Start Up No.1422: Facebook internal morale droops, the US’s other tech antitrust problem, Bezos’s climate grant, Apple’s AR application, and more


In the late 1920s, shoe shops started offering foot X-rays. The radiation doses were immense. CC-licensed photo by Massie on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Sure, like you’ll read them all today, of all days. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Inside Facebook 24 hours before the 2020 election • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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Roiled by months of internal scandals and high-profile failures, the social network giant heads into Election Day with employee morale cratering and internal political discussion muzzled on internal message boards.

While [former UK deputy prime minister, now chief Facebook flack Nick] Clegg took an optimistic tone in his post [thanking Facebook employees for their work leading up to Election day], Facebook released results of an internal survey on Monday that revealed a stark decline in employee confidence over the past six months. Its semi-annual “Pulse Survey,” taken by more than 49,000 employees over two weeks in October, showed workers felt strained by office shutdowns and were continuing to lose faith that the company was improving the world.

Only 51% of respondents said they believed that Facebook was having a positive impact on the world, down 23 percentage points from the company’s last survey in May and down 5.5 percentage points from the same period last year. In response to a question about the company’s leadership, only 56% of employees had a favorable response, compared to 76% in May and more than 60% last year. (A Facebook employee acknowledged in the announcement that the uptick in May’s Pulse results were “likely driven by our response to COVID-19,” which was widely praised.)

The external criticism leveled against Facebook for failing to completely stem hate and misleading information is weighing on employees.

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That half of Facebook’s staff don’t think it’s having a positive impact on the world is pretty damning. As long as none of them include its top ranks, things won’t change, but if they ever do, it could all go south quite fast.
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The tech antitrust problem no one is talking about • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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The new fervor for tech antitrust has so far overlooked an equally obvious target: US broadband providers. “If you want to talk about a history of using gatekeeper power to harm competitors, there are few better examples,” says Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Sohn and other critics of the four companies that dominate US broadband—Verizon, Comcast, Charter Communications, and AT&T—argue that antitrust intervention has been needed for years to lower prices and widen internet access. A Microsoft study estimated last year that as many as 162.8 million Americans lack meaningful broadband, and New America’s Open Technology Institute recently found that US consumers pay, on average, more than those in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere in North America.

The coronavirus pandemic has given America’s gaping digital divide more bite. Children without reliable internet have been forced to scavenge bandwidth outside libraries and Taco Bells to complete virtual school assignments. In April, a Pew Research Center survey found that one in five parents with children whose schools had been closed by coronavirus believed it likely they would not be able to complete schoolwork at home because of an inadequate internet connection.

Such problems are arguably more material than some of the antitrust issues that have recently won attention in Washington. The Department of Justice complaint against Google argues that the company’s payments to Apple to set its search engine as the default on the iPhone make it too onerous for consumers to choose a competing search provider. For tens of millions of Americans, changing broadband providers is even more difficult—it requires moving. The Institute for Local Self Reliance, which promotes community broadband projects, recently estimated from Federal Communications Commission data that some 80 million Americans can only get high-speed broadband service from one provider.

“That is quite intentional on the part of cable operators,” says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School. “These companies are extracting rent from Americans based on their monopoly positions.”

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Always astonishing how much Americans pay for their broadband and their mobile plans. The lack of competition is utterly amazing, and the indifference of politicians just as weird. But then there are many peculiar things in America. You may have noticed.
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How Jeff Bezos is spending his $10bn Earth Fund • The Atlantic

Robinson Meyer:

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Throughout the summer, Bezos—sometimes joined by his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, a television producer—met via phone with environmental nonprofits and other advisers in the field, according to two people who work in climate philanthropy and have knowledge of the situation. He is now ready to start giving.

But Bezos’s gifts indicate that he isn’t trying something new on climate so much as boosting an ancien régime. Bezos is prepared to give $100m each to four of the most established environmental groups in the country—the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the World Wildlife Fund, according to my two sources, who were granted anonymity so that they could speak candidly about the small world of climate giving.

Bezos has also committed $100m to the World Resources Institute, a sustainability-research organization that operates globally, the two sources said.

And he has promised smaller amounts of $10m to $50m to four nonprofits that specialize in climate and energy research, the sources said. Those groups are the Energy Foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the ClimateWorks Foundation, and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

These are large gifts, and they are going to large organizations. Each of the five groups receiving $100m already has annual expenses in the nine figures. The largest of them, the Nature Conservancy, had a budget exceeding $930m in 2018. Each has significant assets, offices and operations around the world, and enough heft to send experts to United Nations conferences.

Yet these gifts, even if spread over five years, will constitute a major portion of the groups’ revenues. And they put into perspective the mammoth size of the Earth Fund: These nine grants represent, at most, $700m—that is, 7% of Bezos’s initial commitment.

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I wonder if the recipients of the grants will feel empowered to criticise people who launch rockets into space for fun, such as *checks notes* Jeff Bezos.

And Meyer’s right, this is very unambitious: there are far better, moonshot (ahem) projects that Bezos could be putting his money into, particularly real carbon capture and so on.
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When X-rays were all the rage, a trip to the shoe store was dangerously illuminating • IEEE Spectrum

Allison Marsh:

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The [“fluoroscope”] machines [which were X-ray machines, which went on sale in the late 1920s] were heralded as providing a more “scientific” method of fitting shoes. Duffin and Hayter argue, however, that shoe-fitting fluoroscopy was first and foremost an elaborate marketing scheme to sell shoes. If so, it definitely worked. My mother fondly remembers her childhood trips to Wenton’s on Bergen Avenue in Jersey City to buy saddle shoes. Not only did she get to view her feet with the fancy technology, but she was given a shoe horn, balloon, and lollipop. Retailers banked on children begging their parents for new shoes.

Although the fluoroscope appeared to bring scientific rigor to the shoe-fitting process, there was nothing medically necessary about it. My mother grudgingly acknowledges that the fluoroscope didn’t help her bunions in the least. Worse, the unregulated radiation exposure put countless customers and clerks at risk for ailments including dermatitis, cataracts, and, with prolonged exposure, cancer.

The amount of radiation exposure depended on several things, including the person’s proximity to the machine, the amount of protective shielding, and the exposure time. A typical fitting lasted 20 seconds, and of course some customers would have several fittings before settling on just the right pair. The first machines were unregulated. In fact, the roentgen (R) didn’t become the internationally accepted unit of radiation until 1928, and the first systematic survey of the machines wasn’t undertaken until 20 years later. That 1948 study of 43 machines in Detroit showed ranges from 16 to 75 roentgens per minute. In 1946, the American Standards Association had issued a safety code for industrial use of X-rays, limiting exposure to 0.1 R per day.

«

That’s pretty hefty. Reminiscent, in its ignorance of the risks posed by close exposure to radiation, of the women who painted radium marks on wristwatch faces with paintbrushes – and sould lick the paintbrush to keep its shape. Some of the cancers of the tongue and chin and throat were awful.
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Apple adds new AR-enhanced ‘people detection’ accessibility feature to iOS 14.2 developer beta • Forbes

Steven Aquino:

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Apple has included a new accessibility feature in today’s release of the iOS 14.2 beta called People Detection. The software, which is actually a subset of the Magnifier app introduced with iOS 10, uses augmented reality and machine learning to detect where humans and objects are in space. The addition was first spotted in a late September report by Juli Clover of MacRumors.

The purpose of People Detection is to aid blind and low vision users in navigation; this type of application is particularly well-suited for the LiDAR sensor in iPhone 12 Pro. The goal is to help the visually impaired understand their surroundings—examples include knowing how many people there are in the checkout line at the grocery store, how close one is standing to the end of the platform at the subway station, and finding an empty seat at a table. Another use case is in this era of social distancing; the software can tell you if you’re within six feet of another person in order to maintain courtesy and safety.

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Very smart (though it doesn’t work in the dark – damn). And as Aquino points out, you can see how desirable that sort of system would be in AR glasses. (Though I have to admit that when I first read the headline, I thought it was a system that would tell you who people are, which would be so useful, and perfect in AR glasses.)
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YouTube will end full-day ‘masthead’ reservations like Trump used • CNBC

Jennifer Elias and Megan Graham:

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President Donald Trump may dominate YouTube’s home page on Election Day. But that slot won’t be available for advertisers to buy in the same way again, according to a recent policy update by YouTube.

The Google-owned company confirmed to CNBC Monday that it will be “retiring” reservations for full-day advertisements on its coveted home page ad spot known as its masthead beginning in 2021, a change it said it communicated to advertisers earlier this year. Instead, advertisers will only be able to buy that spot on a per-impression basis, making it harder for a single advertiser to dominate the page for a day at a time.

“For years, advertisers asked us for more flexible options for appearing in the YouTube masthead, which is why we introduced the cost-per-thousand (CPM) Masthead in 2019 and earlier this year told advertisers that it would be our primary masthead reservation option in 2021,” the company said in an emailed statement. “This change gives advertisers more budget flexibility and applies across all verticals — not just political advertisers.”

Google says the change affects all advertisers, and is not connected “in any way” to the election or political advertising broadly.

The masthead costs approximately $2m a day, according to the New York Times. It’s not clear how many people see view the masthead or see that ad spot, but overall YouTube claims to deliver more than one billion hours of video every single day.

The company has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as the U.S. presidential election drew nearer, with President Donald Trump purchasing the masthead slot in the two days preceding Election Day, along with Election Day itself.

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Depending on the result (which I’m writing ahead of), that’s $6m of money well spent/wasted by Trump. Though you could argue that maybe almost all of it is wasted, no matter which outcome: you aren’t going to change most peoples’ minds – only 6% of voters were thought to be “undecided”, and they probably weren’t heading for YouTube, and would an ad change their minds? Then again, you could argue that about any political advertising spend (except of course for the Trump Facebook campaign of 2016, which has taken on a sort of mythic status in all sorts of fields).
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Doubts over a ‘possible sign of life’ on Venus show how science works • Science News

Lisa Grossman:

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real data are never that easy to read. In real life, other sources — from Earth’s atmosphere to the inner workings of the telescope itself — introduce wiggles, or “noise,” into that nice straight line. The bigger the wiggles, the less scientists believe that the dips represent interesting molecules. Any particular dip might instead be just a random, extra-large wiggle.

That problem gets even worse when looking at a bright object such as Venus with a powerful telescope like ALMA, says Martin Cordiner, an astrochemist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Cordiner uses ALMA to observe other objects in the solar system, like Saturn’s moon Titan, but was not involved in the Venus work.

“The reason those bumps and wiggles are here at all is because of the intrinsic brightness of Venus, which makes it difficult to get a reliable measurement,” Cordiner says. “You could think of it as being dazzled by a bright light: If there’s a bright light in your vision, then your ability to pick out fainter details becomes diminished.”

So astronomers do a few different things to smooth out the data and let real signals shine through. One strategy is to write an equation that describes the wiggles caused by the noise. Scientists can then subtract that equation from the data to highlight the signal they’re interested in, like fuzzing out the background of a photo to let a portrait subject pop. That’s a standard practice, says Cordiner.

But it’s possible to write an equation that fits the noise too well. The simplest equation one could use is just a straight line, also known as a first-order polynomial, described by the equation y=mx+b. A second-order polynomial adds a term with x squared, third-order with x cubed, and so on.

Greaves and colleagues used a twelfth-order polynomial, or an equation with twelve terms (plus a constant, the +b in the equation), to describe the noise in their ALMA data.

“That was a red flag that this needed to be looked at in more detail, and that the results of that polynomial fitting could be untrustworthy,” says Cordiner. Going all the way out to the power of 12 could mean a researcher subtracts more noise than is truly random, allowing them to find things in the data that aren’t really there.

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Twelfth-order? That begins to feel like working back from the answer you want. So there’s a lot more doubt about whether that “phosphine on Venue” story is true at all.
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Two charged in SIM swapping, vishing scams • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

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Two young men from the eastern United States have been hit with identity theft and conspiracy charges for allegedly stealing bitcoin and social media accounts by tricking employees at wireless phone companies into giving away credentials needed to remotely access and modify customer account information.

Prosecutors say Jordan K. Milleson, 21 of Timonium, Md. and 19-year-old Kingston, Pa. resident Kyell A. Bryan hijacked social media and bitcoin accounts using a mix of voice phishing or “vishing” attacks and “SIM swapping,” a form of fraud that involves bribing or tricking employees at mobile phone companies.

Investigators allege the duo set up phishing websites that mimicked legitimate employee portals belonging to wireless providers, and then emailed and/or called employees at these providers in a bid to trick them into logging in at these fake portals.

According to the indictment (PDF), Milleson and Bryan used their phished access to wireless company employee tools to reassign the subscriber identity module (SIM) tied to a target’s mobile device.

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Still a lot easier than robbing a bank. Or defrauding people of their money.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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