Start Up No.1404: Facebook triples down on Groups, Navalny on novichok, GCHQ finds Huawei flaw, Google aims low with Pixel, and more


The bread used by sandwich chain Subway is more like these than normal bread, an Irish judge has ruled. CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr.

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

Facebook will start surfacing some public group discussions in News Feeds and search results • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Facebook is expanding the reach of public groups today with new features that could lead to more people engaging in group discussions, but also potentially more visibility for dangerous or nefarious communities. The company announced multiple updates today for Groups that include automating moderation and covering people’s News Feeds with group discussions.

The most intriguing update is starting out as a test at first. Facebook says it’ll start surfacing public group discussions in people’s News Feeds. These can show up if someone shares a link or reshares a post. Beneath that link, people will be able to click to see relevant discussions that are taking place about that same post or link in public Facebook groups. The original poster can then join the discussion even without joining the group.

…For now, the kinds of restrictions moderators can set are limited, says Tom Alison, VP of engineering at Facebook. Moderators can’t, for example, set a rule about having no “politics” in the group, which has been a controversial rule over this past summer with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum in the US and around the world.

“Over time, we’ll be looking at ways to make this more sophisticated and capture broad actions that maybe the admins want to take, but for now what we really focused on were some of the most common things that admins are doing and how we can automate that, and we’ll be adding more things as we learn with the admin community,” Alison says in an interview with The Verge.

It’s hard to see how conversations will stay productive with these new features when people share links to political content. The relevant discussions could lead down a dark rabbit hole and introduce people to extreme content and ideologies from groups they never expected to engage with and might not realise are sharing misinformation or conspiracy theories.

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This is going to have bad effects, as Carman points out. Zuckerberg has been obsessed with Groups since 2017, on the basis that we’re bowling alone. But Groups also leads people to conspiracy theories, terror groups and extremist content: there are so many cases. Why do Groups need to be forced on people? Because Facebook wants them “engaged” so it can show them ads. That’s all it really cares about. Not the social externalities.
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Alexei Navalny on his poisoning: “I assert that Putin was behind the crime” • DER SPIEGEL

Christian Esch, Benjamin Bidder, DER SPIEGEL:

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Navalny: It was a wonderful day. I’m on my way home, with a strenuous and successful business trip behind me. We shot videos for the regional election campaign, and everything had gone according to plan. I’m sitting comfortably in my seat and I’m looking forward to a quiet flight during which I can watch a series. Once I get back to Moscow, I am looking forward to recording my weekly YouTube show and then spending the weekend with my family. I feel good, as I did at the airport. And then… it’s hard to describe because there is nothing to compare it with. Organophosphorus compounds attack your nervous system like a DDos attack attacks the computer – it’s an overload that breaks you. You can no longer concentrate. I can feel that something is wrong. I break out in a cold sweat. I ask Kira beside me for a tissue. Then I say to her: Speak to me. I need to hear a voice – something’s wrong with me. She looks at me like I’m crazy and starts talking.

DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?

Navalny: I don’t understand what is happening to me. The stewards come by with the trolley. I first want to ask them for water, but I then say: No, let me by, I’m going to the bathroom. I wash myself with cold water, sit down and wait and then wash myself again. And then I think: If I don’t get out now, I’ll never get out. The most important feeling was: You are feeling no pain, but you know you’re dying. And I mean, right now, yet nothing hurts. I leave the toilet, turn to the steward – and instead of asking for help, I say, to my own surprise: “I’ve been poisoned. I’m dying.” And then I lay down on the ground in front of him to die. He’s the last thing I see – a face that looks at me with slight astonishment and a light smile. He says: “Poisoned?” and by that he probably means I was served bad chicken.

And the last thing I hear, already on the floor is: Do you have heart problems? But my heart doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts. All I know is that I am dying. Then I hear voices growing ever quieter, and a woman calling: “Don’t leave us! Don’t leave us!” Then it’s over. I know I’m dead. Only later would it turn out that I was wrong.

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Life – and near-death – as a Russian opposition politician.
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This super-hot box could be the “missing piece” of the energy transition • Sifted

Maija Palmer:

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Imagine driving around the city with a box on the back of your truck — the inside of which is hot enough to melt steel or power an industrial furnace.

It is heated up to a temperature of 1300 degrees Celsius using the waste heat — usually just lost into the atmosphere — from an industrial plant and then driven across town to an apartment block where it plugs in to provide heating.

“Part of the energy transition will be about becoming very efficient with our use of heat, not just throwing it away as we do now.”

This is the clean energy vision being developed by Kraftblock, a German startup which is using nanotechnology to develop a highly efficient thermal storage system. The company has just taken a €3m investment from Dutch clean energy company Koolen Industries which will help it commercialise the system.

…A move to renewable energy sources simply won’t work if energy can’t be stored — not just electricity generated from renewable sources like solar and wind power, but also heat energy, which at the moment often ends up being wasted.

…Martin Schichtel, founder of Kraftblock, says he came up with the company while working in the porcelain industry, where pottery is regularly fired at temperatures above 1300 degrees Celsius.

“I remember reading about these thermal storage systems and thinking they sounded interesting, but I wondered why people thought 600 degrees Celsius was a high temperature. In the porcelain industry that is a warm-up temperature,” he told Sifted.

Schichtel began thinking of ways to create a material that could hold much higher temperatures, and eventually hit upon a patented nanotechnology granule, containing, among other things, steel slag, a byproduct of steelmaking. Some 85% of the material used in the system is recycled.

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GCHQ discovered ‘nationally significant’ vulnerability in Huawei equipment • Sky News

Alexander Martin:

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Cyber security analysts tasked with investigating Huawei equipment used in the UK’s telecommunications networks discovered a “nationally significant” vulnerability last year.

Investigators at the UK’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) found an issue so severe that it was withheld from the company, according to an oversight report published on Thursday.

Vulnerabilities are usually software design failures which could allow hostile actors (in particular the Chinese state when it comes to Huawei) to conduct a cyber attack. They are not necessarily intentional and can’t be seen as an indication of any hostile intent on the part of the developers themselves.

There is a hypothetical concern that Beijing could purposefully design some kind of deniable flaw in Huawei’s equipment which it would know how to exploit – or that it could have been alerted to a potential attack vector once the issue was reported to Huawei.

The report explicitly states that the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – a part of GCHQ – “does not believe that the defects identified are as a result of Chinese state interference”, and adds that there is no evidence the vulnerabilities were exploited.

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What I hear again and again when I talk to people who are close to this topic is that Huawei’s coding is sloppy. One has to wonder, too, about China’s access to the source code used there.
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Google sets modest smartphone goals as COVID-19 bites • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

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Google plans to produce less than 1 million Pixel 5 smartphones this year, sources told Nikkei Asia, signalling a far more conservative outlook for the internet giant’s flagship device than last year.

Production could be as low as around 800,000 units for the 5G-capable flagship smartphone, which is set to be released on Sept. 30, the sources added. Google will also introduce the Pixel 4A (5G), following the recent launch on its website of the more affordably priced Pixel 4A.

Initial production for these three models this year is currently set at a modest 3 million units. Google’s total handset sales last year fell below the company’s target, and market demand this year has been further hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, Google shipped 7.2m Pixel smartphones, according to research company IDC, falling short of the company’s ambitious target of 8m to 10m units – double the 4.7m it shipped in 2018. Sales of last year’s flagship phone, the Pixel 4, were particularly weak.

For the first six months of 2020, Google shipped just 1.5m smartphones, a sharp drop from the 4.1m units it sold in the first half of last year, when Google introduced its first-ever budget model, the Pixel 3A, IDC data showed.

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People are puzzled by what Google’s strategy is with Pixel. At the analysis company CCS Insight, Ben Wood is unusually blunt:

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Google’s smartphone hardware strategy is in need of a reset. The company either needs to deliver differentiated flagship Android experiences or mass-market products with broad distribution. Right now, it provides neither and sits awkwardly within a vibrant ecosystem of Android players led by Samsung. Google must prove that Pixel still has a role.

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Google has never known what it wants to do with smartphones (remember the purchase and subsequence abandonment of Motorola back in 2011?). Still doesn’t, apparently.
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Exclusive: Russian operation masqueraded as right-wing news site to target U.S. voters – sources • Reuters

Jack Stubbs on how an FBI “probe” (it’s always a “probe”) found the Internet Research Agency, from St Petersburg, up to its 2016 tricks:

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NAEBC presents itself as a “free and independent” media outlet based in Hungary with a mission to promote conservative and right-wing voices. Its main page carries a warning to its readers: “Don’t get yourself fooled.”

The website’s own name, however, is a pun on a Russian expletive meaning to deceive or “screw over.”

Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at social media analytics firm Graphika, analysed the website after being alerted to the activity by Reuters. He said NAEBC and the left-wing Peace Data showed Russian influence operations had evolved since 2016.

“But the overall strategy looks unchanged: energise Trump supporters, depress support for Biden, and target both sides with divisive and polarising messages,” he said.

NAEBC has been active since late June and built a small network of personas on Twitter and LinkedIn – some of which used computer-generated photographs of non-existent people – to solicit articles from followers and freelance journalists, according to the Graphika analysis here.

Nimmo said the accounts failed to attract any significant following with many posts only receiving a handful of shares, but got more traction on Gab and Parler – two social media platforms favoured by right-wing users for their lax approach to content moderation.

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Doesn’t he mean their lax approach to thinking? However: this is only the ones they caught. As usual, we can expect that the IRA is all over Facebook like ants.
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Subway bread is not bread, Irish court rules • The Guardian

Sam Jones:

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Those wrestling with the great culinary-philosophical dilemmas of our time – are Jaffa cakes actually cakes or just up-themselves biscuits, is putting chorizo in paella really an act of gastronomic terrorism, and what kind of monster doesn’t love Marmite? – can give thanks to the Irish supreme court. Earlier this week, it brought clarity to an important, if less bitterly contested, debate.

In a judgment published on Tuesday, the court ruled that the bread served at Subway, the US chain that hawks giant sandwiches in 110 countries and territories, could not in fact be defined as bread because of its high sugar content.

The ruling followed an appeal by Bookfinders Ltd, Subway’s Irish franchisee. The company had argued that the bread used in Subway sandwiches counted as a staple food and was consequently exempt from VAT.

However, as the court pointed out, Ireland’s Value-Added Tax Act of 1972 draws a distinction between staple foods – bread, tea, coffee, cocoa, milk and “preparations or extracts of meat or eggs” – and “more discretionary indulgences” such as ice-cream, chocolate, pastries, crisps, popcorn and roasted nuts.

The clincher was the act’s strict provision that the amount of sugar in bread “shall not exceed 2% of the weight of flour included in the dough”.

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The judgment is about lots more (does the phrase “VAT on food and drink” mean VAT doesn’t apply if someone only buys food but not drink? On such issues do eminent lawyers earn their daily, um, bread).

The bread topic points to a deeper issue, though, familiar to anyone who has been to the US: there’s too much sugar in American food (and drink), so to the European palate the processed food tastes unbearably sweet. While they might be happy with the incipient obesity and type 2 diabetes that naturally follow that – so much more money for pharmaceutical companies treating it! – one really doesn’t want to encourage the export of such bad habits. Well done, Ireland. (Kinda sorta related: fact-checking Trump’s claim in the debate that insulin in the US now costs “like water”.)

Oh, and Jaffa cakes are officially cakes.
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Bob Murray, who fought against black lung regulations as a coal operator, has filed for black lung benefits • WVPB

Dave Mistich and Brittany Patterson:

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In his claim, Murray, who is now 80 years old, writes that he is heavily dependent on the oxygen tank he is frequently seen using, and is “near death.”

North American Coal Corporation is named as one potentially liable party in Murray’s claim for the benefits. According to documents associated with his claim, he states that he was employed by the company from May 1957 to October 1987 — where he ascended through its ranks, first as a miner before taking on the role of president.

Later, he served as president and operator of Ohio Valley Resources, Inc. and a subsidiary from 1988 to 2001. He founded Murray Energy in 1988.

He states in his claim for benefits that he worked underground while supervising operations throughout the years.

“During my 63 years working in underground coal mines, I worked 16 years every day at the mining face underground and went underground every week until I was age 75,” Murray wrote in his claim.

…Like other coal operators, Murray’s companies have disputed the claims made by miners who seek black lung benefits. The coal magnate, who for decades ran the largest privately owned underground coal mining company in the United States, has also been at the forefront of combatting federal regulations that attempt to reduce black lung, an incurable and ultimately fatal lung disease caused by exposure to coal and rock dust.

In 2014, Murray Energy spearheaded a lawsuit against the Obama administration over a federal rule that strengthened control of coal dust in mines.

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Karma, irony, tragedy – take your pick. Did Murray just get greedy once he was out of the pit? Or did he think those who followed him deserved to suffer the same way? (Thanks Oliver for the link.)
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Facebook will forbid ads that undermine the legitimacy of the coming election • The New York Times

Mike Isaac:

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Facebook, under its amended policy, said it would not allow paid ads on its site that try to undermine the election process, such as by declaring voter fraud. The change builds on the company’s recent moves to keep out political ads that make premature declarations of victory and to stop candidates from purchasing political ads entirely in the week before Election Day, Nov. 3.

“For example, this would include calling a method of voting inherently fraudulent or corrupt, or using isolated incidents of voter fraud to delegitimize the result of an election,” said Rob Leathern, a director of product management at Facebook, in a tweet on Wednesday.

The changes will apply to ads on both Facebook and Instagram, Mr. Leathern said, and are effective immediately.

Facebook updated its policies less than 24 hours after President Trump, in a debate Tuesday with the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., refused to agree to accept the election outcome. Mr. Trump repeatedly railed against voting and the integrity of the election, suggesting without evidence that voter fraud was rampant and telling his supporters to go to the polls and watch voters closely.

Facebook has struggled with how to police political advertising. The company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has said he supports unfettered speech on his platform while also trying to minimise the amount of harm Facebook can do to the electoral process.

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Zuckerberg cannot square that circle, and he should stop pretending that there is any way to do so. The two statements are obviously at odds. For instance: if you let someone prominent spout absolutely anything about the forthcoming election, including outright lies, you cannot allow it to be “unfettered”; democracy will be damaged. Sort-of related: Facebook is removing Trump ads about refugees if they suggest that will spread coronavirus. But otherwise, lying in political ads is fine by Facebook. Just pay them.
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‘It’s not in my head’: they survived the coronavirus, but they never got well • The New York Times

Sarah Mervosh:

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As the coronavirus has spread through the United States over seven months, infecting at least seven million people, some subset of them are now suffering from serious, debilitating and mysterious effects of Covid-19 that last far longer than a few days or weeks.

The patients wrestling with an array of alarming symptoms many months after first getting ill — they have come to call themselves “long-haulers” — are believed to number in the thousands. Their circumstances, still little understood by the medical community, may play a significant role in shaping the country’s ability to recover from the pandemic.

By some estimates, as many as one in three Covid-19 patients will develop symptoms that linger. The symptoms can span a wide range — piercing chest pain, deep exhaustion, a racing heart. Those affected include young and otherwise healthy people. One theory is that an overzealous immune system plays a role.
Some are unable to work. Many may need long-term medical care.

Still, many say their biggest challenge is getting other people simply to believe them.

“There is just a lot of misunderstanding,” said Marissa Oliver, 36, who, long after she experienced classic virus symptoms, dragged herself to an urgent care clinic in New York because she was still struggling to breathe. The medical professional’s advice? Go home and have a glass of wine.

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There are signs that for some people, the aftereffects are like chronic fatigue syndrome. This is the problem with trying to come up with a simple open/lockdown formula for “how to tackle Covid-19”: you can’t say for certain what the outcomes will be.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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