Start Up No.1326: DuckDuckGo prepares for the big(ger) time, SARS-Cov-2’s origins become clearer, Twitter to relaunch verification, and more

Your MP doesn’t look like this – but machines can make new ones for you. CC-licensed photo by franckybrique on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back • WIRED UK

Matt Burgess:


The way many European antitrust fines work puts the onus of fixing a problem on the guilty party. Google has re-written the contracts it holds with phone makers and relaxed limits on how Android can be developed by others [after being found guilty on antitrust grounds of restricting competition on search on Android]. On new phones and tablets shipped into the European Economic Area, it has introduced the search engine choice screen.

The choice screen gives Google’s rivals an unprecedented presence on Android devices. Smaller players have never had such an opportunity to directly reach users on the world’s biggest mobile operating system.

Chief among those set to benefit is DuckDuckGo, a US-based search engine founded in 2008 by CEO Gabriel Weinberg. DuckDuckGo will appear on all 31 choice screens across Europe when it is first implemented, a number matched only by The company has been competing with Google for more than a decade, offering a search engine that emphasises privacy and doesn’t collect user data, but it is still tiny compared to Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s creation. “We’re not trying to topple Google,” Weinberg, 40, says. “Our goal is for consumers who want to choose a private option, they should be able to do so easily.”

The idea for DuckDuckGo came partly from a stained glass class. In 2007, a couple of years after completing his masters in technology policy at MIT, and having already sold a social networking startup, Opobox, for $10 million, Weinberg decided to try his hand at a new hobby. The class teacher handed out a print-out of the best websites to learn more about creating stained glass. When Weinberg tried to search for information on Google, none of the recommended sites appeared in the top results.

The sheet of paper led to the creation of I’ve Got a Fang, a crowd-sourced site where people could contribute authoritative URLs on particular subjects. Weinberg, who lives in Philadelphia, believed the knowledge from people’s heads could be better than Google’s algorithms.

I’ve Got a Fang was a flop: few people added links to the site and it failed to get any traction. But the idea of human curation stuck, and Weinberg combined this notion with the remnants of another failed side gig – one that had already run into trouble with Google. Tldscan was a series of websites that crawled structured information and published it to the web – think sports statistics available in one place. In a now-archived 2010 blog post, “My history of (mostly failed) side projects and startups”, Weinberg wrote that he was getting 50,000 visitors and $500 revenue per day from Tldscan. “Then Google blacklisted all of my sites,” he wrote.


Fun history of DuckDuckGo (which I’ve used for about ten years). It’s still tiny – about 60m queries per day – but always growing.
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SARS-CoV-2 looks like a hybrid of viruses from two different species • Ars Technica

John Timmer:


The basic genome analysis [by a US team] confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 is most closely related to a number of viruses that had been isolated from bats. But different areas of the virus were more or less related to different bat viruses. In other words, you’d see a long stretch of RNA that’s most similar to one virus from bats, but it would then switch suddenly to look most similar to a different bat virus.

This sort of pattern is exactly what you’d expect from recombination, where the switch between two different molecules would cause a sudden change in the sequence at the point where the exchange took place. (You’d see this rather than differences from both parent molecules being spread evenly throughout the genome.)

But there was a notable exception to this mixing of bat viruses: the spike protein that sits on the virus’s surface and latches on to human cells. Here, the researchers found exactly what the earlier studies had suggested: a key stretch of the spike protein, the one that determines which proteins on human cells it interacts with, came from a pangolin version of the virus through recombination.

In other words, both of the ideas from earlier work were right. SARS-CoV-2 is most closely related to bat viruses and most closely related to pangolin viruses. It just depends on where in the genome you look.

The other bit of information to come out of this study is an indication of where changes in the virus’s proteins are tolerated. This inability to tolerate changes in an area of the genome tends to be an indication that the protein encoded by that part of the genome has an essential function. The researchers identified a number of these, one of which is the part of the spike protein that came from the pangolin virus. Of all 6,400 of the SARS-CoV-2 genomes isolated during the pandemic, only eight from a single cluster of cases had any changes in this region. So, it’s looking likely that the pangolin sequence is essential for the virus’s ability to target humans.


So rather as has been said before: bat-borne virus passed to pangolin and then to humans. My money’s still on a pangolin smuggler as the Patient Zero. (Thanks Jim for the link.) Also worth reading: how coronavirus experts were vindicated.
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Covid-19 stalks large families in rural America • WSJ

Ian Lovett, Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg:


A Wall Street Journal analysis found that, across the country, the virus has spread more widely in places with the most crowded households, not necessarily places with the largest or densest populations. Remote, rural hamlets where extended families live under the same roof have turned deadlier than some of the densest blocks of Manhattan or Chicago, the analysis found. In both contexts, the virus has zeroed in on crowded homes, sometimes wiping out generations in a matter of days.

Housing analysts and some government agencies consider a home with more than one resident per room to be crowded. Nationwide—4 million homes, or about 3%—fall into this category, according to census data.

The Journal analyzed all 1,487 U.S. counties with at least 50 Covid-19 cases, as of June 7. The 10% with the highest rates of crowding accounted for 28% of the coronavirus cases among those 1,487 counties, according to census and Johns Hopkins University data.

The Journal also found that in selected areas—including Cook County, Ill., New York City and Wayne County, Mich.—ZIP Codes with the largest share of households of at least five people have disproportionate shares of their counties’ Covid-19 infections. The problem is particularly acute in poorer and minority communities, according to data from some cities, where extended families often live together and lack space and resources to isolate anyone who falls ill.


Smart analysis. Though when it says “one person per room”, it means “bedroom” rather than individual room. There’s also the question of whether this is about access to health services – which one always has to ask about the US.
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This MP Does Not Exist 🗳🧑 💼 •


Tim Lawrence MP

Banlington South East


How it works: “Using RunwayML, a StyleGAN neural network model was trained with 745 MP photos for 5,000 steps then used to grow 650 brand new politicians in a vat.

Names were built using segments from the names of 2,097 real MPs. Similarly, the structures of actual constituency names and places were used to create new ones.”

The list of “Does Not Exists” is getting quite long. At this rate we’ll have to have a site which generates lists of objects and people that do not exist, using a neural network… (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning.)
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TikTok pledges to promote black creators after accusations of censorship • The Verge

Makena Kelly:


TikTok on Monday laid out a series of actions it plans to take to address criticisms that its recommendation algorithm suppresses black creators.

These steps include launching what it calls a “creator diversity council” aimed at “recognizing and uplifting the voices driving culture, creativity, and important conversations on the platform,” the company wrote in a blog post. TikTok says it will also reassess its moderation strategies, build out a new “user-friendly” appeals process, and develop a new creator portal for expanding communications and “opportunities for our broader creator community.”

TikTok said it will “stand in solidarity with the Black community” on Tuesday by participating in “Black Out Tuesday,” a day of action against racial injustice planned by the music industry. TikTok said it will shut down its Sounds page, turning off all playlists and campaigns “to observe a moment of reflection and action.” The platform pledged a $3 million donation to non-profits that help the black community and a separate $1 million donation to address “racial injustice and inequality.” However, TikTok did not name any specific organizations in its blog.

…on Friday, TikTok appeared to restrict the search results for hashtags like #acab and #fuckthepolice. Users could still use the tags, but their videos would not show up when searching for the tags. In December, TikTok admitted that it suppressed videos by disabled, queer, and fat creators. According to Slate, TikTok censored videos by creators it deemed to be “vulnerable to cyberbullying.” Users with autism, Down syndrome, birthmarks, or “slight squints” had their videos suppressed, too.


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Twitter to launch a revamped verification system with publicly documented guidelines • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:


Twitter is developing a new in-app system for requesting verification, according to a recent finding from [non-Twitter hacker] reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, which Twitter has since confirmed. The discovery involves an added “Request Verification” option that appears in a redesigned account settings screen. This feature is not launched to the public, Twitter says.

Wong typically digs into Twitter and Facebook to discover features like these, making a name for herself as someone who scoops upcoming additions and changes to popular social apps before they go live.

…this change isn’t merely about the reappearance of the feature Wong spotted, Twitter told TechCrunch. This time around, Twitter will also publicly document what qualifies a Twitter user to be verified. The hope is that with more clarity and transparency around the process, people will understand why the company makes the choices it does.

Twitter in the past had internal guidelines around verification, but this will be the first time Twitter has ever publicly and specifically documented those rules.

The company confirmed Wong’s finding shows the forthcoming option to request verification, but would not comment on when the new system would go live or what the new guidelines will state when they become available.


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A Class Divided (full film): FRONTLINE • YouTube


The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Jane Elliott, a teacher in a small, all-white Iowa town, divided her third-grade class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups and gave them a daring lesson in discrimination. This is the story of that lesson, its lasting impact on the children, and its enduring power 30 years later.


I certainly know of one media organisation where watching this video is part of the basic orientation training on joining – to point out how insidious and yet insane racism can be.
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In Klamath Falls, Oregon, victory declared over antifa, which never showed up • NBC News

Brandy Zarodny and Ben Collins:


“As you can tell, we are ready,” one armed man said in a Facebook Live stream with 124,000 views. “Antifa members have threatened our town and said that they’re going to burn everything and to kill white people, basically.”

Beyond protecting the businesses on Main Street, the armed group asked: “Why would Black Lives Matter need to protest in Klamath Falls?”

The rally lasted about four hours with Klamath Falls Police Department officers standing between the two sets of protesters. On the north side of the street, protesters chanted “George Floyd.” On the south side of the street, chants of “USA” and “go home” erupted throughout the night.

“A lot of these people came out because they swore that antifa buses were in town,” [Klamath Falls resident, 31-year-old musician Frederick] Brigham said. “They couldn’t believe that I was from here. They thought I must be a black man that came from somewhere else.”

Like nearly every other county in the U.S., Klamath County and the county seat of Klamath Falls have private Facebook groups dedicated to local news, mostly filled with postings about lost dogs, local announcements and constant chatter about what’s heard over the police scanner. It was on Klamath County’s local Facebook news group that some 4,800 members came to talk about the potential threat of antifa, according to posts reviewed by NBC News.


Facebook, helping to raise the social temperature as ever.
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Surgisphere fallout hits African nonprofit’s COVID-19 efforts • The Scientist Magazine®

Catherine Offord:


Originally a producer of medical textbooks, Surgisphere has seen its profile as a data analytics company soar since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with the African Federation for Emergency Medicine (AFEM), an international nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting medical care across the continent, Surgisphere developed a COVID-19 Severity Scoring Tool to help clinicians decide how to allocate limited resources such as oxygen and mechanical ventilators to patients who need them most.

In the last couple of months, AFEM has promoted the tool for use in 26 countries across Africa (although The Scientist could not determine how many clinicians are currently using it), and several institutions had been set to launch validation studies of the tool in clinical settings. Those activities have all been halted following the retractions and a stream of questions about Surgisphere and Desai himself.

In a statement posted June 5, AFEM announced that it recommends clinicians stop using the tool. “We recognise that we have promoted the use of this tool, and are embarrassed that these findings surrounding Surgisphere have led to our needing to rescind this resource,” the statement reads…

…According to Surgisphere, the company then developed the Severity Scoring Tool using advanced machine learning algorithms and the firm’s database of thousands of COVID-19 patients.

The validity of that database has been called into question in recent weeks by hundreds of scientists who say the numbers of patients from various continents don’t seem to add up. In the Lancet paper, for instance, Surgisphere claimed to have amassed data on more than 63,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in North America by April 14. But some of the largest health networks in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois—among the states worst hit by the pandemic—tell The Scientist they did not contribute to the company’s database. Multiple institutions once listed on Surgisphere’s website as collaborators have confirmed to The Scientist that they have no records of working with the company.


Peoples’ health, even lives, are affected by companies like this. But equally, I’m fascinated by how quickly this is going to collapse, and why Surgisphere thought it wouldn’t be found out.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1326: DuckDuckGo prepares for the big(ger) time, SARS-Cov-2’s origins become clearer, Twitter to relaunch verification, and more

  1. DuckDuckGo has bought a lot of outdoor advertising in London recently. I wondered if this was just because the space is cheap at the moment, but it now makes sense with the introduction of the EU choice page.

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