Start Up No.1304: Facebook names Oversight board, all the Covid symptoms in one place, Chromebook sales spike, Sidewalk exits Toronto, and more


Finding Zoom calls strangely exhausting? It’s not just you – video calls aren’t relaxing CC-licensed photo by Liz Henry on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Another week survived! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Will Facebook’s new oversight board be a radical shift or a reputational shield? • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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will Facebook’s oversight board live up to its lofty promises and reshape how Facebook shapes the world? Or will it just be a reputational shield for a company whose pathologies run deeper than the question of whether individual pieces of content should be allowed or taken down?

“We are all committed to freedom of expression within the framework of international norms of human rights,” the four co-chairs of the board – Catalina Botero-Marino, Jamal Greene, Michael W McConnell and Helle Thorning-Schmidt – wrote in a New York Times op-ed introducing themselves to the public Wednesday. “We will make decisions based on those principles and on the effects on Facebook users and society, without regard to the economic, political or reputational interests of the company.”

“I wish I could say that the Facebook review board was cosmetic, but I’m not even sure that it’s that deep,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of a book on Facebook. “If Facebook really wanted to take outside criticism seriously at any point in the past decade, it could have taken human rights activists seriously about problems in Myanmar; it could have taken journalists seriously about problems in the Philippines; it could have taken legal scholars seriously about the way it deals with harassment; and it could have taken social media scholars seriously about the ways that it undermines democracy in India and Brazil. But it didn’t. This is greenwashing.”

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Seems like this is going to be complicated. Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, was also picked for the 20-strong board, and he says that he joined because

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The global Covid-19 crisis we’re currently living through exemplifies the mortal dangers of a world of information chaos. Societies and communities can’t function unless there is some consensus around facts and truth. And the coronavirus is, in some ways, merely a dress rehearsal for the even greater challenges of climate change.

At the same time, there is a crisis of free expression — with oligarchs, populist leaders, and some corporations trying to delegitimize and repress the voices of those who would challenge them. Finally, there is a crisis of journalism: both the economic model which sustains it, and in the generally low levels of trust much of it enjoys.

Facebook sits at the heart of these interlocking crises — and it’s not hard to see why it’s tied itself in knots trying to solve even some of them.

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I’d be wary of quite how overruled Zuckerberg can be. And how long he’ll tolerate it. What if the board says that any physical abuse video should be taken down? That factchecked-as-wrong content should be removed, not just downranked?
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As shipment skyrockets in 2Q20, Chromebooks to set record by occupying 25% of notebook computer shipment for first time ever • TrendForce

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TrendForce forecasts global Chromebook shipment in 2Q20 to reach up to 11.6 million units, a historical high in single-quarter shipment. Furthermore, 2Q20 marks the first time ever for Chromebooks to occupy 25% of total quarterly notebook shipment.

TrendForce considers the explosive growth of Chromebooks to be caused by the following factors: First, many countries have turned to distance learning at all levels of the education system due to the pandemic. As the education market has always been the primary market for Chromebooks, Chromebooks have now become the hardware purchase of choice for the student population in North America and Europe, since many families are taking extra care when budgeting during the pandemic. In sum, the transformation of the education system under the pandemic’s influence is the primary factor responsible for the surge of Chromebook shipment.

Secondly, in early 2020, most notebook brands did not view Chromebooks as an important product in their yearly strategy. But the subsequent onset of the pandemic introduced a breakage in the Chinese supply chain, while at the same time market demand for Chromebooks began rising. These events led to a large number of urgent Chromebook orders being placed in 2Q20; the traditional seasonal peak demand for Chromebooks due to the start of the school year in third quarters is thus emerging ahead of time this year in 2Q20 instead, in turn becoming another key factor facilitating the surge of Chromebook shipment. Also, the retail prices of Chromebooks are considerably more consumer-friendly relative to those of Windows notebooks. This has given Chromebooks an edge in securing public educational project bids. A notable example of this is the recent adoption of Chromebooks in the Japanese education market for the first time.

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I’ve been expecting Chromebooks to take over in call centres and similar for absolutely years, and it hasn’t happened. Even so: the forecast here is to sell a grand total of 20 million over the year, for a share (of laptops) of 13%.
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How Kushner’s volunteer force led a fumbling hunt for medical supplies • The New York Times

Nicholas Confessore, Andrew Jacobs, Jodi Kantor, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Luis Ferré-Sadurní:

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Dr. Jeffrey Hendricks had longtime manufacturing contacts in China and a line on millions of masks from established suppliers. Instead of encountering seasoned FEMA procurement officials, his information was diverted to a team of roughly a dozen young volunteers, recruited by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and overseen by a former assistant to Mr. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump.

The volunteers, foot soldiers in the Trump administration’s new supply-chain task force, had little to no experience with government procurement procedures or medical equipment. But as part of Mr. Kushner’s governmentwide push to secure protective gear for the nation’s doctors and nurses, the volunteers were put in charge of sifting through more than a thousand incoming leads, and told to pass only the best ones on for further review by FEMA officials.

As the federal government’s warehouses were running bare and medical workers improvised their own safety gear, Dr. Hendricks found his offer stalled. Many of the volunteers were told to prioritize tips from political allies and associates of President Trump, tracked on a spreadsheet called “V.I.P. Update,” according to documents and emails obtained by The New York Times. Among them were leads from Republican members of Congress, the Trump youth activist Charlie Kirk and a former “Apprentice” contestant who serves as the campaign chair of Women for Trump.

Trump allies also pressed FEMA officials directly: a Pennsylvania dentist, once featured at a Trump rally, dropped the president’s name as he pushed the agency to procure test kits from his associates.
Few of the leads, V.I.P. or otherwise, panned out, according to a whistle-blower memo written by one volunteer and sent to the House Oversight Committee.

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I know – astonishing isn’t it that someone with no experience organising a life-or-death large-scale procurement could be sure they knew how to do it. Oh, but of course. Anyway, it’ll be great for Joe Biden to hire Hunter (or partner) to organise everything in the White House next year. The GOP will be totally fine with that and won’t hear a word against it.
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Finding endless video calls exhausting? You’re not alone • The Conversation

Andre Spicer:

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When we interact with another person through the screen, our brains have to work much harder. We miss many of the other cues we’d have during a real-life conversation like the smell of the room or some detail in our peripheral vision. This additional information helps our brains make sense of what is going on.

When that extra information is gone, our brains have to work harder to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes put us at a disadvantage. For instance, a meta-analysis of job interviews found that people tended to fare worse when they were interviewed through video link than in person.

The greater effort it takes to make sense of what’s going on means we often take mental shortcuts. This can result in mistakes. One study found that medics who attended a seminar via video conferencing tended to focus on whether they liked the presenter, while those who attended in person focused on the quality of presenter’s arguments.

Another study found that when courts made decisions about a refugee’s appeal using a video call, they were less trusting and understanding. Applicants were more likely to lie and judges were less likely to spot falsehoods. A third study found that court sketch artists made less accurate drawings when gathering information via video call.

Our biases can get worse if the line is glitchy. Even a one second delay can make us think people on the other end of the line are less friendly. One experiment found that when the video quality was low, people were much more cautious in their communication.

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Hmm, maybe these “office” things will prove resilient after all.
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From blood clots to ‘Covid toe’: the medical mysteries of coronavirus • Financial Times

Clive Cookson:

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less than five months after it was first identified, this new coronavirus is managing to throw up a series of medical mysteries — from blood clots and strokes to digestive problems — that are confounding the scientific community.

From head to foot, Covid-19 causes a fiendish variety of symptoms. Some are relatively mild, such as loss of smell and taste or chilblain-like sores on toes. But others may be fatal, such as when what doctors call an immune storm destroys vital organs. The more this virus is studied, the more complex it appears to be.

“Every day we’re learning of new tricks that the virus plays,” says Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. “It is remarkable to see a disease unfolding in front of our eyes with so many twists and turns.”

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(There’s no paywall on this article.) This is a veritable kitchen sink of an article – absolutely everything you could want, plus a big graphic.
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Staying alive: background tracing and the NHS COVID-19 app • Reincubate

Aidan Fitzpatrick:

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How then, can the British NHS COVID-19 effectively trace new devices whilst backgrounded, without “falling asleep” (technically, “being suspended”) and thus being rendered ineffective? From our testing with version 1.0.1b341 of “NHS COVID-19” app, we can see does indeed communicate effectively in the background. It appears that this is done through use of a series of clever workarounds using keepalives and notifications. Force quitting the app will stop background tracing, however, if instead the phone is powered off and back on, it will continue to communicate properly in the background. This workaround may or may not fall foul of Apple, but at this point it hasn’t been disclosed, and Apple have approved the builds of the app they’ve seen so far.

We’re continuing to look into this and will be publishing more detail as things develop.

Does the NHS COVID-19 app store sensitive data?

No. The app seems very well put together, using sensible security practises, and without storage of unnecessary data. It revolves around a linkingId that gets generated for each install of the app. This ID persists across install of the app, so uninstalling and reinstalling it won’t reset the identifier.

Looking at data from the app using iPhone Backup Extractor under the uk.nhs.nhsx.sonar path, we can see there are a series of files coupled to Google Firebase and a collection of small Plists (configuration files) for the rest of the app’s data.

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Doesn’t ask for location. And can’t (yet) use the Apple-Google API (because it hasn’t been released, at least for iOS devices). Quite a dig into it.
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Sidewalk Labs announces it will “no longer pursue” Quayside project • BetaKit

Isabelle Kirkwood:

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Sidewalk Labs has announced it will no longer pursue its project at Quayside in Toronto. The company noted the decision was due to the current “unprecedented economic uncertainty.” Sidewalk Labs and Google will both remain in Toronto.

The company, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, has worked on its smart city proposal for the Quayside neighbourhood over the last two-and-a-half years, alongside Waterfront Toronto, the tri-government agency overseeing the development. In January, the deadline to decide whether to move ahead with Sidewalk Labs’ smart city development proposal was pushed from March 31 until May 20.

“In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto set out to plan a shared vision for Quayside, a fundamentally more sustainable and affordable community resulting from innovations in technology and urban design,” CEO Dan Doctoroff in a statement. “Since the project began, I’ve met thousands of Torontonians from all over the city, excited by the possibility of making urban life better for everyone.”

Doctoroff said the economic circumstances made it “too difficult” to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing “core parts” of its plan. Sidewalk Labs, which has a 30-person office on the waterfront, will continue to work on some of its proposed innovations, including mass timber construction, a digital master-planning tool, and its approach to all-electric neighbourhoods.

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Doctoroff is surely talking bullshit about those excited Torontonians. I’d love to know what part of the economic circumstances has so abruptly shut this down. I think we’ll see play out many times in the future: sketchy projects that were on life support will be terminated. Sidewalk won’t be mourned.
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Zoom acquires Keybase to get end-to-end encryption expertise • TechCrunch

Ron Miller:

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Keybase, which has been building encryption products for several years including secure file sharing and collaboration tools, should give Zoom some security credibility as it goes through pandemic demand growing pains.

The company has faced a number of security issues in the last couple of months as demand as soared and exposed some security weaknesses in the platform. As the company has moved to address these issues, having a team of encryption experts on staff should help the company build a more secure product.

In a blog post announcing the deal, CEO Eric Yuan said they acquired Keybase to give customers a higher level of security, something that’s increasingly important to enterprise customers as more operations are relying on the platform, working from home during the pandemic.

“This acquisition marks a key step for Zoom as we attempt to accomplish the creation of a truly private video communications platform that can scale to hundreds of millions of participants, while also having the flexibility to support Zoom’s wide variety of uses,” Yuan wrote.

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Keybase, though, doesn’t know quite why Zoom has bought it: according to Keybase’s announcement,

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Initially, our single top priority is helping to make Zoom even more secure. There are no specific plans for the Keybase app yet. Ultimately Keybase’s future is in Zoom’s hands, and we’ll see where that takes us. Of course, if anything changes about Keybase’s availability, our users will get plenty of notice.

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Cuomo faces backlash for enlisting billionaires Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates to ‘reimagine’ NY after reopening • Forbes

Rachel Sandler:

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has enlisted former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates this week to “reimagine” how the state’s approach to education and technology might change during and after the pandemic—but the move has drawn backlash from local officials and education advocates who say the state shouldn’t be depending on wealthy unelected officials.

Schmidt and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have both been tasked in separate efforts to help determine what the state may look like after the pandemic subsides and when schools reopen.

Some progressive local officials slammed Cuomo for leaning on billionaires for assistance, with Deputy State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gianaris saying, “These are not people who should determine for us how best to provide services to everyday New Yorkers.”

Local education advocates in particular blasted the Gates Foundation, which has a fraught history among teachers and parent groups over its support for Common Core, a controversial standardized testing program implemented in New York and elsewhere.

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There’s always this huge temptation to say “oooh, X made lots of money at a tech company, they must be really visionary and know how to shape society”. Bill Gates has, but through the medium of vaccination – a centuries-old technique – made cheaper. Schmidt, well, has he done anything beyond Google? And it’s hardly as though that was his idea. He drove the business thinking.

A few years ago Mark Zuckerberg had a big idea about remaking education. Went nowhere, as I recall.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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