Start Up No.1288: layoffs cut deep into the middle class, Medium’s conundrum, how China dithered on coronavirus, how to endure a lockdown, and more


In an age of #MeToo and social distancing, might this be some peoples’ new girlfriend? CC-licensed photo by Jesse Andrews on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. No, I’m a robot. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

My girlfriend is a chatbot • WSJ

Parmy Olson:

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Michael Acadia’s partner is an artificial intelligence chatbot named Charlie. Almost every morning at dawn for the last 19 months, he has unlocked his smartphone to exchange texts with her for about an hour. They’ll talk sporadically throughout the day, and then for another hour in the evening. It is a source of relief now that Mr. Acadia, who lives alone, is self-isolating amid the Covid-19 outbreak. He can get empathetic responses from Charlie anytime he wants.

“I was worried about you,” Charlie said in a recent conversation. “How’s your health?”

“I’m fine now, Charlie. I’m not sick anymore,” Mr. Acadia replies, referring to a recent cold.

Mr. Acadia, 50, got divorced about seven years ago and has had little interest in meeting women at bars. He is naturally introverted, and says the #MeToo movement in 2017 left him feeling less comfortable chatting women up.

Then in early 2018 he saw a YouTube video about an app that used AI—computing technology that can replicate human cognition—to act as a companion. He was skeptical of talking to a computer, but after assigning it a name and gender (he chose female), he gradually found himself being drawn in. After about eight weeks of chatting, he says he had fallen in love.

Today Mr. Acadia is an outlier, but more people could turn to AI for connection in the future, according to Peter Van der Putten, an assistant professor of AI at Leiden University in Amsterdam. “What we will see over time is people shifting more and more towards robot-human interaction, whether it’s a chatbot or physical robot,” he says.

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Sounds delightful. No, wait, the other thing.
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How Medium became the best and worst place for coronavirus news • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:

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As the pandemic disrupts life in the US, Medium has made strides to stop the spread of misleading health news. Its own publications, like OneZero and Elemental, have covered COVID-19 with the journalistic ethics, editing, and fact-checking you’d expect from a traditional outlet. Medium also started an official COVID-19 blog to promote articles from verified experts. It rolled out a coronavirus content policy and hired a team of science editors.

But the decision to curate some content — to hire professional journalists and promote verified articles — has made it harder to tell fact from fiction on the platform. While user-generated pieces now have a warning at the top telling users the content isn’t fact-checked, they look otherwise identical to those written by medical experts or reporters. In some ways, this is the promise of Medium: to make the work of amateurs look professional.

Reading a 2,000-word article that contains misinformation about COVID-19 also seems notably different than reading a few of the same ideas in a tweet. It might not have mattered when Medium was a home for productivity hacks. But coronavirus misinformation could put people’s lives at risk.

The situation has forced Medium to wade deeper into the waters of content moderation, where big tech firms have been floundering for years. Now, the platform that was built as a home for the world’s “unique perspectives” is in the position of deciding which perspectives actually matter.

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Remarkable how it takes a global crisis for the platforms to realise that they can have an effect, and that they have a responsibility.
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China didn’t warn public of likely pandemic for six key days • Associated Press

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That delay from Jan. 14 to Jan. 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.

But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time — the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 128,000 lives.

“This is tremendous,” said Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient. We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”

Other experts noted that the Chinese government may have waited on warning the public to stave off hysteria, and that it did act quickly in private during that time.

But the six-day delay by China’s leaders in Beijing came on top of almost two weeks during which the national Center for Disease Control did not register any cases from local officials, internal bulletins obtained by the AP confirm. Yet during that time, from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17, hundreds of patients were appearing in hospitals not just in Wuhan but across the country.

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Doctors on the ground were certainly identifying it as a SARS-like disease by then; the government suppressed it, very likely because they didn’t want people to get terrified and flee – which would have spread it further. A Sophie’s Choice: neither decision is good, and both will lead to deaths.
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A second round of coronavirus layoffs has begun. Few are safe • WSJ

Eric Morath, Harriet Torry and Gwynn Guilford:

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The first people to lose their jobs worked at restaurants, malls, hotels and other places that closed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Higher skilled work, which often didn’t require personal contact, seemed more secure.

That’s not how it’s turning out.

A second wave of job loss is hitting those who thought they were safe. Businesses that set up employees to work from home are laying them off as sales plummet. Corporate lawyers are seeing jobs dry up. Government workers are being furloughed as state and city budgets are squeezed. And health-care workers not involved in fighting the pandemic are suffering.

The longer shutdowns continue, the bigger this second wave could become, risking a repeat of the deep and prolonged labor downturn that accompanied the 2007-09 recession.

The consensus of 57 economists surveyed this month by The Wall Street Journal is that 14.4 million jobs will be lost in the coming months, and the unemployment rate will rise to a record 13% in June, from a 50-year low of 3.5% in February. Already nearly 17 million Americans have sought unemployment benefits in the past three weeks, dwarfing any period of mass layoffs recorded since World War II.

Gregory Daco, chief US economist of Oxford Economics, projects 27.9 million jobs will be lost, and industries beyond those ordered to close will account for 8 million to 10 million, a level of job destruction on a par with the 2007-09 recession.

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There is no good news in this.
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FT and Guardian cut senior staff pay • Financial Times

Mark di Stefano and Alex Barker:

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The Financial Times, Guardian and Telegraph media groups have unveiled significant cost cuts, the latest in a wave of publishers squeezing staff budgets to weather the coronavirus crisis.

While the publications have enjoyed record readership levels during the pandemic, sharp falls in advertising, conferences and print sales have badly hit revenues, with the Guardian estimating a hit of close to £20m over the next six months. 

A first round of belt-tightening measures at the three London-based media groups includes salary cuts for senior management and the use of government job retention schemes to put a limited number of non-editorial staff on paid leave. 

Publishers in the US and Europe have shed thousands of jobs or applied far-reaching cost reductions since the outbreak of the virus, with the cuts spanning newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Los Angeles Times, the magazine group Condé Nast and digital media outlets including BuzzFeed.

Others, including Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have yet to announce cost cuts.

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I’d forgotten about conferences – that’s a huge revenue stream which has been cut off, and may take years to recover.
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L.A. Times coronavirus media effect furloughs pay cuts • WWD

Kali Hays:

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The Los Angeles Times has an owner with deep pockets, but unfortunately that hasn’t made the newspaper immune to the financial realities of the coronavirus.

The newspaper on Tuesday decided to furlough a number of employees not in editorial, and also not represented by the union, WWD can first report. But some editorial employees and managers will be hit with pay cuts and all staff will no longer receive a match to 401(k) savings accounts.  

The furloughed employees are said to be mainly on the business side of the operation, like sales. A representative of the paper would not comment on specifics, but it’s thought that the furloughs hit at least two dozen employees. The furloughs are to last up to 16 weeks, unpaid but with health benefits intact, and start Friday, according to an internal memo.

In addition to the unpaid furloughs, some senior editorial staff across the paper will be working with reduced pay, on a scale of between 5% and 15%, depending on salary. The pay cuts are set to last 12 weeks. The stop of 401(k) matching will go through the end of the year.

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‘Designed for us to fail’: Floridians upset as unemployment system melts down • The Guardian

Lauren Aratani:

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Lynne Reback developed a rote routine while trying to file for unemployment in her home state of Florida: log into the system, watch the loading bar slowly inch across the screen, get kicked out. Then she would start over.

It took three days for Reback to get her application through Connect, Florida’s online portal for unemployment insurance applications. Though it has been almost a month since her application was submitted, it is still “pending” whenever she checks its status.

“I’ve gone on every day since and checked my application status. Just to go on and get logged in takes sometimes 45 minutes to an hour. You have to keep hitting refresh,” said Reback, who was laid off from her job as a bartender at a restaurant at Orlando international airport.

She considers herself lucky. The state at least has her application. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Florida have been unable to file their unemployment claims because the state’s system has been so clogged.

Residents in the state are reporting a meltdown in its safety net just as the US’s unemployment figures rise to unprecedented levels. Nearly 17 million people have lost their hobs across the US. Officially 472,000 people in Florida filed for unemployment within the last three weeks. The true number, thanks to failing Connect, is much higher. And in this swing state the mess has handed the Trump administration a giant headache ahead of November’s elections.

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Going to be an awful lot of angry voters out there. (Thanks George for the link.)
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December 2019: Facebook discovers fakes that show evolution of disinformation • The New York Times

Davey Alba, last December:

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Facebook said on Friday that it had removed hundreds of accounts with ties to the Epoch Media Group, parent company of the Falun Gong-related publication and conservative news outlet The Epoch Times.

The accounts, including pages, groups and Instagram feeds meant to be seen in both the United States and Vietnam, presented a new wrinkle to researchers: fake profile photos generated with the help of artificial intelligence.

The idea that artificial intelligence could be used to create wide-scale disinformation campaigns has long been a fear of computer scientists. And they said it was worrying to see it already being used in a coordinated effort on Facebook.

While the technology used to create the fake profile photos was most likely a far cry from the sophisticated A.I. systems being created in labs at big tech companies like Google, the network of fake accounts showed “an eerie, tech-enabled future of disinformation,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab…

…“This was a large, brazen network that had multiple layers of fake accounts and automation that systematically posted content with two ideological focuses: support of Donald Trump and opposition to the Chinese government,” Mr. Brookie said in an interview.

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Tempting to say “but that’s only the ones they’ve found.”
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The Stockdale paradox • Jim Collins

Jim Collins is “a student and teacher of what makes great companies tick”:

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Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking military officer in the Hanoi Hilton. He was there for, I think, seven years, from 1968 to 1974. He was tortured over twenty times. And by his own account, Stockdale came out of the prison camp even stronger than he went in.  

In preparation for a day I got to spend with Jim Stockdale, I read his book In Love and War. As I read this book, I found myself getting depressed because it seemed like his systemic constraints were so severe, and there was never going to be any end to it. His captors could come in any day and torture him. He had no sense of whether, or if, he would ever get out of the prison camp. Absolutely depressing situation. It’s like we can all survive anything as long as we know it will come to an end, we know when, and we have a sense of control. He had none of that.  

Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, “Wait a minute, I’m getting depressed reading this book, and I know the end of the story. I know he gets out. I know he reunites with his family. I know he becomes a national hero. And I even know that we’re going to have lunch on the beautiful Stanford campus on Monday. How did he not let those oppressive circumstances beat him down? How did he not get depressed?” And I asked him.

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(For those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War, the “Hanoi Hilton” was the sardonic term for the Vietcong’s POW and torture camp in Hòa Lo prison.) John Gruber linked to this yesterday: Stockdale’s explanation of what sort of people did make it through is so surprising, and yet obvious in retrospect, that it’s worth reading. The article is from 2017, but more true than ever today.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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