Start Up No.1438: a glimpse inside real Facebook feeds, how old is Utah’s mystery obelisk?, suspicion over Amazon Sidewalk, and more

Gentlemen, the walrus has a bone you don’t. You may or may not feel envious when you know where. CC-licensed photo by Polar Cruises on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What Facebook fed the baby boomers • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel got permission to see the Facebook feed of two baby boomers:


I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda. Here’s a sample:
A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Trump group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. Tools like CrowdTangle, which track “engagements” with social media posts, are the best available means to understand what is popular on the platform, though Facebook (which owns the CrowdTangle) argues that CrowdTangle is not a reliable indicator for how many people saw a post.


The other was far more sensible. Now read on..
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How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:


I decided to approach the question in a different way — by peeking directly into people’s Facebook feeds. Between October 1 and 31, 2020, I surveyed the Facebook habits of, and got real News Feed samples from, 306 people aged 18 or older in the United States. I reached them using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, asking them to send me screenshots of the first 10 posts in their Facebook feeds. (I used the images for classification purposes only. No identifying information is referenced in this story.) After cleaning the data and removing entries that were submitted incorrectly, I had data from 173 people — a total sample of 1,730 Facebook posts. (See more in the methodology section at the bottom of this post. You can see my spreadsheet here.)

In doing this project, I built on Nieman Lab research from three years ago, conducted by my then-colleague Shan Wang, who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic. (We miss you, Shan!) At the time, Shan found that people saw surprisingly little news in their Facebook feeds. Three years later, in one of the craziest news months in U.S. history, my findings were similar: People saw surprisingly little news in their Facebook feeds. (I counted news both from publishers and from links shared by friends and family.)

More than half the people in our survey saw no news at all.

October — which kicked off with Donald Trump revealing that he and the First Lady had contracted coronavirus — was a nonstop news month in the most relentless news year in decades. If there were ever a month that you’d expect people to see a lot of news at the top of their Facebook feeds, it would be October 2020.

Nope. Even using a very generous definition of news (“Guy rollerblades with 75-pound dog on his back“), the majority of people in our survey (54%) saw no news within the first 10 posts in their feeds at all. In Shan’s 2017 survey, that figure was 50%.


Pays your money, takes your choice. Facebook argues that this is the difference between “engagement” (what people spend time on) and “reach” (what gets to people).
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You need to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk • Gizmodo

Victoria Songh:


Earlier today, I was one of many people who received an email from Amazon saying that Sidewalk’s launch was “coming to [my] Echo device later this year.” I knew what Sidewalk was, mainly because I’m a gadget reviewer and I recently wrote up the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. Still, the email bugged me. While Amazon was quick to give the general gist of what Sidewalk does, it didn’t spell out what security and privacy precautions Amazon was taking to make sure this secondary network wouldn’t be easily exploited. Instead, it was framed as me, an Echo owner, donating a “small portion” of my internet bandwidth to provide a service to my neighbors. Oh, and in a throwaway sentence near the end, the email said that Amazon Sidewalk would be enabled by default on all supported Echo and Ring devices linked to my account.

On Amazon’s Sidewalk FAQ, there’s a bit more detail, including a comprehensive list of devices that can act as Sidewalk Bridges (but not devices that are Sidewalk-enabled). The FAQ also provides a link to a more detailed whitepaper on the privacy and security used by Sidewalk. TL;DR—Amazon says Sidewalk uses three layers of encryption, and you will never know what other Sidewalk devices are connected to your devices.

You’d forgive some of us for being incredibly skeptical. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that just last year, Gizmodo was able to map Amazon’s home surveillance network, revealing the possible locations of tens of thousands of Ring cameras across 15 U.S. cities via the Neighbors app. Or the fact Vice and Gizmodo both found instances of hackers breaking into Ring cameras, ultimately leading to a class-action lawsuit. Or, the fact that initially, Amazon did not explicitly state in its privacy policy that humans may listen to voice recordings collected by Echo Devices. Maybe it’s remembering that a Portland couple once learned their Echo had recorded a private conversation and sent it to a colleague due to misinterpreted background noise.


US-only, for now, though you’ll expect that Amazon will seek to expand it to other countries.
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Covert Shores • H I Sutton

HI Sutton (no first name given or found) usually writes about covert submarines, but here he is interested by something very much on dry land :


The story goes that a helicopter crew made the chance discovery while counting wild big horn sheep in the Utah desert. The Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau helicopter touched down to investigate.

What they found was a metal monolith about 10-12 feet high. The purpose of the object is not known. We do know where it is however.

It has been geolocated (by others, this person for example (reddit), but I find it very impressive) at 38.343080°, -109.666190°. The techniques used may have included analysis of the area (from the video), and the direction of the sun. But it must have been an incredibly tedious process. So like most OSINT (Open Source intelligence), such as pinpointing radar transmitters by how they disturb satellite images. Or finding submarines at sea.

The site is miles from the nearest road.

It is visible in the most recent Google Earth imagery which is from October 2016. It was not present in the earlier 2015 imagery however. So it has been there between 4-5 years, seemingly unreported.


I’m really hoping for “peculiar art installation” though of course “time machine” and “alien spacecraft” remain available.
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Male walruses have giant ones, but human men not at all: how we lost the penis bone • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino:


The baculum, also called the os penis or penis bone, is a puzzling thing. It sits in the tip of the organ, not connected to any larger skeletal structure. Your pet cat has one if it is a he, as does your male dog. Many male mammals do — chimpanzees, gorillas, weasels and bears. The walrus has a particularly impressive baculum, up to 22 inches in length. The bone was even larger in the past. A fossilized, 4.5-foot os penis of an extinct walrus species fetched $8,000 at auction in 2007.

But humans, curiously, do not have penis bones. One reading of Genesis offered an explanation for the disappearing bone by way of creation myth. It was the penis bone, not a rib bone, a pair of biblical scholars argued in 2015, that God removed to fashion Eve from Adam. (This interpretation went over about as well as one might expect.)

As to why humans lack the bones, a study published on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B offered a possible explanation. By the standards of primate reproduction, humans do not need to do the deed for a long enough time to warrant an os penis. Plus, our breeding habits are, in the context of our great ape cousins, fairly low-pressure.


News you can use. Well, maybe not. But you’ll wonder about it all day.
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The AstraZeneca Covid vaccine data isn’t up to snuff • WIRED

Hilda Bastian:


The problems start with the fact that Monday’s announcement did not present results from a single, large-scale, Phase 3 clinical trial, as was the case for earlier bulletins about the BNT-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Instead, Oxford-AstraZeneca’s data came out of two separate studies: one in the UK that began in May, and another in Brazil, which got started at the end of June. These two studies were substantially different from one another: They didn’t have standardized dosing schemes across the trials, for one thing, nor did they provide the same “control” injections to volunteers who were not getting the experimental Covid vaccine. The fact that they may have had to combine data from two trials in order to get a strong enough result raises the first red flag.

Consider that leading vaccine makers—including AstraZeneca—issued a scientific-rigor-and-integrity pledge back in September, in which they promised to submit their products for approval or emergency use authorization only “after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.” Note the wording here: These companies did not suggest that they might claim to have demonstrated efficacy through multiple, distinct clinical studies, combined together to get enough data. They said they would use a Phase 3 study—as in, one big one. Yet AstraZeneca has already applied on the basis of this data for approval in Canada, and has plans to do the same in Britain, Europe and Brazil. The company also says it will use the data to apply for emergency use authorization in the US.

The Food and Drug Administration’s guidance for Covid-19 vaccines does allow for emergency use authorization based on interim analyses, but the same document says this must be supported by a minimum level of vaccine efficacy “for a placebo-controlled efficacy trial.” Again: it refers to a trial.


Disappointing, but that’s the way that science and medicine progress: facts, analysis, rigour.

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Compare: Apple’s M1 MacBook Air kills the iPad Pro for the rest of us • ZDNet

Robin Harris:


Now that Apple offers Apple Silicon in the MacBook Air, the vast gulf between iPad and Mac performance and battery life has almost disappeared. I’ve been happily using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro for more than a year. I’ve been even happier using the Magic Keyboard, the pricy but excellent add-on keyboard.

But the new MacBook Air has me doubting my life choices. Would I be better served by a MacBook Air? Comparing the two, here’s what I found.

Price: for the same price as a Wi-Fi 1TB iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard – $1,849 – you can get a MacBook Air with a 2TB SSD and 8GB of DRAM. Or save $400 and get the 1TB MacBook Air. That’s a substantial difference.

The difference is more substantial at the entry-level MacBook Air at $999. The equivalent 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro costs $1,099 + $349 for the Magic Keyboard. That’s a 45% increment for the additional iPad Pro features.

CPU: the heaviest load I’ve put on my iPad Pro is editing multiple streams of 4k video, which it handled flawlessly. I can’t imagine overloading the even more powerful M1, even with the lowest spec 7 GPU units and 8GB of DRAM. Both CPUs are more than I need, so that’s a wash.


And so it goes on, through weight, battery life (better on the MacBook Air!), display, I/O and particularly external video support. About the only place where the iPad is clearly ahead is the webcam.

Which makes it feel as though Apple has… killed its top-end iPad?
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Kuo: redesigned MacBooks with Apple Silicon to launch in second half of 2021 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


Apple plans to release additional MacBook models with Apple Silicon in the second half of 2021, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, as part of the company’s two-year transition away from Intel processors across its Mac lineup.

In a research note today, obtained by MacRumors, Kuo said that these MacBook models will feature a new design. Kuo did not specify which models these will be, but he previously claimed that redesigned 14in and 16in MacBook Pro models with Apple Silicon would launch in the late second quarter or third quarter of 2021.

Other rumored Apple Silicon Macs include a redesigned 24in iMac and a smaller version of the Mac Pro tower.

Apple’s first Macs with its custom M1 chip, including the new MacBook Air, lower-end 13in MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, began arriving to customers last week. Models that continue to use Intel processors for the time being include the 13in MacBook Pro with four Thunderbolt ports, 16in MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac Pro.

Kuo added that demand for the new iPad Air has been better than expected. Looking ahead to 2021, he expects that the iPad’s growth momentum will come from the adoption of new technologies such as Mini-LED backlighting and 5G support. Kuo expects a new low-priced iPad to launch in the second half of 2021 — presumably the ninth-generation iPad.


Summer of next year (at earliest?) for a 16in M1* MacBook Pro feels like a long time to wait. Apple’s challenge is that the Intel models of the 13in MacBook Pro offer more memory than the M1. (We don’t know if that’s a limitation of the M1 system. I’d guess it’s about chip fabrication, and tempering expectations.) So does it clean up the Intel products at the bottom before it starts offering higher-end laptops? Or does it just quietly drop the Intel models of the lower-end products?
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Samsung will flood the market with foldable phones next year • Phandroid

Tyler Lee:


According to a report from Korea, it appears that Samsung is expected to launch as many as five foldable phones next year. We can sort of guess what at least two of them will be – the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, which is rumored to replace the Note series, and the Galaxy Z Flip 2, the successor to its foldable clamshell smartphone that the company launched this year.

It is unclear what the remaining three models will be, but if the report is accurate, Samsung is being very aggressive with its launch. Hopefully with so many alleged models in the works that Samsung has figured out a way to bring costs down, or at the very least include a model that comes with a lower price tag.

It is interesting that Samsung could be going almost all-in with its foldable phones in 2021, which means that the only “normal” flagship phone will be the Galaxy S21 which last we heard, could be announced in January 2021. We’re not sure if such an forceful strategy will work, but given that Samsung is one of the biggest smartphone makers in the world, perhaps they can leverage some of their customer base to help make foldable phones more mainstream.


Oh yes, foldable phones. Basically, the idea that achieved the precise opposite in 2020 of the name recognition achieved by Zoom.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1438: a glimpse inside real Facebook feeds, how old is Utah’s mystery obelisk?, suspicion over Amazon Sidewalk, and more

  1. Hi Charles,
    Haha – yes. Here’s the evolutionary story of the baculum.

    And thank you for the Overspill. A really important source for me.

    Best wishes,


    Dr Kit Opie
    Lecturer in Evolutionary Anthropology
    Anthropology and Archaeology Department
    University of Bristol

    Students sign up here for my office hours

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