Start Up No.1420: Facebook pauses Group recommendations, Slovakia test big, the ‘night owl’ genetic defect, Dwight Schrute v life, and more


Now you can generate slick QR-based SSID/password combos for visitors to your home. (NB due to lockdown, no visitors allowed.) CC-licensed photo by Iain on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Unelectable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook quietly suspended political group recommendations ahead of the US presidential election • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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During a contentious presidential election in the US, Facebook quietly stopped recommending that people join online groups dealing with political or social issues.

Mentioned in passing by CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, the move was confirmed to BuzzFeed News by a Facebook spokesperson. The company declined to say when exactly it implemented the change or when it would end.

“This is a measure we put in place in the lead-up to Election Day,” said Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois, who added that all new groups have been filtered out of the recommendation tool as well. “We will assess when to lift them afterwards, but they are temporary.”

Confirmation of the move, which Facebook did not publicly announce, comes after members of the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee grilled Zuckerberg about Facebook Groups and the possibility for polarization and radicalization within them.

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The obvious question, as Mac and Silverman point out, is when (and why) it would re-enable this. If you think a scheme is having negative effects (which numerous internal studies and external events have shown) then why would you continue with it at all?

The “get everyone into Groups” was Zuckerberg’s brainstorm – or maybe brainfart – in early 2017, which he felt was the solution to the “Bowling Alone” problem of people not being social in person or online enough. It’s actually been bad, many times over.
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Half of Slovakia’s population tested for coronavirus in one day • The Guardian

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Nearly half of Slovakia’s entire population took Covid-19 swabs on Saturday, the first day of a two-day nationwide testing drive the government hopes will help reverse a surge in infections without a hard lockdown.

The scheme, a first for a country of Slovakia’s size, is being watched by other nations looking for ways to slow the virus spread and avoid overwhelming their health systems.

The defence minister, Jaroslav Naď said on Sunday 2.58 million Slovaks had taken a test on Saturday, and 25,850 or 1% tested positive and had to go into quarantine.

The EU country has a population 5.5 million and aims to test as many people as possible, except for children under 10.

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That’s bloody impressive. You have to hope they didn’t all have to gather in giant gyms for hours to get it done (the tests were done at 5,000 sites) or this will have been one of the most fabulous superspreader events ever.
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Public-health experts are rewriting pandemic rules for governments—and their gyms • WSJ

Louise Radnofsky and Ben Cohen:

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A spin studio in Canada and a dance-fitness class in South Korea are among the crowded indoor spaces, filled with people breathing heavily and expelling respiratory droplets, that have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks. Even the gyms that tried to adhere to pandemic rules of sanitizing everything in sight and keeping people six feet apart needed to do more.

“Six feet is not enough,” Marr said. “You should definitely maintain distance—and either everyone’s wearing a mask or you have just enormous ventilation.”

Many indoor facilities still dispatch armies of employees to spray, swipe and scrub their walls, seats and equipment. Marr says much of that energy is misplaced. “We should be spending more than half of our time, resources and efforts on cleaning the air,” she said.

There is at least one gym following her advice: her own.

Minnick learned from Marr’s Twitter feed how aerosol transmission fueled a Washington state choir’s outbreak. The description was so vivid that Minnick felt like she was watching a play—and that she never wanted to go inside unmasked again.

Months after Minnick reopened her CrossFit box, Marr texted her about the outbreak at the Canadian spin studio. “OMG,” Minnick recalled texting back, realizing that the studio had lived out a fitness facility’s nightmare.

“It just blew my mind,” Minnick said. “They thought they were doing what the rules are. That guidance is not enough, you need extra layers.”

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It is utterly amazing that nine months after we became aware of this, people are still walking around like robots spritzing surfaces and wiping things, when what is needed is more replacement of (potentially) infected air. It’s completely obvious that this is spread via lingering aerosol. Just as with masks, we’re seeing gigantic hysteresis in the response from the authorities: slow, bad response.
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No, Sean Connery did not write a mean letter to Steve Jobs • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

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A fake letter from Sean Connery to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is making the rounds on social media following the actor’s death on Saturday. Just to reiterate: it’s fake, the product of humor site Scoopertino, which posts satirical articles about Apple and goings-on at its Cupertino (get it that’s the name) headquarters.

The typewritten letter dated 1998 purports to show Connery’s outrage over Jobs asking him to appear in an Apple commercial. “I do not sell my soul for Apple or any other company. I have no interest in ‘changing the world’ as you suggest,” it states. “You are a computer salesman, I am fucking JAMES BOND!”

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I do think Connery should have got some sort of double Oscar for playing the only Chicago Irish cop with a Scottish accent.
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Scientists discover how a common mutation leads to ‘night owl’ sleep disorder • University of California

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A new study by researchers at UC Santa Cruz shows how a genetic mutation throws off the timing of the biological clock, causing a common sleep syndrome called delayed sleep phase disorder.

People with this condition are unable to fall asleep until late at night (often after 2 a.m.) and have difficulty getting up in the morning. In 2017, scientists discovered a surprisingly common mutation that causes this sleep disorder by altering a key component of the biological clock that maintains the body’s daily rhythms. The new findings, published October 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal the molecular mechanisms involved and point the way toward potential treatments.

“This mutation has dramatic effects on people’s sleep patterns, so it’s exciting to identify a concrete mechanism in the biological clock that links the biochemistry of this protein to the control of human sleep behavior,” said corresponding author Carrie Partch, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz.

Daily cycles in virtually every aspect of our physiology are driven by cyclical interactions of clock proteins in our cells. Genetic variations that change the clock proteins can alter the timing of the clock and cause sleep phase disorders. A shortened clock cycle causes people to go to sleep and wake up earlier than normal (the “morning lark” effect), while a longer clock cycle makes people stay up late and sleep in (the “night owl” effect).

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This effect is believed to kick in hard on the first Wednesday in November every four years for many people in the western world.
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The black hole information paradox comes to an end • Quanta Magazine

George Musser:

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In a series of breakthrough papers, theoretical physicists have come tantalizingly close to resolving the black hole information paradox that has entranced and bedeviled them for nearly 50 years. Information, they now say with confidence, does escape a black hole. If you jump into one, you will not be gone for good. Particle by particle, the information needed to reconstitute your body will reemerge. Most physicists have long assumed it would; that was the upshot of string theory, their leading candidate for a unified theory of nature. But the new calculations, though inspired by string theory, stand on their own, with nary a string in sight. Information gets out through the workings of gravity itself — just ordinary gravity with a single layer of quantum effects.

…authors of the new studies …have found additional semiclassical effects — new gravitational configurations that Einstein’s theory permits, but that [Stephen] Hawking did not include. Muted at first, these effects come to dominate when the black hole gets to be extremely old. The hole transforms from a hermit kingdom to a vigorously open system. Not only does information spill out, anything new that falls in is regurgitated almost immediately. The revised semiclassical theory has yet to explain how exactly the information gets out, but such has been the pace of discovery in the past two years that theorists already have hints of the escape mechanism.

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And you say there’s never any good news? Well I for one will sleep easier knowing that if I happen to fall into a black hole the information needed to reconstitute me (not quite sure what that means, but anyway) will eventually be emitted. It’s like a long cut to being immortal.
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Dwight Schrute was a warning • The Atlantic

Megan Garber:

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I’m one of the people who have found new solace in old episodes of The Office, but I have a slightly different reason for watching. That reason is Dwight Schrute.

Dwight, Dunder Mifflin’s best-performing paper salesman and its worst-performing person, is a category error in human form. He is a beet farmer in a corporate park, a survivalist selling office products, a 19th-century spirit in a 21st-century timeline. He is arrogant. He is, relatedly, a buffoon. “INCORRECT,” he will say about something that is true. “FACT,” he will say about something that is not. He listens to metal but plays the recorder. He defers to the rules right up until he breaks them. Dwight is Darwinism with a desk job. He is anarchy in the guise of law. He is tragedy and he is comedy, and because of that he is intensely cathartic to watch. Many fictions speak to this moment. Dwight K. Schrute, however, inhabits it.

…To succeed with an American audience, one of The Office’s truisms goes, the U.S. version of the show had to be a little bit kinder—a little bit softer—than the acerbic British original. Dwight, modeled after the U.K. show’s Gareth, is the character who most directly challenges that idea. He is humor that, at times, hints at horror. Jim spends an episode convincing Dwight that (1) the bat they’ve discovered in the office is vampiric, and (2) Jim has been bitten by it. This provides an occasion for Dwight to brag about his experience with werewolves. “I shot one once,” he says. He pauses. “But by the time I got to it, it had turned back into my neighbor’s dog.”

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Simply wonderful writeup (like the series itself, which is a work of extended genius).
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From 2010: No pay, no spray: firefighters let home burn • NBC News

(Note: this story appeared in October 2010)

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Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee.

Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat. 

“They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn’t do it,” Cranick told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

The fire started when the Cranicks’ grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond.

“We wasn’t on their list,” he said the operators told him.

Cranick, who lives outside the city limits, admits he “forgot” to pay the annual $75 fee. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Cranick says he told the operator he would pay whatever is necessary to have the fire put out.

His offer wasn’t accepted, he said.

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The impulse for this story is the wonderful tale that I linked to last time I was around of the town of Grafton, where libertarians decided they could make their philosophy work. It couldn’t, and the bears in the area weren’t susceptible to declamations about individual rights either. The book itself, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”, is available now.
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Resetting online commerce • Benedict Evans

Evans points out that financial results covering the lockdown months in Europe and the US suggest substantial growth in e-commerce, but big questions for physical retailers:

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a shift to working remotely might be a permanent change for many retail areas in big cities. Even if people now work from home only one day a week, how many retailers will experience that as a 20% decline in footfall, and how many cannot survive that? In some areas that might also be a vicious circle: more people working from home means less retail, and less retail in Canary Wharf or Hudson Yards might mean more people working from home. I’ve seen people call this a ‘donut’ effect – office districts of a city are hollowed out. 

Then, what gets sold in those shops? In the last couple of years there’s been an explosion and arguable a bubble in so-called direct to consumer or ‘D2C’ brands. The bubble burst at the beginning of this year (ironically just before everyone had to buy everything online), partly prompted by the realisation that if you’re not renting a store on Fifth Avenue, that money doesn’t go to the bottom line – you’ll almost certainly have to spend it on delivery, advertising, Amazon placement or returns instead (in other words, there are no free lunches). But the reasons why that explosion had happened remain: you can now make and sell a consumer product without the same kind of fixed cost and upfront capital investment in a national retail footprint, inventory and marketing that would have been necessary 20 years ago. But what does that mean? What is a sustainable customer acquisition model? For how many brands, and what aggregation and discovery models? Is there any role for ‘software’ or is this really entirely a CPG and marketing story?

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From experience, I can tell you that the retail in Canary Wharf (a big office space with some attached chains of shops) is utterly disposable. It’s expensive fashion and similar (emphasis on the “expensive”). But not essential: if you needed a hammer and a bag of nails, say to fix something when you got home, you’re out of luck. It’s hard to see how retailers like that can survive its occasional shoppers being told to stay away.
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Pure Javascript WiFi QR Code Generator

Evgeni Golov:

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Ever wanted to create a cool QR code for your guests? But never wanted to type your Wi-Fi credentials into a form that submits them to a remote webserver to render the QR code? QiFi for the rescue! It will render the code in your browser, on your machine, so the WiFi stays as secure as it was before (read the code if you do not trust text on the internet :-))!

If you use the Save-button to store a code, this is still secure, as the data is stored in HTML5 localStorage and is never transmitted to the server (in contrast to cookie-based solutions).

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The iOS Camera App can handle these automatically (as of 2017, so from iOS 11) and Android has a few QR-to-WiFi translators. (See the page for more.) Very neat! And as he says, you don’t have to worry about some random person on the internet having the password to your Wi-Fi. (If you’re REALLY worried, then put in a fake password with the real SSID, and generate it, and then the real password and your SSID. Or do it multiple times, “hiding” the true password amid the multiples.)
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AI camera ruins soccer game for fans after mistaking referee’s bald head for ball • IFLScience

James Felton:

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Fans of Scottish football team Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC experienced a new hilarious technological glitch during a match last weekend, but in all honesty, you’d be hard-pressed to say it didn’t improve the viewing experience dramatically. 

The club announced a few weeks ago it was moving from using human camera operators to cameras controlled by AI. The club proudly announced at the time the new “Pixellot system uses cameras with in-built, AI, ball-tracking technology” and would be used to capture HD footage of all home matches at Caledonian Stadium, which would be broadcast directly to season-ticket holders’ homes.

Cut to last Saturday, when the robot cameras were given a new challenge that hadn’t been foreseen: A linesman with a bald head.

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The snatches of film with the story are hilarious. But also: what a mess. And of course fans weren’t allowed in because of Covid.
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Geothermal energy is poised for a breakout • Vox

David Roberts:

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after approximately 15 years of reporting on energy, I finally took the time to do a deep dive into geothermal and I am here to report: This is a great time to start paying attention!

After many years of failure to launch, new companies and technologies have brought geothermal out of its doldrums, to the point that it may finally be ready to scale up and become a major player in clean energy. In fact, if its more enthusiastic backers are correct, geothermal may hold the key to making 100% clean electricity available to everyone in the world. And as a bonus, it’s an opportunity for the struggling oil and gas industry to put its capital and skills to work on something that won’t degrade the planet.

Vik Rao, former chief technology officer at Halliburton, the oil field service giant, recently told the geothermal blog Heat Beat, “geothermal is no longer a niche play. It’s scalable, potentially in a highly material way. Scalability gets the attention of the [oil services] industry.”

In this post, I’m going to cover technologies meant to mine heat deep from the Earth, which can then be used as direct heat for communities, to generate electricity, or to do both through “cogeneration” of heat and electricity. (Note that ground-source heat pumps, which take advantage of steady shallow-earth temperatures to heat buildings or groups of buildings, are sometimes included among geothermal technologies, but I’m going to leave them aside for a separate post.)

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As used in Boise, Idaho and with lots of potential in the western US. (And pretty popular in some Scandinavian countries, I think.) As ever, we’re only using a tiny fraction of the potential energy there; and it is, of course, carbon-neutral.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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