Start Up No.1419: Apple insiders explain its organisation, a Facebook constitution?, a retail crash looms, your secret salivary glands, and more

There is just one country where Apple will supply EarPods for free with an iPhone 12. CC-licensed photo by Pablo Asekas on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Well, you should have stayed on mute. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

•• Please note: The Overspill will be on holiday next week. 

How Apple is organized for innovation • Harvard Business Review

Joel Polodny and Morten Hansen, from the Apple University group, explain – in a remarkable insight – how Apple is organised and functions:


Apple is not a company where general managers oversee managers; rather, it is a company where experts lead experts. The assumption is that it’s easier to train an expert to manage well than to train a manager to be an expert. At Apple, hardware experts manage hardware, software experts software, and so on. (Deviations from this principle are rare.) This approach cascades down all levels of the organization through areas of ever-increasing specialization. Apple’s leaders believe that world-class talent wants to work for and with other world-class talent in a specialty. It’s like joining a sports team where you get to learn from and play with the best.

Early on, Steve Jobs came to embrace the idea that managers at Apple should be experts in their area of management. In a 1984 interview he said, “We went through that stage in Apple where we went out and thought, Oh, we’re gonna be a big company, let’s hire professional management. We went out and hired a bunch of professional management. It didn’t work at all….They knew how to manage, but they didn’t know how to do anything. If you’re a great person, why do you want to work for somebody you can’t learn anything from? And you know what’s interesting? You know who the best managers are? They are the great individual contributors who never, ever want to be a manager but decide they have to be…because no one else is going to…do as good a job.”

…One principle that permeates Apple is “Leaders should know the details of their organization three levels down,” because that is essential for speedy and effective cross-functional decision-making at the highest levels. If managers attend a decision-making meeting without the details at their disposal, the decision must either be made without the details or postponed. Managers tell war stories about making presentations to senior leaders who drill down into cells on a spreadsheet, lines of code, or a test result on a product.


Some great anecdotes, especially about Steve Jobs culling general managers, and the development of the portrait camera function.
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The next economic crisis: empty retail space • POLITICO

Katy O’Donnell:


Commercial real estate is in trouble, and turbulence in the $15 trillion market is threatening to bleed over into the broader financial system just as the U.S. struggles to emerge from a recession.

The longer the pandemic paralyzes hotels, retailers and office buildings, the more difficult it is for property owners to meet their mortgage payments — raising the specter of widespread downgrades, defaults and eventual foreclosures. As companies like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Pier 1 file for bankruptcy, retail properties are losing major tenants with no clear plan to replace them, while hotels are running below 50% occupancy.

Seven months into the crisis, the industry’s pleas for relief to Congress and the Federal Reserve have been in vain: Lawmakers are at odds over even the most basic details of an economic relief package for individuals, let alone businesses, and the Fed, leery of taking on more risk, is hoping the trillion-dollar market for securities backed by commercial mortgages will heal itself.

There’s also the fear that directing significant relief to the industry would be seen as a “handout to the president’s friends” since Donald Trump made his fortune in commercial real estate, said one lobbyist frustrated with the lack of traction the issue is getting with policymakers.


Second-order effects: they’re coming unless a lot of stuff gets sorted out quickly. Such as a stimulus package, or commercial rent forgiveness.
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Huawei Mate 40 phones launch despite chip freeze • BBC News

Leo Kelion:


Huawei has unveiled its Mate 40 smartphones claiming they feature a more “sophisticated” processor than Apple’s forthcoming iPhones.

The component was made using the same “five nanometre” process as its US rival’s chip, but contains billions more transistors. As a result, the Chinese firm claims its phones are more powerful.

However, Huawei has had its supply of the chips cut off because of a US trade ban that came into effect in September.

That means that once its stockpile of the new Kirin 9000 processors runs out, it faces being unable to make more of the Mate 40 handsets in their current form.

At present, only Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung have the expertise and equipment to manufacture 5nm chips, and both are forbidden to supply Huawei with them or any other semiconductor product whose creation involves “US technology and software”.


The analysts Canalys produced some figures on Friday which said that Huawei shipped 55.8m units in the second quarter of 2020 (yes, I know we’re in the fourth quarter now), and that its shipments outside China had reduced only from 21.4m in Q2 2019 to 15.6m in the same period in 2020. That’s not as big as I expected. But perhaps things have got worse in the past few months.
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Doctors may have found secretive new organs in the center of your head • The New York Times

Katherine Wu:


After millenniums of careful slicing and dicing, it might seem as though scientists have figured out human anatomy. A few dozen organs, a couple of hundred bones and connective tissue to tie it all together.

But despite centuries of scrutiny, the body is still capable of surprising scientists.

A team of researchers in the Netherlands has discovered what may be a set of previously unidentified organs: a pair of large salivary glands, lurking in the nook where the nasal cavity meets the throat. If the findings are confirmed, this hidden wellspring of spit could mark the first identification of its kind in about three centuries.

Any modern anatomy book will show just three major types of salivary glands: one set near the ears, another below the jaw and another under the tongue. “Now, we think there is a fourth,” said Dr. Matthijs Valstar, a surgeon and researcher at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and an author on the study, published last month in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.

The study was small, and examined a limited patient population, said Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, a pathologist at Rutgers University who wasn’t involved in the research. But “it seems like they may be onto something,” she said. “If it’s real, it could change the way we look at disease in this region.”


Oh 2020, you really do keep them coming. But this is important for things such as radiotherapy: you don’t want to hit them by accident. Which you would do if you don’t know they’re there.
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End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry • UK Petitions

Marcus Rashford:


End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry

Government should support vulnerable children & #endchildfoodpoverty by implementing 3 recommendations from the National Food Strategy to expand access to Free School Meals, provide meals & activities during holidays to stop holiday hunger & increase the value of and expand the Healthy Start scheme


If you live in the UK, please sign this petition. Children aren’t responsible for their failings of their parents, but they need to eat like everyone else.

It’s amazing that it takes a Premier League footballer (who himself grew up going hungry, and so knows what these children are going through) to do this. But we are where we are, it seems
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Facebook: Constitution before statutes • BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis:


What is missing, I have argued, is a Constitution for Facebook: a statement of why it exists, what kind of community it wants to serve, what it expects of its community, in short: a north star. That doesn’t exist.

But the Oversight Board might — whether it and Facebook know it or not — end up writing that Constitution, one in the English model, set by precedent, rather than the American model, set down in a document. That will be primarily in Facebook’s control. Though the Oversight Board can pose policy questions and make recommendations, it is limited by what cases come its way — from users and Facebook — and it does not set policy for the company; it only decides appeals and makes policy recommendations.

It’s up to Facebook to decide how it treats the larger policy questions raised by the Oversight Board and the cases. In reacting to recommendations, Facebook can begin to build a set of principles that in turn begin to define Facebook’s raison d’être, its higher goals, its north star, its Constitution. That’s what I’ve told people at Facebook I want to see happen.

The problem is, that’s not how Facebook or any of the technology companies think. Since, as Larry Lessig famously decreed, code is law, what the technologists want is rules — laws — to feed their code — their algorithms — to make consistent decisions at scale.

The core problem of the technology companies and their relationship with society today is that they do not test that code and the laws behind it against higher principles other than posters on the wall: “Don’t be evil.” “Move fast and break things.” Those do not make for a good Constitution.


Laudable aim, but translating a constitution of any sort into code is not an enterprise to be taken lightly. And Facebook already has so much code that its law is essentially set. Though it can be tweaked – witness Holocaust denial a week or so ago.
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Republican lawmakers are furious after Twitter asks users to read stories before retweeting • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


Twitter announced last month that it would roll out the feature across its mobile apps, describing it as a way to “help promote informed discussion.” When you hit the retweet button on a link you haven’t visited, Twitter adds a label above the confirmation menu, warning that “headlines don’t tell the full story” and offering a chance to check the story out.

This is optional; you can ignore it and simply confirm the retweet if you want, and it doesn’t add any extra taps. But some conservative Twitter users expressed fury at the warning. Former PJ Media editor David Steinberg claimed that Twitter “placed a headline warning label” on a Wall Street Journal article about Republican congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik, saying the prompt “should disturb every American.” The label appears if you try to retweet many other WSJ articles on a variety of topics as well as stories from The Verge and other media outlets.

The claim was amplified by Republican members of Congress. Collins claimed that Twitter was “censoring” all tweets from Sean Hannity, citing labels on links to The Twitter account for Judiciary Committee Republicans made a similar claim about a Hannity article, insinuating that Twitter had specifically added the warning to a story about allegedly leaked emails from Hunter Biden.


It’s amazing that elected representatives, who you’d hope would be smarter than average, wouldn’t even be able to read an onscreen instruction. The read-before-you-tweet scheme is a good one (though it doesn’t occur on third-party apps such as Tweetbot). Twitter is finally getting there.
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French iPhone boxes come packed in an outer box with separate EarPods • MacRumors

Hartley Charlton:


After the news that France would be the only territory to continue to include EarPods with the iPhone, it seems that Apple is not packing the earbuds within the iPhone ‘s box (via iGeneration).

The French iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro does not have a different retail box to accommodate EarPods, meaning that all iPhone boxes are consistent worldwide. Since the new iPhone boxes are slimmer without a tray for EarPods or a power adapter below the iPhone , in France the EarPods are in the bottom of a separate box that is large enough to also contain the standard iPhone ‘s box. The additional box appears to be much larger than the new, slimmed-down iPhone boxes.

Apple is continuing to include EarPods with iPhones in France due to legal obligations. French law demands that manufacturers provide a hands-free accessory with smartphones due to concerns about the effect of electromagnetic waves on the brains.

In addition to the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, the iPhone 11, iPhone XR, and iPhone SE no longer include EarPods outside of France.


What a fabulous quiz question in a year or so. Something like “in which country was the iPhone 12 legally required to come with EarPods?” (Oh, those French and zee waves.)
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Security researcher claims to have hacked Trump’s Twitter account • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


A security researcher claims he hacked President Donald Trump’s Twitter account earlier this month, guessing that his password was “maga2020!” and possibly posting a tweet where Trump appeared to take a satirical article seriously. Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant and magazine Vrij Nederland reported the news earlier today, citing screenshots and interviews with the researcher, Victor Gevers.

But when reached for comment, both Twitter and the White House vigorously denied the claim.

“We’ve seen no evidence to corroborate this claim, including from the article published in the Netherlands today,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Verge. “We proactively implemented account security measures for a designated group of high-profile, election-related Twitter accounts in the United States, including federal branches of government.”


Seems to have been a joke – a pretty poor one – by the researcher. You’d also hope that such an account would have two-factor turned on at the very least, and designated devices that can be used as a another layer of protection. Though of course this White House could deny anything, including where the sun will rise, and people would ignore it as probably false until checked.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1418: the US town the libertarians (and bears) took over, Mozilla hates Google (but loves its money), sayonara Quibi, and more

Tales of WeWork’s demise may have been overblown – it’s aiming for profitability next year. CC-licensed photo by Scott Beale on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. You’re on mute. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The town that went feral • The New Republic

Patrick Blanchfield reviews A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear, a book by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling about what happened when a bunch of libertarians descended on Grafton in New Hampshire and attempted to turn it into a libertarian paradise:


If the Libertarian vision of Freedom can take many shapes and sizes, one thing is bedrock: “Busybodies” and “statists” need to stay out of the way. And so the Free Towners spent years pursuing an aggressive program of governmental takeover and delegitimation, their appetite for litigation matched only by their enthusiasm for cutting public services. They slashed the town’s already tiny yearly budget of $1m by 30%, obliged the town to fight legal test case after test case, and staged absurd, standoffish encounters with the sheriff to rack up YouTube hits.

Grafton was a poor town to begin with, but with tax revenue dropping even as its population expanded, things got steadily worse. Potholes multiplied, domestic disputes proliferated, violent crime spiked, and town workers started going without heat. “Despite several promising efforts,” Hongoltz-Hetling dryly notes, “a robust Randian private sector failed to emerge to replace public services.” Instead, Grafton, “a haven for miserable people,” became a town gone “feral.” Enter the bears, stage right.


Ah yes, the bears: black bears, which are the sort that will eat you if you play dead (that works for grizzlies and brown bears; I don’t know how you ask a bear what sort of bear it is). So you’d better either fight them or run like hell:


Grappling with what to do about the bears, the Graftonites also wrestled with the arguments of certain libertarians who questioned whether they should do anything at all—especially since several of the town residents had taken to feeding the bears, more or less just because they could. One woman, who prudently chose to remain anonymous save for the sobriquet “Doughnut Lady,” revealed to Hongoltz-Hetling that she had taken to welcoming bears on her property for regular feasts of grain topped with sugared doughnuts. If those same bears showed up on someone else’s lawn expecting similar treatment, that wasn’t her problem.


As Blanchfield says, it’s “simultaneously hilarious, poignant, and deeply unsettling”. It’s a metaphor, a parable, an object lesson. Improve your day: go and read the whole review. And then you could could order the book, like me.
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Google meddling with URLs in emails, causing security concerns • Hackaday

Lewin Day:


Despite the popularity of social media, for communication that actually matters, e-mail reigns supreme. Crucial to the smooth operation of businesses worldwide, it’s prized for its reliability. Google is one of the world’s largest e-mail providers, both with its consumer-targeted Gmail product as well as G Suite for business customers [Jeffrey Paul] is a user of the latter, and was surprised to find that URLs in incoming emails were being modified by the service when fetched via the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) used by external email readers.

This change appears to make it impossible for IMAP users to see the original email without logging into the web interface, it breaks verification of the cryptographic signatures, and it came as a surprise.

For a subset of users, it appears Google is modifying URLs in the body of emails to instead go through their own link-checking and redirect service. This involves actually editing the body of the email before it reaches the user.


This only applies in G Suite (the corporate thing – what used to be called Google Apps For Your Domain), not the consumer version, and I’m guessing is a “protect paying corporate users from phishing and malware” thing.

And guess what: Google simply turned it on one day without consultation. There is an off switch buried in one of the G Suite settings, but the ordinary user can’t get at it.
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Kick Google all you like, Mozilla tells US government, so long we keep getting our Google-bucks • The Register

Simon Sharwood:


Mozilla has responded to news of the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Google by saying it welcomes it … provided it doesn’t get hurt.

Mozilla has weighed in on two fronts, firstly as an organisation that likes an open web.

“Like millions of everyday internet users, we share concerns about how Big Tech’s growing power can deter innovation and reduce consumer choice,” wrote chief legal officer Amy Keating, before getting to the hear of the matter: Mozilla has a deal to funnel search traffic to Google and the resulting royalties represent over 90% of the Mozilla revenue.

Mozilla’s second position is as an organisation that has a recently renewed deal to send search traffic to Google that is thought to see around $400m a year flow from the ad giant to the browser contender. That’s around 90% of Mozilla’s income.

Which is where things get complex, because as Keating noted: “In this new lawsuit, the DOJ referenced Google’s search agreement with Mozilla as one example of Google’s monopolization of the search engine market in the United States.”

So what’s a not-for-profit to do when it worries about Big Tech, but is also utterly dependent on it for revenue?

Keating has recommended the USA kick Google as hard as it wants, so long as Mozilla still gets paid by … someone.


Got to hope someone at Mozilla has a very fruity Plan B. As previously noted, VPNs aren’t a bad idea.
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The Google suit: we’re all anti-monopolists now • BIG by Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller:


the Google suit is a stunning change in the consensus underpinning American politics. The complaint itself a tight, well-reasoned, and nicely framed case, and the scope will likely broaden over the next few months. What the DOJ is arguing is basically a carbon copy of the Microsoft case of the late 1990s, where the government accused Microsoft of illegally tying Internet Explorer to Microsoft Windows. Today, the DOJ is accusing Google of illegally tying Search to its mobile phone operating system Android and its browser Chrome. And the government is seeking to break up Google.

The details of the case aren’t particularly important for the purpose of this essay, but if you want to know them, you can read the complaint here or read my colleague Sarah Miller’s write-up in the Guardian.

Ideologically, this complaint is just a stunning victory for anti-monopolists, who largely congregated on the progressive and Democratic side of the aisle. Republicans have been traditionally hostile to antitrust doctrine, but are now shifting. Take the words of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who said in response to the suit, “I commend the Department for finally holding Google accountable. When it comes to big tech, this is just the beginning. Winter is coming.” It’s an aggressive comment from any political leader, and it’s coming from a conservative Republican.


Background: Stoller and Miller were among a group of people who were fired from a part-Google-funded think tank after they wrote an article praising the EC’s action against Google on Android. He’s very anti-monopoly, as is evident. But I don’t think this is a “carbon copy” of the IE case. In that, Microsoft was using its Windows monopoly to annex the new, fast-growing browser market. Here, Google is using its search monopoly to… continue its search monopoly?

There may be some room to argue that Android OEMs should be allowed to let rival search engines bid to be the default. Guess who would have the money to win the bids? Maybe instead you could institute a “search choice” screen, as happens in Europe. Guess which one people would choose?

I still think this is going after the wrong targets, and the fact that a conservative Republican backs the lawsuit doesn’t give it any legitimacy. They’re just mad because they think, wrongly, that Google’s censoring them. The right targets would be blocking Google’s destructive scraping and its strongarm tactics in AMP and other technologies.
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The WeWork arc • The Diff

Byrne Hobart argues that WeWork wasn’t that bad a business, and that Adam Neumann wasn’t actually bad at spotting a gap in the market:


[the] greater-fool explanation [for WeWork’s growth] doesn’t quite hold water. WeWork’s initial capital came from the founders’ successful real estate dealings, and the first outside money came from another real estate investor. And they raised venture money from some sophisticated counterparties—even Softbank, which offered them a ridiculous valuation, was careful to structure the deal so it protected them from some downside risk.

And, strangest of all, the company didn’t go to zero. They fired Neumann (proximate cause: adverse PR from smoking marijuana on the company plane while traveling internationally; actual cause: inability to complete an IPO). [The marijuana wasn’t news to WeWork staff.] They laid off thousands of employees and sold some assets. And WeWork’s new CEO says it will be profitable in 2021 ($, FT), the most impressive transition from disaster to smooth landing since Apollo 13.

WeWork’s skill at fundraising turned out to be great for the early investors, and only a disaster for the last and biggest. Its talent strategy changed from underpaying at a small scale to overpaying at a large scale, so the company’s economics when they filed their prospectus overstated how unprofitable the undelrying business was. And while a coworking company is a terrible business in the middle of a pandemic, it’s a great business for a post-pandemic world where, as in the early 2010s, most companies are cautious about committing to space and willing to accept unconventional office arrangements.


Media narratives often don’t capture the truth of something, but that’s because – as the saying goes – it’s the first draft of history. When others come along to correct it, that doesn’t mean that the first draft was intentionally wrong, but that everyone tends to hide a few things.
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Administration officials alarmed by White House push to fast track lucrative 5G spectrum contract, sources say • CNNPolitics

Jake Tapper:


Senior officials throughout various departments and agencies of the Trump administration tell CNN they are alarmed at White House pressure to grant what would essentially be a no-bid contract to lease the Department of Defense’s mid-band spectrum — premium real estate for the booming and lucrative 5G market — to Rivada Networks, a company in which prominent Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump have investments.

The pressure campaign to fast track Rivada’s “Request for Proposal” (RFP) by using authorities that would preclude a competitive bidding process intensified in September, and has been led by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who was acting at Trump’s behest, sources with knowledge tell CNN. To push his case, Meadows has sometimes used as his proxy an individual identified by sources in the telecommunications industry as a top financial management official in the US Army.
Sources tell CNN that Trump was encouraged to help Rivada by Fox News commentator and veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove, a lobbyist for, and investor in, Rivada.

Untold billions are at stake. A government auction of 70MHz of spectrum in August went for more than $4.5bn. The Rivada bid would be for 350MHz of spectrum – five times that amount.


Got to get that grift in place before January.
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Covid: no safety concerns found with Oxford vaccine trial after Brazil death • BBC News



Trials of a Covid-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University will continue, following a review into the death of a volunteer in Brazil.

Brazil’s health authority has given no details about the death, citing confidentiality protocols. Oxford University said a “careful assessment” had revealed no safety concerns.

The BBC understands that the volunteer did not receive the vaccine.

Only around half the volunteers in the trial are given the actual Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine. The second group are being given an existing licensed vaccine for meningitis.


Sure that the anti-vaxxers will go wild even so, but always useful to have the facts.
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Girl, 8, pulls a 1,500-year-old sword from a lake in Sweden • BBC News


An eight-year-old found a pre-Viking-era sword while swimming in a lake in Sweden during the summer.

Saga Vanecek found the relic in the Vidostern lake while at her family’s holiday home in Jonkoping County.
The sword was initially reported to be 1,000 years old, but experts at the local museum now believe it may date to around 1,500 years ago.

“It’s not every day that you step on a sword in the lake!” Mikael Nordstrom from the museum said.

The level of the water was extremely low at the time, owing to a drought, which is probably why Saga uncovered the ancient weapon.

“I felt something in the water and lifted it up. Then there was a handle and I went to tell my dad that it looked like a sword,” Saga told the broadcaster Sveriges Television.


I think this means she’s now in charge of Britain? Suits me fine. Can’t do a worse job than the current bunch.
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To understand Facebook today, read its earliest critics • OneZero

Joanne McNeil:


Zuckerberg has every incentive to convince people that Facebook was once “glowingly” received. If the company had been a universally celebrated project several years ago, it would mean that simple reforms and regulations could rein it in — that with just the right policy, the social network could return to the benevolent path it once tread on.
But the truth is Facebook has always been a problem. There is no good Facebook that Facebook can return to being.

This mistaken belief that Facebook had few detractors years ago erases the groundbreaking work of its early critics — a circle that includes David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. The Social Network (2010), which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, won three Academy Awards and earned $224.9 million at the box office—it’s hardly an obscure example. The film was The Social Dilemma of its time: It picked the right target but with the wrong approach. The movie focused on Zuckerberg’s character — he’s depicted as a backstabbing genius — while the script barely touched on anything unique about Silicon Valley as an industry or the risks that the company posed to society. Nevertheless, the mere existence of The Social Network should dispel any notion that users and the general public were naive about Facebook’s growing power and influence.

Much better criticism from scholars, journalists, and even former employees was published long before the company had amassed two billion users. For anyone who wants a more complete picture of what the company is and has always been, I can think of no better place to begin than these four books that illuminate the problems inherent in Facebook’s culture and business model.


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Quibi is shutting down as problems mount • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin and Joe Flint:


Quibi Holdings is shutting itself down, according to people familiar with the matter, a crash landing for a once-highflying entertainment startup that raised $1.75bn in capital.

The streaming service has been plagued with problems since it launched in April, facing lower-than-expected viewership, disappointing download numbers and a lawsuit from a well-capitalized foe.

On Wednesday, Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg called investors to tell them he is shutting the service down, some of the people said.

Quibi’s shutdown marks a disappointing turn of events for Mr. Katzenberg, who pitched the streaming service as a revolutionary new entrant to the video-streaming wars.

The service served up shows in 5-minute to 10-minute “chapters” formatted to fit a smartphone screen, targeting subscribers who wanted entertainment in a hurry. It was primarily aimed at mobile viewers, but the coronavirus pandemic forced would-be subscribers away from the kinds of on-the-go situations Quibi executives envisioned for its users.

Quibi attracted blue-chip advertisers including PepsiCo Inc., Walmart Inc. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, securing about $150m in ad revenue in the run-up to its launch. Those deals came under strain earlier this year amid lower-than-expected viewership for Quibi’s shows, prompting advertisers to defer their payments.


Come on. This failure was never about Covid, although it’s true that Quibi did launch in the US in April, a calamitously unfortunate piece of timing. But if you have a service that’s compelling, no matter what for, then people will take an interest. Everyone had their smartphone with them all the time over the past six months. That’s not why they didn’t watch Quibi.

And yet, as Maya Kosoff points out, Quibi’s dedication to shortform content extended even to its lifespan.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yesterday’s labelling of Google’s blogpost about the DOJ’s lawsuit should have called the lawsuit a lawsuit rather than a blogpost (thanks to many who pointed this out), though I’d argue the DOJ’s work is closer in quality to a blogpost than a lawsuit.

Start Up No.1417: US files antitrust lawsuit against Google, kill the chatbots!, Sweden nixes Huawei and ZTE 5G, peak streaming?, and more

YouTube upgraded to show 60 frames per second recently – and put top-quality video out of reach for half of UK households. CC-licensed photo by Sean MacEntee on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

US accuses Google of illegally protecting monopoly • The New York Times

David McCabe, Cecilia Kang and Daisuke Wakabayashi:


The Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.

In a 57-page complaint, filed in the US District Court in the District of Columbia, the agency accused Google of locking out competition in search by obtaining several exclusive business contracts and agreements. Google’s deals with Apple, mobile carriers and other handset makers to place its search engine as the default option for consumers accounted for most of its dominant market share in search, the agency said, a figure that it put at around 80 percent.

“For many years,” the suit said, “Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire.”

The lawsuit signals a new era for the technology sector. It reflects pent-up and bipartisan frustration toward a handful of companies — Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook in particular — that have morphed from small and scrappy companies into global powerhouses with outsize influence over commerce, speech, media and advertising. Conservatives like President Trump and liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren have called for more restraints over Big Tech.


Here’s the lawsuit. And here’s Google’s blogpost in response, titled “A deeply flawed blogpost that would do nothing to help consumers”.

So. A little history. When Google was being sued by the EC in 2010 over its suppression of shopping comparison sites – beginning with the British company Foundem – I thought the EC was making the right move, and focusing on the correct topic: that Google was manipulating search to favour its own products over what consumers evidently wanted. Effectively, that’s annexation: using your power in the market to push others out of an adjacent market.

I thought the EC lawsuit against Google over tying Google services to Android was reasonable, too. It’s a slightly different situation – an effective monopsony: Google’s the only useful supplier for Android that people want outside China. (Ask Huawei.) The OEMs would all have to defect from Google to have any effect; and defection back would be more profitable.

But this? This is nonsense. There’s no law against being a monopoly in the US. The 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft was about tying the provision of Windows to the use of Internet Explorer – when browsers were a new technology. IBM nearly missed out on the whole Windows95 launch because it resisted.

The FTC had an excellent chance to act on this right back in 2013 but whiffed it. If the DoJ and the states really want to make their case work, they should revisit that casework. But it wasn’t about being a monopoly. It was about suppressing rivals in shopping search.

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Apple iPhone 12 Review: superfast speed, if you can find it • The New York Times

Brian Chen spent ages trying to find 5G, and when he did it was basically to try out the Speedtest app; there’s no real use for 5G. Then there’s the rest of the phone:


Apple also said it had strengthened the display glass, making it four times less likely to break. It’s difficult to test that scientifically, but I dropped the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro several times by accident on hard surfaces. They survived without any scuffs.

Also new is a charging mechanism that Apple calls MagSafe. It’s basically a new standard to support faster charging via magnetic induction. The new standard will open doors to other companies to make accessories that magnetically attach to iPhones, such as miniature wallets.

I tested both the MagSafe charger and Apple’s MagSafe wallet. But I preferred charging with a normal wire because it was faster, as well as carrying my own wallet, because it can hold more cards.

There’s a major downside to all of the new features: We have to pay a lot for these phones. Apple is also no longer including charging bricks or earphones with the new iPhones since so many people already own power bricks and fancy wireless earbuds. While that will lead to less waste, this shift and the price jump may annoy plenty of people.


There’s also Nilay Patel’s review at The Verge, which looks in more detail at the camera quality. He and his video producer are enthusiastic.
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Sweden bans Huawei, ZTE From new 5G infrastructure • Bloomberg

Niclas Rolander and Veronica Ek:


Sweden has banned Huawei Technologies and ZTE from gaining access to its fifth-generation wireless network, adding to the increasing number of European governments forcing local telecom companies to shift away from Chinese suppliers.

The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority said in a statement Tuesday that the “influence of China’s one-party state over the country’s private sector brings with it strong incentives for privately owned companies to act in accordance with state goals and the communist party’s national strategies.”

The authority said that the two Chinese technology giants’ equipment must be removed from existing infrastructure used for 5G frequencies by January 2025.

The US has described Huawei as the “backbone” of surveillance efforts by the Chinese communist party, and is pressuring European governments to block the technology company from gaining access to 5G networks. The UK has already imposed an outright ban on Huawei’s 5G equipment, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far hesitated to follow suit.


Another domino falls. Significant that it’s banning ZTE as well. Though of course Sweden doesn’t have to look far to find a network supplier: Ericsson is home-grown. Or it can give Nokia, in neighbouring Finland, a call.
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Bug of the Day: Youtube broke for 40% of the UK population after rolling out 60 FPS videos • The HFT Guy

“The HFT guy” is a developer in London:


This week we’re going to talk about how YouTube broke HD for me and about 40% the UK population, give or take.

I moved to a newer home earlier this year and like most places in the UK (even in London) it only had broadband internet aka slow ADSL over copper. It’s pushing a good 4.2 Mbps, sometimes up to 4.6 Mbps on a good day.

YouTube decided to rollout 60 FPS videos by default to everyone. It came in effect automatically for most videos published over the past couple years.

Have a look at quality setting and see what pops up. If the video is relatively recent the options are usually limited to: 1080p60, 720p60, 480p …

There’s no setting and there’s no opt-out to get back to 30 FPS. Like all software updates lately, the switch happened and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Problem: 60 FPS video requires roughly 50% more bandwidth than 30 FPS video.


Problem arising from the fact that about 45% of UK households have a connection speed lower than 8Mbps, and you need above that for 1080p60fps; but only half that (which would work with most of the country) for 1080p30fps. It would be good if Google allowed a fallback to 30fps, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that.
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My chatbot is dead, and why yours should probably be too • Adrian Z

Adrian Zumbrunnen:


let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment: when did you actually ever enjoy talking to a chat bot? And I’m not talking about the type of bots you talk to when you’re bored, but about those that provide a deeper purpose.

It turns out that the answer is, at least for most of us, almost never.

I love you Intercom, except when I don’t. 99% of time I don’t want to talk to a silly and obtrusive avatar popping up from some corner of the screen before I even had a chance to check out what’s going on. Somehow, I can’t help but think others feel the same.

In fact, we do know that others feel the same. Chat heads jumping at us unasked, are the quintessential equivalent of the infamous sales clerk who eagerly talks to us upon entering a store.

To further add to the challenges: as soon as users go off-script, chat bot’s don’t just become awkward and unpredictable—they turn into little sociopaths that might rub users the wrong way.

The moment you create a chat bot is the moment you allow customers to have a conversation with your brand. Not with yourself, not with your friend, but with an uber entity—a symbol—that represents everything you and your team stand for. That’s not a step to be taken lightly.


Personally, I never ever ever wanted to talk to a chatbot. You know that it’s only an intermediate step towards dealing with a real human, or using a website with an interface you can navigate with your eyes, rather than an Adventure-style guessing game.

But they seem to be on the way out, so that’s something.
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Expanding AI’s impact with organizational learning • MIT Sloan Review


Organizations that learn with AI have three essential characteristics:

1. They facilitate systematic and continuous learning between humans and machines. Organizational learning with AI isn’t just machines learning autonomously. Or humans teaching machines. Or machines teaching humans. It’s all three. Organizations that enable humans and machines to continuously learn from each other with all three methods are five times more likely to realize significant financial benefits than organizations that learn with a single method.

2. They develop multiple ways for humans and machines to interact. Humans and machines can and should interact in different ways depending on the context. Mutual learning with AI stems from these human-machine interactions. Deploying the appropriate interaction mode(s) in the appropriate context is critical. For example, some situations may require an AI system to make a recommendation and humans to decide whether to implement it. Some context-rich environments may require humans to generate solutions and AI to evaluate the quality of those solutions. We consider five ways to structure human-machine interactions. Organizations that effectively use all five modes of interaction are six times as likely to realize significant financial benefits compared with organizations effective at a single mode of interaction.

3. They change to learn, and learn to change. Structuring human and machine interactions to learn through multiple methods requires significant, and sometimes uncomfortable, change. Organizations that make extensive changes to many processes are five times more likely to gain significant financial benefits compared with those that make only some changes to a few processes. These organizations don’t just change processes to use AI; they change processes in response to what they learn with AI.

Organizational learning with AI demands, builds on, and leads to significant organizational change.


This sounds to me, without knowing the detail of the organisations, like they’re obliged to change to fit with the demands of the AI, rather as organisations had to become more computer-like to better adjust to the broader use of computers. How many people in a day do you hear say “just got to enter a few details into the computer, be with you in a minute…”
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Are we reaching peak streaming subscriptions? • Billboard

Will Page:


Have we reached “peak subscription streaming” in the way that some scientists fear that we’re approaching “peak oil,” the theoretical point at which more oil has been extracted from the earth than remains in it? The streaming situation is far less grim — peak oil assumes that production will decline, while streaming-subscription numbers will presumably stop growing but not decrease — but there’s one important parallel. Just as we’re running out of “easy oil” and the price of a barrel increases as we move from drilling wells to more expensive extraction methods like fracking, we’re also running out of what we might call “easy subscribers”: young, tech-savvy music fans, many of whom have smartphones with iOS, which makes commerce easy. Finding more will require marketing, whether that means courting more Android users, selling skeptics on the value of music streaming or trying to take subscribers from other companies — which costs money. It could also put pressure on services to lower prices, at precisely the point when they also have an incentive to raise them in order to show bottom-line growth.

To get a sense of what’s ahead, it’s worth looking at two markets that adapted to streaming early, Sweden and Norway, which make some of these concerns look a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Since 2015, when analysts first began predicting that music streaming services were running out of potential subscribers, the music business consultancy MIDiA estimates subscription numbers are up 85% in Sweden and 78% in Norway.

Then again, remember what happened to that boy who cried wolf in the end? It could be that the predator is still on his way — he just hasn’t quite arrived yet.


In possibly related news, Netflix said subscriber growth slowed in the most recent quarter. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Democratic super PAC Future Forward and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are spending $100 million against Trump • Vox

Theodore Schleifer:


A little-known Democratic super PAC backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest donors is quietly unleashing a torrent of television spending in the final weeks of the presidential campaign in a last-minute attempt to oust President Donald Trump, Recode has learned.

The barrage of late money — which includes at least $22m from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz — figures among one of the most expensive and aggressive plays yet by tech billionaires, who have spent years studying how to maximize the return they get from each additional dollar they spend on politics. Moskovitz is placing his single biggest public bet yet on the evidence that TV ads that come just before Election Day are the best way to do that.

The super PAC, called Future Forward, has remained under the radar but is spending more than $100m on television and digital in the final month of the campaign — more than any other group — on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden outside of the Biden campaign itself.


What better way, when you deeply desire your advertising spend to have a meaningful effect, than to demonstrate the targeting power of advertising on the platform that you’ve helped create by *checks notes* using a completely different one.
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The mystery of the immaculate concussion • GQ

Julia Ioffe:


[US CIA official in charge of blocking Russian counterintel work, Marc] Polymeropoulos was stunned by how unabashedly combative his Russian counterparts were. He had spent his career in a region where people were exceedingly polite, rolling out banquets and plying him with tea, even as he knew they were plotting to kill him. He knew the Russians didn’t like him, but “I would have expected them to be a little more polite,” Polymeropoulos told me.

Nonetheless, he figured that this was little more than bluster. He knew he had to be careful in Russia and to be wary of Russian agents trying to entrap him in compromising situations—for example, the beautiful young women at the rooftop bar of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton who seemed determined to chat up him and his colleague. But Polymeropoulos figured he had no reason to fear for his physical safety. Even after that awful night in the Marriott, Polymeropoulos did not immediately suspect anything malicious. By morning, the worst of the symptoms had passed and he seemed to be doing better, confirming his suspicion that it had just been something he’d eaten. Just a few hours after he’d been incapacitated, he managed to get on a train to St. Petersburg, where he felt well enough to walk for miles, duck into more dive bars, and even glimpse the famous troll factory. He even did some Christmas shopping for his wife and kids. That miserable, terrifying night in his Moscow hotel room receded in his memory.

Two days before the end of his trip, Polymeropoulos and his colleagues were eating dinner at Pushkin, a posh Moscow restaurant, when he suddenly felt the room begin to spin again, just as it had in the hotel room that night. A wave of nausea hit, and he was suddenly drenched in sweat. He barely made it back to his hotel room, where, having canceled all his meetings, he stayed for the rest of his trip, unable to move. His body was in revolt, and he had no idea why. “I made it back on the airplane somehow,” Polymeropoulos said.

It wasn’t until Polymeropoulos got home to the Virginia suburbs that it occurred to him that what had happened in Moscow was possibly the result of something far more sinister that what he’d originally suspected. In February, after a few weeks of relative normalcy, he started feeling an intense and painful pressure that started in the back of his head and radiated forward into his face.


Given Russians’ proclivities, wonder if this and other cases was very low-grade chemical poisoning, not some sort of radiation.
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Attack-dog journalism is bad for democracy • UnHerd

Sarah Ditum on the popular response to New Zealand TV journalist Tova O’Brien demolishing failed political candidate Jami-Lee Ross:


Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much in the case of Ross. Advance got less than 1% of the vote, so you can hardly think of him as the representative of New Zealand’s Covid-denying left-behinds. More worrying is the idea that O’Brien is some kind of role model for journalists — “the way it should be done”. What she offers is the stupefaction of a cheap pleasure, which is fine once in a while, but nothing you can live on. Turn this approach on an actually popular populist, rather than a sadsack failure content to soak up the last moments of his dead career, and you’d quickly have a polarised nightmare.

Rather than attack people as liars or presume their bad faith, Ripley suggests journalists should look for ways to open conversations: instead of telling people what they think, ask them about why they believe the things they do. Often, the things that people seem to be at odds over are just proxies for underlying issues; and sometimes, those underlying issues are more tractable than you ever expected.

It’s even possible that the questioner could be the one to change their mind about something.


I think this is wrong. Take Jonathan Swann’s interview with Trump: while Swann didn’t cut Trump off for talking nonsense, he absolutely did call him on his nonsense because he knew the indisputable facts. Ditto Chris Wallace, who had been wily enough to take the mental aptitude test that Trump was going to boast about, and so could contradict Trump from a position of knowledge.

The common thread in all three: being prepared with knowledge of what the facts are, and not being prepared to take dissembling crap around it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1416: Google’s antitrust redux, how a Trumpite got ZTE out of US sanctions, how climate change killed early humans, and more

“How track and trace works” now needs to include “and data passed to the police”. CC-licensed photo by Coventry City Council on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not adverts. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How does Google’s monopoly hurt you? Try these searches • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:


Let’s Google together. Open a Web browser and search for “T-shirts”. I’ll wait.

Is the first thing you see a search result? I’m not talking about the stuff labeled Ads or Maps. On my screen, the actual result is not in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or even eighth row of stuff. It’s buried on row nine.

Googling didn’t used to require so much … scrolling. On some searches, it’s like Where’s Waldo but for information. Without us even realizing it, the Internet’s most-used website has been getting worse. On too many queries, Google is more interested in making search lucrative than a better product for us.

There’s one reason it gets away with this, according to a recent congressional investigation: Google is so darn big. An impending antitrust lawsuit from the US Justice Department is expected to make a similar point.

How does Google’s alleged monopoly hurt you? Today, 88% of all searches happen on Google, in part because contracts make it the default on computers and phones. But whether Google is actually fetching you good information can be hard to see. First, Googling is easy and free, which blinds everyone a bit. Second, we don’t have a great alternative for broad Web searches — Microsoft’s rival Bing doesn’t have enough data to compete well. (This is the problem of monopolies in the information age.)

Over the last two decades, Google has made changes in drips rather than big makeovers. To see how search results have changed, what you’d need is a time machine. Good news: We have one of those!
The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine stored some Google search results over the years. When we look back, a picture emerges of how Google increasingly fails us. There’s more space dedicated to ads that look like search results. More results start with answer “snippets” — sometimes incorrect — ripped from other sites. And increasingly, results point you back to Google’s own properties such as Maps and YouTube, where it can show more ads and gather more of your data.


The FTC looked at some elements of this back in 2010-13, and decided that it couldn’t take action over Google favouring its own properties, because consumers weren’t harmed through higher prices. If the DoJ and state AGs are going to take action now, they need to explain what their new antitrust doctrine is, because there haven’t been any court cases I’ve seen in the US which back up that change in doctrine. In Europe, it’s embedded as part of the requirement for a “competitive market”.

By the way, I assume Fowler’s talking about a phone screen. On my computer screen, the first organic link is the sixth element (after a gallery, map, and three shop links).
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The China ambassador’s son who got rich in Trump’s swamp • The Intercept

Mara Hvistendahl and Lee Fang on how ZTE – the company that’s not Huawei which broke US sanctions to sell telecoms equipment to Iran, and was put on the sanctioned list in April 2018 under which it was banned from buying American parts (essentially, the same death sentence that Huawei later received).

But then it was reprieved. Here’s how:


ZTE’s path back into business with American suppliers has long been shrouded in mystery. Some critics highlighted the role of lobbyists working for ZTE. Shortly after the Commerce Department penalized ZTE, a law firm representing the Chinese company started paying the lobbying outfit Mercury Public Affairs $75,000 a month to unwind the order. Mercury partner and former Trump campaign adviser Bryan Lanza took on the account. But an Intercept investigation has found that Lanza traveled to China with a Mercury colleague and fellow Trump campaign veteran: former Commerce Department official Eric Branstad, who is also the son of Terry Branstad, then Trump’s ambassador to China.

Eric Branstad was close with Trump and had joined Mercury just three months earlier, after a stint advising Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He had a checkered past, marred by killing two people in a car crash when he was a teenager, and had made money off his relationships with his father and Trump. In his home state of Iowa, his activities would spark comparisons to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Three days after Trump’s curious tweet, Lanza began emailing and calling officials at the Commerce Department on ZTE’s behalf. In June, he and Eric Branstad traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese government groups, including a chamber of commerce established by the Chinese Communist Party’s influential United Front Work Department that has ties to large Chinese companies. ZTE is an executive board member of a closely affiliated group.


This well-researched story came out last Thursday. A poorly researched story on a similar topic, but not about Trump, came out the same day. Guess which one got the attention?
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Climate change likely drove early human species to extinction, modeling study suggests •

Cell Press:


“Our findings show that despite technological innovations including the use of fire and refined stone tools, the formation of complex social networks, and—in the case of Neanderthals—even the production of glued spear points, fitted clothes, and a good amount of cultural and genetic exchange with Homo sapiens, past Homo species could not survive intense climate change,” says Pasquale Raia of Università di Napoli Federico II in Napoli, Italy. “They tried hard; they made for the warmest places in reach as the climate got cold, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough.”

To shed light on past extinctions of Homo species including H. habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens, the researchers relied on a high-resolution past climate emulator, which provides temperature, rainfall, and other data over the last 5 million years. They also looked to an extensive fossil database spanning more than 2,750 archaeological records to model the evolution of Homo species’ climatic niche over time. The goal was to understand the climate preferences of those early humans and how they reacted to changes in climate.

Their studies offer robust evidence that three Homo species—H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neanderthalensis—lost a significant portion of their climatic niche just before going extinct. They report that this reduction coincided with sharp, unfavorable changes in the global climate. In the case of Neanderthals, things were likely made even worse by competition with H. sapiens.


So let’s try running the experiment again, but with just H.sapiens, and see how things go.
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Google kills off app that let you find loved ones’ location during an emergency • The Verge

Ian Carlos Campbell:


Google will discontinue its emergency location sharing app Trusted Contacts in December, and has already yanked it from the Google Play Store. Instead, it’s directing existing users to try similar but less helpful features in Google Maps. That’s a shame, because while Trusted Contacts could let you find a family member even if they don’t respond (say, if they are unconscious or in danger), Google Maps requires them to proactively broadcast their location to you.

The announcement was quite abrupt [saying, in effect, “we’ve built the functionality directly into Google Maps with Location Sharing”].

Google Maps has been able to do real time location sharing since 2017, but again, you have to opt-in to constant tracking, sharing your location with other people all the time instead of only broadcasting it to loved ones if you don’t respond. Trusted Contacts, by comparison, allows you to add people to your contacts who you’d like to instantly share your locations with in case of emergency. If one arises, your contacts can request a status update to see if you’re alright and you can respond with your location to reassure them. If you don’t respond, the app automatically shares your last known location so they can send for help.


It’s a tough choice: do you have more and more and more apps, or do you roll all the functionality into one incredibly widely used app (Maps has more than a billion users)? Trusted Contacts definitely had more useful functionality, closer to the surface. And most people really don’t dig very far into apps at all.
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Police get access to people told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace • The Guardian

Jedidajah Otte:


People who have been told to self-isolate through NHS test and trace could have their contact details passed to police, a move some fear could deter people from being tested for coronavirus.

Police forces will be able to access information about people “on a case-by-case” basis, so they can learn whether an individual has been told to self-isolate, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHCS) said.

England made it a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus. Those who fail to do so face fines starting at £1,000, while repeat offenders or those committing serious breaches could receive fines of up to £10,000, according to the DHSC.

The department updated its online guidance on Friday about how coronavirus testing data will be handled.

People who fail to self-isolate “without reasonable justification” could have their name, address and contact details passed to their local authority and then to the police, the DHSC’s website said.

…Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said ministers should “reverse the policy urgently”, calling it a “huge mistake”.

“Anything that further undermines the public’s dwindling trust in this government’s handling of the pandemic is damaging, and few things could have been better designed to do that than this,” he said.


What’s next? Getting people to wear tags? At least T&T is about theoretical contact with people who have tested positive, rather than the super-vague app warnings. If they start sharing the latter, the whole system will collapse from mistrust.
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As local news dies, a pay-for-play network rises in its place • The New York Times

Davey Alba and Jack Nicas:


The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.


Oligarchs gonna oligarch. Now that the media ecosystem has collapsed, there’s a clear road for this sort of distortion. Some hilarious details in the story – such as the reporter who says he’s not allowed to talk to reporters. Questions not answered in the story, but maybe there’ll be a followup: does Google downrank these as junk in “news” searches? Does Facebook?
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A profanity filter banned the word ‘bone’ at a paleontology conference • Vice

Becky Ferreira:


Participants in a virtual paleontology meeting were not permitted to use the words “bone,” “sexual,” or “Hell” in early digital Q&A sessions, sparking amusement and frustration from researchers attending the online conference.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) opted to hold its annual meeting, which runs from Monday to Friday this week, as a virtual event. At the end of presentations, attendees can ask written questions, but it quickly became apparent that some words and phrases—including many that are utterly ubiquitous in paleontology—were verboten.

The platform that the virtual meeting used, provided by Convey Services, came with “a pre-packaged naughty-word-filter,” explained Stephanie Drumheller, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee and a member of the SVP, in an r/askscience Reddit thread about the meeting on Wednesday.

“After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” she added. “It takes a little time to filter from Twitter to the platform programmers, but it’s getting fixed slowly.”

Convey Services was not immediately available to comment.


Ah, the Scunthorpe problem raises its ugly head. Oops. (Thanks Jim for the pointer.)
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The Citizen Browser project: auditing the algorithms of disinformation • The Markup


At the center of The Citizen Browser Project is a custom web browser designed by The Markup to audit the algorithms that social media platforms use to determine what information they serve their users, what news and narratives are amplified or suppressed, and which online communities those users are encouraged to join. Initially, the browser will be implemented to glean data from Facebook and YouTube.

A nationally representative panel of 1,200 people will be paid to install the custom web browser on their desktops, which allows them to share real-time data directly from their Facebook and YouTube accounts with The Markup. Data collected from this panel will form statistically valid samples of the American population across age, race, gender, geography, and political affiliation, which will lead to important insights about how Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms operate. To protect the panel’s privacy, The Markup will remove personally identifiable information collected by the panel and discard it, only using the remaining redacted data in its analyses.

“Social media platforms are the broadcasting networks of the 21st century,” said The Markup’s editor-in-chief, Julia Angwin. “They dictate what news the public consumes with black box algorithms designed to maximize profits at the expense of truth and transparency. The Citizen Browser Project is a powerful accountability check on that system that can puncture the filter bubble and point the public toward a more free and democratic discourse.”


I wonder how long it will take for Facebook to run a browser detection tool and try to block this sort of auditing.
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The Top 10 of… technologies that are just about to solve big problems but probably won’t ever work • The Independent

John Rentoul, who I used to work with long ago at The Independent, is reliably sceptical:


This list started in 2018 as a joke about max fac, short for maximum facilitation, which was Theresa May’s magic way of making the border between Northern Ireland and the republic disappear. I compared it to other wonderful technologies that hadn’t been invented yet, such as carbon capture and storage and self-driving cars.


The list includes carbon capture & storage, nuclear fusion, blockchain and more. It’s actually pretty hard to refute any of them. (Particularly hydrogen power.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1415: why British TV cops rule, can AI fix US government regulations?, free speech v misinfo, is social media like smoking?, and more

This picture’s acceptable for some – no, pretty much all – SCUBA newsgroups. CC-licensed photo by Derek on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. May be used against you. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why British police shows are better • The Atlantic

Christopher Orr:


Crime shows set in Britain may offer the best way—apart from actually moving there—to appreciate how much the nation has become a quasi-benevolent surveillance state. If the police need to determine someone’s whereabouts at a particular hour on a particular night, they will dutifully interview witnesses, check phone records, and otherwise establish alibis much as they would in the United States. But they will also—as any fan of these shows can readily attest—check the CCTV…

This pervasive video footage is an obvious boon not only to British police, but to the writers of British police dramas as well. Is your plot missing a link in the chain of evidence, a way from narrative Point A to narrative Point B? Just check the CCTV footage, and discover a familiar face exiting a pub or a telltale license plate on the highway. More notably, this panoptical scrutiny changes the atmosphere of the shows. The awareness of supervision lends British series a greater sense of control, of order, relative to the urban chaos that prevails on American television. Crime is experienced as a deviation from the norm—something that fell into the cracks between the cameras—rather than the norm itself.

The more glaring contrast between American and British law enforcement—both real and fictive—is the near-total absence of handguns in Britain. (In 2018, for example, London—home to 9 million people—reported just 15 gun homicides.)

…The cumulative effect on British police shows can’t be overstated. Everyone weaned on American cop dramas, for instance, knows the right way to approach a door behind which a suspect might be waiting: His gun drawn, an officer stands to one side before knocking and declaring himself loudly. The anticipation of violence is so primal that it dominates almost every interaction that involves the police. In your typical British police show, by contrast, a visit to a suspect can resemble a social errand, as unarmed detectives wait patiently in front of a door after ringing the bell. The absence of gunfire—and, more important, of concern about the possibility of gunfire—almost invariably leads to more actual detective work.


Brön (the Swedish/Danish original of The Bridge) does have some gunplay – Saga Nören often brandishes her gun, but rarely fires it. There’s a fair amount of shooting in later series of Line Of Duty. But it’s all done in the context of it being very undesirable.

One thing I always liked about The Rockford Files (Jim Rockford was an ex-con private investigator) was that the scripts, and the character, abhorred guns.
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Tap to navigate: how to systematize interactive labels for maps • Tap to Dismiss

Linzi Berry is the product design manager at Lyft:


Systemizing a map component has remarkably more constraints than your average button. These seemingly simple interactive labels must stand out against all terrains, densities and fixed buttons. Can combined with regions, exact locations, objects or stand on their own. Are required to be big enough to meet accessibility and tap target requirements and small enough to not block map interaction. And flexibly hold content for 1 destination address or 1,000+ scooters and adjust when zoomed… and more!!!

This is our attempt at an elegant solution for systemizing interactive map labels, or as we like to call them— Map Bubbles.


The most interesting part is the question of how much of a map you should allow to be obscured by icons – the sort of problem that can occur if you have lots of Lyft cars at an airport, for example.
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The “game theory” in the Qanon conspiracy theory • FT Alphaville

Izabella Kaminska on the theory that the QAnon stuff is a LARP – live-action role-playing game – created by a close-knit group of people:


The rabbit hole behind the rabbit hole points the finger at a small group of online Youtubers and social-media amplifier networks. But it also links into strange cults, well established online ARGs like Cicada 3301, with seeming support from a network of former intelligence operators.

As it stands, it looks very much like Q drops are authored not by a single person but a team.

But there is also a problem.

In a nod to the famous search for Satoshi, definitive proofs are lacking. The entire network operates around the construct of plausible deniability. And some of the most-likely candidates still deny involvement. Thomas Schoenberger, who goes online by the name of St Germain – and who is referenced in our film as one of the most likely orchestrators – provided us with the following statement:


Schoenberger bluntly denies the claims that he is Q and says he is being framed by other online personalities, including former disgruntled associates. Schoenberger states he has nothing to do with the crazy IAM movement either and finds it “silly”. Schoenberger says his only commonality with Count St Germain is that he is a composer and historian,as was St Germain Schoenberger’s youtube Channel “Sophia Musik” feature Schoenberger’s original music. When asked about his role in the creation of Cicada 3301, Schoenberger declined comment.


Youtuber Defango, whose real-name is Manuel Chavez, meanwhile, continues to claim that he invented the game in a Coleen Rooney-style sting operation to smoke out how disinformation spreads across the alternative media space.


Style note: QAnon or Qanon? I prefer the former because it seemed to originate in the Anon world. (Alphaville posts are not paywalled, though you do have to register for free.)
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New climate maps show a transformed United States • ProPublica

Al Shaw, Abrahm Lustgarten and Jeremy Goldsmith:


A new climate analysis — presented for the first time here — projects how humidity and heat will collide to form “wet bulb” temperatures that will disrupt the norms of daily existence.

Today, the combination of truly dangerous heat and humidity is rare. But by 2050, parts of the Midwest and Louisiana could see conditions that make it difficult for the human body to cool itself for nearly one out of every 20 days in the year. New projections for farm productivity also suggest that growing food will become difficult across large parts of the country, including the heart of the High Plains’ $35bn agriculture industry. All the while, sea level rise will transform the coasts.

Combined, these factors will lead to profound economic losses — and possibly mass migration of Americans away from distress in much of the southern and coastal regions of the country. Meanwhile, the northern Midwest and Great Plains will benefit, in farm productivity, in economy and in overall comfort.

…Populous cities with expensive real estate, including Houston and Miami, will see damage tallied in the billions — losses worth several percentage points of GDP — largely driven by storms, sea level rise and deaths from high heat, Hess said. Climate will have a larger proportional impact in rural places like Gulf County, Florida, which might lose half its economy.


That’s a really short time horizon. Thirty years? Yet will it be taken seriously? I guess we need to wait three weeks. (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning. I only just got the assonance joke in the title.)
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Google Pixel 5’s wimpy camera is driving me to the iPhone 12 • CNET

Stephen Shankland:


Google tried to match Apple’s prowess this year by replacing the telephoto camera with an ultrawide camera in the Pixel 5. But Apple made major camera improvements with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a bigger image sensor, a longer-reach telephoto lens, improved image stabilization to counteract shaky hands, Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second and Apple’s more flexible ProRaw format. It’s clear Apple is sinking enormous resources into better photography.

Google may have made the right call for the broad market. I suspect ultrawide cameras are better for mainstream smartphone customers than telephotos. Ultrawide cameras for group shots, indoor scenes and video are arguably more useful than telephoto cameras for portraits and mountains.

But I want both. I enjoy the different perspectives. Indeed, for a few years I usually carried only telephoto and ultrawide lenses for my DSLR.

In response to my concerns, Google says it’s improved the Super Res Zoom technique for digital zooming on the Pixel 5 with better computational photography and AI techniques that now can magnify up to a factor of 7X.

“We studied carefully to determine what’s really important to folks, and then we focused on that – and shaved off literally hundreds of dollars in the process,” said camera product manager Isaac Reynolds. Having a telephoto camera would have helped image quality, but Google’s priority this year “was to produce a phone that compared well to the top end but at a much lower price – and we did that.”

I’m not so convinced. When shooting even at 2X telephoto zoom, my 2-year-old iPhone XS Max and my 1-year-old Pixel 4 both offer far superior imagery compared with the Pixel 5. 


It’s possible that most people wouldn’t be able to notice the subtle differences that Shankland can, but the fact that the Pixel 5 fares worse than the Pixel 4 seems like a problem. Again, what’s Google’s aim with the Pixel? If it’s not to do the very best possible computational photography, then what?
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US government agencies to use AI to cull and cut outdated regulations • Reuters

David Shepardson:


The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said Friday that federal agencies will use artificial intelligence to eliminate outdated, obsolete, and inconsistent requirements across tens of thousands of pages of government regulations.

A 2019 pilot project used machine learning algorithms and natural language processing at the Department of Health and Human Services. The test run found hundreds of technical errors and outdated requirements in agency rulebooks, including requests to submit materials by fax.

OMB said all federal agencies are being encouraged to update regulations using AI and several agencies have already agreed to do so.

Over the last four years, the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations has remained at about 185,000.

White House OMB director Russell Vought said the AI effort would help agencies “update a regulatory code marked by decades of neglect and lack of reform.”

Under the initiative agencies will use AI technology and other software “to comb through thousands and thousands of regulatory code pages to look for places where code can be updated, reconciled, and general scrubbed of technical mistakes,” the White House said.


This is when you might have an inkling that things have really, really gotten too complex. (Thanks Jim for the pointer.)
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The problem of free speech in an age of disinformation • The New York Times

EMily Bazelon:


The false story about Democrats plotting a coup spread through a typical feedback loop. Links from Fox News hosts and other right-wing figures aligned with Trump, like Bongino, often dominate the top links in Facebook’s News Feed for likes, comments and shares in the United States. Though Fox News is far smaller than Facebook, the social media platform has helped Fox attain the highest weekly reach, offline and online combined, of any single news source in the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Reuters Institute.

It’s an article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible. But increasingly, scholars of constitutional law, as well as social scientists, are beginning to question the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They think our formulations are simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era. Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes. But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.

This concern spans the ideological spectrum. Along with disinformation campaigns, there is the separate problem of “troll armies” — a flood of commenters, often propelled by bots — that “aim to discredit or to destroy the reputation of disfavored speakers and to discourage them from speaking again,” Jack Goldsmith, a conservative law professor at Harvard, writes in an essay in “The Perilous Public Square,” a book edited by David E. Pozen that was published this year. This tactic, too, may be directed by those in power.

…These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach.


Maybe “more speech is better” is no longer true in this age. But it also points out that the “originalist” decisions on the Supreme Court are empowering the wealthy, not improving democracy.
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Summary of Apple’s iPhone 12 event • YouTube

It’s only 50 seconds long, so you can afford the time. And admit it, you’ve always wondered what “fai chi” was.
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Thank you for posting: smoking’s lessons for regulating social media • MIT Technology Review

Joan Donavan:


at the end of September, Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, gave testimony before Congress that suggested a new way to look at the site’s deleterious effects on democracy. He outlined Facebook’s twin objectives: making itself profitable and trying to control a growing mess of misinformation and conspiracy. Kendall compared social media to the tobacco industry. Both have focused on increasing the capacity for addiction. “Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs,” he said. 

The comparison is more than metaphorical. It’s a framework for thinking about how public opinion needs to shift so that the true costs of misinformation can be measured and policy can be changed. 

It might seem inevitable today, but regulating the tobacco industry was not an obvious choice to policymakers in the 1980s and 1990s, when they struggled with the notion that it was an individual’s choice to smoke. Instead, a broad public campaign to address the dangers of secondhand smoke is what finally broke the industry’s heavy reliance on the myth of smoking as a personal freedom. It wasn’t enough to suggest that smoking causes lung disease and cancer, because those were personal ailments—an individual’s choice. But secondhand smoke? That showed how those individual choices could harm other people.


The metaphor is useful, though Donovan doesn’t seem to know quite what shape regulation should take. Personally, I have an idea – which will be in my forthcoming book, out early 2021.
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alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated: a deep dive •

Andy Baio:


This morning, my friend Tamás dropped this tweet into the #internet channel of the XOXO Slack, a place where we talk about weird and good internet.

[Tamás pointed to the existence of two Usenet newsgroups, alt.binaries.images.underwater and alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated, and demanded to know what the story behind it was]

Never one to turn down an inconsequential quest, I did a deep-dive through Google’s fragmented late-1990s Usenet archives to see if I could piece it together. What caused such a specific group to be created?

It ended up being an interesting microcosm exploring three approaches to community moderation: hands-off moderation, majority rule, and strong moderation.

The original charter for the alt.binaries.images.underwater newsgroup was extremely wholesome:


The theme or Topic of this newsgroup shall be images portraying “an underwater scene.” Only photographs, paintings, and graphics whose primary subject is shown in an underwater setting are “on topic” in alt.binaries.images.underwater. Its title’s broadness is deliberate, and indicates inclusion of a varied range of UW themes and imagery. Some examples: shipwrecks, non-human sea life (i.e. fish & coral), swimmers & divers (scuba, snorkelers, free-divers, mermaids, pearl-divers, “hard-hat” divers). The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.

The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.

Certain “surface scenes” shall be considered acceptable *if* the image’s subject is seen *semi-submerged* (meaning more in-the-water than out of it. Some examples: a surface view of a semi-submerged shipwreck, or divers/snorkelers floating beside their boat or a buoy



It was designed to be G-rated and family-friendly, placed outside the* hierarchy, and with no mentions of sex, nudity, or fetishes.


It’s a tale of paradise lost, and maybe found.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1414: GOP subpoenas Twitter, thousands of Robinhood accounts hacked, GM to test driverless cars on SF streets, and more

You’ll never guess which animal the next coronavirus outbreak is coming from. CC-licensed photo by angieandsteve on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not stood up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As Twitter and Facebook clamp down, Republicans claim ‘election interference’ • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Kate Conger:


On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The criticism did not stop the companies. Twitter locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then doubled down by prohibiting the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

The actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day and underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”


None of the major papers has been able to stand the Hunter Biden story up – not surprising, because it’s Swiss cheese with a Möbius twist which makes no sense, no matter where you start; the more you read the less it hangs together. So of course the noise is all about the cackhanded approach Twitter took. They must envy Facebook’s ability to simply turn the volume down.
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Robinhood hack: almost 2,000 accounts infiltrated, more widespread than known • Bloomberg

Sophie Alexander:


Almost 2,000 Robinhood Markets accounts were compromised in a recent hacking spree that siphoned off customer funds, a sign that the attacks were more widespread than was previously known.

A person with knowledge of an internal review, who asked not to be identified because the findings aren’t public, provided the estimated figure.

When Bloomberg first reported on the hacking spree last week, the popular online brokerage disclosed few details. It said “a limited number” of customers had been struck by cyber-criminals who gained access by breaching personal email accounts outside of Robinhood, an assertion that some of the victims acknowledge and others reject.

The attacks unleashed a torrent of complaints on social media, where investors recounted futile attempts to call the brokerage, which doesn’t have a customer service phone number. Robinhood, which has more than 13 million customer accounts, is now considering whether to add a phone number along with other tools, the person said.


A phone number. All your money is siphoned off and there’s no way to call anyone. Amazing anyone is still with Robinhood after that. Some of the accounts were access despite having two-factor authentication – which suggests someone getting very deep into the system (as happened with Twitter.)
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FCC chairman says he will move forward with plans to ‘clarify’ Section 230 • Deadline

Ted Johnson:


The chairman of the FCC issued a statement on Thursday saying that he plans to move forward with efforts to clarify Section 230, the provision of a 1996 law that gives immunity to internet companies like Facebook and Twitter over the way that they moderate content.

Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement as President Donald Trump and his allies have blasted Twitter and Facebook for steps they have taken to restrict the sharing of a New York Post story on Hunter Biden. Twitter has disabled links to the story, and the Trump campaign said that its account was briefly locked after it tried to share it.

“As elected officials consider whether to change the law, the question remains: What does Section 230 currently mean?” Pai said in a statement. “Many advance an overly broad interpretation that in some cases shields social media companies from consumer protection laws in a way that has no basis in the text of Section 230. The Commission’s General Counsel has informed me that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230. Consistent with this advice, I intend to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify its meaning.”

He added, “Throughout my tenure at the Federal Communications Commission, I have favored regulatory parity, transparency, and free expression. Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech.  But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”


The thing is, the FCC doesn’t have the power to regulate companies in this way. Section 230 is completely unambiguous, despite the tortured attempts by Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court to suggest that it isn’t. (Looking forward, by the way, to learning what the writers of the US Constitution knew about the internet.) Any attempt the FCC makes to regulate social media companies (and what would that even look like?) will end up tangled in the courts for years, by which time Pai will have been replaced. Or, alternatively, the US will be in flames and it won’t matter anyway.
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Cruise gets the green light to test fully driverless cars in California • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:


Cruise, the self-driving company owned by General Motors, has been approved to test its driverless cars on public roads in California. The company says it plans to test vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel before the end of 2020.

Cruise is the fifth to receive a driverless permit from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the others being Waymo, Nuro, Zoox, and AutoX. Currently, 60 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver in California.

Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, said in a blog post that the company may not have been the first to receive a driverless permit, but it intends to be the first to test fully driverless cars in San Francisco.

“Before the end of the year, we’ll be sending cars out onto the streets of SF — without gasoline and without anyone at the wheel,” Ammann said. “Because safely removing the driver is the true benchmark of a self-driving car, and because burning fossil fuels is no way to build the future of transportation.” (Cruise’s fleet of vehicles is composed of 200 electric Chevy Bolts.)


This is a pretty good time to do it: roads are going to be emptier than usual. Though maybe a lot more cyclists?
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YouTube bans coronavirus vaccine misinformation • Reuters

Elizabeth Culliford and Paresh Dave:


Alphabet Inc’s YouTube said on Wednesday it would remove videos from YouTube containing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, expanding its current rules against falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

The video platform said it would now ban any content with claims about COVID-19 vaccines that contradict consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organization.

YouTube said in an email that this would include removing claims that the vaccine will kill people or cause infertility, or that microchips will be implanted in people who receive the vaccine.

A YouTube spokesman told Reuters that general discussions in videos about “broad concerns” over the vaccine would remain on the platform.

YouTube says it already removes content that disputes the existence or transmission of COVID-19, promotes medically unsubstantiated methods of treatment, discourages people from seeking medical care or explicitly disputes health authorities’ guidance on self-isolation or social distancing.


Remarkable how the platforms are all doing this almost in lockstep. It’s not quite coordinated, but it’s certainly as if they’re looking at each other and following each other. Holocaust denial next to go from YouTube? (It’s already going after QAnon.)
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The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust • BBC Future

Tim Maughan:


From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.

Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.

Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?

…You can see the lake on Google Maps, and that hints at the scale. Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore. Unknown Fields’ Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. “The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,” he later tells me.


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A new coronavirus that could be even more dangerous was just discovered in China • BGR

Mike Wehner:


As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage many parts of the world, researchers have been working hard to develop a safe and effective vaccine that could bring life back a bit closer to normal. Of course, the development of a vaccine and the good it could do for humanity assumes that another, separate strain of the virus isn’t poised to make a jump to humans and start the process all over again.

Now, researchers are warning that a type of coronavirus seen in pigs may indeed be capable of jumping to humans, and if it does, it could cause even more problems. It’s called SADS-CoV, which is short for “Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome Coronavirus” and, yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.

As you might have gathered from the virus’s name, the SADS-CoV virus infects pigs, but it originated in bats. It’s been found in China, and it appears to be taking a similar route to the virus that causes COVID-19. Humans and pigs are shockingly close when it comes to genetics, making it easier for a virus to jump from pigs to humans.


I’m reminded of the cascading environmental collapses of John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up”.
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Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


Natural “services” such as food, clean water and air, and flood protection have already been damaged by human activity.

More than half of global GDP – $42tn (£32tn) – depends on high-functioning biodiversity, according to the report, but the risk of tipping points is growing.

Countries including Australia, Israel and South Africa rank near the top of Swiss Re’s index of risk to biodiversity and ecosystem services, with India, Spain and Belgium also highlighted. Countries with fragile ecosystems and large farming sectors, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, are also flagged up.

Countries including Brazil and Indonesia had large areas of intact ecosystems but had a strong economic dependence on natural resources, which showed the importance of protecting their wild places, Swiss Re said.

“A staggering fifth of countries globally are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to a decline in biodiversity and related beneficial services,” said Swiss Re, one of the world’s biggest reinsurers and a linchpin of the global insurance industry.

“If the ecosystem service decline goes on [in countries at risk], you would see then scarcities unfolding even more strongly, up to tipping points,” said Oliver Schelske, lead author of the research.


There’s still no good news on this front. Emissions are down, but that doesn’t mean there’s less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; just that we’re not adding to it as quickly.
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Students are rebelling against eye-tracking exam surveillance tools • Vice

Todd Feathers and Janus Rose:


Students’ and educators’ objections to exam proctoring software go beyond the privacy concerns around being watched and listened to in their bedrooms while they take a test. As more evidence emerges about how the programs work, and fail to work, critics say the tools are bound to hurt low-income students, students with disabilities, students with children or other dependents, and other groups who already face barriers in higher education.

Every day for the last week, Ahmed Alamri has opened ExamSoft and attempted to register for the practice version of the California state bar exam. Every time, the software’s facial recognition system has told him the lighting is too poor to recognize his face. Alamri, who is Arab-American, has attempted to pass the identity check in different rooms, in front of different backgrounds, and with various lighting arrays. He estimates he’s attempted to verify his identity as many as 75 times, with no success. “It just seems to me that this mock exam is reading the poor lighting as my skin color,” he told Motherboard.

Alamri isn’t alone. Law students around the country are organizing to fight against the use of any kind of digital proctoring software like ExamSoft on bar exams. In California, two students have filed an emergency petition with the state supreme court requesting that it cancel the exam entirely and institute a new form of assessment. A similar effort is underway in Illinois, while Louisiana, Oregon, and Wisconsin have already scrapped their upcoming bar exams as a result of student pressure. Other states, including New York, are fumbling for solutions as deadlines for the exams quickly approach; at one point, New York’s test proctor announced it was going to ban the use of “desktop computers” to take the test.


Nightmarish. You can see that organisations that rely on exams are going to be concerned about the possibility of people cheating now they’re working from home. But how do you monitor those fairly? If you give up entirely, that doesn’t seem ideal either.
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Google Pixel 5 review: new phone, old tricks • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


TheThe clearest signal that Google isn’t trying to compete directly with top-tier phones isn’t the $699 price; it’s the Snapdragon 765G processor. For all of 2020, the best Android phones have had Qualcomm’s fastest chip, but Google has chosen to go with something a little slower in the Pixel 5G.

I don’t disagree with this choice. Although it doesn’t have the raw power of Qualcomm’s fastest chip, it’s still fast enough to not feel slow. I can detect a bit of a lag in rendering complex webpages or opening heavy apps like big games, but that’s mainly because I’ve reviewed so many flagship Android phones. In day-to-day use, I have had no problems with speed. There’s also 8GB of RAM for multitasking, which is enough to keep apps from closing in the background — a problem that frequently plagued older Pixel models.

There is one processor decision I do disagree with, though: removing the Pixel Neural Core processor for image processing. It means I’m waiting for photos to process way more often than I did with the Pixel 4. There’s a lag between shots when in portrait mode, which keeps me from shooting as quickly as I’d like, and I frequently have to wait for the HDR processing to finish when I review a shot after the fact.

…It may be disappointing to see Google shy away from the big leagues this year, but I think sticking to making a premium midrange phone is more true to the Pixel’s whole ethos. The Pixel 5 is not an especially exciting phone, but instead of overreaching, Google focused on the fundamentals: build quality, battery life, and, of course, the camera.


I’ll admit, I don’t understand Google’s smartphone strategy. What is it aiming to do with the Pixel? It’s not competing at the high end. Fine. So what is it demonstrating? That it can make a middling phone with a really good machine learning-powered camera? Perhaps the imaging ML, not the phone, is the real point.

Plus, as Bohn also points out, things like Soli (wave your hand to control the phone!) and the squeeze-to-click and face unlock are gone. After one outing. That makes it feel like the designers are just throwing things at the wall. Contrast with Apple, which only drops features such as 3D Touch after years, once completely certain developers and users aren’t using it. (Mumble mumble Touch Bar.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the headline about polling in yesterday’s edition should have said people want to “rein in” tech companies. We all know the difference.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Start Up No.1413: Twitter and Facebook act on ‘hacking’ story, red states want limits on big tech, the racism in healthcare software, and more

What if these were augmented reality glasses? Who’d be a good boy then? CC-licensed photo by Adrian Smalley on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Not locked up or down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter cites ‘Hacked Materials Policy’ to justify censorship of NY Post Hunter Biden article • Yahoo News

Tobias Hoonhout:


Twitter said Thursday that it censored a New York Post article based on emails between Hunter Biden and a Burisma executive in accordance with its “hacked materials policy.”

“In line with our Hacked Materials Policy, as well as our approach to blocking URLs, we are taking action to block any links to or images of the material in question on Twitter,” a Twitter spokesperson told National Review when asked why the platform was not allowing users to share the Post’s article.

Twitter’s Hacked Materials Policy states that it does not “permit the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information, may put people in physical harm or danger, or contains trade secrets,” though the platform does currently allow leaked and hacked material from other sources, including Wikileaks, to be shared.

The platform said that the policy applied in this case due to concerns about the “lack of authoritative reporting” in regards to the origins of the material included in the article, and subsequently locked the Post’s Twitter account. Twitter’s actions came after Facebook announced it would limit the sharing of the story while fact-checkers reviewed the piece.


If you read further on, the actual story that the NY Post has gone with is remarkably sketchy – the emails were on the disk drive of a laptop that was taken to a repair shop and never picked up and then subpoenaed by the FBI? The fact that both Twitter and Facebook find this story dodgy is very unusual.

More to the point, this Hacked Materials Policy is new, dating back only to March 2019. Yet it says


You can discuss a hack that has taken place (including reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking), provided that you don’t include someone’s private information, information that could put people at risk of physical harm or danger; and/or information related to trade secrets.


The big question is whether this really was hacking, or if it’s just Russian (or, even more wildly, Trump campaign-ian) disinformation. The timing, too, is amazing.
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Large majority in Senate battleground states agree government needs to act now to reign in big tech companies • Public Policy Polling

Jim Williams runs Public Policy Polling:


A new Public Policy Polling survey finds that a large majority of voters across Senate battleground states agree that big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have grown too big and powerful, and the government needs to act now to rein in their power.

A total of 84% of voters agree with this sentiment, with 53% strongly agreeing and 31% somewhat agreeing, with 7% who say they somewhat disagree and only 2% strongly disagreeing. 61% of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a Senator who voted to rein in the power of big tech companies, with thirty six% saying they would be much more likely, and only 11% saying they would be less likely to vote for them.


A few words about the methodology:
• carried out on landlines and mobiles, robocalling rather than humans (which these days is reckoned to make people more likely to answer truthfully, at least on voting intention
• total of 701 voters (just about enough to be statistically valid) in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina
• 41% Democrat, 34% Republican, 25% independent; in 2016 voted 46% Trump, 45% Clinton, 9% someone else/didn’t vote
• 47% approve of Trump’s job performance, 47% approve, 3% “not sure”. What on earth more do they need to know after the past four years?

There’s lots of fascinating data to be found in the cross-tabulations, but the sentiment is clearly bipartisan, and running against tech companies. That will surely be reflected in the next Senate from January 2021. (Thanks Jim for the link.)
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How software infuses racism into US health care • STAT

Casey Ross:


A STAT investigation has found that a common method of using analytics software to target medical services to patients who need them most is infusing racial bias into decision-making about who should receive stepped-up care. While a study published last year documented bias in the use of an algorithm in one health system, STAT found the problems arise from multiple algorithms used in hospitals across the country. The bias is not intentional, but it reinforces deeply rooted inequities in the American health care system, effectively walling off low-income Black and Hispanic patients from services that less sick white patients routinely receive.

These algorithms are running in the background of most Americans’ interaction with the health care system. They sift data on patients’ medical problems, prior health costs, medication use, lab results, and other information to predict how much their care will cost in the future and inform decisions such as whether they should get extra doctor visits or other support to manage their illnesses at home. The trouble is, these data reflect long-standing racial disparities in access to care, insurance coverage, and use of services, leading the algorithms to systematically overlook the needs of people of color in ways that insurers and providers may fail to recognize.

“Nobody says, ‘Hey, understand that Blacks have historically used health care in different patterns, in different ways than whites, and therefore are much less likely to be identified by our algorithm,” said Christine Vogeli, director of population health evaluation and research at Mass General Brigham Healthcare in Massachusetts, and co-author of the study that found racial bias in the use of an algorithm developed by health services giant Optum.

The bias can produce huge differences in assessing patients’ need for special care to manage conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, or mental illness


Of course, the algorithm works on what it’s given. What does that tell us about health care in the US?
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PC sales soared in Q3, Chromebook shipments up 90% • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


PC sales boomed in Q3 2020, driven by massive new demand in the education market and continuing strong sales in business and gaming segments. The coronavirus has fueled a tremendous surge in PC sales throughout 2020. Initially, demand was expected to taper off in Q3, but we now know the market grew significantly.

How much the market grew depends on whether you count Chromebooks. Gartner (which doesn’t) reports that PC sales grew 3.6% compared with Q3 2019. Now, understand — 3.6% is not nothing for a market that’s been in almost continuous decline for a decade now.

But the 3.6% growth Gartner reports is dwarfed by the 14.1% growth that IDC recorded, and the difference comes down to Chromebooks. IDC counts them. According to Gartner’s figures, counting Chromebooks, the market grew at 9%, with Chromebooks representing about 11% of total shipments. A 9%/14% gap between the two firms is still large, but it’s much closer than the previous figure.

Chromebook shipments surged an astounding 90% year-on-year, driven by massive demand ahead of the deployment of remote learning in US school systems. Non-Chromebook sales were driven by an increase in Windows laptops and in gaming systems, but the huge 28% surge in laptop sales was undercut by a nearly equivalent decline in desktops. Outside of gaming, where they remain fairly popular, overall desktop adoption declined sharply.


Echoing the Canalys figures earlier this week. That’s an amazing figure for Chromebooks: being cheap, reliable and virus-free really counts for something for schools.
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First room-temperature superconductor reported • Ars Technica

John Timmer:


In the period after the discovery of high-temperature superconductors, there wasn’t a good conceptual understanding of why those compounds worked. While there was a burst of progress toward higher temperatures, it quickly ground to a halt, largely because it was fueled by trial and error. Recent years brought a better understanding of the mechanisms that enable superconductivity, and we’re seeing a second burst of rapidly rising temperatures.

The key to the progress has been a new focus on hydrogen-rich compounds, built on the knowledge that hydrogen’s vibrations within a solid help encourage the formation of superconducting electron pairs. By using ultra-high pressures, researchers have been able to force hydrogen into solids that turned out to superconduct at temperatures that could be reached without resorting to liquid nitrogen.

Now, researchers have cleared a major psychological barrier by demonstrating the first chemical that superconducts at room temperature. There are just two catches: we’re not entirely sure what the chemical is, and it only works at 2.5 million atmospheres of pressure.


Woo-h….what? Room-temperature superconductivity and routine nuclear fusion: incorporated ages ago into science fiction, endlessly out of reach in real life.
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Augmented reality dog goggles could help protect soldiers • The United States Army


The augmented reality goggles are specially designed to fit each dog with a visual indicator that allows the dog to be directed to a specific spot and react to the visual cue in the goggles. The handler can see everything the dog sees to provide it commands through the glasses.

“Augmented reality works differently for dogs than for humans,” said Dr. Stephen Lee, an ARO senior scientist. “AR will be used to provide dogs with commands and cues; it’s not for the dog to interact with it like a human does. This new technology offers us a critical tool to better communicate with military working dogs.”

The initial prototype is wired, keeping the dog on a leash, but researchers are working to make it wireless in the next phase of development.

“We are still in the beginning research stages of applying this technology to dogs, but the results from our initial research are extremely promising,” Peper said. “Much of the research to date has been conducted with my rottweiler, Mater. His ability to generalize from other training to working through the AR goggles has been incredible. We still have a way to go from a basic science and development perspective before it will be ready for the wear and tear our military dogs will place on the units.”


Normally it’s done by pointing, but AR would allow remote interaction. Or a whole new way to throw the ball to be fetched.
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Poor numerical literacy linked to greater susceptibility to Covid-19 fake news • The Guardian

Natalie Grover:


People in Ireland, Spain, Mexico, the US and the UK took part in the study. Their numerical literacy levels were calculated on the basis of three different numeracy tests.

Participants were presented with nine statements about Covid-19, some false (for example, 5G networks may be making us more susceptible to the coronavirus) and some true (for instance, people with diabetes are at higher risk of complications from coronavirus).

Participants were also asked about their risk perception of Covid-19, what extent they complied with public health guidance and their likelihood of getting vaccinated if a vaccine were to become available.

Overall, higher susceptibility to fake news was associated with lower self-reported compliance with public health guidance for Covid-19, as well as people’s willingness to get vaccinated against the virus and recommend the vaccine to vulnerable family and friends.

Some scientists think that susceptibility to misinformation is related to political views, while others think it is linked to reasoning abilities, study author Dr Sander van der Linden explained.

“My take is that both are relevant. And I was surprised to see numeracy playing such a strong role here … it was one of the single most important predictors,” he said. “I like that finding in a sense because it gives me hope that there’s a solution out there.”

…The research, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, also found that people who were more receptive to misinformation viewed themselves as minorities and appeared resistant to voices in authority such as scientists and politicians


That latter sentence is a bit of a mixture. Scientists, fine, but which politicians should we regard as an authority on this topic? Jacinda Ardern, perhaps, but you’d hardly look to Donald Trump for your best advice on avoiding it.
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Exclusive: Huawei in talks to sell parts of its Honor smartphone business – sources • Reuters

Julie Zhu:


Embattled Huawei is resetting its priorities due to US sanctions and will focus on its higher-end Huawei phones rather than the Honor brand which is aimed at young people and the budget conscious, they said.

The assets to be sold have yet to be finalised but could include Honor’s brand, R&D capabilities and related supply chain management business, two of the people said.

The deal may be an all-cash sale and could end up smaller, worth somewhere between 15 billion yuan and 25 billion yuan ($2.2bn-$3.7bn), one of the people said.

Digital China, the main distributor for Honor phones, has emerged as the frontrunner but other prospective buyers include Chinese electronics maker TCL and rival smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp, the people said, declining to be identified as the talks were confidential.

…Kuo Ming-chi, an analyst at TF International Securities, has said that any sale by Huawei of the Honor smartphone business would be a win-win situation for the Honor brand, its suppliers and China’s electronics industry.

“If Honor is independent from Huawei, its purchase of components will no longer be subject to the U.S. ban on Huawei. This will help Honor’s smartphone business and the suppliers,” he wrote in a research note last week.


Huawei’s executives must be praying that Trump loses and that they’ll get a chance to reset with a new administration, but even that won’t happen until January. This feels like testing the market in case things don’t turn out well in November. Note the inclusion of the R&D: is that really separate for the high-end phones and the cheaper Honor brand?
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Google and Facebook have a news labelling problem • Columbia Journalism Review

Emily Bell and Sara Sheridan:


When the Institute for Nonprofit News was approached several years ago by a news organization targeting African American readers, executive director Sue Cross was intrigued. Although the organization did not pass the transparency of funding standards for INN membership, Cross followed their journalism closely over a period of months. While much of the reporting seemed solid, Cross noted “a pattern of stories emerging; particularly positive stories about coal and stories about how particular types of new energy have a racist impact.” The undisclosed money funding the site was clearly aligned with the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, but as Cross put it recently, “You had to read the output of a number of months to even detect it.”

Sites like this one were the subject of a recent Tow Center discussion on the phenomenon of covertly partisan money funding local news. Tow Center research into understanding how partisan online news networks operate ahead of elections revealed over a thousand politically backed sites cropping up across the US producing largely automatically generated stories. The Metric Media network at the center of the study is the largest, but by no means the only example of organizations that are serving lobbying or political interests by producing what appears to be local news content. As Cross pointed out, the lack of transparency around funding sources is designed to deceive readers by making it difficult to detect political or commercial motives. 


Of course, as they acknowledge, the world of print and cable has seen partisan funding (the right-wing press in the UK; Sinclair Media in the US). But Facebook lets anyone define themselves as a media/news company, while Google doesn’t apply it consistently. That, in turn, creates problems of “pink slime” news: regurgitated, reused content with undeclared partisan intent.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1412: the ‘gangstalking’ delusion, Apple’s new iPhones (and HomePod), Facebook moves against vaccines, UK plans retrospective tech un-buyout law, and more

Eli Pariser reckons it’s time we had the equivalent of properly public parks on the internet? CC-licensed photo by Dmitry Ryzhkov on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

To mend a broken internet, create online parks • WIRED

Eli Pariser:


To build the thriving digital public spaces we need, we must address three surmountable challenges.

First: money. While the internet started out as a publicly supported network, digital spaces in the last 20 years have been mostly funded by venture capitalists who are looking for enormous returns on investment. Scaling a product so that millions of people know about it and can use it fluidly can cost billions.

While a multi-billion-dollar price tag seems massive, we implicitly value our physical public infrastructure at many times that. Central Park’s land value alone is, by one calculation, $37 trillion. (That’s more than 50 Facebooks, if you’re keeping score.)

History suggests that a guilty-but-loaded tech mogul could step up and solve the funding problem, becoming the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century. But philanthropic money often comes with strings attached. That’s why it’s worth investing in the more radical notion recently proposed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report on American citizenship. The Academy suggests taxing targeted advertising, and using those funds to shore up democratic functions that the big tech platforms have eroded, such as local journalism. Public digital infrastructure could also be funded in this way.

Second, there’s a talent and research problem. People outside of tech generally underestimate how hard it is to build something seamless, intuitive, and irresistible that allows millions of people to interact. We need to rally a diverse, representative generation of builders to this cause. And given that digital products live and die by metrics, we need to identify signals that correspond to flourishing public digital space.

Finally, there’s a problem of public imagination. Fixing our ability to connect and build healthy communities at scale is arguably an Apollo mission for this generation—a decisive challenge that will determine whether our society progresses or falls back into conspiracy-driven tribalism. We need to summon the creative will worthy of a problem of this urgency and consequence.


Pariser, of course, is the author of The Filter Bubble, the iconic work on the topic. This point about the lack of a public space for people to gather virtually has also been made, some time ago, by Zeynep Tufekci. If both Pariser and Tufekci think something is a good idea, it’s a good idea.
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Apple’s iPhone 12 event: the seven biggest announcements • The Verge

The bits I find interesting (given that the addition of 5G was predictable):
• the HomePod Mini – at just $99 (£99 in the UK of course), that will sell well to iPhone users, even if it’s about three years too late
• the “MagSafe” brand reappearing as a way to implement reliable wireless charging, which Apple is encouraging third-party companies to use too, which in turn implies that the Lightning charging port is going away over time
• looks like the iPhone 4 design – flat sides – has come back into fashion.

Otherwise: big screens, lots of pixels, lowest price version still doesn’t quite have enough storage.
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Gangstalking forums are hurting people even as some on them try to help • MIT Technology Review

Amelia Tait:


Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.

The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.

Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers.


This reminds me of the people who think they have weird fibres under their skins – morgellons. The internet won’t tell you you’re wrong, even if you have a delusion.
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Facebook to ban ads discouraging vaccination • The Guardian

Kari Paul and agencies:


Facebook will ban ads that discourage people from getting vaccinated, the social media company announced Tuesday, as it launches a new public health campaign aimed at spreading flu vaccine information.

The changes are a departure from Facebook’s previous policy, which prohibited ads with vaccine misinformation but allowed ads expressing opposition to vaccines if they did not contain false claims.

The company said in a blogpost, however, that it would still allow ads advocating for or against legislation or government policies on vaccines, including a Covid-19 vaccine. Several ads discouraging vaccine mandates remained on the platform as of Tuesday.

Anti-vaccine content agnd discussion will still be allowed to appear organically on the platform, including in Facebook groups. A Guardian analysis found engagement with anti-vaccine posts on a sample of Facebook pages soared this summer. The company did not respond to request for comment regarding the policing of user-generated content relating to vaccines.


So this has become quite a thing. Militias one day, postal voting disinformation the next, then QAnon, then Holocaust denial, and now vaccine denial. Two obvious questions: what’s the next one to drop, and who inside Facebook has been driving the change in thinking about this? Sure, Zuckerberg gives it the final yes/no, but there must be a strand of executive thinking that’s pushing this.
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Facebook gives Bletchley Park £1m to help it through pandemic • CNBC

Sam Shead:


Bletchley Park, a top-secret British codebreaking hub in World War Two, has received a £1m ($1.3m) donation from Facebook to help it through the coronavirus pandemic.

The donation comes after Bletchley Park, which is now a national heritage attraction and computing museum, said in August that it had lost over 95% of its income between March and July as a result of the virus. It reopened on July 4 but with reduced visitor numbers and is expecting to record a £2m deficit this year.

Iain Standen, chief executive of Bletchley Park, said in a statement: “We are very grateful to Facebook for their generous donation.”

“With this significant support, the Bletchley Park Trust will be better positioned to operate in the ‘new world’, and keep its doors open for future generations.”


Pros: getting on the side of the people who fought Nazis (and also who helped invent modern computing). Cons: you know, Facebook, you probably could have made it £2m.
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Why Facebook can’t fix itself • The New Yorker

Andrew Marantz on Facebook’s moderation problem:


Mildka and Chris Gray left Facebook in 2018. Shortly afterward, in the U.K., Channel 4 aired a documentary that had been filmed by an undercover reporter posing as a content moderator in their office. At one point in the documentary, a trainer gives a slideshow presentation about how to interpret some of the Implementation Standards regarding hate speech. One slide shows an apparently popular meme: a Norman Rockwell-style image of a white mother who seems to be drowning her daughter in a bathtub, with the caption “When your daughter’s first crush is a little Negro boy.” Although the image “implies a lot,” the trainer says, “there’s no attack, actually, on the Negro boy . . . so we should ignore this.”

There’s a brief pause in the conference room. “Is everyone O.K. with that?” the trainer says.

“No, not O.K.,” a moderator responds. The other moderators laugh uneasily, and the scene ends.

After the footage became public, a Facebook spokesperson claimed that the trainer had made a mistake. “I know for a fact that that’s a lie,” Chris Gray told me. “When I was there, I got multiple tickets with that exact meme in it, and I was always told to ignore. You go, ‘C’mon, we all know exactly what this means,’ but you’re told, ‘Don’t make your own judgments.’ ”

A former moderator from Phoenix told me, “If it was what they say it is—‘You’re here to clean up this platform so everyone else can use it safely’—then there’s some nobility in that. But, when you start, you immediately realize we’re in no way expected or equipped to fix the problem.” He provided me with dozens of examples of hate speech—some of which require a good amount of cultural fluency to decode, others as clear-cut as open praise for Hitler—that he says were reviewed by moderators but not removed, “either because they could not understand why it was hateful, or because they assumed that the best way to stay out of trouble with their bosses was to leave borderline stuff up.”


There’s lots of this. (The C4 documentary is still online, and still shocking.) Two moderators who spoke to Marantz called Facebook’s minimalist approach “a kind of libertarian imperialism”, which is spot on.
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2018: the AskHistorians subreddit banned Holocaust deniers, and Facebook should too • Slate

Johannes Breit, writing in July 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg had said he wouldn’t ban Holocaust denial on Facebook:


Zuckerberg got into hot water on Wednesday when he stated that Facebook wouldn’t necessarily remove Holocaust deniers from its platform because people “get things wrong” and because it’s not always possible to understand the deniers’ intent.

This position fundamentally fails to grasp how Holocaust deniers spread anti-Semitic propaganda, underscoring a flaw in how the purportedly neutral platform thinks it ought to handle particularly odious ideas. Conversation is impossible if one side refuses to acknowledge the basic premise that facts are facts. This is why engaging deniers in such an effort means having already lost. And it is why AskHistorians, where I am one of the volunteer moderators, takes a strict stance on Holocaust denial: we ban it immediately. Deniers need a public forum to spread their lies and to sow doubt among readers not well-informed about history. By convincing people that they might have a point or two, they open the door for further radicalization in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to rehabilitate Nazism as an ideology in public discourse by distancing it from the key elements that make it so rightfully reviled—the genocide against Jews, Roma, Sinti, and others.

…The Holocaust is the obvious proof that the ideology of National Socialism is, at its core, racist, anti-Semitic, and genocidal. Holocaust denial erases this massive crime to blunt the horror of Nazi ideas as a whole.

The point of JAQing off [“Just Asking Questions”, in faux “good faith”, about minor details of the Holocaust] is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place. Allowing their talking points to stand in public helps sow the seeds of doubt, even if only to one person in 10,000.


It’s worth reading Breit’s piece in full, because this isn’t just a rhetorical game. What remains puzzling is that Zuckerberg was so certain he knew better than people who had been immersed in this subject literally for decades, until his abrupt reversal this week. I’m very much looking forward to whoever can winkle out of him an explanation of what shifted his position.
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Computers Are Hard: building software with David Heinemeier Hansson • Medium

Wojtek Borowicz interviews DHH, who Has Opinions:


Software, in most cases, is inherently unpredictable, unknowable, and unshaped. It’s almost like a gas. It can fit into all sorts of different openings from the same basic idea. The notion of trying to estimate how long a feature is going to take doesn’t work because you don’t know what you’re building and because humans are terrible at estimating anything. The history of software development is one of late or cancelled projects. If you were to summarize the entire endeavor of software development, you’d say: ‘The project ran late and it got canceled’. Planning work doesn’t work, so to speak.

So the problem with those methodologies is they put too much focus on estimating, which is inherently impossible with software?
I’d go even further and say that estimation is bullshit. It’s so imprecise as to be useless, even when you’re dealing with fixed inputs. And you’re not. No one is ever able to accurately describe what a piece of software should do before they see the piece of software. This idea that we can preemptively describe what something should do before we start working on it is bunk. Agile was sort of onto this idea that you need running software to get feedback but the modern implementations of Agile are not embracing the lesson they themselves taught.

…The magic really is in shifting your mindset from estimates to budgets. Don’t think about how long something takes. Think about how long are you willing to give something. This flips the entire idea. It lets the requirements float. The project definition that is vague is actually more realistic. Highly specific project definitions usually go astray very quickly.


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UK plans new law to undo foreign deals on security grounds • Bloomberg

Tim Ross and Alex Morales:


Boris Johnson’s government is drawing up plans for a radical new law that would give ministers power to unravel foreign investments in U.K. companies – potentially casting major doubt on deals that have already been concluded – to stop hostile states gaining control over key assets.

The National Security and Investment Bill is in the final stages of drafting and could be published later this month, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

It aims to cover deals in sectors such as defense and critical infrastructure, and will make provisions to protect sensitive intellectual property.

Among the most potentially controversial parts of the draft law is a proposal to allow the government to intervene retrospectively in circumstances where national security is an issue. That would mean allowing government officials to look back at past takeovers and mergers where concerns have been raised.

…Under the plans, the bill would include certain elements that are retroactive, enabling ministers to look back at past investments. One person familiar with the draft suggested this was with a particular deal in mind, though another denied that was the case.


I bet the “particular deal” is Softbank’s purchase of ARM, and NVidia’s new attempt to buy it. The question though is: how would the investment be unraveled, exactly? What would the government pay, and how would it compensate the companies involved?
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Winning bid: how auction theory took the Nobel memorial prize in economics • Financial Times

Tim Harford:


A well-designed auction forces bidders to reveal the truth about their own estimate of the prize’s value. At the same time, the auction shares that information with the other bidders. And it sets the price accordingly. It is quite a trick.

But in practice it is a difficult trick to get right. In the 1990s, the US Federal government turned to auction theorists — [Nobel prize winners] Milgrom and Wilson prominent among them — for advice on auctioning radio-spectrum rights. “The theory that we had in place had only a little bit to do with the problems that they actually faced,” Milgrom recalled in an interview in 2007. “But the proposals that were being made by the government were proposals that we were perfectly capable of analysing the flaws in and improving.”

The basic challenge with radio-spectrum auctions is that many prizes are on offer, and bidders desire only certain combinations. A TV company might want the right to use Band A, or Band B, but not both. Or the right to broadcast in the east of England, but only if they also had the right to broadcast in the west. Such combinatorial auctions are formidably challenging to design, but Milgrom and Wilson got to work.

Joshua Gans, a former student of Milgrom’s who is now a professor at the University of Toronto, praises both men for their practicality. Their theoretical work is impressive, he said, “but they realised that when the world got too complex, they shouldn’t adhere to proving strict theorems”.


Further auction possibilities: carbon credits. If more governments would implement them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1411: Facebook bans Holocaust denial (but others are OK), Wisconsin further snubs Foxconn, is ad tech a bubble?, and more

You won’t believe the things Eddie Van Halen did to his guitars and amps. CC-licensed photo by National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Could be misinformation. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

On Facebook, misinformation is more popular now than in 2016 • The New York Times

Davey Alba:


have the platforms really become more sophisticated at handling misinformation?

Not necessarily.

People are engaging more on Facebook today with news outlets that routinely publish misinformation than they did before the 2016 election, according to new research from the German Marshall Fund Digital, the digital arm of the public policy think tank. The organization, which has a data partnership with the start-up NewsGuard and the social media analytics firm NewsWhip, published its findings on Monday.

In total, Facebook likes, comments and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content roughly tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020, the group found.

About two thirds of those likes and comments were of articles published by 10 outlets, which the researchers categorized as “false content producers” or “manipulators.” Those news outlets included Palmer Report and The Federalist, according to the research.

The group used ratings from NewsGuard, which ranks news sites based on how they uphold nine journalistic principles, to sort them into “false content producers,” which repeatedly publish provably false content; and “manipulators,” which regularly present unsubstantiated claims or that distort information to make an argument.


Somehow, so unsurprising.
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Wisconsin rejects Foxconn’s subsidies after contract negotiations fail • The Verge

Josh Dzieza:


Through the many twists and turns of Foxconn’s troubled Wisconsin project, one thing has long been clear: the company is not building the promised 20 million-square-foot Gen 10.5 LCD factory specified in its contract with the state. Even before President Trump broke ground on the supposed factory in June 2018, Foxconn said it would instead build a far smaller factory than it had proposed.

The discrepancy between what Foxconn is doing and what it said it would do in its contract has only grown since then, and it has brought Wisconsin and the company to an impasse. Documents obtained by The Verge show that attempts to renegotiate that contract have so far failed, and today, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which oversees the deal, rejected Foxconn’s application for tax subsidies on the grounds that Foxconn had not carried out the Gen 10.5 LCD factory project described in its original contract.

WEDC also noted that even if whatever Foxconn is currently doing had been eligible under the contract, it had failed to employ the minimum number of people needed to get subsidies.


Let’s just rewind to June 2018, when Trump broke ground and (according to the speech) said it was “one of the most advanced places of any kind you’ll see anywhere in the world” and “Think of it: more than 20 million feet. And that’s probably going to be a minimal number.”

We’re going to look back on stuff like that (the White House transcript is, indeed, a transcript) and marvel that anything so doltish could happen in public.
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Eddie Van Halen: how the rock legend hacked his guitar • Popular Mechanics

The man himself wouldn’t just hack his guitar; he’d go at his amps too:


If it was movable, or turnable, or anything that resembled something that could go up or down, I would mess with it to make the amp run hotter. I opened the amp up and saw this thing. I found out later it was a bias control, which controls the power to the output tubes. I’m poking around, and all of a sudden I touch this huge blue thing and my God, it was like being punched in the chest by Mike Tyson. My whole body flexed stiff, and it must have thrown me five feet. I’d touched a capacitor. I didn’t know they held voltage.

The Marshall amp I brought home from the store where I worked was only good if you turned it all the way up. Any lower and you’d lose the distortion. I needed that, but it was impossible to play anywhere with the volume that loud, so I tried everything, from leaving the thick plastic cover on it to facing it backwards to putting it face down. I’d blow a fuse twice an hour.


There’s pretty much no aspect of his guitars (the pickup, the frets, the nut, the back of the neck) or kit that he didn’t mess with.

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Facebook to ban posts that deny Holocaust, reversing policy • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier:


Chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, who has been lobbied by civil rights groups such as the Anti-Defamation League to make the change, said he is concerned about the “current state of the world” and hate-based violence.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence.”

Facebook said its decision was supported by the documented evidence of a rise in anti-Semitism globally and “the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people.” According to a recent survey of adults age 18-39 in the U.S., almost a quarter said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure, Facebook’s head of content policy, Monika Bickert, said in a separate post. The Holocaust was the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their allies during World War II.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said he’s pushed Facebook to make the change for years. It’s “a big deal,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter. “Glad it finally happened.”


As recently as July 2018 Zuckerberg was insisting that it was all just a matter of opinion. The real puzzle is still why he has changed his position on this. Where has this rise in anti-Semitic violence occurred? Yet there are a lot of changes afoot at Facebook.

Meanwhile, other genocide denial is just fine.
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Twitter flags Trump’s false claim about his Covid-19 immunity. Facebook, however, does nothing • CNN

Jason Hoffman and Jordan Valinsky:


There is no evidence that people are immune to coronavirus if they have been infected once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC specifically cautions people not to assume they are immune.

Twitter’s warning label says the tweet “violated the Twitter Rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19.”

“We placed a public interest notice on [President Trump’s] Tweet for violating our Covid-19 Misleading Information Policy by making misleading health claims about Covid-19,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “As is standard with this public interest notice, engagements with the Tweet will be significantly limited.”

Trump posted the same message on his Facebook account, but the platform hasn’t added a warning label despite the fact that it violates its rules. The post has been up for four hours and shared more than 24,000 times on Facebook.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.


Now if he had said that coronavirus made him immune to the Holocaust…
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Ad tech could be the next internet bubble • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:


[Ex-Googler Tim] Hwang thinks online ads are heading in the same direction, since no one really grasps their worthlessness. There are piles of research papers in support of this idea, showing that companies’ returns on investment in digital marketing are generally anemic and often negative. One recent study found that ad tech middlemen take as much as a 50% cut of all online ad spending. Brands pay that premium for the promise of automated microtargeting, but a study by Nico Neumann, Catherine E. Tucker, and Timothy Whitfield found that the accuracy of that targeting is often extremely poor. In one experiment, they used six different advertising platforms in an effort to reach Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44. Their targeting performed slightly worse than random guessing. Such research indicates that, despite the extent of surveillance tech, a lot of the data that fuels ad targeting is garbage.

Even when targeting works as promised, and the ads are served to their intended audience, many are simply never seen, because they load somewhere out of sight, like the bottom of a webpage. The rise of ad blocking makes the problem even more acute. Hwang cites a 2015 Adobe estimate that ad blockers deprived online publishers of $21.8bn in annual revenue, more than Facebook’s entire take for that year. Then there’s the astonishing level of digital ad fraud, including “click farms” that serve no purpose other than for bots or paid humans to constantly refresh and click ads, and “domain spoofing,” in which a bottom-dweller site participates in ad auctions while disguised as a more prestigious one. Hwang cites a 2017 study finding that, between lousy ad placement and outright fraud, “as much as 56% of all display ad dollars were lost to fraudulent or unviewable inventory in 2016.”


Hwang is very sure that it’s all going to collapse, like the US housing market in 2008. To me, the difference seems to be that everyone has an interest in the online advertising market continuing. And there’s no downside for them if it continues.
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Feds may target Google’s Chrome browser for breakup • Politico

Leah Nylen:


In the advertising investigation, DOJ and state attorneys general have asked rivals and other third parties for their views on which businesses Google should have to sell. They have also asked whether any existing competitors should be off-limits as potential buyers, the people said.

The lawyers have also asked whether any of Google’s properties outside of the advertising technology market should be targeted for potential sale — leading some to single out Google’s Chrome browser, they said.

The browser, which Google introduced in 2008 and has the largest market share in the US, has been at the centre of rivals’ accusations that the search giant uses its access to users’ web histories to aid its advertising business.

That criticism escalated in January, when Google said it would phase out the use of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser within two years to enhance consumer privacy. But cookies — small files a browser uses to track visits to websites — are also a key tool for publishers to demonstrate the effectiveness of advertising campaigns to ad buyers.

Google’s own estimates show that eliminating those cookies will reduce advertising revenue to news outlets that show online ads by as much as 62%.


If the US somehow goes mad and implements this, will Google also have to do it in other countries? Chrome is the biggest browser in the world. The logic makes a kind of sense – through Chrome, Google can dictate how websites can behave and what tracking can and can’t be done. Wouldn’t be great news for Chromebooks, of course.
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Apple Watch at five • Asymco

Horace Dediu:


The Watch has an always-on altimeter which is working to help with tracking effort by the wearer.

The Watch can detect hand washing and provide a timer so you do it well enough.
The Watch can track all physical activity and provide motivational reminders to meet daily goals.
The Watch can monitor exercise with precision and provide data that helps you improve your performance.
The Watch can also be used to pay for your groceries at the register.

The reason the Watch can do all these things is because it’s a computer. A computer with a dual core processor based on the A13 bionic chip also used in the iPhone 11, a retina display that is always on(!) and displaying at least 500nits at all times. It has on-board storage for music, WiFi, Bluetooth and a touch screen.

But although being a computer allows the Watch to do all this and more, no PC can do even one of these things. Nor does a PC have GPS, or Cellular connectivity or NFC and is certainly not swimproof. You don’t wear a PC in bed and it does not stay with you 24×7.

…The story of phones, tablets and wearables is a story of creating new markets, not substituting for old ones. In so doing the new markets are greater than their putative substitutions would allow. This is happening over and over again but it still seems to go largely unnoticed. Keep an eye out for a lot more of this.


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Covid-19: China’s Qingdao to test nine million in five days • BBC News


The Chinese city of Qingdao is testing its entire population of nine million people for Covid-19 over a period of five days.

The mass testing comes after the discovery of a dozen cases linked to a hospital treating coronavirus patients arriving from abroad.

In May, China tested the entire city of Wuhan – home to 11 million people and the epicentre of the global pandemic.

The country has largely brought the virus under control. That is in stark contrast to other parts of the world, where there are still high case numbers and lockdown restrictions of varying severity.

In a statement posted to Chinese social media site Weibo, Qingdao’s Municipal Health Commission said six new cases and six asymptomatic cases had been discovered. All the cases were linked to the same hospital, said the state-run Global Times.


Those are stunning numbers – both the small number of positives and the size of the testing – though in context: 9m people in China’s 1.4 billion is equivalent to 0.6%, or 405,000 of the UK’s 63m population. The UK has a PCR testing capacity of about 310,000 tests per day.
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100-watt wireless charging could be a thing next year • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:


We’ve seen major strides in fast charging in the last two years, as smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, BBK, and Xiaomi upped the ante for both wired and wireless charging. We’ve previously seen wired charging top out at ~120W in recent months, but wireless charging solutions aren’t far behind, either.

Now, frequent leaker Digital Chat Station has claimed that several manufacturers are targeting 100W wireless charging for phones launching in 2021. Check out the post below.

This would be a major leap over current wireless charging standards. We’ve seen 40W wireless charging in the likes of the Oppo Ace 2 and Huawei P40 Pro Plus respectively. Oppo has also announced 65W wireless charging technology earlier this year, although we haven’t seen it on a commercial device just yet.

Nevertheless, we do wonder about heat and battery degradation with a move to 100W wireless charging. Oppo in particular stated that its 125W wired charging solution degraded the battery to 80% capacity after 800 charging cycles, compared to its 65W wired solution dropping down to 90% capacity after 800 cycles.


The heat alone would be a concern. Plus that degradation: 800 charging cycles would be around two years and two months, on a daily schedule. Nor would the degradation mean you go from 100% to 80% on day; you’d lose a bit more each time, so you’d need to charge sooner, so the degradation would get worse… Wireless charging strikes me as a waste. What’s wrong with doing it slowly overnight on a power-efficient wire?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1410: should Trump’s tweets be delayed?, our crowded orbits, Facebook and the kidnap plot, Apple’s T2 problem, and more

Here comes the mobile internet; there goes (some) trust in government. CC-licensed photo by Toujours Passages on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Depending what the meaning of “link” is. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Space is becoming too crowded, Rocket Lab CEO warns • CNN

Jackie Wattles:


Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said that the sheer number of objects in space right now — a number that is growing quickly thanks in part to SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation, Starlink — is making it more difficult to find a clear path for rockets to launch new satellites.

“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business. Rockets “have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations.”

Part of the problem is that outer space remains largely unregulated. The last widely agreed upon international treaty hasn’t been updated in five decades, and that’s mostly left the commercial space industry to police itself.

Rocket Lab set out to create lightweight rockets — far smaller than SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon rockets — that can deliver batches of small satellites to space on a monthly or even weekly basis. Since 2018, Rocket Lab has launched 12 successful missions and a total of 55 satellites to space for a variety of research and commercial purposes. Beck said the in-orbit traffic issues took a turn for the worst over the past 12 months.

It was over that time that SpaceX has rapidly built up its Starlink constellation, growing it to include more than 700 internet-beaming satellites. It’s already the largest satellite constellation by far, and the company plans to grow it to include between 12,000 and 40,000 total satellites. That’s five times the total number of satellites humans have launched since the dawn of spaceflight in the late 1950s.

…Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert in space traffic, said most of Earth’s orbit below about 750 miles is becoming a danger zone.


The “Gravity” scenario (aka Kessler Syndrome) becomes more likely every day.
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Facebook and the group that planned to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


Just how effective these bans [on QAnon and political adverts after the US election] will be depends on their implementation. Facebook’s record on this is spotty, but so far the takedowns seem comprehensive. Both decisions are steps in the right direction.

Still, taken together, Facebook’s pre-election actions underscore a damning truth: With every bit of friction Facebook introduces to its platform, our information ecosystem becomes a bit less unstable. Flip that logic around and the conclusion is unsettling. Facebook, when it’s working as designed, is a natural accelerating force in the erosion of our shared reality and, with it, our democratic norms.
A good example of this appeared on Thursday in a criminal complaint released by the F.B.I. The complaint details a federal investigation that successfully stopped a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and put her on “trial.” The investigation is the latest example of anti-government domestic terrorism among far-right extremists. The group also discussed plans to attack the Michigan State Capitol building in what the state attorney general, Dana Nessel, called an attempt to “instigate a civil war.”

…Near the beginning of his 2017 speech on community, Mr. Zuckerberg revealed part of his motivation to focus on groups and communities. “Every day, I say to myself, I don’t have much time here on Earth, how can I make the greatest positive impact?” he mused.

Normally, that’s a hard question for a company of Facebook’s size. But if Mr. Zuckerberg is still asking himself that question every morning, the answer right now should be crystal clear. Facebook itself seems to know what it ought to do. That’s why it is quietly, temporarily dismantling normally crucial pieces of its infrastructure in anticipation of a crucial moment for American democracy. It’s a tacit admission that what is good for Facebook is, on the whole, destabilizing for society.


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Apple’s T2 security chip has an unfixable flaw • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:


In general, the jailbreak community haven’t paid as much attention to macOS and OS X as it has iOS, because they don’t have the same restrictions and walled gardens that are built into Apple’s mobile ecosystem. But the T2 chip, launched in 2017, created some limitations and mysteries. Apple added the chip as a trusted mechanism for securing high-value features like encrypted data storage, Touch ID, and Activation Lock, which works with Apple’s “Find My” services. But the T2 also contains a vulnerability, known as Checkm8, that jailbreakers have already been exploiting in Apple’s A5 through A11 (2011 to 2017) mobile chipsets. Now Checkra1n, the same group that developed the tool for iOS, has released support for T2 bypass.

On Macs, the jailbreak allows researchers to probe the T2 chip and explore its security features. It can even be used to run Linux on the T2 or play Doom on a MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar. The jailbreak could also be weaponized by malicious hackers, though, to disable macOS security features like System Integrity Protection and Secure Boot and install malware. Combined with another T2 vulnerability that was publicly disclosed in July by the Chinese security research and jailbreaking group Pangu Team, the jailbreak could also potentially be used to obtain FileVault encryption keys and to decrypt user data. The vulnerability is unpatchable, because the flaw is in low-level, unchangeable code for hardware.

…There are a few important limitations of the jailbreak, though, that keep this from being a full-blown security crisis. The first is that an attacker would need physical access to target devices in order to exploit them. The tool can only run off of another device over USB. This means hackers can’t remotely mass-infect every Mac that has a T2 chip. An attacker could jailbreak a target device and then disappear, but the compromise isn’t “persistent”; it ends when the T2 chip is rebooted.

…In this case, you’d likely have to be a very high-value target to register any real alarm. But hardware-based security measures do create a single point of failure that the most important data and systems rely on.


Still, at least they found a good use for the Touch Bar. “Using [X] to play Doom” has now become the hacking existence proof, like “hello world” for programming.
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PC market shipments grow a stellar 13% in Q3 2020 to break ten-year record • Canalys


Recently released Canalys data shows the global PC market climbed 12.7% from a year ago to reach 79.2 million units in Q3 2020 as it continued to benefit hugely from the COVID-19 crisis. This is the highest growth the market has seen in the past 10 years. After a weak Q1, the recovery in Q2 continued into Q3 this year, and it even grew on top of a strong market the previous year. Global notebook shipments touched 64 million units (almost as much as the record high of Q4 2011 when notebook shipments were 64.6 million) as demand continued to surge due to second waves of COVID-19 in many countries and companies continued to invest in longer-term transitions to remote working. Shipments of notebooks and mobile workstations grew 28.3% year-on-year. This contrasted with desktop and desktop workstations, which saw shipments shrink by 26.0%.


Canalys rushed this out before IDC and Gartner could get their quarterly figures out (probably on Wednesday or Thursday). The growth might be big, but the actual level of shipments is less than Q4 or Q3 of 2014. You can see from the graph how there’s been a gradual decline. That figure for the fall in desktops is dramatic – is that business going to come back?

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Web of distrust: faith in government declines when mobile internet arrives • The Economist


Most of the 4.1bn people now online got connected after 2010. To measure how new users’ views changed as a result, the authors combined two datasets. First, for each year in 2007-18, they estimated the share of people in each of 2,232 regions (such as states or provinces), spread across 116 countries, that could access at least 3g-level mobile internet. Then they used surveys by Gallup, a pollster, to measure how faith in government, courts and elections changed during this period in each area.

In general, people’s confidence in their leaders declined after getting 3G. However, the size of this effect varied. It was smaller in countries that allow a free press than in ones where traditional media are muzzled, and bigger in countries with unlimited web browsing than in ones that censor the internet. This implies that people are most likely to turn against their governments when they are exposed to online criticism that is not present offline. The decline was also larger in rural areas than in cities.

A similar pattern emerged at the ballot box. Among 102 elections in 33 European countries, incumbent parties’ vote-share fell by an average of 4.7 percentage points once 3G arrived.


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Twitter bans calls for polling disruptions and early victory declarations to curb election abuse • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:


Twitter will impose new warnings on politicians’ lies, restrict premature declarations of victory and block calls for polling violence or other disruptions, the company announced Friday as it rolled out wide-ranging changes designed to harden the platform against abuse related to the US election on Nov. 3.

The moves also will temporarily alter the look and feel of Twitter, a service built on instantaneous conversation, quips and breaking news. Retweeting others, for example, will require an extra step designed to encourage users to add their own thoughts before posting. Recommendations and trends will get new curbs intended to prevent abuse.

Twitter’s moves, like those announced recently by Facebook, are aimed mainly at combating efforts to manipulate the political landscape at critical moments in the hotly contested national vote.

…Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement Friday after the announcement, “Make no mistake, this corporation is attempting to silence voters and elected officials to influence our election, and this is extremely dangerous for our democracy.”

The campaign for Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats, civil rights activists and independent researchers, by contrast, have generally praised efforts by social media companies to prevent abuse and manipulation of platforms that are potent, far-reaching sources of news and opinion to billions of people worldwide.

“It’s really important these companies are understanding the unique role they play in amplifying or cutting off disinformation,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,


The contrast between the Trump and Biden campaign comments is telling. One gets the feeling that Silicon Valley has chosen its timing on this very carefully.
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Put Trump’s tweets on a time delay • WIRED

Mike Ananny is a professor at USC, and Daniel Kreiss is a principal researchers at UNC Center for Information:


Twitter and Facebook have extensive and well-documented content rules that prohibit everything from electoral to health disinformation. The platforms have singled out these categories of content in particular because they have significant likelihood of causing real world harm, from voter suppression to undermining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health guidelines. The FBI found that the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was, in part, organized in a Facebook group.

To date, the enforcement of these policies has been spotty at best. Twitter has labeled some of the president’s tweets as “potentially misleading” to readers about mail-in ballots. The platform hid a Trump tweet stating “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” for “glorifying violence,” and it recently hid another tweet equating Covid-19 to the flu, claiming that the president was “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information” when he wrote that “we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” Facebook has taken similar actions, providing links to reliable voter and health information and removing posts that it deems violate its policies.

But these actions often take hours to put in place while this content racks up thousands of engagements and shares. In those hours, as recent research from Harvard shows, Trump is a one-man source of disinformation that travels quickly and broadly across Twitter and Facebook. And we know that the mainstream media often picks up on and amplifies Trump’s posts before platforms moderate them. Journalists report on platforms’ treatments of Trump’s tweets, making that and them the story, and giving life to false claims.

What if we never let Trump’s disinformation breathe to begin with, cutting it off from the social media and mainstream journalism oxygen it craves?

…why should this system be applied only to the posts of Trump and other political elites when Twitter and Facebook are rife with abuse from many sources? The answer, in short, is that when it comes to political and health disinformation, political elites matter the most. As decades of political science has taught us, people often take their cues from political leaders; they have outsized influence on public attitudes. Even more, such a high-profile test run of these systems on political elites in the US might help these companies figure out how to create a generalized post-delay system to ensure the integrity of their platforms’ policies.


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Trump reveals his climate weakness • HEATED

Very late to this (bookmarked it ages ago and then News Happened), but Emily Atkin poked at the one crucial question that came up in the first (and last? who knows) presidential debate:


• [Moderator Chris] Wallace’s first question to Trump was, simply, “What do you believe about the science of climate change?” Trump admitted that humans contribute “to some extent.” Wallace then asked the necessary follow-up question that moderators don’t often do: “If you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back [climate change regulations]?” Trump responded by saying energy prices would rise, and then rambled incoherently for a full minute about why cars should be able to pollute more.

• Through his climate answers, Biden revealed that he has a plan to address climate change, and that he really needs to get better at talking about it. When Wallace asked Biden about concerns that his climate plan will hurt the economy, for example, Biden responded that his plan would “create thousands and millions of jobs” before launching into a tirade about… building weatherization, for some reason?? Biden never made a forceful argument about how much not addressing climate change is hurting the economy, which is essential for voters to understand, particularly as wildfires and hurricanes rip through the country. This was an absolute softball that Biden should have been able to knock out of the park. He got on base, but that’s not enough to win.

• Climate change may actually be Trump’s greatest debate weakness. And here’s why: Trump just doesn’t know what to say. A huge reason last night’s debate was such a train wreck was because Trump could not stop interrupting every five seconds. But during the 11-minute climate portion, Trump was weirdly silent. He barely interrupted Biden or Wallace the entire time.


Atkins writes a newsletter: you can sign up on the site. Occasional free posts, or if you pay then you can get the whole shebang. (Her most recent, on “petro-masculinity“, is worth your time too.
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Inside the Trump White House after his Covid-19 diagnosis • NY Mag

Olivia Nuzzi:


Statistically, the coronavirus is more likely to cost Donald Trump the White House than his life, though the threat to the latter isn’t helping the former. A little more than three weeks before the election, potentially contagious and freaking everybody out, Trump faces what looks like the end of his presidency. “He’s mishandled the coronavirus, he’s never been popular, and he’s gonna lose badly. I think it’s pretty simple,” a senior Republican official said. “Of course he was going to say, ‘Oh look, I feel great! Look how badly I beat this puny little virus!’ Meanwhile, it touches every American’s life every day in multiple different ways, and he’s handled it badly and people don’t forget that.” Or, as ex–Trump adviser Sam Nunberg put it, “Everything has just completely gone to shit.”

The polls suggest not just that the president will lose to Joe Biden but that he might lose bigly, in a landslide.

…After [Hope Hicks] tested positive on Thursday afternoon, the White House failed to notify others who would soon test positive themselves. They learned about it when the world did, not with an official disclosure but with a leak to the media. “The president could’ve given it to her,” one of those people told me, in fairness, but “I would’ve done things different that day, had I known.”

Trump did know, but he didn’t change his plans. At 1pm on Thursday, he flew to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, for a fund-raiser with hundreds of his supporters, some of whom he spoke with indoors. Later that night, he tweeted about Hicks being sick. “Terrible!” he said. “The First Lady and I are waiting for our test results. In the meantime, we will begin our quarantining process.”

Reading the message, the person said, “I assumed he must’ve had a preliminary positive one.” The lack of transparency, this person added, is “symptomatic about how people I work with always keep the wrong things secret.” Suicidal in all senses, this is the Trumpian madness that threatens the president’s political and earthly future as it puts at risk everyone around him.


Note: people are starting to use the L word – “landslide”.
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Telegram forced to close channels run by Belarus protestors • Decrypt

Scott Chipolina:


Apple is requesting that Telegram shut down three channels used in Belarus to expose the identities of individuals belonging to the Belarusian authoritarian regime that may be oppressing civilians. 

Apple’s concern is that revealing the identities of law enforcement individuals may give rise to further violence. 

Telegram on the other hand, would prefer to keep these channels open but the company said that it feels it has no choice in the matter. These channels are a tool for Belarus’ citizens protesting the recently rigged presidential election, but, with a centralized entity like Apple calling the shots on its own App Store, there’s little the protesters can do about it. 

“I think this situation is not black and white and would rather leave the channels be, but typically Apple doesn’t offer much choice for apps like Telegram in such situations,” Telegram CEO Pavel Durov said in his Telegram channel.

The tension between Apple and Telegram is part of the wider issue surrounding Belarus’ 2020 election, which saw incumbent Alexander Lukashenko re-elected despite claims and evidence the election was rigged. The result has seen thousands of Belarusian citizens take to the streets to protest. 

This tension also highlights a problem with centralized app stores. “Unfortunately, I assume these channels will end up getting blocked on iOS, but remain available on other platforms,” Durov added. 


I really don’t understand the dynamics here. Telegram can surely keep what channels it wants open, and while Apple can stop new downloads, it can’t affect what happens on old ones. And Android is definitely an option – which I would have thought would be popular in Belarus.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified