Start Up No.1351: Facebook’s junk cancer ads, the trouble with efficiency, California quake odds rise, Google’s walled garden, and more


Blue LEDs: efficient, but really quite vexing if they’re on you a lot. CC-licensed photo by Bill Strong on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Short rations. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I have cancer. Now my Facebook feed is full of ‘alternative care’ ads • The New York Times

Anne Borden King:

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Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t.

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Just as worth reading is an earlier piece that Borden King co-wrote in April which points out how social media allows these junk companies to sell their stuff.
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Chance of big San Andreas quake increased by Ridgecrest temblors • Los Angeles Times

Rong-Gong Lin II:

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A new study suggests that last year’s Ridgecrest earthquakes increased the chance of a large earthquake on California’s San Andreas fault.

The study, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America on Monday, says there is now a 2.3% chance of an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the next 12 months on a section of the 160-mile-long Garlock fault, which runs along the northern edge of the Mojave Desert.

That increased likelihood, in turn, would cause there to be a 1.15% chance of a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault in the next year.

Those odds may seem small. But they’re a substantial jump from what the chances were before last year’s Ridgecrest, Calif., earthquakes, whose epicenters were about 125 miles northeast of downtown L.A.

The new odds mean a large quake on the Garlock fault is now calculated to be 100 times more likely — rising from 0.023% in the next year to 2.3%.

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That’s quite a big change. A year ago, what would you have thought were the chances of a pandemic cratering economies? 2.3%?
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Google search upgrades make it harder for websites to win traffic • Yahoo

Gerrit De Vynck:

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In the early 2000s, the company’s search engine offered a simple deal: Produce quality information and Google will send you traffic so you can make money showing ads. Reinvest some of that cash to make better experiences, and the web will grow, giving Google more territory to explore and organize.

“Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective,” Page and co-founder Sergey Brin wrote when the company went public in 2004. Ads would be few, helpful and unobtrusive, they said. 

This deal has been slowly changing, though. A turning point came in June 2019. That was when more than half of searches kept users on Google for the first time, rather than sending people to other sites through a free web link or an ad, according to data from digital marketing company Jumpshot.

“We’ve passed a milestone in Google’s evolution from search engine to walled-garden,” said Rand Fishkin, who has advised businesses on how to work with Google’s search engine for nearly two decades. “They used to be the good guys.”

On smartphones, the change has been more pronounced. From June 2016 to June 2019, the proportion of mobile searches that led to clicks on free web links dropped to 27% from 40%. No-click searches, which Fishkin says suggests the user found the information they needed on Google, rose to 62% from 56%. Meanwhile, clicks on ads more than tripled, Jumpshot data show. 
When the search engine can give straightforward answers and save users a click, it will do that, and some sites have embraced this as a new way to gain traffic, according to Danny Sullivan, public liaison for Google’s search team. The company knows “the best information is coming from the web” and it wants to support the ecosystem, he added.

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From search engine to walled garden is a good way to put it. Google never wants to let you out.
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Just too efficient • ongoing

Tim Bray on having seen a couple of street sweepers in Beijing in 2019 pausing to tell each other a story and have a smoke:

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You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:
Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.
Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.
Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process.
Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

The end-game: efficiency, taken to the max, can get very dark.

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And he then goes on to show you just how dark.
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Why are LED indicator lights (especially blue lights) so annoying? • Tedium

Ernie Smith:

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There’s a light on the front of my TV set—a 55-inch TCL Roku TV set, of the kind that people who just want an inexpensive big TV buy—that I find annoying. It seems like a light that exists basically for show. A lot of our electronics have these annoying lights, especially set-top boxes that don’t really do much more than sit there most of the time.

Yes, indicator lights are useful—a quick way of knowing whether your laptop is charging or you’ve gotten a notification of some kind—but they can be maddening when they’re too in-your-face. Recently, a follower of mine on Twitter, Michael Krakovskiy, posed what I thought was an amazing suggestion regarding these flashing lights, along with loud buzzing noises and internet access: a company should actively develop products without them, and specialize in it. (Somewhat in jest; he did suggest a router without internet access.)

How did we get here, to a place where indicator lights became a constant annoyance? And how do we get out?

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Fascinating article on how blue became the colour.
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Aircraft: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR)

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Recharging of the devices and/or the batteries on board the aircraft is not permitted. Each battery must not exceed the following:

(i) For lithium metal batteries, a lithium content of 2 grams; or

(ii) For lithium ion batteries, a Watt-hour (Wh) rating of 100 Wh.

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Why this? Because, as @push_hl points out, the 16in MacBook Pro already has a battery with the maximum size you can take on an aircraft (yes, OK, who’s going on an aircraft soon, but), and claims a battery life of 11 hours.

This means that the Apple Silicon Macs can’t use the space saved by using a SoC for battery. (Well, they might, but there’s a limit.) But the laptops can’t really get thinner – that’s limited by the keyboard key travel. My guess, along with others, is the addition of 4G modems, touch screens in future, and Face ID.
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Hulu’s ‘Mrs. America’ explores Phyllis Schlafly’s long shadow • The Atlantic

Sophie Gilbert:

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During the 1970s, Schlafly was camera-ready pith in pearls and a pie-frill collar, a troll long before the term existed, who’d begin public speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend, because she knew how much it riled her feminist detractors. Armed only with a newsletter and a seeming immunity to shame, Schlafly took a popular bipartisan piece of legislation—the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms men and women as equal citizens under the law—and whipped it up into a culture war as deftly as if she were making dessert.

For all her efforts, she actually won very little—she was too toxic for a plum Cabinet post, and too early for a prime-time cable-news show. After her heyday, only glimmers of Schlafly lingered in mainstream culture. The character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who once worked full-time lecturing women on the sanctity of staying home, was partly inspired by her. By the time a hagiographic biography of Schlafly was published in 2005, reviewers deduced that although her impact on the ugliness of American politics had been profound, her manipulation of grassroots resentment (not to mention her isolationism and hostility toward immigrants) had rendered her fogyish and obsolete in the George W. Bush era.

The other great irony of Schlafly is that she died in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump, a leader anointed in her image, beat the first female candidate for president of the United States. Like it or loathe it, the new Hulu series Mrs. America makes clear, we are living in a moment that Schlafly begot.

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A fabulous exploration of how we got to where we are today. As the alternative headline says, we’re just living in her world. Unfortunately.
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SoftBank explores options for chip designer Arm Holdings • WSJ

Dana Cimilluca and Cara Lombardo:

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SoftBank bought Arm, which designs microprocessors that power most of the world’s smartphones, in 2016. At the time it was SoftBank’s largest-ever acquisition.

SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son hailed the acquisition as a “paradigm shift” at the company, enabling it to take advantage of the potential of the Internet of Things, which refers to the connectivity of everyday devices. But sales of the software that Arm developed for managing connected devices have been relatively flat, excluding a boost from acquisitions.

Arm last week said it planned to transfer two IoT-services units into new entities that would be owned and operated by SoftBank as part of a move to focus on its core semiconductor-IP business. The company said it expected the transfer, if approved, to be finalized by the end of September.

SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, which invests in tech companies and holds a 25% stake in Arm, has in the past considered transferring the stake back to SoftBank because fund executives believe the tech company’s lackluster revenue growth has been a drag on the overall valuation of its portfolio.

SoftBank’s earnings have been battered recently by huge losses at the Vision Fund, undermining plans to raise a second big investment vehicle.

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The thing about Arm is that it was never going to be a big-growth business; it’s an intellectual property company.
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Traditional PC shipments continue to grow amid global economic slowdown • IDC

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“The strong demand driven by work-from-home as well as e-learning needs has surpassed previous expectations and has once again put the PC at the center of consumers’ tech portfolio,” said Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers. “What remains to be seen is if this demand and high level of usage continues during a recession and into the post-COVID world since budgets are shrinking while schools and workplaces reopen.”

“Early indicators suggest strong PC shipments for education, enterprise, and consumer, muted somewhat by frozen SMBs,” said Linn Huang, research vice president, Devices and Displays at IDC. “With inventory still back ordered, this goodwill will continue into July. However, as we head deeper into a global recession, the goodwill sentiment will increasingly sour.”

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Putting the brakes on the optimism a little, then. IDC says PC shipments rose 11.2% to 72.3m units (and put Apple 4th with a 7.7% share of the market. That’s near a historic high (which nudged over 8% in 2017).

Gartner puts the growth a lot lower, at 2.8%, and ditto for shipments at 64.8m. The two companies disagree about who was biggest (HP or Lenovo?), how many computers Apple shipped (over 5m, less?) but at least agree that lots of laptops were sold.

Also possibly relevant: Digitimes says “Apple is set to significantly increase its new MacBook Pro orders in late third-quarter 2020 and will see its overall MacBook shipments rise over 20% sequentially in the third quarter, according to sources from the upstream supply chain.” That sounds to me like the 13in MacBook Pro will be replaced with a 14in Apple Silicon MacBook Pro in the fourth quarter.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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