Start Up No.1440: Facebook readies limited Libra, Twitter aims for safety, the PC malaise era?, the monolith vanishes, Cummings’s error, and more


Road potholes are a constant source of annoyance – and government funding – in the UK. CC-licensed photo by Darren Moloney on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Every one counted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a young, queer Asian-American businesswoman is rethinking user safety at Twitter • Protocol

Anna Kramer:

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No matter how many times you monitor, report and moderate harmful posts, the reactionary model does little to reverse the damage that’s already been done to the people targeted or to prevent it from happening again, [new head of product for conversational safety at Twitter, Christine] Su said. So instead of putting the spotlight just on the posts causing harm, new functions coming from her team will be all about user control, she explained, giving people a wide range of capabilities to react to situations on the platform. “The point is not to make the entire world a safe space: That’s not possible. The point is to empower people and communities to have the tools to heal harm themselves and to prevent harm to themselves and put them in control,” Su said.

The product team gave some clues about what that user control could look like when they described the upcoming audio hangout function, Spaces, in a press call last week. Spaces will allow users to determine who is allowed in the audio room and who can speak, and the team is rolling out the function to women and people from other marginalized communities first, to test out how effective these safety functions can be in practice.

Su also cited recent election-related interventions as examples of how reimagining Twitter in the long term could work; for example, the function that encourages people to read content before reposting it has remained in place for now while the team assesses its long-term value. “You’ve seen over the last year, a willingness of Twitter to rethink its fundamental mechanisms,” she said.

For Su, implementing transformative justice means building tools that create private pathways for apologies, forgiveness and deescalation (somehow, we’ll get apologies before we get an edit button). While she didn’t describe exactly how private apology tools will work just yet, they are intended to become part of “a set of controls that people can take with them around digital spaces, and be able to use them when and if circumstances warrant,” she said.

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Sounds like quite a weird network that Twitter is going to mutate into.
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Facebook’s Libra currency to launch next year in limited format • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:

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The long-awaited Facebook-led digital currency Libra is preparing to launch as early as January, according to three people involved in the initiative, but in an even more limited format than its already downgraded vision.

The 27-strong Libra Association said in April that it had planned to launch digital versions of several currencies, plus a “digital composite” of all of its coins. This followed concerns from regulators over its initial plan to create one synthetic coin backed by a basket of currencies.

However, the association would now initially just launch a single coin backed one-for-one by the dollar, one of the people said. The other currencies and the composite would be rolled out at a later point, the person added.

Libra’s exact launch date would depend on when the project receives approval to operate as a payments service from the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, but could come as early as January, the three people said. Finma said it would not comment on Libra’s application, which was initiated in May. 

First launched in June 2019, the scaling down of Libra’s vision comes as it has received a sceptical reception from global regulators, who have warned that it could threaten monetary stability and become a hotbed for money laundering.

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Still feel this is dangerous, and that Facebook doesn’t understand quite how dangerous. As it didn’t understand how dangerous using its algorithm to encourage people into Groups would be, or its cultural ignorance about what would work and not work in different countries.
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Welcome to the PC Malaise Era • getwired.com

Wes Miller reckons that PCs (Windows ones) are in the same rut that American cars were in 1973-1983, known as the “Malaise Era“:

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I’ve said before that Windows has never escaped x86. I’m still not sure if it ever can. So the challenges then come down to three things:

A) Can Intel succeed where they’ve failed for the last 5+ years, at building hybrid processors? The next year to two years should answer this question.

B) Can Microsoft succeed at finally getting application developers to write platform-optimized, energy-respectful, halo applications for the PC? I’ve been writing about the Windows Store for a long, long time. A long time. And I’m still not sure how Microsoft can light a fire under Windows application developers when they’ve lost that mindshare.

C) Can Microsoft begin pushing the Surface platform forward again? This one’s completely up to Microsoft. I’ve seen the rumors of the next Surface Pro… and it’s more of the same – evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I guess we will see in the next 3-5 years whether Intel can cross this chasm; if they can’t, then the future likely belongs to ARM, and that future will likely mean less and less to Microsoft, outside of running classic Win32 applications on x64/x86 Windows.

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Meet the Censored: Andre Damon • TK News by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi:

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Like many alternative news sites, WSWS [the World Socialist Web Site] noticed a steep decline in traffic in 2016-2017, after Donald Trump was elected and we began to hear calls for more regulation of “fake news.” Determined to search out the reason, the site conducted a series of analyses that proved crucial in helping convince outlets like the New York Times to cover the issue. In its open letter to Google, the WSWS described inexplicable changes to search results in their political bailiwick:

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Google searches for “Leon Trotsky” yielded 5,893 impressions (appearances of the WSWS in search results) in May of this year. In July, the same search yielded exactly zero impressions for the WSWS, which is the Internet publication of the international movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938.

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The WSWS connected the change to Project Owl, a plan announced by Google in April of 2017 designed to “surface more authoritative content.” When I called Google about a year later for a story on a related subject, they explained the concept of “authority” as an exercise in weighting some credentials over others. So, I was told, an old search for “baseball” might first return a page for your local little league, while a new one would send you to the site for Major League Baseball.

The rub was that Google was now pushing viewers away from alternative sources, such that an article in the New York Times about Trotskyism might be ranked ahead of the world’s leading Trotskyite media organ. Queries had to be right on the nose to call up a whole host of alternative sites, all of which had seen sharp drops in their Google search results.

The WSWS listed many of them: Alternet down 63%, Common Dreams down 37%, Democracy Now! down 36%, , down 25%, etc. Even Wikileaks, in the middle of an international furor over Russiagate, was down 30%.

«

So Taibbi contacted Andre Damon, who runs WSWS:

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TK: When did the WSWS first become interested in the issue of platform censorship, content moderation, or whatever you want to call it? Actually, what do you call it? Is what’s going on with increased content moderation a first amendment/free speech issue?

Damon: It’s censorship, and it absolutely is a First Amendment issue.

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Oh good grief. It isn’t censorship (Google isn’t changing what’s on the site, or telling it what to put on the site), and it’s absolutely not a First Amendment issue (the decisions are not made by the government). For the average person, the most relevant, useful, informative site about Trotsky is almost certainly not going to be the WSWS. Failing to understand the principles on which search engines work is like not understanding electricity. (Thanks, Seth, for the link.)
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Visitors track down mystery desert monolith in Utah • The Guardian

Miranda Bryant:

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Around 48 hours after news of their finding was made public, pictures appeared on Instagram of people who had managed to find it.

Among them was David Surber, 33, a former US army infantry officer, who drove for six hours through the night to find it after spotting a Reddit post purporting to have found its coordinates.

“Awesome journey out to the monolith today,” he wrote on Instagram, where he also shared its location. “Regardless of who built it or where it came from. It was a positive escape from today’s world. Some for many people to rally behind and enjoy together.”

He said he was alone with the structure, which he described as formed of aluminium and formed of “three pieces riveted together”, for about 10 minutes before others arrived.

“Overall not too crowded you all want to make the journey,” he wrote.

Tim Slane, who shared the coordinates on Reddit, said he worked them out by tracking the flight path of the helicopter.

It is not known what the origins of the object, estimated by Bret Hutchings, the helicopter pilot who discovered it, to be between 10ft and 12ft high (about three metres), are.

But it has been compared to the work of several minimalist sculptors, including the late John McCracken.

A spokesperson for his gallerist, David Zwirner, told the Guardian earlier this week it was not one of McCracken’s works, saying they believed it could be “a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken”.

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And now it has disappeared. Unclear whether it was stolen, or reclaimed. Or, you know, returned to its previous time/space coordinates. We all expect them to look like blue police boxes, but why should they?
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Microsoft’s ‘Project Latte’ aims to bring Android apps to Windows 10 • Windows Central

Zac Bowden:

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Microsoft is working on a software solution that would allow app developers to bring their Android apps to Windows 10 with little to no code changes by packaging them as an MSIX and allowing developers to submit them to the Microsoft Store. According to sources familiar with the matter, the project is codenamed ‘Latte’ and I’m told it could show up as soon as next year.

The company has toyed with the idea of bringing Android apps to Windows 10 before via a project codenamed Astoria that never saw the light of day. Project Latte aims to deliver a similar product, and is likely powered by the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL.) Microsoft will need to provide its own Android subsystem for Android apps to actually run, however.

Microsoft has announced that WSL will soon get support for GUI Linux applications, as well as GPU acceleration which should aid the performance of apps running through WSL.

«

Well, it sounds like it might be tricky, and there’s always the question of how you handle touch because a mouse is so much more precise. I wonder if there are any other gotchas that people might have to think about?

»

It’s unlikely that Project Latte will include support for Play Services, as Google doesn’t allow Play Services to be installed on anything other than native Android devices and Chrome OS. This means that apps which require Play Services APIs will need to be updated to remove those dependencies before they can be submitted on Windows 10.

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Oh well, they tried. Nobody’s going to bother to recompile like that; it would make a lot more sense to build a progressive web app (PWA).

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Britain’s big pothole problem • The Economist

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Potholes arouse passions in Britain—not surprisingly, since the country’s road quality ranks 37th in the world, between Slovenia and Lithuania. Councils received 700,000 complaints about potholes last year, says the Federation of Small Businesses. The weather, a topic even more popular among the natives than potholes, is mostly to blame. Potholes form when water seeps under the road surface, breaking the tarmac as it expands and contracts. Budget cuts in the wake of the financial crisis did not help. The Local Government Association (lga) says road maintenance budgets fell from £1.1bn in 2009 to £701m in 2017—the equivalent of 8m potholes. The Asphalt Industry Alliance claims there is a road-repair backlog of £11bn.

But there may be relief in sight for the suspension of the British motor car. Politics is one reason. Traditional Tories—who love cars, particularly fast ones, and tend to live in the countryside, so rely on roads—are particularly infuriated by them. Northern “red wall” seats that the Tories won from Labour in the last election tend to be rural places where the roads are bumpier and the weather worse. Nottinghamshire, home to several of those contested seats, is Britain’s pothole capital, with 253,920 reported in 2017-19. Hence the promise in the Tory manifesto of the “biggest-ever pothole-filling programme”, and a promise of £2.5bn over five years.

Covid is also fuelling the drive against potholes. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, needs shovel-ready spending opportunities to justify his claim in the spending review on November 25th that “we’re prioritising jobs”. Potholes are ready and waiting for those shovels—hence his commitment that £1.7bn would be spent this year.

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I seem to recall John Major’s government (in 1992-7) promising to do lots on potholes, as did the May government in 2016. It’s a periodic excitment for Tory governments. I’d love to see a graph showing how the number of potholes has changed over time, and compared to the governments in power. Fixing them is actually in the power of local councils (which also keep the numbers; there isn’t a central figure for the number of potholes), but it’s government funding that makes it happen.
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Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge • Politics Home

Sam Freedman worked at the Dept for Education, and got used to the “all caps and punctuation-free email rants to various officials” dubbed “Domograms”:

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The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.

There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.

The truly baffling thing about Cummings’ worldview is the refusal to see the contradiction between his technocratic utopia of expert scientists driving paradigmatic change and his own rock-solid conviction that whatever policies he happens to support right now must be implemented at maximum speed.

For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.

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Things I recommend you buy, 2020 edition • Consumer Surplus

Sam Bowman:

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Here is a list of products that I get a lot of consumer surplus from. I recommend any and all of these. The list spans cooking and kitchen equipment, through “work from home” products (a new 2020 category), to things I use when I go travelling (in normal times, I travel quite often for both work and pleasure). I usually do a lot of research before making any big purchase and I return things to Amazon that I don’t like, so I think I am a fairly reliable source.

This is the third edition of my “Things I recommend you buy” series, and is comprehensive – anything from old editions that is not included is no longer recommended.

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You’ll probably find you’ve got lots of them, though the knife-sharpening stuff could be good (nothing more annoying than a blunt kitchen knife). You might find an idea for a Christmas present or two. (Note to male readers: don’t buy anything for the kitchen for the other half.)
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New UK tech regulator to limit power of Google and Facebook • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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A new tech regulator will work to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other tech platforms, the government has announced, in an effort to ensure a level playing field for smaller competitors and a fair market for consumers.

Under the plans, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will gain a dedicated Digital Markets Unit, empowered to write and enforce a new code of practice on technology companies which will set out the limits of acceptable behaviour.

The code will only affect those companies deemed to have “strategic market status”, though it has not yet been decided what that means, nor what restrictions will be imposed.

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said: “Digital platforms like Google and Facebook make a significant contribution to our economy and play a massive role in our day-to-day lives – whether it’s helping us stay in touch with our loved ones, share creative content or access the latest news.

“But the dominance of just a few big tech companies is leading to less innovation, higher advertising prices and less choice and control for consumers. Our new, pro-competition regime for digital markets will ensure consumers have choice, and mean smaller firms aren’t pushed out.”

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Great ideas, and the CMA effectively has the powers to impose them by diktat; they’re many of the things that the US antitrust suit against Google is trying to make happen, but with far less justification given its antitrust frameworks.

In passing, the business secretary Alok Sharma sure does have a weird resemblance to a younger Martin Sorrell.
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Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismisses request from Mike Kelly and Sean Parnell to declare mail-in voting unconstitutional in state, deny results from 2020 election mail-in ballots • CBS Pittsburgh

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dismissed the lawsuit from Congressman Mike Kelly and congressional candidate Sean Parnell to declare universal mail-in voting unconstitutional in the state and deny the votes of the majority of Pennsylvanians who voted by mail in the Nov. 3 election.

The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, threw out the three-day-old order, saying the underlying lawsuit was filed months after the law allowed for challenges to Pennsylvania’s expansive year-old mail-in voting law.

The state’s attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, called the court’s decision “another win for Democracy.”

The week-old lawsuit, led by U.S. Rep. Kelly of Butler, had challenged the state’s mail-in voting law as unconstitutional.

As a remedy, Kelly and the other Republican plaintiffs had sought to either throw out the 2.5 million mail-in ballots submitted under the law — most of them by Democrats — or to wipe out the election results and direct the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to pick Pennsylvania’s presidential electors.

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Getting near to losing count, but I think this makes almost 40 lawsuits that the Trump campaign (or grifty associates) has lost in court.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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