Start Up No.1319: Facebook’s strange fact-checking pose, UK trace-and-trace delayed, whatever happened to creationists?, and more

Yes, we might as well discuss the Trump nonsense CC-licensed photo by on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Now, Dougal, this tweet is far away… I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The two things to understand about Trump’s executive order on social media: (1) it’s a distraction (2) it’s legally meaningless • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:


We’ve officially reached pure silly season when it comes to internet regulations. For the past two years now, every so often, reports have come out that the White House was exploring issuing an executive order trying to attack Section 230 and punish companies for the administration’s belief in the myth that content moderation practices at large social media firms are “biased” against conservatives.

However, it apparently took Twitter literally doing nothing more than linking to people arguing that Trump’s tweets were misleading, to cause our President to throw a total shit fit and finally break out the executive order. This one is somewhat different than drafts that have been floated in the past, though it has the same origins (and, according to a few people I spoke to, this new executive order was “hastily drafted” to appease an angry President who can’t stand the idea that someone might correct his nonsense)…

To be clear: the executive order is nonsense. You can’t overrule the law by executive order, nor can you ignore the Constitution. This executive order attempts to do both. It’s also blatantly anti-free speech, anti-private property, pro-big government – which is only mildly amusing, given that Trump and his sycophantic followers like to insist they’re the opposite of all of those things. But also, because the executive order only has limited power, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in there for very little actual things that the administration can do. It’s very much written in a way to make Trump’s fans think he’s done something to attack social media companies, but the deeper you dig, the more nothingness you find.


Read the final EO; it’s still a legal nonsense. Plenty of analysis to be had: hitting social media will harm Trump (because Twitter will have to censor more, not less heavily); section 230 author says the EO is ‘plainly illegal’; the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity say it’s counterproductive; FCC commissioners say it won’t work. It will die in the courts.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 people have died in the US amid utter disorganisation at the federal level over pandemic planning, replete with grifting, lies, and idiocy.
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Opinion: Trump’s ‘horrifying lies’ about Lori Klausutis may cross a legal line • The New York Times

Peter Schuck is an emeritus professor of law at Yale:


Mr. Trump’s first tort is called intentional infliction of emotional distress, which the courts developed precisely to condemn wanton cruelty to another person who suffers emotionally as a result. This tort, which is sometimes called “outrage,” readily applies to Mr. Trump’s tweets about Ms. Klausutis. They were intentional and reckless, and were “extreme and outrageous” without a scintilla of evidence to support them. And they caused severe emotional distress — the protracted, daily-felt grief described in Mr. Klausutis’s letter to Mr. Dorsey.

Although the tweets targeted Mr. Scarborough, his own infliction of emotional distress claim may be weaker than Mr. Klausutis’s. By shrugging off the tweet as simply political gamesmanship on the president’s part, Mr. Scarborough may not have suffered the “severe emotional distress” required for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

Even so, Mr. Scarborough might succeed in a defamation suit against Mr. Trump for reputational harm. After all, the president’s innuendo that Mr. Scarborough may have murdered Lori Klausutis — presumably credible to the many Trump Twitter followers who subscribe to conspiracy theories — may seriously harm Mr. Scarborough’s reputation with them and others.

Mr. Trump, moreover, often aims his tweets to lead multiple news cycles affecting well beyond his Twitter followers. The president will surely argue that he has not actually accused anyone of murder and was merely “raising questions.” But courts have held that such calculated innuendo can constitute defamation, depending on the facts. This would be for a jury to decide.


It would certainly be a fun turnabout. I don’t think Klausutis would struggle to get crowdsourcing if he wanted to start a legal battle.
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Zuckerberg dismisses fact-checking after bragging about fact-checking • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:


[Mark] Zuckerberg has been reasonably consistent in making sure to leave large carve-outs in site policy for politicians, including the president. Last year, Facebook made clear that its community standards—including hate speech and abuse rules as well as fact-checking policies—do not apply to politicians or other newsworthy figures. The company has also said many times that political content and advertising does not need to be truthful, instead putting the onus on users to avoid lies or to recognize every time they are being lied to.

Even Facebook has a few standards, however, and those relate to election security and COVID-19. In March, the company removed a Trump campaign ad that spread misleading information about the 2020 US Census after reporters noticed and began to ask about the sponsored posts. Facebook also put a “partly false” label on a misleading video of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden shared by members of the Trump campaign.

Zuckerberg earlier this month bragged about the effectiveness of fact-checking as relating to the COVID-19 crisis. In a call, he told media that, in the month of April alone, Facebook’s fact-checkers put 50 million warning labels on COVID-19 content shared to the platform. Those labels were super effective, he crowed: 95% of the time, viewers didn’t click through to content that had been warned to be false.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to his own platform to rebut Zuckerberg’s statement.


Zuckerberg’s position on this strikes me as absurd. Facebook is doing all this stuff, as the article points out. It can’t be that he’s forgotten what he’s done; he must be hoping that those interviewing him aren’t smart enough to point out this contradiction. Fortunately, he was interviewed by Fox News, so no danger there.
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Technical glitches overshadow UK’s track and trace launch • Financial Times

Sarah Neville, Helen Warrell and Laura Hughes:


A [UK] government programme to trace people at risk of infection from Covid-19 got under way in England on Thursday — overshadowed by technical glitches and an admission from its chair that it would not be fully operational at local level for another month.

In an acknowledgment of the problems in the build-up to the launch, Rupert Soames, chief executive of Serco which, together with its subcontractors, recruited 10,000 of the new 25,000 contact tracers, told staff in a video, that the idea that “all the strands of this would come together at precisely the right time belongs only to the fantasies of those people who have never organised anything more than a tea party”.

Directors of public health, who only found out on Wednesday afternoon that the programme was to be launched four days earlier than expected, warned that necessary links between the central “test and trace” operation and local councils were still not fully established.

Downing Street denied the programme had been brought forward from next week to distract from the row over alleged lockdown breaches by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, which several opinion polls suggest has dented the popularity ratings of the government and prime minister Boris Johnson.


The programme was indeed brought forward, which is why it’s not going to be ready. The UK government has done lousy work from the start here. (Side note: how great to have a triple byline on a general news story where all three writers are women.)
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EMEA smartphone market expected to shrink to all-time lows in 2Q • IDC


According to the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, the EMEA smartphone market is expected to contract by close to a quarter in value terms in the three months to the end of June, after a relatively strong first three months to the year.

Measured in retail prices before sales tax and VAT, the second-quarter smartphone total will dip below $19bn and 63 million units — the smallest quarterly total across EMEA in five years.

“This will be the biggest fall in a single quarter the market has seen since IDC started tracking the region 14 years ago,” said Simon Baker, program director at IDC EMEA. “The deepest drop up to now was the 13.0% year-on-year drop in value in the third quarter of 2009 during the financial crisis.”

The 2Q downturn will be most pronounced in Europe, said Marta Pinto, research manager at IDC EMEA. Southern Europe will be badly hit, especially Spain, with a drop in value near a third. But everywhere will be in negative territory compared with the same quarter the year before.

The biggest fall in Europe is expected to be in Russia, where the coronavirus lockdown has been compounded by a drop in the currency. There was some evidence of consumers snapping up phones in the weeks leading up to the lockdown before prices rose, and prior experience of such crises in Russia suggests that the market will contract markedly for some months thereafter.


Oh, yeah, smartphones. For when we used to walk around and stuff.
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Why remote work is so hard—and how it can be fixed • The New Yorker

Cal Newport:


it took decades for factory owners to figure out how to make the most of electric power. Eventually, they discovered that the best approach was to put a small motor on each individual piece of machinery. Since a factory no longer needed to draw power from a central engine, its equipment could be spread out. This, in turn, changed the nature of industrial architecture. Buildings that no longer required reinforced ceilings to house shafts, belts, and pulleys could incorporate windows and skylights, of the sort we know today from urban loft buildings.

Inertia, David found, had been part of the problem. Factory owners who had spent a lot of money and time building physical plants organized around central-drive trains were reluctant to commit to complex, expensive overhauls. There were imaginative obstacles: powering each machine with its own individual motor may seem like an obvious idea now, but in fact it represented a sharp break from the centralized-power model that had dominated for the previous hundred and fifty years. Finally, technological barriers stood in the way—small issues, compared to the invention of electricity, but persistent and important ones nonetheless. Someone, for instance, had to figure out how to construct a building-wide power grid capable of handling the massively variable load created by many voltage-hungry mini-motors being turned off and on unpredictably. Until that happened, it was central power or bust.

In some respects, we may be in an electric-dynamo moment for remote work. In theory, we have the technology we need to make remote work workable. And yet most companies that have tried to graft it onto their existing setups have found only mixed success. In response, many have stuck with what they know. Now the coronavirus pandemic has changed the equation.


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Former Apple designer to launch rival to HomePod and Sonos • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaaw:


Having spent more than 20 years working closely with Jony Ive in Apple’s design team, Christopher Stringer left Silicon Valley in 2017 to start his new venture, Syng, in Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

Mr Stringer, who was born in Australia but grew up and studied in England, is named on more than 1,400 US patents, including for designs related to the iPhone, Apple Watch and HomePod.

With his involvement, Syng is likely to be the highest-profile hardware start-up to be launched by former Apple staffers since Nest. The smart home pioneer, which makes internet-connected thermostats, cameras and smoke alarms, was founded by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010 and was acquired by Google for $3.2bn in 2014. Mr Rogers, who was one of the first engineers on the original iPhone, now serves on Syng’s board, according to his LinkedIn profile.

However, while Nest helped to invent a new category of consumer electronics, Syng will be entering a much more crowded market. The home-audio sector has been saturated in recent years by low-cost “smart speakers” such as Amazon’s Echo, making life more difficult for higher-end products such as Sonos.

Syng, which bills itself as “the future of sound company”, is betting that superior design and sound quality, using a novel audio format, will allow it to stand out.


You know, I almost had some hope for it until we got to the “novel audio format” bit. This will crash and burn. A small startup will not persuade record labels to create a novel audio format. The speakers might sound and look nice, but what do they have over Sonos or everything else?
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Creationism, unchallenged • Slate Star Codex

Scott Alexander:


In the early 2000s, creationism was Public Enemy Number…maybe not One, but somewhere in the top ten. If you’re old enough to remember the decade at all, you probably recall the key flashpoints. The Discovery Institute. Michael Behe. “Teach the controversy”. The Creation Museum. Of Pandas And People. That one anti-Richard-Dawkins rap song which somehow despite everything managed to be really good.

And you probably remember the efforts by “the reality based community” to spread awareness of the dangers of creationism – the xkcd comics, the petitions by 1400 scientists named Steve, the New York Times articles…

…yeah, the 2000s were a weird time. I’ve talked about this particular conflict already in my post New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed. Today I want to focus on another aspect.

All those creationists are still there. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans believed “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”, little different from 44% who believed it when they first asked in 1983 or the 46% who believed it in 2006…

…I see people using rivers of ink to fight the modern equivalents of creationists. Pizzagaters, flat-earthers, moon-hoaxers, QAnon, deep-staters, people who say the coronavirus is a bioweapon, Alex Jones. Are they sure it’s not equally useless? Equally counterproductive?


As he points out, the number of articles about creationism has gone down almost to nothing. Yet its prevalence is about the same. Nobody’s mind has been changed (well, it’s lost a little popularity, perhaps just outside the margin of error).
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COVID antibody testing and conditional probability • All this

Dr Drang:


“in a population where the prevalence is 5%, a test with 90% sensitivity and 95% specificity will yield a positive predictive value of 49%.”

Let’s go through the numbers and see how 90% turns into 49%.

First, there are a couple of terms of art we need to understand: sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the accuracy of positive test results; it is the percentage of people who actually have the condition that will test positive for it. Specificity is the accuracy of negative test results; it is the percentage of people who actually don’t have the condition that will test negative for it.

With those definitions in mind, we’ll create a 2×2 contigency table for a population of 100,000 people in which the prevalence, sensitivity, and specificity are as given in the quote.

Test positive 4,500 4,750 9,250
Test negative 500 90,250 90,750
Total 5,000 95,000 100,000

5,000 people actually have the antibodies (5% of 100,000) and 95,000 do not. Of the 5,000 with antibodies, 4,500 (90% of 5,000) will test positive for them and the remaining 500 will test negative for them. Of the 95,000 without antibodies, 90,250 (95% of 95,000) will test negative for them and the remaining 4,750 will test positive for them.

So of the 9,250 people who test positive for the antibodies, only 4,500 actually have them. That’s where the 49% figure comes from in the quote.

This is a very common sort of problem to spring on students in a probability class who are learning about conditional probability and Bayes’s Theorem. The key thing is to realize that the probability that you have antibodies given that you had a positive test is definitely not the same as the probability that you had a positive test given that you have antibodies. When you hear about a test’s “accuracy,” it’s usually the latter that’s presented even though you as a patient are only interested in the former. After all, if you already knew you had the condition, you wouldn’t need to have the test.


Weird how the accuracy goes up as seroprevalence goes up. Anyway, we’ll need to be aware of this as testing (theoretically) expands over the next few months.
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Why is artificial intelligence so useless for business? • Matthew Bassett


The excel spreadsheets, marketing brochures, legal contracts, and other documents that make up the business world are hidden in email inboxes and other silos within various companies. No group of researchers can train a “document-understanding” model simply because they don’t have access to the relevant documents or appropriate training labels for them.

What’s more, artificial research teams lack an awareness of the specific business processes and tasks that could be automated in the first place. Researchers would need to develop an intuition of the business processes involved. We haven’t seen this happen in too many areas. The big successes have happened where the problem is easily understood and has many publicly-available examples (machine translation), where there is a promise of a massive ROI (self-driving cars), or where a large company arbitrarily decides to throw enough resources at the problem until they can crack it (AlphaGo).

This means, however, that we can expect artificial intelligence to succeed in automating business processes when 1) researchers are able to focus on a specific problem, and 2) they are able to accumulate enough data to train a workable model. (Another criterion for success is that should aim to empower the people involved in the process, not replace them, but that is for a different discussion.) And where they succeed, people who work in those industries can expect to be spending more of their time doing interesting, creative work and less time doing dull, time-consuming tasks. A great example of this is Proda, a London-based startup that can automatically standardize commercial real estate data.


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Trading Standards squad targets anti-5G USB stick • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:


at first sight, it seems to be just that – a USB key, with just 128MB of storage.

“So what’s different between it and a virtually identical ‘crystal’ USB key available from various suppliers in Shenzhen, China, for around £5 per key?” asks Ken Munro, whose company, Pen Test Partners, specialises in taking apart consumer electronic products to spot security vulnerabilities.

And the answer appears to be a circular sticker.

“Now, we’re not 5G quantum experts but said sticker looks remarkably like one available in sheets from stationery suppliers for less than a penny each,” he says.

Mr Munro and his colleague Phil Eveleigh proceeded to dismantle the USB key to find out if there were any whizz-bang electronics inside. But all they found was an LED light on the circuit board, similar to those on any other USB key. Their conclusion was that trading standards bodies should carry out their own investigations.

A search in Companies House shows the two directors of BioShield Distribution are Anna Grochowalska and Valerio Laghezza. Both of them appear to have been involved previously in a business called Immortalis, which sells a dietary supplement called Klotho Formula.

Its website – rather similar in design to that of the BioShield – says Klotho Formula uses a “proprietary procedure that leads to relativistic time dilation and biological quantum entanglement at the DNA level”.

Ms Grochowalska told BBC News her company was the sole global distributor of the 5GBioShield – but it did not manufacture or own the product.


Now Trading Standards are seeking to block sales: “we consider it to be a scam”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1319: Facebook’s strange fact-checking pose, UK trace-and-trace delayed, whatever happened to creationists?, and more

  1. Let me draw attention to one commentator’s pointing out of a major problem with the Slate Star Codex article:

    “It’s incredible to me that in the 108 comments posted so far, mine is the only one to mention Kitzmiller. Everyone is treating the mid-2000s focus on creationism as endogenous, like we need to explain it in terms of media incentives, or tribal conflict or random walks through culture war topics or whatever, when very plainly it was exogenous to the fact that there was a concerted effort to push creationism into the US educational curriculum. Once that effort was defeated, the focus on creationism went away.”

    I’ve see this sort of reasoning failure-mode too many times. A popular writer does a superficial take about a controversial social issue. They analyze something as religion or virtue signaling or evolutionary psychology or some such “big idea”. Their audience cheers, because it seems superficially so insightful. Down in the comments or other obscure places, someone tries to explain that there’s very important detailed material that the Grand Analysis is simply ignoring. But that doesn’t go far, because it’s buried amidst the cheering, and the expert has an insignificant fraction of the audience. Call it TED disease, maybe.

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