Start Up No.1391:

Plastic recycling is mostly unrecyclable. The industry knew that… but didn’t admit it CC-licensed photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Remember, not iPhones. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook turned blind eye to global political manipulation, whistleblower says • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman, Ryan Mac and Pranav Dixit:


Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them.

“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her Linkedin profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”


There is example after example. At this point it’s impossible to deny that Facebook is harmful to democratic politics. The ease with which people in power can sway it in particular countries, and influence elections and voters, just can’t be ignored.

Which is unlike what Facebook’s senior leadership did. Zhang says they ignored her again and again. And: she was fired.
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Is plastic recycling a lie? Oil companies touted recycling to sell more plastic • NPR

Laura Sullivan:


NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled.

“The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now,” Russell said.


The investment happening now? Plastic’s been on sale for decades. The first report quoted in the piece dates back to 1973. Of course – of course! – it’s the fossil fuel industry pushing the not-actually-true idea.
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It’s the biggest job in tech. So why can’t they find anyone to do it? • ZDNet

Daphne Leprince-Ringuet:


An exciting new vacancy has opened up that will likely tempt some IT leaders into freshening up their CV: the UK is recruiting a Government Chief Digital Officer (GCDO), who will be working at the highest levels of the Cabinet Office to lead the digital transformation of public services in the country. All of this and more, for £200,000 a year.

The job is the biggest one in government tech so you’d expect the recruiters at the Cabinet Office to be deluged with applications from hyper-qualified aspiring GCDOs, who got tech goosebumps from just reading the role description.

Yet strangely enough, the GCDO job has been open for almost a year now. 

“We sought out candidates for a similar role last autumn,” confirmed Alex Chisholm, the chief operating officer of the civil service, as he announced the new vacancy. And indeed, a similar vacancy went live last October albeit with a slightly different name – Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) – but almost exactly the same responsibilities. 

In both versions of the job, the successful candidate is expected to “enhance Her Majesty’s government’s reputation as the world’s most digitally-advanced government.” This includes leading the Government Digital Service (GDS), a branch of the UK Cabinet Office dedicated to the digital transformation of government, and heading the 18,000-strong Digital, Data and Technology Profession department.


Cabinet Office means crossing swords (almost literally) with Dominic Cummings, with his dreams of trillion-dollar companies. That’s not going to end well.
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How algorithms are changing what we read online • The Walrus

Russell Smith was a columnist about arts and culture at the Globe & Mail, the most widely read (in print) paper in Canada:


Both at the Globe and across Canada, there wasn’t a lot of competition for what I was doing. I was providing a lot of content—content that helped maintain the paper’s literary brand—for very cheap. But a new arts editor, who came on board around 2016, displayed increasing concern for me. My guess, based on all his talk about “engagement,” was that he was getting pressure from management about my weak numbers. The Globe had, by then, developed Sophi, its own analytic software. Sophi tallies how much of an article is read, how many times it is shared and commented on, and most importantly, whether it being behind a paywall spurs anyone to buy a subscription.

Articles that show low engagement typically get sidelined in favour of pieces that show more, a measurement that, along with all of the above, takes into account the click-through rate, or CTR. “You’re looking at your analytics,” Gorham explained to me, “and you’re saying, Holy shit, this story’s got a high CTR, let’s move it forward. Surface it—share it on Facebook, put it on the home page, release a news alert, put it in the newsletter.” That support is key to keeping engagement up. “If we don’t juice it,” he said, “it just evaporates.”

In practice, this ensures the less read become even less read. It creates what one might call popularity polarization: a few pieces rise to the top, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. With print, this didn’t happen as much. Flipping pages, you would see every article somewhere. But, on your phone, you scroll through what’s been selected for you.


That’s why Smith’s Globe & Mail columnist days are in the past tense now. We live in populist times: it’s not about the idea of the quality, it’s about “popularity”. Something of a problem for the arts.
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Feds seize almost $400K of ‘counterfeit Apple AirPods’ that are actually OnePlus Buds • The Verge

Chris Welch:


It can be hard to tell a difference between AirPods and the many earbuds that resemble them, but checking the box is always a good start. US Customs and Border Protection tonight tweeted that its officers had “recently seized 2,000 counterfeit Apple AirPods from Hong Kong, valued at $398K had they been genuine.” There’s also this press release on the situation, which praises CBP officers for “protecting the American public from various dangers on a daily basis” and says that “the interception of these counterfeit earbuds is a direct reflection of the vigilance and commitment to mission success by our CBP officers daily.”

The only problem is, based on the agency’s own photos, the seized products appear to be legitimate OnePlus Buds — transported in a box that plainly says as much. But CBP proudly tweeted “THAT’S NOT AN APPLE,” as if its people had astutely detected a forged piece of 18th-century art. It’s not clear if all of the 2,000 blocked units were OnePlus Buds, though the CBP images are unmistakable.


If you look at the pictures in the press release, you realise that the Customs officers probably thought they had a good case. And, in fact, they do. OnePlus hardly put a lot of effort into putting clear water between its design and Apple’s; pretty much zero, in fact.

Plenty of people on Twitter saying that it’s not the Customs’ job to enforce counterfeiting laws. No, but it is their job to prevent counterfeits – or what they think are – from coming into whichever country.
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UK tech giant Arm Holdings to be sold to US company Nvidia in $40bn deal • The Guardian

Martin Farrer, Julia Kollewe and Rob Davies:


Nvidia, a US company, will pay SoftBank $21.5bn in shares and $12bn in cash for the chip designer, although the deal is still subject to regulatory approval in the UK and could face opposition from its new owners’ rivals and British politicians concerned about foreign takeovers.

It is expected that Nvidia will face tough conditions on protecting jobs and the status of Arm’s headquarters in Cambridge as part of the deal.

Arm co-founder Hermann Hauser described the takeover as an “absolute disaster” and said it would destroy the company’s business model and lead to job losses at its Cambridge headquarters and elsewhere in the UK.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning, he said any promises made on jobs were “meaningless unless they are legally enforceable”, pointing to the takeover of Cadbury by US company Kraft in 2010.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of science and technology union Prospect, called on the government to intervene in a deal he described as a “worrying development”.

“If the UK tech sector is to flourish and create the jobs of the future here in Britain, then we need our crown jewels to be owned and managed in a sustainable way that prioritises investment in the workforce and in research and development.

“It is not too late for the government to take a more hands-on approach to this deal and impose some binding conditions to secure a stable future for Arm that benefits the whole country.”

SoftBank paid $32bn for the company four years ago in a deal that pledged to keep the headquarters in Cambridge. It also netted a fortune for Arm’s executives, and this time around Arm employees will share $1.5bn in Nvidia shares.


The Kraft/Cadbury takeover is notorious: US company Kraft promised to preserve jobs at Cadbury, a famous British brand. A week after the takeover, it closed a key factory.

How do you stop Nvidia doing what it wants with Arm? The government would need to take a “golden share”. Even then, the reality is that Arm’s real value walks in and out of the door every day. Without new designs, it’s nothing.
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Oracle wins bid for TikTok in US, beating Microsoft • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Aaron Tilley:


Oracle is set to be announced as TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” in the US, and the deal is likely not to be structured as an outright sale, the people said.

The next step is for the White House and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US to approve the deal, said one of the people, adding that the participants believe it satisfies the concerns around data security that have been previously raised by the US government.

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed that his office received a bid proposal from Oracle for TikTok’s operations over the weekend and said that the Treasury-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the US would review it this week.

“We will be reviewing that at the CFIUS committee this week and then will be making a recommendation to the president and reviewing it with him,” Mr. Mnuchin said on CNBC. “From our standpoint, we’ll need to make sure that the code is, one, secure, Americans’ data is secure, that the phones are secure and we’ll be looking to have discussions with Oracle over the next few days with our technical teams.”

Mr. Mnuchin also said the Oracle deal includes a commitment to establish TikTok as a global company headquartered in the US, which he said would mean 20,000 new jobs.


This is just ridiculous from top to bottom. The US has never specified precisely what the “risk” of TikTok is compared to, say, any other company; it’s even more vague than the claims about Huawei. The suspicion is that it’s another of Trump’s psychotic rages for claiming to have screwed up one of his rallies. Oracle will stuff things up, and there will be a lot of angry young folks out there.
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Addicted to losing: how casino-like apps have drained people of millions • NBC News

Cyrus Farivar:


Jackpot Magic is an app made by Big Fish Games of Seattle, one of the leaders in an industry of “free-to-play” social games into which some people have plowed thousands of dollars. Big Fish Games also operates a similar app, Big Fish Casino. Both are labeled as videogames, which allows the company and others like it to skirt the tightly regulated U.S. gambling market.

But unlike the gambling market, apps like Jackpot Magic and Big Fish Casino are under little oversight to determine whether they are fair or whether their business practices are predatory.

NBC News spoke to 21 people, including Shellz and her husband, who said they were hooked on the casino-style games and had spent significant sums of money. They described feelings of helplessness and wanting to quit but found themselves addicted to the games and tempted by the company’s aggressive marketing tactics.

Most of the 21 players wished to remain anonymous, as they were ashamed of their addictions and did not want their loved ones to find out about their behavior.

A 42-year-old Pennsylvania woman said she felt saddened that she spent $40,000 on Big Fish Casino while working as an addiction counselor.

“The whole time I was working as an addiction counselor, I was addicted to gambling and with no hope of winning any money back,” she said.

Big Fish Games did not make anyone available for an interview, nor did the company respond to detailed questions. The company has said in previous court filings that only a fraction of the game’s players actually spend money.

In a response to NBC News’ inquiries, the company issued a statement saying its games are not gambling and should not be regulated as such.

“These games are not gambling because, among other reasons, they offer no opportunity for players to win money or anything of value,” the statement said in part.


Well that’s sort of true. No matter how much money you put in or seem to win, it never pays out. Put like that, it’s astonishing that anyone would put money in.

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Google says its carbon footprint is now zero • BBC News


Google says it has wiped out its entire carbon footprint by investing in “high-quality carbon offsets”.

It became carbon-neutral in 2007 and says it has now compensated for all of the carbon it has ever created. It also aimed to run all of its data centres and offices on carbon-free energy by 2030, chief executive Sundar Pichai has announced.

Other large technology companies have also committed to reducing or eliminating their carbon use.

• In January Microsoft revealed plans to become “carbon negative” by 2030
• In July, Apple announced a target of becoming carbon neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain by 2030
• Amazon has set a 2040 target to go carbon neutral

Mr Pichai said Google’s pledge to be using only carbon-free energy by 2030 was its “biggest sustainability moonshot yet”. “We’ll do things like pairing wind and solar power sources together and increasing our use of battery storage,” he said.

“And we’re working on ways to apply AI [artificial intelligence] to optimise our electricity demand and forecasting.”

…Greenpeace said Google was setting “a new high-bar for the sector” with its ambition.


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Hate speech on Facebook is pushing Ethiopia dangerously close to a genocide • Vice

David Gilbert:


[The popular Ethiopian singer Hachalu] Hundessa’s death at age 34 set off a wave of violence in the capital and his home region of Oromia. Hundreds of people were killed, with minorities like Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos, and Gurage people suffering the biggest losses.

This bloodshed was supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger. Mobs destroyed and burned property. They lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims.

The calls for violence against a variety of ethnic and religious groups happened despite the government shutting down the internet within hours of Hundessa’s murder. Soon, the same people who’d been calling for genocide and attacks against specific religous or ethnic groups were openly posting photographs of burned-out cars, buildings, schools and houses, the Network Against Hate Speech, a volunteer group tracking hate speech in Ethiopia, told VICE News.

These attacks reflect the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. [President] Abiy’s rise to power in 2018 led to a brief period of hope that Ethiopia could be unified under the first Oromo to lead the country. But that quickly evaporated, and the country has since been wracked by violence, coinciding with a rapid increase in access to the internet, where Facebook dominates. And rather than helping to unify the country, Facebook has simply amplified existing tensions on a massive scale.

“When the violence erupts offline, online content that calls for ethnic attacks, discrimination, and destruction of property goes viral,” Berhan Taye, Africa policy lead at digital rights group Access Now, told VICE News.


Ethiopia has one of the lowest social media penetrations in the world. Yet Facebook has twice been warned about the risks it poses, including posts that have incited violence and killings.

We’ve seen this story before.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1391:

  1. The thing about plastic is that it’s still a growing market for fossil fuels, so it can replace (to a lesser degree) the decline as we all switch to electric or don’t drive as much as we work from home. And lots of people think it’s ok because it’s ‘recyclable’.

    In a slightly surprising story I saw about the history of Nespresso, even before the covid lockdown, despite offering free shipping and bags to send the caps back to be recycled (grounds to compost, the aluminum to be melted down), only 30% of their customers would make use of the service. Which makes me now wonder how many other industries are doing the same thing? (acting green but calculating most of the product will not be turned).

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