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.

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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

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