Start Up No.1322: Facebook v the humans, ban Trump or bear him?, Walmart’s hated AI, smart contact lenses (will they work?), and more


A supercut of police violence during protests has been viewed tens of millions of times. CC-licensed photo by Geoff Livingston on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome. (I do look at them all!)

Facebook and humans • Margins

Ranjan Roy:

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According to Axios:

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Later [on Friday], Trump phoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. During the call, Zuckerberg “expressed concerns about the tone and the rhetoric,” according to a source familiar with the call.

Zuckerberg “didn’t make any specific requests,” the source said. A second source familiar with the call said the Facebook boss told Trump that he personally disagreed with the president’s incendiary rhetoric and that by using language like this, Trump was putting Facebook in a difficult position.

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This shocked me not because Zuckerberg single-handedly played out the ‘arbiter of truth’ role he normally argues against. It was just how human this moment is. Two guys talking on the phone about what to do with a Facebook post. If it wasn’t so consequential, it’d feel pedestrian.

For all the talk about AI tools and machine learning and natural language understanding, this is what it boiled down to. Two dudes on the phone.

I acknowledge this is a distinct challenge from moderating billions of posts per day, but the core challenges with Facebook and problematic content have always been human. It was always about the will, ethics, and incentive structures within the company.

…This was always about people. It’s Sandberg getting sidelined by Kaplan, and maybe Thiel as well. Cox being pushed out by Zuck. Systrom and Koum and Acton all giving up. I won’t pretend to understand the exact internal dynamics, but this was never a question about the magical application of undiscovered technologies to tough content problems. It was always about the leaders, managers, and rank and file, and the decisions that they made.

…Instead of genocides in Myanmar, we’re seeing the President threatening violence on his own people, and those threats coming true. And their leader making the human, editorial decision to use their platform to promote it.

It always needed to be the employees of Facebook to start pushing back, privately and publicly. This is the first week we’ve really seen it, and I can say, amidst all the shit out there right now, this does make me just a little bit optimistic.

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See also: Zuckerberg marking his homework and saying he got an A in call to pissed-off Facebook employees.
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People can’t stop watching videos of police and protesters. That’s the idea • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

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An officer shoving a protester to the ground. Two New York Police Department cars ramming demonstrators. Police using batons, bicycles and car doors as weapons.

These are becoming defining images of the protests against police brutality of black people that have swept the nation, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Countless videos of these moments have been shared on social media. Among the most-seen of them: a compilation video created on Saturday.

Jordan Uhl, a political consultant and activist in Washington, D.C., wanted to make sure as many people saw these videos as possible. Encouraged by a friend, he edited together 14 clips, including one from a reporter at The New York Times of an officer accelerating and opening a car door that hit protesters. The result is a two-minute, 13-second supercut that he called “This Is a Police State.”

As of Monday night, the video had amassed more than 45 million views from Mr. Uhl’s tweet alone. After he posted a Dropbox link so that anyone could download and share the video, it garnered tens of millions more views. (For context, the video that the birder Christian Cooper recorded of Amy Cooper in Central Park has been viewed 44 million times on Twitter. The viral disinformation video “Plandemic,” which traveled across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram last month, was viewed more than eight million times after just over a week online.)

…He views the video, focusing solely on what appear to be police misdeeds, as a corrective to what he believes to be an emphasis on covering looting and property damage by media. “I wanted to push back and show how the main story should be that, in response to a mass mobilization against police brutality, the police responded with more brutality,” Mr. Uhl said.

“People are deeply unwilling to acknowledge the abuse from police,” he continued, noting that “the passive language used for police versus the active language used for protesters demonstrate our society’s unwillingness to confront systemic injustice imposed by police.”

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That active v passive point is so crucial. News reports talk about tear gas and rubber bullets as though they had minds of their own, appearing on the scene by some mystical intent. Protesters, though, get lots of verbs.
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Trump and his allies are now openly threatening Americans with violence. Ban them all • The Verge

TC Sottek is The Verge’s executive editor:

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Enough. It is time to remove the president from the private platforms he uses to undermine the public institutions he is sworn to protect, starting with Twitter and Facebook. And it is time to remove anyone else in power who facilitates the president’s vile and deadly agenda.

We are now far beyond the petty fight over “conservative bias.” Who cares? Right-wing complainants have already declared social media platforms irreparably biased, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fox News and other right-wing media organizations thrive on Facebook and Twitter and routinely see their messages flourish there. The charge of bias has always been a hoax perpetrated by demagogues who find profit in partisanship. Besides, the president and his allies have already accused the platforms of censoring them. They will not preserve any good faith by continuing to broadcast his hateful messages.

It is understandable why Facebook and Twitter have largely cast aside the responsibility of dealing with the president’s dangerous rhetoric. It’s true that, even despite his evident harm, banning Trump has always sounded like a cheap resistance fantasy or a lame election-year meme. And it has been hard to identify a single week under Trump’s rule that has been worse than all the others. His behavior has been consistently outrageous in a way that threatens to numb our instincts and tempts paralysis. Crossing the president and his allies is also guaranteed to reap abuse; after finally taking action against Trump, the president organized harassment against an individual Twitter employee, resulting in death threats.

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As he notes, “fighting a political party that has proven it will react to any perceived sleight with extreme hostility could have existential consequences”. Generous of him to offer to take Twitter outside and hold its coat while it fights Trump. For the opposite view on this, read on to Ben Thompson.
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Dust in the light • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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[Former basketball star Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar explains:

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African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

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What made the Floyd story different than all of the surely similar examples that went before it is the Internet, specifically the combination of cameras on smartphones and social networks. The former means any incident can be recorded on a whim; the latter means that said recording can be spread worldwide instantly. That is exactly what happened with the Floyd homicide: the initial video was captured on a smartphone and posted on Facebook, triggering a level of attention to the Floyd case that in all likelihood changed the nature of the autopsy and led to the pressing of charges against [arrested ex-police officer] Chauvin — a chance, in Abdul-Jabbar’s words, of cleaning at least one speck of that omnipresent dust.

…what is so striking about the demands that Facebook act on this particular post [in which Trump says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts] (beyond the extremely problematic prospect of an unaccountable figure like Zuckerberg unilaterally deciding what is and is not acceptable political speech): the preponderance of evidence suggests that these demands have nothing to do with misinformation, but rather reality. The United States really does have a president named Donald Trump who uses extremely problematic terms — in all caps! — for African Americans and quotes segregationist police chiefs, and social media, for better or worse, is ultimately a reflection of humanity. Facebook deleting Trump’s post won’t change that fact, but it will, at least for a moment, turn out the lights, hiding the dust.

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Thompson’s argument is that Trump’s tweets and Facebook posts should all, always, be visible so that you can judge him. It’s a strong argument (and the enveloping post, about Madison, in Milwaukee – the city where I think he grew up – is even stronger); but it implies that once you get to a certain level of fame, or political heft, you are essentially uncensorable and no rules apply. That seems wrong. Where’s the line you cross from being subject to terms of service, to indomitable?
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We’ve now entered the final phase of the Trump era • The Atlantic

Thomas Wright is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:

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Trump responded [to Twitter posting a warning on his tweet last Friday] by trying to distract. He gave a press conference at 2 p.m. in which he declared that he would terminate relations with the WHO and unilaterally announced a response to China’s actions against Hong Kong. Within hours, Angela Merkel let it be known that she was withdrawing from the summit. Miffed, Trump said the next day that he was postponing the summit and inviting Russia, Australia, India, and South Korea to join.

The postponement destroys any hope that a multilateral organization would condemn China’s actions against Hong Kong. Moreover, Russia is a staunch supporter of China’s position that Hong Kong is a purely internal matter that should be of no concern to the rest of the world. Some observers thought the invitation to more countries was designed to isolate China, but its practical effect was to deliver Xi Jinping a big win.

The damage did not end there. China has more leadership roles in United Nations organizations than the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council combined. To their credit, some officials in the Trump administration were attempting to build an international coalition to push back on this influence. They scored a victory earlier this year when they helped deny China the chair of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Trump’s termination of relations with the WHO dealt a death blow to this effort…

…There is no way back from the Götterdämmerung in the remainder of the Trump era. The question facing responsible senior administration officials (there are several at the principal and deputy level), Republicans in Congress, and allied governments is not how to persuade Trump to do the right thing, but how to limit the damage so the government can be repaired after he is gone.

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The election’s more than 200 days away. That seems very distant.
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Walmart employees are out to show its anti-shoplifting AI doesn’t work • WIRED

Louise Matsakis:

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the Concerned Home Office Associates [anonymous employees at Walmart] created a video, which purports to show Everseen’s technology failing to flag items not being scanned in three different Walmart stores. Set to cheery elevator music, it begins with a person using self-checkout to buy two jumbo packages of Reese’s White Peanut Butter Cups. Because they’re stacked on top of each other, only one is scanned, but both are successfully placed in the bagging area without issue.

The same person then grabs two gallons of milk by their handles, and moves them across the scanner with one hand. Only one is rung up, but both are put in the bagging area. They then put their own cell phone on top of the machine, and an alert pops up saying they need to wait for assistance—a false positive. “Everseen finally alerts! But does so mistakenly. Oops again,” a caption reads. The filmmaker repeats the same process at two more stores, where they fail to scan a heart-shaped Valentine’s Day chocolate box with a puppy on the front and a Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush. At the end, a caption explains that Everseen failed to stop more than $100 of would-be theft.

The video isn’t definitive proof that Everseen’s technology doesn’t work as well as advertised, but its existence speaks to the level of frustration felt by the group of anonymous Walmart employees, and the lengths they went to prove their objections had merit.

In interviews, the workers, whose jobs include knowledge of Walmart’s loss prevention programs, said their top concern with Everseen was false positives at self-checkout. The employees believe that the tech frequently misinterprets innocent behavior as potential shoplifting, which frustrates customers and store associates, and leads to longer lines. “It’s like a noisy tech, a fake AI that just pretends to safeguard,” said one worker.

…In the past, Walmart and other retailers relied on weight sensors to prevent shoplifting through self-checkout, but those were prone to error and frustrated customers. Some stores are now turning instead to firms like Everseen, which promise to reduce shrink and increase customer satisfaction by relying instead on surveillance cameras and machine vision. Everseen has said that it works with a number of major retailers. Amazon uses similar technology in its Amazon Go convenience stores, where a network of cameras automatically log the products customers take. (Amazon is now licensing its “Just Walk Out” tech to other companies.)

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First look: Apple News+ Audio in iOS 13.5.5 beta [Video] • 9to5Mac

Jeff Benjamin:

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As 9to5Mac showcased yesterday, there will be a new Audio tab in the default News app. Although this tab isn’t currently available to iOS 13.5.5 beta users, we were able to gain access to this tab early. The Audio tab features curated audio articles that are taken directly from existing Apple News+ magazines.

Apple is asking publishers for permission to produce audio versions of stories distributed via News+, and Apple is planning to use actors to read long-form pieces.

As I briefly explored the new Audio tab, I found an interface that’s similar to the default Podcasts app. Users will have the option to go back 30 seconds, play/pause, and skip to the next article. There are additional options hidden behind an ellipsis that lets users access queuing, link back to the original written article, share the story, etc.

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They’re going to use actors? Good work for the actors, I guess, but pretty exhausting. And scales badly. Amazing, when Apple has technology that will automatically generate high-quality speech from tect, that it would go for humans. I guess it doesn’t want to have any mistakes; those could be embarrassing.
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These smart contact lenses overlay info without obscuring your view • ExtremeTech

David Cardinal:

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The lenses use a tiny projector to send information to your retinas. The one the company demonstrated last year had a stunning 14,000 pixel-per-inch resolution and measured a total of 0.5 mm across. Individual pixels were slightly larger (1.8 microns) than those in the image sensor in a smartphone for comparison. It has to be that small because it’s in front of your eye. The company says it only blocks a small fraction of the light entering your pupil, on the order of 10%, so that it doesn’t impact your normal vision more than a typical pair of glasses.

…As with many problems, the notion of sticking a small display in front of your eye is more involved than it first appears. For example, Mojo found that accurate, high-speed, eye tracking was essential. Otherwise projected objects would move all over our field of view as our eyes darted about. For anyone who has shelled out hundreds of dollars on a bulky eye-tracker for a research project, the idea of having it built into contact lenses is an impressive feat all by itself. Unlike a typical, complex, eye-tracking hardware device, because the lenses move with your eye, the only hardware required is the typical accelerometer/magnetometer/gyro setup.

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I don’t quite believe that this is a workable technology. Apart from anything, what about saccades – the incredibly quick adjustments that our eyes make when they’re focussing on something, or following something? Our eyes don’t track smoothly.

Plus, would you be able to adjust the viewing angle when you put them in? Would they stay the right way up? Which way up would they be? What if you need to wear contact lenses? What if you need to wear glasses?

Anyhow, they’re five years and $150m into this. Presumably they’ve answered these questions?
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HTC to cut jobs again • DIgitimes

Max Wang and Steve Shen:

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HTC has announced plans to further scale down its workforce and make human resources adjustments as it moves to further optimize its operations, though it did not say how many jobs will be cut.

The company said the move is necessary to achieve its goal of making a turnaround of its smartphone business and continuing its innovative efforts to further push its VR/AR business.

Previous operational adjustment efforts for cost reductions, including massive layoffs, over the past few years have resulted in significant savings in production costs pushing its gross margin toward the positive territory, the company noted.

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Are there seriously people inside HTC who think its smartphone business can be rescued from the ashes? And you have to love that idea that gross margin – which doesn’t even account for fixed overheads or costs like R&D – is still negative. If you can’t manage that, your business is so crocked it should be seeking venture capital.
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Lawsuit over online book lending could bankrupt Internet Archive • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam, the Internet Archive announced it was dispensing with [its] waiting-list system. Under a program it called the National Emergency Library, IA began allowing an unlimited number of people to check out the same book at the same time—even if IA only owned one physical copy.

Before this change, publishers largely looked the other way as IA and a few other libraries experimented with the digital lending concept. Some publishers’ groups condemned the practice, but no one filed a lawsuit over it. Perhaps the publishers feared setting an adverse precedent if the courts ruled that CDL was legal.

But the IA’s emergency lending program was harder for publishers to ignore. So this week, as a number of states have been lifting quarantine restrictions, the publishers sued the Internet Archive.

In an email to Ars Technica, IA founder Brewster Kahle described the lawsuit as “disappointing.”

“As a library, the Internet Archive acquires books and lends them, as libraries have always done,” he wrote. “Publishers suing libraries for lending books, in this case, protected digitized versions, and while schools and libraries are closed, is not in anyone’s interest.”

The publishers’ legal argument is straightforward: the Internet Archive is making and distributing copies of books without permission from copyright holders. That’s generally illegal unless a defendant can show it is authorized by one of copyright law’s various exceptions.

Legal experts tell Ars that the Internet’s Archive’s best response is to argue that its program is fair use. That’s a flexible legal doctrine that has been used to justify a wide range of copying over the decades—from recording television broadcasts for personal use to quoting a few sentences of a book in a review. Most relevant for our purposes, the courts have held that it is a fair use to scan books for limited purposes such as building a book search engine.

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Puzzling why the IA decided to jump the gun like that. You have a situation that works well, and then you push it over the edge. The IA’s defence isn’t strong here.
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Report: Apple investing in Taiwanese factory where MicroLED display development will be ‘top priority’ • MacRumors

Tim Hardwick:

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Apple is reportedly weighing up a $330m investment in a Taiwanese factory to manufacture both LED and MicroLED displays for future iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and other devices. According to Taiwan Sourcing Service Provider (CENS), Apple is teaming up on the new factory with LED producer Epistar and LCD panel maker AU Optronics.

The report highlights the advantages of Mini-LED and MicroLED screens over LCD and OLED displays, including being thinner and more energy efficient. For example, the power consumption of MicroLED screens is only one-tenth that of LCD displays, and the color saturation is close to OLED:

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“Like OLED, micro-LED is self-luminous. However, compared with OLED, micro-LED can support a higher brightness, higher dynamic range, and wider color gamut, all the while achieving a faster update rate, wider viewing angle, and lower power consumption, all qualities favored by Apple.”

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According to the report, owing to the difficulties involved in developing MicroLED technology, early designs will rely on Mini-LEDs that are somewhere in between traditional LED and MicroLED technology. However, Apple still considers MicroLED technology to be the “top priority.”

Apple has six mini-LED products in the works that are set to debut in 2020 and 2021, according to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Apple is said to be debuting the technology in a high-end 12.9in iPad Pro , which will launch in the fall, a 27in iMac Pro, a 14.1in MacBook Pro , a 16in MacBook Pro , a 10.2in iPad, and a 7.9in iPad mini.

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So that basically sounds like a refresh of the existing high-end line, but with different screens. Quite a long way off.
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White nationalist group posing as antifa called for violence on Twitter • NBC News

Ben Collins, Brandy Zadrozny and Emmanuelle Saliba:

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A Twitter account claiming to belong to a national “antifa” organization and pushing violent rhetoric related to ongoing protests has been linked to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, according to a Twitter spokesperson.

The spokesperson said the account violated the company’s platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts. Twitter suspended the account after a tweet that incited violence.

As protests were taking place in multiple states across the U.S. Sunday night, the newly created account, @ANTIFA_US, tweeted, “Tonight’s the night, Comrades,” with a brown raised fist emoji and “Tonight we say ‘F— The City’ and we move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours …”

This isn’t the first time Twitter has taken action against fake accounts engaged in hateful conduct linked to Identity Evropa, according to the spokesperson.

The antifa movement — a network of loosely organized radical groups who use direct action to fight the far-right and fascism — has been targeted by President Donald Trump as the force behind some of the violence and property destruction seen at some protests, though little evidence has been provided for such claims.

Other misinformation and misleading claims spread across Twitter on Sunday night and into Monday related to the protests.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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