Start Up No.1273: Zoom welcomes trolls (unfortunately), surveil this!, Covid-19 as time machine, the news media “extinction event”, and more

Courtesy of Pablo Escobar (yes, him), you can now find these in Colombia. CC-licensed photo by Michael Cramer on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. No, you lock down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Eames Chairs, economy plus, and cupcakes: so premiocre • The Atlantic

Amanda Mull:


The presence of many nice-enough choices without any meaningful way to distinguish among them is a fundamental dysphoria of modern consumerism. Anybody can track in intimate detail how the wealthy and stylish spend their money via social media, and just when you’ve learned exactly what you can’t have, the internet swoops in to offer a look-for-less utopia of counterfeits, rip-offs, and discount cashmere sweaters, perfectly keyed to the performance of a lifestyle that young Americans desperately want but can’t afford.

It was 2017, and Venkatesh Rao, a writer and management consultant, was having lunch at a fast-casual vegan chain restaurant in Seattle when the phrase premium mediocre popped into his head. It described the sensation he was having as he tucked into his meal—one of a not-unpleasant artificial gloss (airline seating with extra legroom; “healthy” chickpea chips that taste like Doritos; $40 scented candles) on an otherwise thoroughly unspecial experience. I had a similar eureka moment in early 2018, when the portmanteau premiocre came to me while I was trying to parse the discriminating features among mid-priced bed linens from several start-up brands. I found Rao’s observation while checking to see whether, against all odds, I had come up with an original idea. Instead, I’d noticed something that many others also saw wherever they looked, once they had heard the idea articulated.

When Rao mentioned “premium mediocre” to his wife, who was eating with him that day, she immediately got it. So did his Facebook friends and Twitter followers. “People had started noticing a pervasive pattern in everything from groceries to clothing, and entire styles of architecture in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he told me.


Hadn’t heard it until now. And if you hadn’t, it’s my gift to you.
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In video chats, familiar forms of online harassment make a comeback • NBC News

April Glaser, Ben Kesslen and Olivia Solon:


The Benjamins had been a victim of what’s become known as “Zoombombing,” a form of online harassment in which someone hijacks a group video call to show something inappropriate or unexpected. These offensive intrusions have been happening more frequently now that millions of people are forced to use video conferences to work, study, and communicate from home.

Cornelius Minor, an educator and an author, had a similar experience Thursday when he was invited to join a colleague’s open office hours on Zoom to talk with other educators about methods for teaching literacy. But not long after they began talking, a comment notification popped up at the bottom of the screen that cursed at Minor and called him the N-word.

…As classes, lectures and other educational activities move to videoconference tools during the coronavirus pandemic, Zoombombing has become another vector for organized harassment. Like other forms of online harassment, targets are disproportionately women, people of color, religious minorities and other marginalized groups.

In the Benjamins’ case, the racist hijacker had taken advantage of two things: the fact that they had publicized the link to their storytime to anyone interested, instead of limiting access to a select or registered few, and the fact that the default setting on Zoom allows any participant to share what’s on their screen with the group, replacing the host’s own camera feed.

Zoom has published a guide to locking down the app’s settings to mitigate the risk of uninvited guests joining. Users can also report these incidents to the company, a company spokeswoman said, so that Zoom can take “appropriate action” including deactivating a user’s account

“We have been deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack,” the spokeswoman said.


Zoom wasn’t prepared to have its security model tested so thoroughly and quickly.
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Pablo Escobar’s hippos are filling vacant roles in Colombia’s ecosystems • Gizmodo

Dharna Noor:


When the Colombian national police assassinated the cocaine kingpin in 1993, he left behind four fully-grown hippopotamuses. They are considered one of the world’s top invasive species. A January study showed that their shit was contributing to algae blooms and screwing with local lakes’ chemistry–the implication being that the animals are gross pests that could ruin local ecosystems.

But in a new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday, has a different view of the coke hippos. Specifically, the new research shows that the introduction of large non-native herbivores into ecosystems—like the hippos in Colombia—can actually restore ecologically beneficial traits to the area that may have been lost for thousands of years.

“While we found that some introduced herbivores are perfect ecological matches for extinct ones, in others cases the introduced species represents a mix of traits seen in extinct species,” study co-author John Rowan, a study co-author and biology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a statement.

Pablo’s hippos, for instance, are similar in diet and size to the now-extinct giant llamas that once roamed the area. They’re also similar in size and semiaquatic behavior to another extinct species, notoungulates, which have been gone for thousands of years. That allows them to fill two long-vacated roles in the Colombian ecosystem they were introduced to after Escobar died and they began to roam the countryside.


Filed under “Life finds a way”.
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We need a massive surveillance program • Idle Words

Maciej Cieglewski:


I am a privacy activist who has been riding a variety of high horses about the dangers of permanent, ubiquitous data collection since 2012.

But warning people about these dangers today is like being concerned about black mold growing in the basement when the house is on fire. Yes, in the long run the elevated humidity poses a structural risk that may make the house uninhabitable, or at least a place no one wants to live. But right now, the house is on fire. We need to pour water on it…

…Doctors and epidemiologists caution us that the only way to go back to some semblance of normality after the initial outbreak has been brought under control will be to move from population-wide measures (like closing schools and making everyone stay home) to an aggressive case-by-case approach that involves a combination of extensive testing, rapid response, and containing clusters of infection as soon as they are found, before they have a chance to spread.

That kind of case tracking has traditionally been very labor intensive. But we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system…

…I continue to believe that living in a surveillance society is incompatible in the long term with liberty. But a prerequisite of liberty is physical safety. If temporarily conscripting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it, and make full use of it. At the same time, we should reflect on why such a powerful surveillance tool was instantly at hand in this crisis, and what its continuing existence means for our long-term future as a free people.


Never expected to see him write those words. But if he can, then the time has probably come.
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More or Less, Coronavirus special • BBC Radio 4


We’ve dedicated this special episode to the numbers surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Statistical national treasure Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter put the risks of Covid-19 into perspective. We ask whether young people are safe from serious illness, or if statistics from hospitalisations in the US show a high proportion of patients are under 50. We try to understand what the ever-tightening restrictions on businesses and movement mean for the UK’s economy, and we take a look at the mystery of coronavirus numbers in Iran.


The segment to listen to here is David Spiegelhalter, who has an utterly amazing – and clarifying – way to think about the risk of Covid-19: if you catch it, you compress your next year’s worth of the risk of dying into two weeks. It’s a sort of time machine of death.

Assuming, that is, that there are enough ventilators. Without them, he might have to recalculate.
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How to talk to coronavirus skeptics • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner talks to Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, who has focussed much of her career on examining distrust of science in the US:


Q: This idea that we reject science because it clashes with our beliefs or experience—how does that explain why people in Miami, whose homes are going to be flooded, reject global-warming science? Is it partisanship?

A: The phrase I used was implicatory denial. What we found in “Merchants of Doubt” was that the original merchants of doubt, the people who started the whole thing, way back in the late nineteen-eighties, didn’t want to accept the implication that capitalism, as we know it, had failed—that climate change was a huge market failure and that there was a need for some kind of significant government intervention in the marketplace to address it. So, rather than accept that implication, they questioned the science. Now these things get complicated. People are complicated. One of the things that’s happened with climate change over the last thirty years is that, because climate-change denial got picked up by the Republican Party as a political platform, it became polarized according to partisan politics, which is different than, say, vaccination rejection.

And so then it became a talking point for Republicans, and then it became tribal. So now you have this deeply polarized situation in the United States where your views on climate change align very, very strongly with your party affiliation. And now we see a cognitive dissonance. Let’s say you live in Florida, and you’re now seeing flooding on a rather regular basis. This is completely consistent with the scientific evidence, but you don’t accept it as proof of the science. You say, “Oh, well, we’ve always had flooding, or maybe it’s a natural variable.” You come up with excuses not to accept the thing that you don’t want to accept.


Chotiner is a terrific interviewer, but sometimes he can just let the interviewee run on. Oreskes is fascinating and makes you see the denialists in a whole new light.
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Toronto Symphony plays Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring from their homes • Ludwig Van Toronto

Michael Vincent:


Leave it up to musicians to find a way to keep the music going.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal double bass, Jeff Beecher has corralled musicians from the orchestra to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring from their homes.

Each played their part, with Beecher editing it all together with the help of a click-track.

See the wonder unfold here:


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How far-right media is weaponizing coronavirus • The Cut

Rebecca Traister:


Jiore Craig is a political consultant at a research firm, GQR Insights and Action, who has spent the past four years tracking the spread of disinformation online, much of it originating with, or being propagated by, the far-right political media — sites like Breitbart and Infowars. The Cut spoke to her about the patterns she’s seen and how they’re playing out in the midst of this pandemic.

Q: What’s your prediction about how disinformation spread will change as the pandemic rages on?

A: I think we’re going to see a lot of conspiracy theories being applied. But the bad actors don’t really know who to attack at the moment; it can’t quite be about government control, because Trump is the government. So there’s going to be a question of how to make it about the Democrats: maybe invoking false claims around martial law. You have Alex Jones and Infowars profiting off of readiness products because people are scared. We may get to the conspiracy that Democrats want to take away their guns and take away their rights. And I think both sides will start asking: Were you focused on people’s health or were you focused on politics-or-profits? Both sides will try to make it seem like the other side isn’t focused on the issue at hand.


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The coronavirus will hurt the news industry more than the 2008 financial collapse did • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:


The toll of the coronavirus on the news media could be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue, according to Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst with Newsonomics. “[Newspaper] advertising revenue is getting just wiped out,” Doctor told BuzzFeed News, saying it’s already “worse than in 2008 and 2009.”

For some publications, “this seems like for them truly it is the full extinction event. I don’t know how they come back,” he said.

Some outlets are better positioned to survive. Like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the Seattle Times has a base of subscription revenue that can help it withstand the crisis. But other local newspapers and digital outlets in the US and Canada are unlikely to survive.

“I think there we will unfortunately see more closures of newspapers, more news deserts as a result of this,” Fisco said.

Doctor said many newspapers are already distressed businesses, and publicly traded chains like Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 250 local papers, are saddled with debt.

“These companies, many of them were now just in survival mode” before the coronavirus hit, he said.


Speaking of which (although the next story is also in Silverman’s story)…
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BuzzFeed slashing employee pay amid the coronavirus crisis • Daily Beast

Maxwell Tani:


BuzzFeed is cutting pay for its employees as the company attempts to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

In an internal memo on Wednesday, the company announced a graduated salary reduction for the majority of employees for the months of April and May, adding that company brass would meet with the news union to ratify the cuts.

Staffers in the lowest bracket—which includes anyone making under $65,000 annually—would experience a five-percent reduction, while those making between $65,000-$90,000 would experience a seven-percent cut. Other staff would take nearly a 10-percent pay cut, while executives would take between 14-to-25-percent in pay reduction. 

CEO Jonah Peretti confirmed in a note to staff that “I will not be taking a salary until we are on the other side of this crisis.”

Peretti added in the memo that the company was attempting to stave off layoffs by implementing the salary cut, limiting hiring and travel, and reducing real estate costs.

“I understand this will be a real hardship for everyone, but our goal is to make it possible for all of us to get through this,” Peretti said…

…“A lot of people are happy with this decision because there are no layoffs,” one BuzzFeed News staffer. “People are willing to make the sacrifice to keep their colleagues employed.”


Buzzfeed, which is venture-capital funded, is now offering a membership scheme rather like The Guardian’s: you like us, why not give us some money?
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Spotify attracts podcast fans but not much revenue—yet • The Information

Jessica Toonkel:


After acquisitions of companies like Gimlet Media and Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, it now has over 700,000 podcasts on the service, up from just a few thousand in 2018. It’s a programming expansion that could serve Spotify well in coming weeks, as the coronavirus crisis forces tens of millions of people in the US and Europe to stay inside—making streaming entertainment services of all kinds more important than ever.

But there are still big questions about whether the bet will pay off. A widely expected dip in advertising spending this year could slow Spotify’s hopes of building an ad business out of its podcasting empire. Without meaningful ad revenue, it is doubtful whether the company’s investment in podcasting, which has surpassed $600m, will end up being worth the money. 

Another issue: Spotify can’t rely on podcasts bringing in more subscribers. Less than 1% of the podcasts on the service are exclusive. In fact, many of the 200 podcasts that Spotify owns—including The Ringer’s popular sports and pop culture shows—are also available from other sources, including Apple and YouTube. That means people don’t need to sign up for Spotify to listen to the vast majority of its podcasts…

…Spotify also has to share some of what it earns in podcast ad revenue with some of the record labels that supply its music, The Information has learned. That’s a result of its longstanding agreements with the labels, which give them a royalty share of Spotify’s total revenue.


Given what’s likely to happen to advertising, it’s hard to imagine Spotify will earn back that money – but who could have predicted that it was making a bad bet a year ago? Spotify’s aim has always been to move to content where it doesn’t have to pay out huge amounts per play. Which podcasts do. Except, dammit, for that kicker about the labels. Though even that’s likely to be less than for music.
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‘I’m going to keep pushing.’ Anthony Fauci tries to make the White House listen to facts of the pandemic • Science

Jon Cohen:


Q: How are you managing to not get fired?

A: Well, that’s pretty interesting because to [Trump’s] credit, even though we disagree on some things, he listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style. But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say.

Q: You’ve been in press conferences where things are happening that you disagree with, is that fair to say?

A: Well, I don’t disagree in the substance. It is expressed in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject.

Q: You stood nearby while President Trump was in the Rose Garden shaking hands with people. You’re a doctor. You must have had a reaction like, “Sir, please don’t do that.”

A: Yes, I say that to the task force. I say that to the staff. We should not be doing that. Not only that—we should be physically separating a bit more on those press conferences. To his credit, the vice president [Mike Pence] is really pushing for physical separation of the task force [during meetings]. He keeps people out of the room—as soon as the room gets like more than 10 people or so, it’s, “Out, everybody else out, go to a different room.” So with regard to the task force, the vice president is really a bear in making sure that we don’t crowd 30 people into the Situation Room, which is always crowded. So, he’s definitely adhering to that. The situation on stage [for the press briefings] is a bit more problematic. I keep saying, “Is there any way we can get a virtual press conference?” Thus far, no. But when you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So, I’m going to keep pushing.


Fauci gave that interview on Sunday. On Monday, he was missing from the public briefing on coronavirus. People worried that Trump had been stupid enough to fire him. We’ll see if he was only stupid enough to ignore him.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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