Start Up No.1426: coronavirus vaccine offers hope, fighting Facebook, iPhone 12 mini reviewed, HP’s newest ink tactic, and more


What aspect of the low-tax country of Cyprus can have attracted American billionaire Eric Schmidt to apply for citizenship? CC-licensed photo by Malcolm Murdoch on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. In the court of the ochre king. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech is strongly effective, data show • Stat News

Matthew Herper:

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Pfizer and partner BioNTech said Monday that their vaccine against Covid-19 was strongly effective, exceeding expectations with results that are likely to be met with cautious excitement — and relief — in the face of the global pandemic.

The vaccine is the first to be tested in the United States to generate late-stage data. The companies said an early analysis of the results showed that individuals who received two injections of the vaccine three weeks apart experienced more than 90% fewer cases of symptomatic Covid-19 than those who received a placebo. For months, researchers have cautioned that a vaccine that might only be 60% or 70% effective. 

The Phase 3 study is ongoing and additional data could affect results.

In keeping with guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, the companies will not file for an emergency use authorization to distribute the vaccine until they reach another milestone: when half of the patients in their study have been observed for any safety issues for at least two months following their second dose. Pfizer expects to cross that threshold in the third week of November.

“I’ve been in vaccine development for 35 years,” William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, told STAT. “I’ve seen some really good things. This is extraordinary.” He later added: “This really bodes well for us being able to get a handle on the epidemic and get us out of this situation.”

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This is amazing news; the result of colossal effort. (Pfizer was at pains to point out that it wasn’t part of the Trump admin’s “Warp Speed” project, and took no money from the US government.) I’ve been saying for a while that by March or April 2021 we might be getting somewhere towards what used to be normality. This makes that feel a lot more within reach.

It’s all coming up roses, isn’t it? I guess that’s what happens when people have been shovelling crap on you for ages.
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The Journalist vs. Facebook • Rest of World

Peter Guest:

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Since 2016, [Rappler founder Maria] Ressa has become increasingly convinced that Facebook needs to profoundly change how it’s designed and governed. She believes the platform’s algorithms and content-moderation policies are inherently prejudiced against reasoned debate based on settled truths. “The platform itself is biased against facts. It’s really biased against journalism,” she says. “Social media platforms have atomized meaning to meaninglessness. They have completely deconstructed context.”

Her opinions are backed by a growing body of academic research, which shows that social media sites often reward emotional messages over rational analysis, funnel users toward content that reinforces their preexisting beliefs, and spread lies more rapidly and widely than they do the truth.

Ressa says one of Facebook’s most alarming shortcomings is its reluctance to moderate disinformation posted by governments and politicians. The company has justified its restraint by arguing that statements from public figures should remain online for public scrutiny. Although Facebook has removed state-backed propaganda in some instances, Ressa, along with other activists, say that these actions frequently amount to too little, too late. They say Facebook’s inaction has allowed propaganda and disinformation to spread unchecked, overwhelming and delegitimizing the news media.

“What we saw [in the Philippines] was that news organizations were being pushed to the periphery, and the center of the conversation was being taken over by the pro-government, state-sponsored disinformation,” Ressa says.

Without checks and balances on social media, Ressa says, authoritarian governments like Duterte’s can impose their own narratives — that drug addicts and communists run the country, and that journalists like Ressa are criminals and conspirators.

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The irony is that Rappler was founded essentially as a publication which got its distribution on Facebook. And to some extent still is. But the Philippines is where Facebook was first used in a big way for election disinformation.
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Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has applied to become a citizen of Cyprus • Vox

Theodore Schleifer:

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The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, is finalizing a plan to become a citizen of the island of Cyprus, Recode has learned, becoming one of the highest-profile Americans to take advantage of one of the world’s most controversial “passport-for-sale” programs.

Schmidt, one of America’s wealthiest people, and his family have won approval to become citizens of the Mediterranean nation, according to a previously unreported notice in a Cypriot publication in October. While it is not clear why exactly Schmidt has pursued this foreign citizenship, the new passport gives him the ability to travel to the European Union, along with a potentially favorable personal tax regime.

The move is a window into how the world’s billionaires can maximize their freedoms and finances by relying on the permissive laws of countries where they do not live. Schmidt’s decision in some ways mirrors that of another famous tech billionaire, Peter Thiel, who in 2011 controversially managed to secure citizenship in New Zealand.

Interest from Americans in non-American citizenship has been spiking during the coronavirus pandemic, which has sharply limited Americans’ ability to travel overseas. Experts say some of that increase is also due to concerns about political instability in the United States.

But it is still uncommon to see Americans apply to the Cyprus program, according to published data and citizenship advisers who work with the country. The program is far more popular with oligarchs from the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, and it has become mired in so many scandals that the Cypriot government announced last month that it was to be shut down.

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I really don’t understand billionaires’ need to remain billionaire-y. How much money can you spend at any one time, in any one place? How many private jets are enough? How large a private yacht do you need, precisely?

Schmidt is also being spoken of as a potentially influential figure in the incoming Biden administration. I think that would be a mistake. Unless he renounces this Cyprus stuff. (Which might, let’s allow, have been a just-in-case hedge against a Trump win.)
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iPhone 12 mini review: fit to size • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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The phone is smaller than the traditional 4.7-inch-home-button iPhone design we saw from the iPhone 6 on through the 6S, 7, 8, and 2020 SE models, even though the screen itself is larger.

That’s because the 12 mini, just like the rest of the iPhone 12 line, has switched over to Apple’s more modern OLED screens and Face ID notch for unlocking. Those two features allow Apple to design the phone with minimal bezels and maximal screen.

Despite the smaller screen size, you don’t miss out on as much as you might expect. Compared to the regular iPhone 12 with a 6.1-inch screen, there are maybe one or two lines of text that are cut off. What you actually miss out on is that sense of immersion you can get from a bigger screen when you’re playing a game or watching a movie. Those were the only times this screen felt cramped.

If there is a knock on the screen, it’s that it doesn’t offer a high refresh rate like many Android phones — including the Pixel 5, which isn’t too far off from the iPhone 12 mini’s size. I’m more annoyed that the Pro iPhones don’t have it, though — here on the mini, I think battery life is more important.

To me, the iPhone 12 mini is most reminiscent of the iPhone 5. Yes, it is bigger and has a glass rear panel instead of aluminum, but it shares the squared-off aluminum sides and general feeling of being an object that was designed to be proportional to your hand. This is a phone that you can get a grip on, literally.

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Battery life is his principal complaint, though: smaller phone, smaller battery. (Though as ever, Apple could do thicker phone, thicker battery.)
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Ink-stained wretches: the battle for the soul of digital freedom taking place inside your printer • Electronic Frontier Foundation

Cory Doctorow isn’t best pleased with HP:

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HP’s latest gambit challenges the basis of private property itself: a bold scheme! With the HP Instant Ink program, printer owners no longer own their ink cartridges or the ink in them. Instead, HP’s customers have to pay a recurring monthly fee based on the number of pages they anticipate printing from month to month; HP mails subscribers cartridges with enough ink to cover their anticipated needs. If you exceed your estimated page-count, HP bills you for every page (if you choose not to pay, your printer refuses to print, even if there’s ink in the cartridges).

If you don’t print all your pages, you can “roll over” a few of those pages to the next month, but you can’t bank a year’s worth of pages to, say, print out your novel or tax paperwork. Once you hit your maximum number of “banked” pages, HP annihilates any other pages you’ve paid for (but continues to bill you every month).

Now, you may be thinking, “All right, but at least HP’s customers know what they’re getting into when they take out one of these subscriptions,” but you’ve underestimated HP’s ingenuity.

HP takes the position that its offers can be retracted at any time. For example, HP’s “Free Ink for Life” subscription plan offered printer owners 15 pages per month as a means of tempting users to try out its ink subscription plan and of picking up some extra revenue in those months when these customers exceeded their 15-page limit.

But Free Ink for Life customers got a nasty shock at the end of last month: HP had unilaterally canceled their “free ink for life” plan and replaced it with “a $0.99/month for all eternity or your printer stops working” plan.

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I’ve never been attracted by these “subscription” schemes, particularly for ink – one’s need for printing varies so much, and so suddenly – and everything I’ve observed about HP’s tactics makes me feel relieved.

Read the rest of the article, by the way, for the amazing (non-ink-related) hack that took over printers just by getting them to print something out.
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61% of Americans support abolishing Electoral College • Gallup

Megan Brennan:

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Heading into the 2020 presidential election, three in five Americans favor amending the US Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system, marking a six-percentage point uptick since April 2019. This preference for electing the president based on who receives the most votes nationwide is driven by 89% of Democrats and 68% of independents. Far fewer Republicans, 23%, share this view, as 77% of them support keeping the current system in which the candidate with the most votes in the Electoral College wins the election.

Gallup has periodically measured public attitudes about the process of electing the president using this question since shortly after the 2000 election when George W. Bush won the electoral vote, and Al Gore won the popular vote. The latest findings, from an Aug. 31- Sept. 13 Gallup poll, are similar to readings after the 2000 election and in 2004 and 2011.

Of the seven times this question was asked over the past two decades, support for amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College only fell below the majority level once – in November 2016 after Donald Trump won the electoral vote and Hillary Clinton the popular vote. At that point, 49% of Americans wanted the current system to be replaced, and 47% wanted it to remain in place. By 2019, support for using the national vote totals over the Electoral College had risen to 55%.

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They’ve legalised mushrooms and hard drugs (in some states). Might as well get on and do the sensible thing. The GOP, relying on rural areas with disproportionate influence, doesn’t like it. The EC looks more and more outdated. Without it, the US could have determined its election days earlier.

And these trends towards change tend to end up happening – see legalisation of same-sex marriage, for example, where strong backing eventually leads to change. The problem is how to mount a legal challenge to the EC system.
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Guess The Correlation

Omar Wagih:

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I’m a PhD student studying bioinformatics at the University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute. This game is a side project to feed one of my many day-to-day curiosities.

I’m always grateful for suggestions and happy to answer questions about the game or how the data will be used. So tweet me at @omarwagih or email me.

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Fun game where you’re shown some dots on a graph plot and asked to guess the correlation (it’s a value between 0 and 1). I felt enthused when I got the first answer correct to 1%. And it’s part of a project he’s doing about how we perceive correlations – do we overestimate, underestimate? Give it a go: it’s a nice distraction for a minute or two at least.
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Infamous ‘hoax’ artist behind Trumpworld’s new voter fraud claim • Daily Beast

Will Sommer:

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the mythical supercomputer claim has been embraced by prominent Trump backers, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik, former Trump 2016 campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, right-wing pundit John Cardillo, and Newsmax White House correspondent Emerald Robinson.

The election fraud claims center on Dennis Montgomery, a former intelligence contractor and self-proclaimed whistleblower who claims to have created the “Hammer” supercomputer and the “Scorecard” software some Trump fans believe was used to change the votes.

“He’s a genius, and he loves America,” Thomas McInerney, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and one-time leader in the birther movement, said of Montgomery on Tuesday on Bannon’s podcast, as Bannon praised an article on Montgomery’s claims. “He’s the programmer that made all this happen, and he’s on our side.”

Montgomery’s lawyer, Larry Klayman—a favorite attorney for fringe right-wing figures—didn’t respond to a request for comment. Klayman himself was temporarily suspended from practicing law in June.

What Trump allies tend to leave out, however, is that Montgomery has a long history of making outlandish claims that fail to come true. As an intelligence contractor at the height of the War on Terror, Montgomery was behind what’s been called “one of the most elaborate and dangerous hoaxes in American history,” churning out allegedly fictitious data that once prompted the Bush administration to consider shooting down airplanes.

And now, Trump allies want voters to believe Montgomery’s claims about the election.

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The fabulous thing about the belief that the election was shot through, Emmental-style, with fraud is that you’d have to accept that it was done in multiple geographically large states (Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania) with few electoral votes, but not in one (Florida) with enough EVs to tip the thing early. And no sign of the giant fraud in Florida, or anywhere.

Still: SUPERCOMPUTER. Must be true.
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Apple must ask why good help is so hard to find • Bloomberg Opinion

Tim Culpan:

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The term “student worker program” should ring immediate alarm bells for anyone who cares about labour rights. Getting college or vocational students to work factory production lines is an accepted practice in China that foreign clients including Apple and Samsung Electronics Co. have signed onto for years. Apple at least asks its manufacturing partners to ensure that the work relates to their studies. Under the pressure to churn out product, though, such programs are vulnerable to abuse.

Pegatron [which Apple has suspended as a supplier – big move] said it fired the manager responsible, whom it said “went to extraordinary lengths to evade our oversight mechanisms.” Still, we need to question what conditions incentivized employees to work so hard to not only break Apple’s labor code, but also make such efforts to cover their tracks.

This isn’t the first time Pegatron has appeared in print alongside allegations of labor violations. As far back as 2014, China Labor Watch named the company, alongside Catcher Technology Co., Jabil Inc. and Foxconn Technology Group, for failing to undertake corrective action related to labor and safety standards. 

Apple attracts the most criticism in the technology industry over labor and environmental standards. This partly reflects ever stricter rules that the company has imposed on its supply-chain partners, the results of which Apple publicizes in its annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report. 

Critics may argue that this is a marketing exercise designed to make consumers feel more comfortable about buying shiny gadgets produced by cheap labor — which helped to yield $57bn of profit for Apple last year. Yet incidents like this show that for all its talent and money, the US company doesn’t control its suppliers as much as it might wish.

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So suppliers are cutting corners, trying to get more of an edge? The fact that this is only found at Apple factories seems more likely to be an artefact of thorough inspection than something that only happens at Apple’s suppliers. The root problem is razor-margin capitalism. How do we fix that, exactly?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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