Start Up No.1320: Trump v Twitter (and how it happened), Microsoft’s AI takes over from journalists, Amazon kills its Look, and more


Pizza: an ideal product for a bit of arbitrage with Softbank’s money. CC-licensed photo by Matt on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Not available where curfewed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Trump, Twitter and Jack Dorsey • The New York Times

Maureen Dowd has some advice for Jack Dorsey:

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You could answer the existential question of whether @realDonaldTrump even exists if he doesn’t exist on Twitter. I tweet, therefore I am. Dorsey meets Descartes.

All it would take is one sweet click to force the greatest troll in the history of the internet to meet his maker. Maybe he just disappears in an orange cloud of smoke, screaming, “I’m melllllllting.”

Do Trump — and the world — a favor and send him back into the void whence he came. And then go have some fun: Meditate and fast for days on end!

Our country is going through biological, economic and societal convulsions. We can’t trust the powerful forces in this nation to tell us the truth or do the right thing. In fact, not only can we not trust them. We have every reason to believe they’re gunning for us.

In Washington, the Trump administration’s deception about the virus was lethal. On Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, the fat cats who carved up the country, drained us dry and left us with no safety net profiteered off the virus. In Minneapolis, the barbaric death of George Floyd after a police officer knelt on him for almost nine minutes showed yet again that black Americans have everything to fear from some who are charged with protecting them.

As if that weren’t enough, from the slough of our despond, we have to watch Donald Trump duke it out with the lords of the cloud in a contest to see who can destroy our democracy faster.

I wish I could go along with those who say this dark period of American life will ultimately make us nicer and simpler and more contemplative. How can that happen when the whole culture has been re-engineered to put us at each other’s throats?

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Also worth reading: Will Oremus at Medium gives a step-by-step on what happened, and some similar detail by the NYT.
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President Trump versus the mods • The New York Times

Kevin Roose says that this situation is more like trollish behaviour on old forums:

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looking at Mr. Trump as an aggrieved user of a fractious internet forum, rather than a politician making high-minded claims about freedom of speech, clarifies the dynamics at play here. Mod drama is never really about who’s allowed to say what, or which specific posts broke which specific rules. Often, it’s part of a power struggle between chaos and order, fought by people who thrive in a lawless environment.

In Twitter’s case, the company is enforcing rules it already had on its books — one prohibiting misinformation related to the voting process, and another prohibiting glorifying violence. They’re both clear, sensible rules, and Mr. Trump’s punishment for breaking them was relatively gentle. Twitter didn’t ban Mr. Trump or take down his tweets. It placed a small disclaimer on two of them — a pair of baseless tweets stating that mail-in ballots were ripe for voter fraud — and put a warning label on another.
But given Twitter’s history of permissiveness with Mr. Trump, any action to restrain him was bound to cause a stir. And Mr. Trump and his allies wasted no time going nuclear.

…Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are private enterprises, with no First Amendment obligations to users, and courts have consistently ruled that these companies can set their own rules, just as restaurants can require guests to wear shirts and shoes.

But Mr. Trump — whose entire online personality is built on pushing boundaries, and whose re-election campaign has already had some of its ads taken down for violating Facebook’s rules — has a strategic interest in getting the mods off his back, by intimidating social media executives into letting him post with impunity.

Facebook seems to have gotten Mr. Trump’s message.

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Jack Dorsey isn’t backing down, and I think the whole of his company is with him. By contrast, there’s a lot of internal dissent over Zuckerberg’s stated position. Mutiny is a possibility.
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Caught on camera, police explode in rage and violence across the US • The Verge

TC Sottek:

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On Saturday, the names of several police officers allegedly seen perpetrating violence in different cities began trending on Twitter as people worked to cross-reference faces from videos with personal information on the web.

The violence appears so widespread and consistent that you could be mistaken for thinking it’s coordinated at a national level. To some extent, it is: President Trump has cheered on police violence like a fan at a sports event, and police departments across the country have styled themselves as military forces after receiving two decades of hand-me-downs from the War on Terror.

“US cities face toll of violent protests,” says a headline at the top of Fox News. “Fury in the streets as protests spread across the US,” says The New York Times. “Fire and fury spread across the US,” says The Washington Post. “Wave of rage and anguish sweeps dozens of US cities,” says CNN. But whose rage? Whose fury? Whose violence?

Here’s another: ABC local news in Utah runs a graphic saying “violent protests in Salt Lake City.” In the background of the video, police knock an elderly man with a cane to the ground. He was simply standing near a bus stop.

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US police departments have become increasingly militarised, literally, with the transfer of surplus military equipment from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with particular spikes after 2010. Maybe the police should also be tested for steroids, like athletes; it’s known to increase aggressive behaviour.
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Microsoft lays off journalists to replace them with AI • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft is laying off dozens of journalists and editorial workers at its Microsoft News and MSN organizations. The layoffs are part of a bigger push by Microsoft to rely on artificial intelligence to pick news and content that’s presented on MSN.com, inside Microsoft’s Edge browser, and in the company’s various Microsoft News apps. Many of the affected workers are part of Microsoft’s SANE (search, ads, News, Edge) division, and are contracted as human editors to help pick stories.

“Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement. “This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, re-deployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”

While Microsoft says the layoffs aren’t directly related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, media businesses across the world have been hit hard by advertising revenues plummeting across TV, newspapers, online, and more.

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50 jobs in the US, about 27 in the UK. I took a look at MSN.com and couldn’t see any glaring errors. Let’s check back in a little while.
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AI isn’t magical and won’t help you reopen your business • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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When SharpestMinds, a startup that sells mentoring services to data scientists, surveyed its alumni in April and again in May, it found that 6% of respondents had been affected by furloughs, pay cuts or layoffs. That’s a drop on the ocean compared to the enormous layoffs in, say, the restaurant business, but it’s notable because these jobs are generally thought to be business-critical roles requiring high-demand specialized skill sets.

Uber recently shut down its AI research lab, and Airbnb’s layoffs included at least 29 full-time data scientists, according to its directory of those let go.

The pain for data scientists will likely increase as companies rethink how they spend, predicts SharpestMinds founder Edouard Harris. Hiring for such roles has slowed significantly, down by 50% since before the pandemic, he adds. On the other hand, that means there’s still demand, though it’s diminished.

What’s happening is not so much a reckoning as a “rationalization” of the application of AI in businesses, says Rajeev Sharma, head of enterprise AI at Pactera Edge, a technology-consulting firm. “[Companies] feel this is a time they can get rid of extra hires or lower performers who are not a good cultural fit,” he adds.

By contrast, the deep-pocketed big tech companies clearly see AI as not merely important but core to their businesses, and plan to keep hiring like crazy. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has said that in the sweep of human history, AI is more important than electricity or fire, and all the Big Five have said they’ll continue to add to their engineering ranks during this downturn, including data scientists and AI experts. Now is a great time to hire them, says Mr. Sharma. He says it’s like buying discounted shares after a stock-market crash.

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AI is more important than electricity or fire? That’s quite the statement. Uber clearly doesn’t think so.
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Is science being set up to take the blame? • Light Blue Touchpaper

Ross Anderson:

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Having spent a dozen years on the [Cambridge] university’s governing body and various of its subcommittees, I can absolutely get how this happened. Once a committee gets going, it can become very reluctant to change its opinion on anything. Committees can become sociopathic, worrying about their status, ducking liability, and finding reasons why problems are either somebody else’s or not practically soluble.

So I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading the minutes, and indeed we see the group worried about its power: on February 13th it wants the messaging to emphasise that official advice is both efficaceous and sufficient, to “reduce the likelihood of the public adopting unnecessary or contradictory behaviours”. Turf is defended: Public Health England (PHE) ruled on February 18th that it can cope with 5 new cases a week (meaning tracing 800 contacts) and hoped this might be increased to 50; they’d already decided the previous week that it wasn’t possible to accelerate diagnostic capacity. So far, so much as one might expect.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance.

…My experience of university committees makes this all just too painfully familiar. What’s failed here is not the science, but the process of government.

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Zero-day exploit in Sign in with Apple • Bhavukjain.com

Bhavuk Jain:

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What if I say, your Email ID is all I need to takeover your account on your favorite website or an app. Sounds scary, right? This is what a bug in Sign in with Apple allowed me to do.

In the month of April, I found a zero-day in Sign in with Apple that affected third-party applications which were using it and didn’t implement their own additional security measures. This bug could have resulted in a full account takeover of user accounts on that third party application irrespective of a victim having a valid Apple ID or not.

For this vulnerability, I was paid $100,000 by Apple under their Apple Security Bounty program.

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There are technical details, but they’re.. technical. I don’t think this is an iOS exploit, but a server-side on which Apple should have been able to fix on its own. His publication implies that he’s been told he can publish.
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Amazon Echo Look no more – another Alexa device discontinued • Voicebot.ai

Bret Kinsella:

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Amazon quietly introduced the Echo Look Alexa-enabled smart speaker for fashion advice in April 2017. Yesterday, the company quietly informed its few thousand users that Echo Look would be discontinued. In providing background on the latest shakeup of Amazon’s Alexa portfolio, an Amazon spokesperson shared the text of an email sent to Echo Look users yesterday saying:

“When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function…”

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Congratulations, folks, you’ve got another dead device to take to the dump, if it ever reopens.
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Doordash and pizza arbitrage • Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk

Ranjan Roy had a friend who runs pizza restaurants in New York, and in March 2019 was getting complaints from people saying the pizzas delivered from their restaurants were cold. Except: the restaurants didn’t deliver:

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He realized that a delivery option had mysteriously appeared on their company’s Google Listing. The delivery option was created by Doordash.

To confirm, he had never spoken with anyone from Doordash and after years of resisting the siren song of delivery revenue, certainly did not want to be listed. But the words “Order Delivery” were right there, prominently on the Google snippet.

He messaged me asking me if I knew anything about Doordash, and oh boy, did I get Softbank-triggered. I had just read about their $400m Series F and it was among the WeWorkian class of companies that, for me, represented everything wrong about startup evolution through the 2010s. Raise a ton of money, lose a ton of money, and just obliterate the basic economics of an industry.

Doordash was causing him real problems. The most common was, Doordash delivery drivers didn’t have the proper bags for pizza so it inevitably would arrive cold. It led to his employees wasting time responding to complaints and even some bad Yelp reviews.

But he brought up another problem – the prices were off. He was frustrated that customers were seeing incorrectly low prices. A pizza that he charged $24 for was listed as $16 by Doordash.

My first thought: I wondered if Doordash is artificially lowering prices for customer acquisition purposes.

My second thought: I knew Doordash scraped restaurant websites. After we discussed it more, it was clear that the way his menu was set up on his website, Doordash had mistakenly taken the price for a plain cheese pizza and applied it to a ‘specialty’ pizza with a bunch of toppings.

My third thought: Cue the Wall Street trader in me…..ARBITRAGE!!!!

If someone could pay Doordash $16 a pizza, and Doordash would pay his restaurant $24 a pizza, then he should clearly just order pizzas himself via Doordash, all day long. You’d net a clean $8 profit per pizza [insert nerdy economics joke about there is such a thing as a free lunch].

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Do you think they’d act on this knowledge? Well, do you, punk? (This story has already had wide circulation, but it’s a great read if not. And Margins is a good newsletter – one or two editions per week. Recommended.)
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Sars, Ebola and Mers were near misses that led us to believe Covid-19 would pass us by too • New Statesman

Ian Leslie:

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Sars killed about 800 people worldwide (one in ten who were infected), mostly in China and its neighbours. To the extent that the rest of the world noticed, the disease was thought to have faded away. Those who fought the outbreak at close quarters, however, knew that Sars didn’t burn out of its own accord. It had to be stopped in its tracks.

In industries that have to be vigilant for risks of disaster, such as aviation or nuclear energy, “near misses” are treated as flashing red lights. When a plane almost misses its landing or a factory explosion is narrowly averted, investigations are made, processes revised: just because the disaster did not occur it does not mean it won’t next time.

But near misses can also breed complacency. We have a tendency, identified by those who study the psychology of risk, to treat near misses as grounds for optimism. Since the worst didn’t happen, people become strengthened in their conviction that it won’t ever happen. A recent Norwegian study of traffic behaviour found that drivers who had experienced near accidents were subsequently more willing to take risks. At the level of organisations, close calls are sometimes taken as reasons to stick with existing procedures. The organisational theorists Junko Shimazoe and Richard Burton call this the “justification shift”.

…To learn from a near miss, you first have to recognise it as one.

…When we make inquiries into the management of this crisis, I worry that we will learn only how we should have fought Covid-19, rather than how to deal with the next outbreak. Awful as this virus is, I wonder what we would be going through now if it was even more transmissible, or if it was killing children in their thousands. We should confront the possibility that what we are experiencing now is itself a near miss.

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That last paragraph is one to mull over. We have been really, really lucky even as we are burying the dead.
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Yesterday, the Beatles and why talent isn’t enough • UnHerd

Dorian Lynskey:

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Around this time last year, I came out of a press screening of Yesterday thinking that writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle had wasted a fantastic concept. What if you were the only person on Earth who remembered the Beatles? The film gave the dullest possible answer: you’d become a megastar by playing their songs but you’d feel a bit grubby about it. As I wrote at the time, “Not only does Curtis not answer the questions he has raised; he doesn’t even appear to notice he has asked them.” Now it turns out that a much more interesting take already existed: the original screenplay.

Last week, struggling screenwriter Jack Barth told Uproxx how, in 2012, he wrote a screenplay called Cover Version about an unsuccessful singer-songwriter who — you’ve guessed it — is the only person who remembers the Beatles and presents their songs as his own. But while Yesterday’s Jack Malik, the latest in a long line of sweet but emotionally inept Curtismen, hits the big time, Barth’s protagonist does not.

…The Barth theory, as far as I can tell without being able to read his screenplay, is that success is contingent on several factors — timing, momentum, charisma, connections, luck — of which inspiration is not necessarily the most important. “I was lying in bed one night thinking, if Star Wars hadn’t been made and I just came up with the idea for Star Wars, I bet I wouldn’t be able to sell it,” said Barth, who had 25 unproduced screenplays under his belt. “Carry that on to the Beatles, if I knew all the Beatles songs, I bet I couldn’t be successful with it.”

Anyone with a significant interest in the history of pop music knows this to be true.

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The whole story is a great insight into how screenplays get mangled, strangled and passed around, but also into the question of whether fame is inevitable.
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Pixel Buds 2 review, one month later: too many compromises • Android Police

Taylor Kerns:

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It’s been a month and change since Google launched its first true wireless earbuds. When I first got my hands on the Pixel Buds, I was struck by their fit and finish, comfort, and sound quality, but nagging problems like audible interference at low volumes and short battery life left me feeling lukewarm on the whole. I’ve been using them regularly ever since, but unfortunately, my opinion hasn’t changed: there are too many compromises in the 2020 Pixel Buds to justify their [$179] price for most buyers.

…I suspect the disappointing [battery] longevity is down to inefficient software. The cells in the two buds drain at varying rates — I’ve seen a difference as high as 50 percentage points between left and right. Google says that’s normal, that “the two earbuds serve different functions at different times” and software “monitors the state on both earbuds and can switch either earbud to support more power hungry functions.” While it’s true I never had one bud die with significant juice left in the other, it’s still disconcerting to see such a discrepancy between the two. There’s just gotta be a better way to accomplish what Google is going for here. This might also be addressed in firmware patches, but there’s no way of knowing whether it will.

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Poor battery life for the price, plus an annoying static hiss that Google tells him “most people won’t be able to pick up”. Amazing how these true wireless earbuds all seems to have ovoid cases with magnetically closing flip-top lids. As if there were no other way to do it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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