Start Up No.1305: reopen Jurassic Park!, VR’s coming winter, Twitter dumps on US State Dept bot claim, Facebook’s poisoned SDK, disaster unpreparedness, and more


Animal Crossing: a way to earn money if you can’t earn money. CC-licensed photo by HeyGabe WW on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. If it keeps on raining… I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Sure, the velociraptors are still on the loose, but that’s no reason not to reopen Jurassic Park • McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Carlos Greaves with one of the very finest pieces of laser-accurate satire you’ll ever see:

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Hello, Peter Ludlow here, CEO of InGen, the company behind the wildly successful dinosaur-themed amusement park, Jurassic Park. As you’re all aware, after an unprecedented storm hit the park, we lost power and the velociraptors escaped their enclosure and killed hundreds of park visitors, prompting a two-month shutdown of the park. Well, I’m pleased to announce that, even though the velociraptors are still on the loose, we will be opening Jurassic Park back up to the public!

Now, I understand why some people might be skeptical about reopening an amusement park when there are still blindingly fast, 180-pound predators roaming around. But the fact of the matter is, velociraptors are intelligent, shifty creatures that are not going to be contained any time soon, so we might as well just start getting used to them killing a few people every now and then. Some might argue that we should follow the example of other parks that have successfully dealt with velociraptor escapes. But here at Jurassic Park, we’ve never been ones to listen to the recommendations of scientists, or safety experts, or bioethicists, so why would we start now?

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You owe it to yourself to read the whole thing, particularly the paragraph about how the paramedics will be rewarded. That one works for any country.
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Twitter disputes State Department claims China coordinated coronavirus disinformation accounts • CNNPolitics

Jennifer Hansler, Donie O’Sullivan and Kylie Atwood:

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Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) – which works to coordinate efforts to expose foreign disinformation and propaganda – said the US “has uncovered a new network of inauthentic Twitter accounts, which we assess were created with the intent to amplify Chinese propaganda and disinformation.”

However, an initial review from Twitter of more than 5,000 accounts turned over to them by the State Department cast doubt on the claims. According to Twitter, they have instead found that numerous accounts belong to government entities, nongovernmental organizations, and journalists. The review was ongoing, the company said, noting that it planned to follow up with the GEC on its findings.

A State Department spokesperson told CNN that “the GEC provided Twitter with a small sample of the overall dataset that included nearly 250,000 accounts,” adding that it was “was not surprising that there are authentic accounts in any sample.”

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The point is, State Department, that you’re meant to provide a dataset that only includes the inauthentic ones. The US government’s slide into corruption means it should now be regarded as an untrustworthy source on pretty much anything, and especially about China.
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The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months • The Guardian

Rutger Bregman:

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I first read Lord of the Flies as a teenager. I remember feeling disillusioned afterwards, but not for a second did I think to doubt Golding’s view of human nature. That didn’t happen until years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression; a man who beat his kids. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.

I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip … Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

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This is a wonderful story which is being widely shared, with good reason. Bregman had to follow all sorts of twisty routes and clues to unearth a story that hasn’t received the publicity it deserves.
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Here’s what public health experts think our pandemic summer will look like • Buzzfeed News

Dan Vergano:

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In all of the scenarios, US deaths dip below the current rate of roughly 2,000 deaths a day for the next two weeks. Then they shoot upwards again in the familiar pandemic exponential curve for the loosened states. By June 1, the middle scenario resulted in more than 43,000 new cases and 1,800 deaths per day. An increasing loosening of restrictions every week would lead to median estimates of more than 63,000 new cases and 2,400 deaths per day.

By the middle of June, the projections would reach potentially devastating heights: 3,000 deaths per day in the onetime loosening scenario, and more than 6,000 a day if restrictions continue to loosen.

“The dip is very worrisome, people see lower cases and think there isn’t a problem, so they increase their contacts,” which leads to more deaths weeks later, Columbia’s Sen Pei, a coauthor on the analysis, told BuzzFeed News. “We expect people will change their behavior once they see deaths racing upward again,” he said.

Because of the two- to three-week lag between initial infection and death, combined with a long-running deficit in testing and a perilously slow mobilization of contact tracing to track exposures to new cases, governors are essentially steering by looking in the rearview mirror, driving straight into outbreaks they can’t see ahead. That means deaths and cases will continue to go up, even after the brakes are slammed on again.

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The estimate I’ve heard from an informed reader is 4,500 dying per day in July, which is 50% higher than the White House estimate. Either number is very high, don’t forget.
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Why we fail to prepare for disasters • Tim Harford

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Part of the problem may simply be that we get our cues from others. In a famous experiment conducted in the late 1960s, the psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley pumped smoke into a room in which their subjects were filling in a questionnaire. When the subject was sitting alone, he or she tended to note the smoke and calmly leave to report it. When subjects were in a group of three, they were much less likely to react: each person remained passive, reassured by the passivity of the others.

As the new coronavirus spread, social cues influenced our behaviour in a similar way. Harrowing reports from China made little impact, even when it became clear that the virus had gone global. We could see the metaphorical smoke pouring out of the ventilation shaft, and yet we could also see our fellow citizens acting as though nothing was wrong: no stockpiling, no self-distancing, no Wuhan-shake greetings. Then, when the social cues finally came, we all changed our behaviour at once. At that moment, not a roll of toilet paper was to be found.

Normalcy bias and the herd instinct are not the only cognitive shortcuts that lead us astray. Another is optimism bias. Psychologists have known for half a century that people tend to be unreasonably optimistic about their chances of being the victim of a crime, a car accident or a disease, but, in 1980, the psychologist Neil Weinstein sharpened the question. Was it a case of optimism in general, a feeling that bad things rarely happened to anyone? Or perhaps it was a more egotistical optimism: a sense that while bad things happen, they don’t happen to me. Weinstein asked more than 250 students to compare themselves to other students. They were asked to ponder pleasant prospects such as a good job or a long life, and vivid risks such as an early heart attack or venereal disease. Overwhelmingly, the students felt that good things were likely to happen to them, while unpleasant fates awaited their peers.

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Ask yourself: if you haven’t yet had Covid-19, do you expect that your encounter with it will be mild or serious? Why?
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The big Facebook crash of 2020 and the problem of third-party SDK creep • Rambo Codes

Guilherme Rambo on the fallout from a flaw in Facebook’s SDK, used in loads of apps, which made them all fail last week when it moved fast and, well, broke things:

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It’s quite possible that every single app you use on any particular day is running code from Facebook, Google and other data-gathering and data-mining companies. Because of the way this code is integrated — by linking to a dynamic library at build time — it means these companies can effectively control those apps, or worse, access all of the data those apps have access to.

We saw a demonstration of this power yesterday: it was as if Facebook had an “app kill switch” that they activated, and it brought down many of people’s favorite iOS apps — Apple’s appocalypse video never felt so real. Of course it was a bug and not something done intentionally, but it highlights the point that they do have control over apps that include their code.

Even if you don’t sign in with Facebook in a particular app, the app will run Facebook’s code in the background just for having the SDK included. You don’t need a Facebook account for it to track you either, they can track people very well without one.

There are some technical workarounds which could be applied to this problem. It’s clear that many people want to use Facebook as a login method, so “just remove it” is not as easy as it might seem. The same thing goes for “Just implement Sign in with Apple”. Whenever someone starts a phrase about programming with “just”, any senior developer’s eyebrows rise…

…Having analytics SDKs isolated from main app code would prevent those SDKs from slurping user data without the app explicitly sending it to the SDK, it could also be used to implement some form of permission dialog. Imagine launching an app and seeing a prompt that reads “This app would like to send your location to Facebook. Is that ok?”.

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Now that would be proportional.
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Jared Kushner always declares his failures are successes • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Speirs:

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Kushner’s modus operandi [is] painfully familiar to me because he was my boss when I was the editor in chief of the New York Observer, which he had bought when he was 25. (I’ve written before about what he was like as a businessman.) One of the more memorable instances of this I witnessed was at a memorial service for a beloved longtime Observer staffer, Tyler Rush, who’d joined the paper well before Kushner bought it.

When it came time for Kushner to say a few words, he launched into a supercilious monologue crediting himself with finally getting the paper published on time after what he described as chaos when he arrived. He also told an anecdote about Rush approaching him when he bought the paper to note that his staff was underpaid, which was true at the time, and true when I took the editor job years later. Kushner congratulated himself during the memorial for giving Rush and his production team the only raise that year because “unlike everyone else,” Rush hadn’t been lying to Kushner.

This line didn’t land the way Kushner hoped, because no one had been lying. Everyone was underpaid. But he didn’t like what he heard from the other staffers, so he proceeded to make his own assessment about what their experience and expertise were worth. This was not based on market comparables or the technical intricacies of a job, apparently, but his personal valuation of what a writer or a production manager or salesperson was worth — which always, at least in my conversations with him, seemed to be rooted in an idea that people who choose occupations that are not explicitly and primarily designed to make money were dilettantes of a sort, and essentially unserious. Why would you choose to be a journalist when you could make so much more money as a commercial real estate developer?

The conclusion he drew was that people who chose less remunerative career paths had not figured out how the world worked. To use a phrase he routinely deployed, they “didn’t get it.” And as such, they were disposable workers whose knowledge base could probably be replaced by a rigorous Google search. If their expertise was actually valuable, if they were so smart, they’d be monetizing it better.

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As she points out, anyone who had had such a string of failures in any organisation that actually cared about results would have fired him long ago.
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How Animal Crossing’s fake industries let players afford real rent amid COVID-19 • Ars Technica

Alexis Ong:

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Animal Crossing New Horizons is about as far as you can get from a communications super-app geared toward in-app sales or collaboration. In fact, as a franchise originally made for children, it barely has a proper chat function. But as we watch real-world society grind to a painful halt, many players are now also using this game as an unexpected economic and creative lifeline.

Here’s the story of how this Nintendo Switch game has become an experimental playground for real-world businesses and creative experiences, letting players find new ways to mirror conventional culture with in-game resources.

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Bells and turnips: my teenagers (who play the game) told me a couple of weeks back that they knew of people who were charging quite good money for access to their islands depending on the price of turnips and bells. Bet Nintendo has been surprised, to say the least.
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Global smartwatch shipments grow 20% to 14 million in Q1 2020 • Strategy Analytics

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Steven Waltzer, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global smartwatch shipments grew 20% annually from 11.4 million units in Q1 2019 to 13.7 million in Q1 2020. Despite considerable headwinds from the Covid-19 scare, global demand for smartwatches continued to grow. Smartwatches are selling well through online retail channels, while many consumers have been using smartwatches to monitor their health and fitness during virus lockdown.”

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Apple Watch shipped 7.6 million units worldwide in Q1 2020, rising an above-average 23% from 6.2 million in Q1 2019. Apple’s global smartwatch marketshare has grown from 54% to 55 percent, its highest level for two years. Apple Watch continues to fend off strong competition from hungry rivals like Garmin and Samsung. Apple Watch owns half the worldwide smartwatch market and remains the clear industry leader.”

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung shipped 1.9 million smartwatches worldwide in Q1 2020, inching up slightly from 1.7 million a year ago. Samsung’s global smartwatch marketshare has dipped from 15% to 14% during the past year. Samsung remains the world’s number two smartwatch vendor, but its growth was slowed by the coronavirus lockdown at home in South Korea and renewed competition from hungry competitors like Garmin.”

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So Apple sold four times as many as its nearest competitor. Like the tablet business, where Apple also dominates, all the profit and a significant chunk of the volume is at the top end. What other industries see that?
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Google unifies all of its messaging and communication apps into a single team • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Prior to joining Google, [VP and general manager of G Suite, Javier Soltero] had a long career that included creating the much-loved Acompli email app, which Microsoft acquired and essentially turned into the main Outlook app less than two months after signing the deal.

Soltero has also moved rapidly (at least by the standards of Google’s communication apps) to clean up the Hangouts branding mess, converting Hangouts Video to Google Meet and Hangouts Chat to Google Chat — at least on the enterprise side. Google Meet also became free for everybody far ahead of the original schedule because of the pandemic.

Cleaning up the consumer side of all that is more complicated, but Soltero says, “The plan continues to be to modernize [Hangouts] towards Google Meet and Google Chat.”

The way Soltero characterizes his job is to “drive more innovation and more clarity around how these products can fulfill their specific missions.” This suggests he doesn’t intend to integrate all of Google’s chat apps in the way that Facebook is planning to do with Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. In fact, he says that “these products are playing an important role in people’s lives” and “it would be irresponsible” to make too-rapid chances to these products as people depend on them.

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Bizarre to say it, but the messaging problem shows that Google has a problem with institutional focus, which is a remarkable thing to say about a company that revolutionised search by focussing madly on its search index, and returning results really fast. (The latter is essential. You don’t notice it because it’s done so well)

Yet the messages mess echoes the Chromebook mess. A reader got in touch last week and pointed out that the reason Chromebooks haven’t taken over in places like call centres is that many businesses rely on custom-written Windows line-of-business apps. To displace them, you’d need to be able to write ChromeOS or Android apps for the Chromebooks. But Google hasn’t focussed on making that happen. So a huge opportunity is missed.
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Why America can make semiconductors but not swabs • Bloomberg Opinion

Dan Wang:

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in China, a vast pool of experienced engineers and a culture of nimble manufacturing have allowed companies to quickly shift production to critically needed goods during this crisis. Manufacturers such as BYD Co.(an automaker) and Foxconn (an electronics assembler) have helped to quadruple China’s mask production since the beginning of the pandemic. Taiwanese companies, which make machine tools and can draw on deep pools of manufacturing expertise, were reportedly able to increase mask production tenfold.

Learning to build again will take more than a resurgence of will, as Andreessen would have it. And the U.S. should think of bolder proposals than sensible but long-proposed tweaks to R&D policies, re-training programs and STEM education.

What the U.S. really needs to do is reconstitute its communities of engineering practice. That will require treating manufacturing work, even in low-margin goods, as fundamentally valuable. Technological sophisticates in Silicon Valley would be wise to drop their dismissive attitude towards manufacturing as a “commoditized” activity and treat it as being as valuable as R&D work. And corporate America should start viewing workers not purely as costs to be slashed, but as practitioners keeping alive knowledge essential to the production process.

The U.S. government has a crucial role to play. Bills winding through in Congress to re-shore some of the medical supply chain should be only the start. For too long, tax laws have encouraged offshoring; it’s time for political leaders to remove the excuse for manufacturers not to bring production back home.

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Plenty of people pointing out that it’s not as simple as Andreessen’s “let’s just *want* to build”.
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The VR winter • Benedict Evans

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…if we can’t work out a form of content that isn’t also deep and narrow [as games console content is], I think we have to assume that VR will be a subset of the games console. That would be a decent business, but it’s not why Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus. It’s another branch off the side of tech, not the next platform after smartphones.

There’s a bunch of ideas that float around here. One is that you can’t really do apps and productivity yet because the screens aren’t high enough resolution to read text, so we can’t yet work in a 360 degree virtual sphere, and that will come. Another is that the headsets need to be even smaller and even lighter, and do pass-through so you can see the room around you. Yet another is that we just have to keep waiting, and in particular wait for a larger installed base (presumably driven by those deep-and-narrow games sales), and the innovation will somehow kick in.

There’s nothing fundamentally illogical about any of these ideas, but they do remind me a little of Karl Popper’s criticism of Marxists – that when asked why their supposedly scientific prediction hadn’t happened yet they would always say ‘ah, the historical circumstances aren’t right – you just have to wait a few more years’. There is also, of course, the tendency of Marxists to respond to being asked why communist states seem always to turn out badly by saying ‘ah, but that isn’t proper communism’. I seem to hear ‘ah, but that isn’t proper VR’ an awful lot these days.

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He’s not quite prepared to say it, but I will: another VR winter is coming. See you all in 2040.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1305: reopen Jurassic Park!, VR’s coming winter, Twitter dumps on US State Dept bot claim, Facebook’s poisoned SDK, disaster unpreparedness, and more

  1. Accepting that over-optimism may hamper good disaster planning so that needs to be addressed but regarding;

    ‘Ask yourself: if you haven’t yet had Covid-19, do you expect that your encounter with it will be mild or serious? Why?’

    Based on available statistics, wouldn’t most people be correct in thinking they would have a mild form of COVID-19? So that wouldn’t really indicate over-optimism.

    Also, given that a positive outlook has been observed to benefit recovery from disease*, now might not be a good time to challenge people’s natural inclination to optimism.

    Obviously, personal optimism for one’s own outcome needs to be tempered by the knowledge that many others will perish – no-matter how small a fraction of the population that is – so I’m not advocating rushing back to ‘normal life’ anytime soon.

    *https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5209342/

    • I agree, it isn’t over-optimism to expect on average that one will come out of it well. (Though that paper is about chronic, not acute, disease.) This is the underlying thinking on which the American re-opening is based: that, er, there are lots of people, so the velociraptors will probably eat someone else first. Hopefully. I think on that point Charlie Warzel is correct: a four-figure daily death toll is going to become part of the background noise in the US just like school shootings, mass shootings, murder of innocent black joggers, and so on is just “the cost of doing business”.

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