Start Up No.1444: Facebook acts against vaccine lies, Britain’s creaking bridges, our slowing computers, can movie theatres survive?, and more

South Africans are exercised over a surprising outcome from a lottery draw earlier this week. How likely was it? CC-licensed photo by Tomasz Krawczak on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not refrigerated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Covid-19: Facebook to take down false vaccine claims • BBC News

Alistair Coleman:


Facebook says it will start removing false claims about Covid-19 vaccines to prevent “imminent physical harm”.

The company says it is accelerating its plans to ban misleading and false information on its Facebook and Instagram platforms following the announcement of the first vaccine being approved for use in the United Kingdom.

Among already-debunked claims that won’t be allowed are falsehoods about vaccine ingredients, safety, effectiveness and side-effects. Also banned will be the long-running false conspiracy theory that coronavirus vaccines will contain a microchip to control or monitor patients.

Facebook has come under fire for what’s been seen as a patchy approach to fake news and false claims, and misleading content about the pandemic is still widely available on its platforms.

…This is a continuation of the policy “to remove misinformation about the virus that could lead to imminent physical harm”, the company said. “This could include false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines [and] false claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list.

“We will also remove conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines that we know today are false.” However, Facebook warned that these policies, which the BBC understands have been brought forward following the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the British medicines regulator, will take some time to come into effect. “We will not be able to start enforcing these policies overnight,” a Facebook statement said.


This is unusual because usually Facebook just makes content harder to share. Removing it goes against its general ethos. The evolution of its position has been dramatic this year: from hands-off around medical matters, including anti-vaxx nonsense, at the start of the year, to removal of content now.
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South Africa’s lottery probed as 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 drawn and 20 win • BBC News


An unusual sequence of numbers drawn in South Africa’s national lottery has sparked accusations of fraud after 20 people won a share of the jackpot.

Tuesday’s PowerBall lottery saw the numbers five, six, seven, eight and nine drawn, while the PowerBall itself was, you have guessed it, 10.

The organisers say the sequence is often picked. But some have alleged a scam and an investigation is under way.

It is extremely rare for multiple winners to share the jackpot.

The organisers said 20 people purchased a winning ticket and won 5.7m rand ($370,000; £278,000) each.
Another 79 ticketholders won 6,283 rand each for guessing the sequence from five up to nine but missing the PowerBall.

The chances of winning South Africa’s PowerBall lottery are one in 42,375,200 – the number of different combinations when selecting five balls from a set of 50, plus an additional bonus ball from a pool of 20.


You can find the results here – it’s the December 1 draw. The order that they actually came out was 8, 5, 9, 7, 6 and then 10. Not quite as weird (to our sense). Can’t find a film of it, though. Who’d have thought that a lottery might throw up a chance sequence?
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Half of bridges on England’s busiest roads in ‘poor condition’ • The Times

George Greenwood and Graeme Paton:


Nearly half the bridges on England’s busiest roads have key sections in a poor or very poor condition, prompting concerns about traffic chaos while vital repairs are carried out.

An investigation by The Times found that 4,000 of about 9,000 bridges and large culverts on motorways or A-roads showed evidence of defects or damage that may significantly affect their capacity.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act from Highways England, the government-owned company that maintains motorways and major A-roads, show that 858 structures had at least one load-bearing or otherwise crucial section in “very poor condition” as of April 2019. Fourteen bridges and culverts were given the worst possible score of zero, the data shows.

According to official guidance, sections deemed to be in a very poor condition are at risk of failure, with weight restrictions and other measures possibly being imposed to limit further damage. In the case of bridges, this could mean limiting traffic to a single lane and banning heavy vehicles.

In all, there were 141 bridges with very poor parts on the M6. A further 90 were given the lowest rating on the M1, 51 on the M62 and 50 on the M5.

Highways England attempted to keep the data secret and released it only after an 18-month freedom of information battle. A separate disclosure by Transport for London (TfL) shows that about 200 out of 500 bridges and other structures that it maintains in the capital – 40% – also had key sections in poor or very poor condition.


Gantries, highway spans and masts are all doing well, but bridges are a definite concern. Can we borrow Infrastructure Week? Except that never sorted out infrastructure in the US.
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Computer latency: 1977-2017 • Danluu

Dan Luu:


I”ve had this nagging feeling that the computers I use today feel slower than the computers I used as a kid. As a rule, I don’t trust this kind of feeling because human perception has been shown to be unreliable in empirical studies, so I carried around a high-speed camera and measured the response latency of devices I’ve run into in the past few months.

…Almost every computer and mobile device that people buy today is slower than common models of computers from the 70s and 80s. Low-latency gaming desktops and the iPad Pro can get into the same range as quick machines from 30 to 40 years ago, but most off-the-shelf devices aren’t even close.

If we had to pick one root cause of latency bloat, we might say that it’s because of “complexity”. Of course, we all know that complexity is bad. If you’ve been to a non-academic non-enterprise tech conference in the past decade, there’s a good chance that there was at least one talk on how complexity is the root of all evil and we should aspire to reduce complexity.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to remove complexity than to give a talk saying that we should remove complexity. A lot of the complexity buys us something, either directly or indirectly. When we looked at the input of a fancy modern keyboard vs. the apple 2 keyboard, we saw that using a relatively powerful and expensive general purpose processor to handle keyboard inputs can be slower than dedicated logic for the keyboard, which would both be simpler and cheaper. However, using the processor gives people the ability to easily customize the keyboard, and also pushes the problem of “programming” the keyboard from hardware into software, which reduces the cost of making the keyboard. The more expensive chip increases the manufacturing cost, but considering how much of the cost of these small-batch artisanal keyboards is the design cost, it seems like a net win to trade manufacturing cost for ease of programming.


The table showing latency is really quite surprising – both for what’s at the top, and what isn’t.
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Post-Brexit Britain will have to do better than this to curb the power of big tech • The Guardian

Michelle Meagher:


Last week the government said it was setting up the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) to address the multiple challenges and threats that tech platforms pose. This is part of a flurry of initiatives: the government has also launched a Digital Markets Taskforce to help the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) design better policy, and commissioned a broader review of UK competition policy under John Penrose, which is due to report by the year’s end.

Will these initiatives deliver? Early signs indicate that the government does not yet appreciate the scale of the problem. Secretary of state for digital Oliver Dowden prefaced his diplomatic reference to a “consensus” of concerns about the sector by saying he is “unashamedly pro-tech”. The report accompanying the DMU announcement confidently promotes the “huge benefits” and economic contribution of the tech firms, while equivocating on “potential harms”. What we’re seeing, broadly, is the spell that a free-market, “tech solutionist” ideology casts over our authorities, allowing monopoly power to run wild, encouraging waves of mergers and paying little attention to questions of power, democracy or inequality.

The latest UK government initiatives are the fruit of last year’s Furman review to protect digital markets – and already some of its strongest proposals seem to have been kicked into the long grass. A recommendation that has survived is a “code of competitive conduct” to govern companies with “strategic market status” (likely to include Facebook and Google). This code, they say, will be “mandatory” and “enforceable”, which is surely the least we might expect.

No code of conduct ever reshaped a market. The new code promises “clear expectations over what represents acceptable behaviour”. This sounds like a very British approach towards companies that are busy smashing up our small businesses, newspapers and high streets, remaking markets for their own benefit.


(Meagher is is a competition lawyer and author of Competition is Killing Us: How Big Business is Harming Our Society and Planet – and What to do About it.)
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Justice Dept. suit says Facebook discriminates against US workers • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac:


The Department of Justice on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Facebook for hiring discrimination against U.S. workers, in the Trump administration’s latest action against large tech companies.

In the complaint, the department’s civil rights division said Facebook “refused to recruit, consider or hire qualified and available U.S. workers” for more than 2,600 positions, with an average salary of $156,000. Those jobs instead went to immigrant visa holders, according to the complaint.

The action followed a two-year investigation into whether Facebook intentionally favored so-called H1-B visa and other temporary immigrant workers over U.S. workers, the Justice Department said.

“Our message to workers is clear: If companies deny employment opportunities by illegally preferring temporary visa holders, the Department of Justice will hold them accountable,” said Eric S. Dreiband, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. “Our message to all employers — including those in the technology sector — is clear: You cannot illegally prefer to recruit, consider or hire temporary visa holders over U.S. workers.”

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said, “Facebook has been cooperating with the D.O.J. in its review of this issue, and while we dispute the allegations in the complaint, we cannot comment further on pending litigation.”


H1-B workers are often effectively indentured workers – they can’t change employer because the employer is the one guaranteeing their visa. So companies like having them more than indigenous workers who could feel free to move on. There’s still some distance to go on this.
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It’s time for movie theatres to die so movies can live again • Input

Joshua Topolsky:


over the last two decades or so, the movie-going experience has been degraded by turns, both in terms of the physical reality of packing hundreds of people into a shared experience with a world of increasing distractions, and in the quality of the “blockbuster” fare being peddled by studios. This pandemic has made us all take a long, hard look at what has really been working for humanity and what hasn’t, and I think the theater experience — at least the massive, multi-screen one we’ve been living with — might be dying at just the right time.

There are myriad contributors to this realization. For me, it starts with the basic reality that a truly epic film-watching experience can now be had in your house, with all the big-screen bombast and overwhelming audio that theaters have long touted as their domain alone. A fairly cheap, big-screen 4K TV, and an accompanying surround sound setup will put you right back in the theater recliner, except you have full control over the experience. Whether that means being able to pause for bathroom and snack breaks, having the option to just switch the film if you don’t like what you’re seeing, or being able to return to something over a period of time, watching at home can not only be as good as watching in a theater — it can be better.

…Would Tenet have been a more successful film if we all could have paid a premium to watch it [at home] on opening day? The numbers suggest yes.


All he says may be true, but there are very strong vested interests which want movie theatres to stay open – principally, the theatres. Which have a strong relationship with the studios. But the decision by Warner Bros to debut all of its 2021 films on HBO Max and in theatres simultaneously is going to test that to the limit.

Very doubtful that you’d make back $200m from streaming. You need movies and their big ticket prices.
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Drone footage shows the shocking collapse of the Arecibo Observatory • The Verge

Loren Grush:


The video, captured on December 1st, shows the moment when support cables snapped, causing the massive 900-ton structure suspended above Arecibo to fall onto the observatory’s iconic 1,000-foot-wide dish.

The videos of the collapse were captured by a camera located in Arecibo’s Operations Control Center, as well as from a drone located above the platform at the time of collapse. The operator of the drone was able to adjust the drone camera once the platform started to fall and capture the moment of impact. NSF, which oversees Arecibo, had been doing hourly monitoring of the observatory with drones, ever since engineers warned that the structure was on the verge of collapsing in November. “I think we were just lucky and the drone operator was very adept to see what was happening and be able to turn the camera,” Ashley Zauderer, the NSF program manager for Arecibo Observatory, said during a press conference.

The footage highlights the moment when multiple cables snapped, causing the platform to swing outward and hit the side of the dish. The collapse also brought down the tops of the three support towers surrounding Arecibo, where the cables had been connected to keep the platform in the air.


The whole thing happens over the seconds from 0:55 to 1:05; one of the (relatively) thin outer wires abruptly explodes at 1:00, and then there’s a pause before the entire cable fails. It’s like a scene from Gravity.
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Google illegally spied on and retaliated against workers, Feds say • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:


Google fired several different workers late last year amid apparent efforts to organize company employees. Four former employees who were let go last November—Laurence Berland, Paul Duke, Rebecca Rivers, and Sophie Waldman—filed complaints with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] almost exactly a year ago alleging that Google’s “draconian, pernicious, and unlawful conduct” was an unlawful attempt to prevent workplace organizing.

A few weeks later, another former Google employee, Kathryn Spiers, was fired after she developed a tool for the company’s internal build of Chrome that notified Google workers of their legal rights to organize. Spiers, too, filed a complaint with the NLRB claiming that Google’s retaliation against her was unlawful.

Google at the time alleged that Rivers, Berland, and others were fired for “intentional and often repeated violations of our longstanding data security policies.” According to the NLRB’s filing, however, Google put several of the rules the employees allegedly violated in place in response to the employee organizing efforts, and those rules were designed to “discourage employees from forming, joining, [or] assisting a union.” The company also unlawfully surveilled employees’ protected activities by viewing an employee slide deck in support of a union drive, as well as by interrogating employees about protected activities.

“Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland said in a statement, referring to Google bringing on the infamous union-busting firm as consultants in late 2019. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law.”


Another Google worker, Timnit Gebru, who worked on ethical AI research was fired on Thursday, apparently for expressing her frustration at her experience in the company. Fired, not resigned.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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