Start Up No.1348: Facebook runs into more trouble, how WW2 plane crashes improved design, Trump rally blamed for Covid ramp, and more


Rejoice! Gary Larson is drawing new cartoons on his website. CC-licensed photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Keeping my distance. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s own civil rights auditors said its policy decisions are a ‘tremendous setback’ • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski:

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The civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinize its civil rights record on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited and scathing indictment of the social media giant’s decisions to prioritize free speech above other values, which they called a “tremendous setback” that opened the door for abuse by politicians.

The report criticized Facebook’s choice to leave several posts by President Trump untouched, including three in May that the auditors said “clearly violated” the company’s policies prohibiting voter suppression, hate speech and incitement of violence.

The conclusions by Facebook’s own auditors are likely to bolster criticism that the company has too much power and that it bends and stretches its rules for powerful people. Though Facebook frequently says it listens to experts when making judgment calls, the company’s decisions on recent posts by Trump and others suggest that is not always the case on critical matters of free expression.

“When you put free expression on top of every other consideration, I think civil rights considerations take more of a back seat,” said Laura Murphy, a civil rights lawyer and independent consultant who led the two-year audit.

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Same day as this came out, on the day Sheryl Sandberg said that the company “stands firmly against hate”, Buzzfeed News finds that for four days it’s been running a fearmongering ad from a white nationalist Facebook Page.
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New work by Gary Larson • TheFarSide.com

Yes, it’s Gary Larson:

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a few years ago—finally fed up with my once-loyal but now reliably traitorous [because it kept getting blocked] pen—I decided to try a digital tablet. I knew nothing about these devices but hoped it would just get me through my annual Christmas card ordeal. I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again. I was stunned at all the tools the thing offered, all the creative potential it contained. I simply had no idea how far these things had evolved. Perhaps fittingly, the first thing I drew was a caveman.

The “New Stuff” that you’ll see here is the result of my journey into the world of digital art. Believe me, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me. I hail from a world of pen and ink, and suddenly I was feeling like I was sitting at the controls of a 747. (True, I don’t get out much.) But as overwhelmed as I was, there was still something familiar there—a sense of adventure. That had always been at the core of what I enjoyed most when I was drawing The Far Side, that sense of exploring, reaching for something, taking some risks, sometimes hitting a home run and sometimes coming up with “Cow tools.” (Let’s not get into that.)

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His new stuff is just as good as ever.
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How the dumb design of a WWII plane led to the Macintosh • WIRED

Cliff Kuang:

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Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes.

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The straight line element to the Mac, and other things, is remarkable, yet logical.
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Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 • The Hill

Rachel Frazin:

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The task force’s broad plan includes a goal of eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, achieving net-zero emissions for all new buildings by 2030, and making energy-saving upgrades to as many as 4 million buildings and 2 million households within five years. 

Some of the recommendations released Wednesday set more specific targets than the former vice president’s current climate plan, which calls for a shift away from coal-fired electricity, halving the carbon footprint of buildings by 2035 and starting a national program aimed at affordable energy efficiency retrofits in homes.

The group is one of several “unity task forces” made up of supporters of Sanders and Biden that is making platform recommendations as Biden courts favor from the progressive faction of the party. 

…The climate panel is co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a leading proponent of the Green New Deal, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

“The Unity Task Force urges that we treat climate change like the emergency that it is and answer the crisis with an ambitious, unprecedented, economy-wide mobilization to decarbonize the economy and build a resilient, stronger foundation for the American people,” the document says.

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The power plants could be quite the challenge. The coal plants are effectively dead already, but there’s a lot of CCGT plants out there, or being planned – even though renewables will be cheaper by the time they’re ready.
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Health official: Trump rally ‘likely’ source of virus surge • Associated Press

Sean Murphy:

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President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa that drew thousands of people in late June, along with large protests that accompanied it, “likely contributed” to a dramatic surge in new coronavirus cases, Tulsa City-County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said Wednesday.

Tulsa County reported 261 confirmed new cases on Monday, a one-day record high, and another 206 cases on Tuesday.

Although the health department’s policy is to not publicly identify individual settings where people may have contracted the virus, Dart said those large gatherings “more than likely” contributed to the spike.

“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Dart said.

A spokesman for the Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What comment could they offer? “Sorry for ignoring all the advice on social distancing”?
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China’s superpower dreams are running out of money • Foreign Policy

Salvatore Babones:

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when Western media reported in December that China was pressuring a reluctant Pakistan to resume work on the stalled China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, they failed to mention that China is unwilling to finance the construction itself. Similarly, China wants to build a new port in Myanmar, but it is reluctant to pay for it. China signed a Transit and Transport Agreement with Nepal in 2015 but has yet to build a single mile of road or railway in the landlocked Himalayan country. It’s the same story in Africa and Eastern Europe: China continues to announce grand projects but has been unwilling to offer enough money to actually get them off the ground.

China’s financing problems are nowhere more apparent—and less acknowledged—than in its military budgets. Analyses from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest that Chinese defense spending may actually fall in real terms in 2020. Given China’s elevated pace of military operations on several borders, spending constraints must be putting serious pressure on acquisitions budgets. It is impossible for anyone outside China’s defence establishment to know what is really going on, but circumstantial evidence suggests that many of China’s big-ticket weapons programs have been put on go-slow.

For example, China is believed to have built only 50 or so J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighters. The J-20 program now seems to be experiencing serious development problems, limiting production for the foreseeable future. This compares to America’s stock of 195 F-22 and 134 F-35 fifth-generation fighters, with continuing annual production of more than 100 F-35s, even after coronavirus delays.

Similarly, China once planned to deploy six U.S.-style aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035. Aside from the Soviet-surplus training carrier Liaoning, China currently has only one conventionally powered ski-jump carrier, with a second under construction. Plans for four nuclear-powered carriers have been delayed indefinitely due to “technical challenges and high costs.”

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Being a superpower is also super-expensive.
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Why corporate America gave up on R&D • Marker on Medium

Kaushik Viswanath talks to the authors of a study which suggests that American companies are giving up on effective R&D:

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Sharon Belenzon (one of the authors): Companies are withdrawing from research, and I don’t think you can compensate for that with science created in universities and small firms. More importantly, leading economists have argued that what makes America unique is the strong link between technology and science generated by a diverse capitalist system. The diversity of institutions that engage in R&D are key. I am worried that we are losing such diversity in return for greater efficiency through specialization.

Q: What are the reasons behind that loss of diversity? Why do corporations no longer find it as desirable to engage in research?

Ashish Arora: There are two big factors. One is there are alternative sources of knowledge now, like the university system and startups, but the other big issue is that research is an unnatural activity inside a company. Companies are set up mostly to produce and deliver goods and services to the marketplace, not to have activities running that have no defined deliverables, with horizons of four to six years, not six to 18 months.

In the golden period of corporate research, the early successes like DuPont’s development of nylon generated a lot of goodwill. Because of those early successes, corporations agreed to keep funding them. But at some point, that goodwill runs out.

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Italian Alps’ pink snow is a cute sign of environmental disaster • Earther

Yessenia Funes:

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the dusty pink layer atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps is more sinister than it looks. Algae has dyed the snow a bizarre color. The otherworldly look could end up speeding up the melt of snow and glaciers in the fragile mountain region.

Pink snow is usually a spring and summer phenomenon, requiring the right amount of light, warmth, and water to grow. Usually, the algae are inactive while under the snow and ice, but once melt season hits, the normally stark landscape bursts with color.

Biagio Di Mauro, a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told Earther in an email that the bloom on Presena Glacier is an example of Chlamydomonas nivalis, a type of algae found in the Alps as well as polar regions from Greenland to the Antarctic. It’s more commonly referred to as watermelon snow, and it could be having an impact on snowmelt.

That’s because the whiter the snow, the more effective it is at bouncing the sun’s rays back into space, keeping things cool. Global warming is already doing enough harm to polar and mountain regions without algae coming and making it all the worse. A study published last year showed that up to half of the Alps’ glaciers could disappear this century as temperature rise.

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Our self-destruction will be heralded by more and more beautiful sunsets.
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Apple is planning to build its own GPUs, too, but playing quiet for now • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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Apple has already told us that it will finish its switch to Intel hardware in about two years, and the company has announced its initiative for that process. It has made no equivalent commitment to GPU hardware.

Yes, Apple has experience in building its own mobile GPUs, but scaling up a GPU design isn’t like scaling up a CPU design. Assuming Apple’s A12Z isn’t a huge departure from the A12X, we can expect a die size of 122mm2. Die size on a larger chip like the Core i9-10900K (comparing monolithic die to monolithic die) is 206.1mm2. Only modestly bigger.

122mm2 doesn’t even get the ball rolling, in terms of a high-end GPU. The RTX 2080 Ti has a die size of 775mm2. Even AMD’s Radeon VII, while much smaller, is a 331mm2 design. It’s also not an accident that Intel has taken years to bring a discrete GPU to market, despite the fact that Tiger Lake systems with Xe-class graphics are expected to ship in the very near future. Just as it takes time to scale up a CPU design, it takes time to scale up a GPU design, too.

What may happen is this: Apple may launch its own laptop / desktop ARM CPU, with its own Apple silicon, while simultaneously supporting AMD (most-likely) GPUs on higher-end Mac hardware. So long as we’re talking about an SoC, it makes obvious sense for Apple to field its own silicon. The question is, will Apple start building its own discrete add-in cards? It would have to, if it wants to supply top-end graphics performance.

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Watching people try to figure out what the hell Apple is going to do with Apple Silicon is a lot of fun. I’m filing this one away to come back to when Apple tips its hand – some time later this year.
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Your next Samsung phone may not come with a charger in the box • SamMobile

“Adrian F”:

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You can always count on your new smartphone to come with a charger in the box. However, it now seems that we’re moving towards a future where that might not be the case. According to a new report from South Korea, future Samsung phones may not ship with a charger.

Samsung ships hundreds of millions of smartphones every single year. Dropping the charger from even half of its lineup is going to result in major cost reductions for the company. It may also enable the company to price its affordable devices even more aggressively.

According to the report, Samsung is discussing plans to exclude the charger from the box components for some smartphones. If it decides to go ahead with this, we might see the first Samsung phones to ship without a charger starting next year.

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First reaction: I wonder where they got that idea? Second reaction: this isn’t going to be as easy for Samsung as for Apple, which has a single connector standard. Some older Samsung phones will be micro-USB. It’s not clear quite when they switched over to USB-C.

But as for “major cost reductions” – nope. As Neil Cybart pointed out in his newsletter, chargers cost a few dollars at most. Hundreds of millions of dollars can get eaten up in marketing or other costs; it’s a rounding error.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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