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ sick • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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why did it take a global pandemic for Amazon to consider that a policy that penalizes workers for taking unpaid time off when they are sick is fundamentally inhumane? Why is it still acceptable to put in place protective measures for some part of the workforce, but not for all? And when this outbreak – and the accompanying public pressure – subsides, will Amazon, Uber, Lyft and others go right back to the previous system of forcing the lowest-paid members of their workforces to either work while sick or go without pay?

The situation recalled to me the work of Jacob Remes, a history professor at New York University who studies disasters. Several years ago, when I interviewed Remes about homelessness, he told me: “What the category of disaster does is sort people into worthy poor and unworthy poor.” In America, if you are made homeless by a hurricane, you are considered “worthy” and are (usually) eligible for public relief or support. But if you are homeless due to job loss or eviction, you are generally viewed as unworthy – and scorned by politicians as a sponge on the system.

Coronavirus is now creating a new division – between the worthy sick and the unworthy sick.

“Because there is suddenly more generosity during a disaster, there’s also a lot more policing to make sure that the ‘bad poor’ don’t get any benefit,” Remes told me on Wednesday.

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AR headset pioneer Magic Leap considers sale • Financial Times

James Fontanella-Khan, Tim Bradshaw and Hannah Murphy:

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Magic Leap, an early pioneer of augmented-reality headsets, is considering a sale after having held talks with several potential buyers, said people briefed about the matter. 

It was unclear whether the talks would lead to any transaction, said a person close to Magic Leap’s senior management, who added that the company was also considering raising a new round of funding. Magic Leap has been in talks with investors about raising up to $500m since late last year but the round has not yet closed. 

Despite several rounds of funding from global investors totalling more than $2bn, it is unclear how much Magic Leap would be worth. AT&T, the telecoms operator, acquired a small stake in the augmented-reality group in 2018 at a $6.3bn valuation. Bloomberg first reported news about a potential sale.

Magic Leap declined to comment.

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I have linked to Magic Leap going back to 2015, but never believed that it was going to be a hit product. That’s $2bn those VCs are never going to see back. If it goes for $100m, it’ll be doing well – its patents are promised to JP Chase Morgan. It’s dead, Jim. (Reminds me of the joke from the days when Skoda was a terrible car brand: man goes to petrol station and asks “Can I get a petrol cap for my Skoda?” The mechanic thinks for a moment and replies “OK, it’s a fair exchange.”)
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Three old password rules that are dumb today • CNET

Laura Hautala:

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Even though the tech industry is working on better alternatives to passwords, you’re going to be using them for an awfully long time. Some of the advice you’ve heard over the last couple of decades is outdated. Here’s a fresh look.

The core rules about password hygiene still stand. Use a different password for every account, and make your passwords hard to guess. But cybersecurity experts say you can toss out three old rules: Never write your passwords down, don’t tell anyone your passwords and change your passwords frequently.

That advice came from a different time, when the biggest threat was from a person with physical access to our computers. Now our lives are completely enmeshed with internet services and apps. Hackers can be anywhere in the world. As a result, we have to think differently about how to keep our accounts locked down.

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Analysis: facing virus outbreak, Trump’s tactics fall short • Associated Press

Jonathan Lemire:

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“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump declared.

Addressing the economic costs, he added, “This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”

But the virus has appeared impervious to the Republican president’s bluster.

The virus does not have a Twitter account and, unlike so many previous Trump foes, is resistant to political bullying or Republican Party solidarity. It has preyed on his lack of curiosity and fears of germs while exposing divides and inadequacies within senior levels of his administration. It has taken away Trump’s favorite political tool, his rallies, from which he draws energy and coveted voter information.

And eight months from Election Day, it has endangered his best reelection argument — a strong economy — just as Joe Biden, the candidate emerging from the Democratic field, seems poised to take advantage of a political landscape upended by the virus.

“Crises of varying degrees produce fascinating and often consequential elections: Think 1860, 1932, 1968, 2008. Such races turn on questions of chaos versus order and favor the candidate who seems to offer the best chance of bringing order to the country in times of uncertainty,” presidential historian Jon Meacham said. “What’s interesting about those examples is that incumbents, or candidates of the incumbent party, lost all of them.”

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Recalls the Borowitz Report’s (satirical) headline: “Trump Plans to Destroy Coronavirus with an Incredibly Mean Tweet“.
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Coronavirus: why you must act now • Medium

Tomas Pueyo:

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Here’s what I’m going to cover in this article, with lots of charts, data and models with plenty of sources:

• How many cases of coronavirus will there be in your area?
• What will happen when these cases materialize?
• What should you do?
• When?

When you’re done reading the article, this is what you’ll take away:

• The coronavirus is coming to you
• It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly
• It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two
• When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed
• Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways
• Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die
• They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies
• The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today
• That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now…

If you have deaths in your region, you can use that to guess the number of true current cases. We know approximately how long it takes for that person to go from catching the virus to dying on average (17.3 days). That means the person who died on 2/29 in Washington State probably got infected around 2/12.
Then, you know the mortality rate. For this scenario, I’m using 1% (we’ll discuss later the details). That means that, around 2/12, there were already around ~100 cases in the area (of which only one ended up in death 17.3 days later).

Now, use the average doubling time for the coronavirus (time it takes to double cases, on average). It’s 6.2. That means that, in the 17 days it took this person to die, the cases had to multiply by ~8 (=2^(17/6)). That means that, if you are not diagnosing all cases, one death today means 800 true cases today.
Washington state has today 22 deaths. With that quick calculation, you get ~16,000 true coronavirus cases today.

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It’s really hard to grasp exponential growth, because normally we don’t come across it. (Yes, disease, but we’re not aware of the exponential multiplication inside our bodies.) Now, it’s here. (Thanks Walt F for the link.)
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Do us a favour • Science

H Holden Thorp is the editor-in-chief of the Science journals:

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China has rightfully taken criticism for squelching attempts by scientists to report information during the outbreak. Now, the United States government is doing similar things. Informing Fauci and other government scientists that they must clear all public comments with Vice President Mike Pence is unacceptable. This is not a time for someone who denies evolution, climate change, and the dangers of smoking to shape the public message. Thank goodness Fauci, Francis Collins [director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)], and their colleagues across federal agencies are willing to soldier on and are gradually getting the message out.

While scientists are trying to share facts about the epidemic, the administration either blocks those facts or restates them with contradictions. Transmission rates and death rates are not measurements that can be changed with will and an extroverted presentation. The administration has repeatedly said—as it did last week—that virus spread in the United States is contained, when it is clear from genomic evidence that community spread is occurring in Washington state and beyond. That kind of distortion and denial is dangerous and almost certainly contributed to the federal government’s sluggish response. After 3 years of debating whether the words of this administration matter, the words are now clearly a matter of life and death.

And although the steps required to produce a vaccine could possibly be made more efficient, many of them depend on biological and chemical processes that are essential. So the president might just as well have said, “Do me a favor, hurry up that warp drive.”

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The scientists are angry. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Bitcoin is also having a very, very bad day • TechCrunch

Romain Dillet on bitcoin’s plummet (presently down about $2,000 in a couple of days):

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This isn’t just an accident. Bitcoin has been steadily going down for the past month. On February 19, you could still receive over $10,000 by selling 1 BTC.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. The US has taken additional measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including travel restrictions from Europe to the US. Asian and European stock markets have had a rough trading day following the news.

Many believed that cryptocurrencies would be inversely correlated to stock markets. But economic confidence is also hurting cryptocurrencies. Uncertainty has led to today’s crypto asset selloff. You don’t want to keep trading positions in risky assets when it’s unclear whether the economy can recover from the coronavirus.

Other popular cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, XRP and Bitcoin Cash are respectively down 28.3%, 23.2% and 31.1% over the past 24 hours. In other words, everything is red right now.

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The idea that cryptocurrencies were in any way a secure asset was always a mirage. They’re speculative, rather than stable (in contrast to how gold is seen). Crypto will keep going down as long as people need actual cash, because it will get sold for something you can use to buy things.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1264: CNN finds Russian troll farm in Africa, Magic Leap for sale, coronavirus splits the US, password rules to forget, and more

  1. Regarding “Let us now observe natural selection in action.”, – well, actually, those retirees are essentially all past reproductive age and have already made any genetic contribution they will do (yes, in theory, the men might still reproduce, but in our society, that’s relatively rare).

    If one wants to be morbid about it, any now-rapid death of these people is likely to be an overall advantage to their still-rearing progeny, via a transfer of economic resources. That is, asset inheritance, not genetic inheritance. This is sadly particularly notable in the US, where medical expenses from aging and dying can consume an entire estate or even burden adult children with heavy debt.

    One could easily make a tongue-in-cheek “evolutionary psychology” just-so story that the US healthcare system provides massive selective evolutionary pressure _in favor_ of daredevil seniors. Somewhat along the lines of the real parasites which cause their hosts to be less cautious, and so get eaten, thus passing the parasite along the food chain.

    • All that you say is true, but it also selects against those in low-paying jobs, and various ethnic groups, so the tongue would almost be pushing through the cheek by that point.

      But sure, this thing is going to find its level. There could be some significant transfer of wealth..

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