Start Up No.1377: Facebook blocks Plandemic 2.. and Myanmar investigation, America’s two-foot trouble, the 30 per cent mystery, and more


Apple designed a secret version of this product for the US government to do… something top secret. CC-licensed photo by Misha Husnain Ali on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Also available in metric. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The case of the top secret iPod • TidBITS

David Shayer was the second software engineer hired for the iPod project in 2001:

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It was a gray day in late 2005. I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”

The next day, the receptionist called to tell me that two men were waiting in the lobby. I went downstairs to meet Paul and Matthew, the engineers who would actually build this custom iPod. I’d love to say they wore dark glasses and trench coats and were glancing in window reflections to make sure they hadn’t been tailed, but they were perfectly normal thirty-something engineers. I signed them in, and we went to a conference room to talk.

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This is an amazing story: what they wanted is going to set a whole lot of hares running. The timing is really very interesting when you consider it in the light of this project.
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Facebook blocks users from linking to new Plandemic hoax video • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Social media sites are trying to stop the spread of Plandemic: Indoctornation, a follow-up to the Plandemic conspiracy video about the novel coronavirus. As NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny noted, Facebook blocks users from reposting a link to the new video, which was uploaded to an external site earlier today. Twitter doesn’t block the video link, but it sends users who click it to a warning screen, saying that the link is “potentially spammy or unsafe.”

Twitter confirmed to The Verge that it’s warning people rather than blocking the link; the company will evaluate any short clips that are directly uploaded on a case-by-case basis and may remove any that it deems dangerous misinformation. Streaming channel London Real, which posted the video, reported that it was suspended by LinkedIn before its premiere. According to CrowdTangle, London Real’s original post linking to the video has about 53,000 interactions on Facebook. A reposted version of the video can be found on YouTube, but it currently has under 200 views.

Initially posted in May, the 26-minute Plandemic documentary was a hit on social media and promoted a number of false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, including the (completely incorrect) assertion that wearing a mask can “activate” the coronavirus.

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Warned once, Facebook manages to get it right. Not for long, however…
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How Facebook is failing Myanmar again • Time

Matthew Smith on how Facebook is blocking an international investigation into the origins of the Myanmar genocide of 2016 and 2017:

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Specifically, The Gambia is seeking documents and communications from Myanmar military officials as well as information from hundreds of other pages and accounts that Facebook took down and preserved. The Gambia is also seeking documents related to Facebook’s internal investigations into the matter as well as a deposition of a relevant Facebook executive. All of this information could help to prove Myanmar’s genocidal intent.

In May, The Gambia filed a similar application in US court against Twitter. The case disappeared quickly because The Gambia pulled its application shortly after submitting it, presumably because Twitter agreed to cooperate.

Not Facebook. Earlier this month, the company filed its opposition to The Gambia’s application. Facebook said the request is “extraordinarily broad,” as well as “unduly intrusive or burdensome.” Calling on the US District Court for the District of Columbia to reject the application, the social media giant says The Gambia fails to “identify accounts with sufficient specificity.”

The Gambia was actually quite specific, going so far as to name 17 officials, two military units and dozens of pages and accounts.

Facebook also takes issue with the fact that The Gambia is seeking information dating back to 2012, evidently failing to recognize two similar waves of atrocities against Rohingya that year, and that genocidal intent isn’t spontaneous, but builds over time.

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Just when you think Facebook can’t possibly get any worse.
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America has two feet. It’s about to lose one of them • The New York Times

Alanna Mitchell:

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How big is a foot? In the United States, that depends on which of the two official foot measurements you are talking about. If it comes as a surprise that there are two feet, how about this: One of those feet is about to go away.

The first foot is the old US survey foot from 1893. The second is the newer, shorter and slightly more exact international foot from 1959, used by nearly everybody except surveyors in some states. The two feet differ by about one hundredth of a foot (0.12672 inches) per mile — that’s two feet for every million feet — an amount so small that it only adds up for people who measure over long distances.

Surveyors are such people. For more than six decades, they have been toggling between the two units, depending on what they are measuring and where.

The toggling does not always work. Michael L. Dennis, an Arizona-based surveyor and geodesist with the National Geodetic Survey, has been cataloging mix-ups with the two feet for years and repairing errors. Last year, he had enough.

“I kept running into these problems with different versions of the foot, and I thought it was ridiculous that this thing had gone on this long,” he said. “So I had this secret desire to kill off the US survey foot, and I’d been harboring that for years.”

Most states mandate the use of the old US survey foot for their state coordinate systems, which allow surveyors to take into account Earth’s curvature in their measurements. A few states mandate the use of the new, international foot.

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Amazing. Move over to the metric system? Hell no.
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Oracle enters race to buy TikTok’s US operations • Ars Technica (via FT)

James Fontanella-Khan and Miles Kruppa:

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Oracle has entered the race to acquire TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned short video app that President Donald Trump has vowed to shut down unless it is taken over by a US company by mid-November, people briefed about the matter have said.

The tech company co-founded by Larry Ellison had held preliminary talks with TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, and was seriously considering purchasing the app’s operations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the people said.

Oracle was working with a group of US investors that already own a stake in ByteDance, including General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, the people added.

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Oracle. Oracle? The closest Oracle has ever got to consumer software is MySQL, which is not consumer software. Is Larry Ellison just hoping, finally, to get one over Microsoft?
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Atlas shrugs • Science Magazine Editor’s Blog

H Holden Thorp on the appointment of neurological imaging specialist (but not infectious diseases specialist) Scott Atlas to the advisers to Trump:

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as [two scientists] caution in the Science paper [about T-cell immune reaction to coronavirus], “Based on these data, it is plausible to hypothesize that pre-existing cross-reactive human CoV CD4+ T cell memory in some donors could be a contributing factor to variations in COVID-19 patient disease outcomes, but this is at present highly speculative [emphasis added].”  Many questions around this are yet to be settled, and it is most likely that exposure to a large a bolus of SARS-CoV-2 infection would overwhelm these cross-reactive T cells.

Not surprisingly, the hydroxychloroquine peddler (and physician turned investment manager) James Todaro seized on this for a Twitter thread, implying that the pandemic  was now over because if you add the 50% of individuals with cross-reactive T cells to the 10 to 20% now infected, the world will have reached herd immunity.

This is absurd because T cells attack cells that are already infected ([standard textbook] Janeway’s Immunobiology, page 13). It’s no shock that a digital charlatan like Todaro would push this.  But what is far more frightening is that Atlas told Rush Limbaugh the same thing:  “Some people who have come down with a cold over the course of the summer,” says Limbaugh, “miraculously end up less likely to get COVID-19, according to Scott Atlas.” Hilariously, Limbaugh’s blog post has the picture of Fauci holding up the Cell paper showing that the cross-reactive T cells are active against cells that already are infected with COVID-19.  Shane Crotty put together a long Twitter thread lucidly explaining the danger of these false declarations.

This episode represents a sad turning point in the saga of how the Trump administration continues to mishandle the pandemic.

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This is a turning point? The Trump handling of the pandemic has had endless “oh this must FINALLY be it”. It’s the clown car that never runs out of clowns.
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Scammers conned diners at The Ritz so they could buy stuff at Argos • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:

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Thanks to a data breach, con artists got hold of the booking details for people who’d made reservations at The Ritz’s restaurants. Then they phoned them up and asked them to “confirm” their credit card details.

Understandably none the wiser, the fancypants diners gave their details, which were then used to attempt thousands of pounds’ worth of purchases at, of all places, Argos.

One woman called by the scammers said they’d even spoofed the hotel’s real phone number (sadly not difficult to do), and had the exact time and restaurant details of her booking for afternoon tea. They told her that her card had been declined, which you can imagine is pretty embarrassing when booking somewhere fancy – especially if you’re not the type of person who usually gets to go there. So, unsurprisingly, she gave details of a second card and the scammers tried to make several transactions of over a grand at Argos.

But here’s the really evil part: they then called the same woman from her bank’s phone number, told her that her card had been used by scammers, and that she’d need to give them a code to cancel it. Of course, the code was the transaction authorisation the bank had sent her to approve the purchase.

Another person targeted said she’d (ingeniously) realised something was wrong when the scammers couldn’t answer her questions about facilities at the hotel. If only we all had such presence of mind in a dodgy situation.

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That’s quite a scam. Though the text messages I get say “the code to authorise your transaction is…” Why would you believe that’s a code to cancel? I guess it’s all about how persuasive the scammers are – “oh, our systems haven’t been updated for that, they say that for cancellation codes too.”
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Miami Police used facial recognition technology in protester’s arrest • NBC 6 South Florida

Connie Fossi and Phil Prazan:

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Police body cameras and tower camera video show some of what happened on May 30 as protesters squared off with Miami officers forming a line outside of their downtown headquarters.

The videos, exclusively obtained by NBC 6 Investigators, captured heated moments as objects were thrown at officers and they popped tear gas to retake control of patrol cars.

Police say Oriana Albornoz, 25, threw two rocks at an officer hitting him once and injuring his leg. The department provided a video that shows her throwing something at officers standing across the street but it is difficult to discern what it is.

NBC 6 Investigators found a facial recognition program was used to identify a woman accused of throwing rocks at Miami Police officers during a protest on May 30. NBC 6’s Phil Prazan reports.
The incident report also states the officer’s body camera captured the moment, but the department didn’t provide that video to NBC 6. 

A month later, Albornoz was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer. She has pleaded not guilty. The NBC 6 Investigators found police used the facial recognition program Clearview AI to find her.

A recent NBC 6 investigation found police departments across South Florida, including Miami, are using the technology, which identifies people through publicly available photos including social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Albornoz’s attorney Mike Gottlieb did not know police used the technology to identify his client and questioned how it was used. “It looks like they’ve just done a regular photographic line up and had it not been for the vigilance of your news agency, I would not have known this,” Gottlieb said. 

Police make no mention of the technology in the arrest report – only writing Albornoz was “identified through investigative means.”

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That could make for quite a court case: how will the police prove her presence? Clearview doesn’t do that. It just suggests that someone strongly resembles a few pixels in a picture.
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House GOP candidate known for QAnon support was ‘correspondent’ for conspiracy website

Brandy Zarodny:

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Before running for office, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote dozens of articles as a “correspondent” for a conspiracy news website, according to archived web pages uncovered by NBC News.

In posts published on the now-defunct “American Truth Seekers” website in 2017, Greene wrote favuorably of the QAnon conspiracy theory, suggested that Hillary Clinton murdered her political enemies, and ruminated on whether mass shootings were orchestrated to dismantle the Second Amendment.

…Greene has deleted the offending posts from most of her pre-candidate social media, but in a 2017 interview with a conservative activist on Facebook, Greene told viewers where to find her.

“AmericanTruthSeekers. So follow that page. They publish my articles and you’ll see me there,” she said in the interview.

In some 59 posts for the website, according to her author bio page, Greene commented on news of the day in blogs that built on articles from far-right outlets like Breitbart and fake news websites including YourNewsWire. The American TruthSeekers website is now inactive, but Greene’s posts were found by NBC News through the Internet Archive’s WayBack machine.

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Good to see reporters using the Internet Archive to good effect. Now let’s see if Greene’s absurd stupidity can be used effectively against her.
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What can America learn from Europe about regulating big tech? • The New Yorker

Nick Romeo interviews former Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake:

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When I met Schaake for lunch one day, at Stanford’s Business School, a month after she had moved to California, she was incredulous about the level of economic inequality. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “These are among the richest Zip Codes in the world, but there’s no infrastructure—no street lights, no sidewalks, no real public transport investment—and so many people are homeless. If you talk to the rideshare drivers, they work multiple jobs and have these enormously long commutes. The inequality is heart-wrenching. Every day, I try to remind myself not to get used to it. I don’t want to become desensitized. If this is a petri dish of the high-tech society,” she concluded, “it has extraordinary downsides.”

Schaake often finds herself confronting two distinct visions for how the citizens of such a society should relate to their tech companies. The first sees companies and consumers as engaged in a virtuous circle of responsible, market-driven self-regulation. People support companies that offer useful services and protect their privacy; companies, who want to keep their users happy, try to strike a balance between those values when they conflict. It’s hoped that even firms that depend on advertising will eventually respond to consumer pressures and self-regulate accordingly. Government may have a limited regulatory role, but it’s really all about likes and dislikes.

The second model is more cynical about large companies and governments. It sees technology as a solution to the problems of surveillance and oppression, and regulation as either a malign constraint on freedom or a well-intentioned mistake.

…Many people who work in Silicon Valley see themselves as championing democracy and empowering individuals. But Schaake differs from the Silicon Valley consensus in her idea of what constitutes democratic power. Unregulated information technology is often presented as a bulwark against authoritarianism, and yet, in her view, technology that is beyond the reach of laws—and, therefore, voters—is anti-democratic.

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She’s pretty astringent about the people she meets in Silicon Valley altogether.
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Thirty per cent • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden has Noticed Something:

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A decade ago, I was invited to the UK launch of Windows Phone 7. It was Microsoft’s attempt to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Sure, Microsoft could make a brilliant OS and had excellent hardware partners – but could they convince developers to use yet another system?

At the time, I wrote:

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The revenue share is 70/30. I really think MS have missed a trick here. It’s an “industry standard” price point because no one wants to get in to a price war. Increasing the share that goes to the developer would be an excellent way to convince wavering developers to adopt the platform.

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Back in 2010, BlackBerry charged developers 30% as did Nokia Ovi, and HP’s WebOS, app stores from Opera and Samsung charged the same amount, even the Amazon app store charged 30%. None have shifted their pricing in the last decade.

That’s curious, isn’t it? Surely a new entrant into the market – or one struggling to retain market share – would have picked a different revenue split?

What a coincidence that they all, independently, came to the conclusion that 30% was a fair and reasonable amount to charge developers.

…I doubt anyone has said “My favourite app is £1 cheaper on Android, time to ditch my iPhone and buy a Samsung!” But we know from the game console market that exclusive games drive purchases. Recently, Apple forced the removal of the popular “Dark Sky” app from Android – presumably because they wanted users to switch. Attracting developers and convincing them to concentrate on your platform doesn’t rely on increased revenue share – but it sure can’t hurt.

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I’d love to know if there’s a known economic phenomenon where retailers nominally in competition with each other are able to charge exactly the same markup on goods where the wholesaler has independent pricing power.
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Panasonic’s new home cubicle is a disheartening glimpse at our work-from-home future • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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The modern office cubicle is almost synonymous with the drudgery of a soul-crushing office job. But if for some reason you’ve found yourself missing the not-quite-solid not-quite-walls of your regular office, Panasonic is working to bring the magic of cubicles to your work-from-home life with its new 88,000 yen (around $835) Komoru home cubicle.

The Komoru is actually a bit more handsome-looking than a traditional office cubicle, and it’s made of wooden pegboards (to easily hang things) with a matching, integrated desk. It’s designed to blend in with your existing living room or apartment setup.

The idea is that the Komoru will give you about one square meter (around 10 square feet) of portioned-off space to set aside as a specific work zone, instead of having your work life bleed into the rest of your living setup. The walls are only about four feet high, meaning it’ll be enough to give you some privacy while sitting at your desk, but it won’t help much if you’re trying to create a quiet zone for Zoom calls.

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It really is soul-sucking. It’s the Dementor of office-at-home designs (a reference for the Harry Potter fans, and parents of same).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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