Start Up No.1450: Facebook staff look back in anger, US Treasury hacked, Oracle off to Texas, Johnson’s herd immunity lockdown failure, and more


The “5G” in your phone’s status bar will need a lot more explanation if you see it in the US. CC-licensed photo by ajay_suresh on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Gets my vote. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

After the US election, key people are leaving Facebook and torching the company in departure notes • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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On Wednesday, a Facebook data scientist departed the social networking company after a two-year stint, leaving a farewell note for their colleagues to ponder. As part of a team focused on “Violence and Incitement,” they had dealt with some of the worst content on Facebook, and they were proud of their work at the company.

Despite this, they said Facebook was simply not doing enough.

“With so many internal forces propping up the production of hateful and violent content, the task of stopping hate and violence on Facebook starts to feel even more sisyphean than it already is,” the employee wrote in their “badge post,” a traditional farewell note for any departing Facebook employee. “It also makes it embarrassing to work here.”

The departing employee declined to speak with BuzzFeed News but asked that they not be named for fear of abuse and reprisal.

Using internal Facebook data and projections to support their points, the data scientist said in their post that roughly 1 of every 1,000 pieces of content — or 5 million of the 5 billion pieces of content posted to the social network daily — violates the company’s rules on hate speech. More stunning, they estimated using the company’s own figures that, even with artificial intelligence and third-party moderators, the company was “deleting less than 5% of all of the hate speech posted to Facebook.” (After this article was published, Facebook VP of integrity Guy Rosen disputed the calculation, saying it “incorrectly compares views and content.” The employee addressed this in their post and said it did not change the conclusion.)

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There’s plenty more that suggests wheels coming off, and people simply growing weary of the bad publicity that “I work at Facebook” brings them. But it can be worse than just bad publicity: read on.
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In India, Facebook fears crackdown on hate groups could backfire on its staff • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Newley Purnell:

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Dozens of religious extremists burst into a Pentecostal church outside New Delhi in June, claiming it was built atop a Hindu temple. The group installed a Hindu idol in protest, and a pastor says he was punched in the head by attackers.

Members of a Hindu nationalist organization known as Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility in a video describing the incursion that has been viewed almost 250,000 times on Facebook. The social-media company’s safety team earlier this year concluded that Bajrang Dal supported violence against minorities across India and likely qualified as a “dangerous organization” that should be banned from the platform, according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook balked at removing the group following warnings in a report from its security team that cracking down on Bajrang Dal might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India, the people said. Besides risking infuriating India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians, banning Bajrang Dal might precipitate physical attacks against Facebook personnel or facilities, the report warned.

…Facebook’s human-rights staff have internally designated India a “Tier One” country, meaning it is at the highest risk of societal violence and therefore requires heightened efforts by the company to protect vulnerable populations, according to people familiar with the matter. This ranks it alongside Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Facebook staff’s designation of India hasn’t previously been reported.

In many countries where Facebook is available, the company doesn’t have staff. But it has a significant presence in India, with five offices including in New Delhi and Mumbai. Those facilities and their people are what the company’s security team zeroed in on as potential risks of retaliation from extremists.

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What’s different here, of course, is that the company whose staff fear reprisal is the one that’s enabling and fomenting the motivation for reprisal. The snake eats itself. Social warming in action.
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Exclusive: hackers spied on US Treasury emails for a foreign government – sources • Reuters

Christopher Bing:

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Hackers backed by a foreign government have been monitoring internal email traffic at the US Treasury Department and an agency that decides internet and telecommunications policy, according to people familiar with the matter.

There is concern within the US intelligence community that the hackers who targeted Treasury and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration used a similar tool to break into other government agencies, according to three people briefed on the matter. The people did not say which other agencies.

“The United States government is aware of these reports and we are taking all necessary steps to identify and remedy any possible issues related to this situation,” said National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot.

The hack is so serious it led to a National Security Council meeting at the White House on Saturday, said one of the people familiar with the matter.

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Just a reminder that Trump fired the head of cybersecurity for telling the truth about the security of the election, and shuffled his own people into the Treasury and NSC. They’re doing just as wonderfully on that as they did on containing Covid.
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Solid-State vehicle batteries: they’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! • Clean Technica

Steve Hanley:

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Suddenly, solid state batteries — the technology that is supposed to give us lower priced electric vehicles with more range and faster charging times — are like Chicken Man. They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! Conventional lithium-ion batteries use a semi-liquid electrolyte between the anode and the cathode. That electrolyte can catch fire or explode if it gets too hot or if the battery is punctured.

Solid state batteries replace the semi-liquid electrolyte with a solid substance that is far more tolerant of high heat and less susceptible to damage in the event of a collision. In the lab, they have a higher energy density, can charge faster, and weigh less than traditional lithium-ion batteries. Not only do they cost less, they may require simpler, less costly cooling systems and could allow automakers to dispense with the heavy, bank vault quality safety cages used today to prevent damage to traction batteries in the event of a collision. Those two factors alone could lower the cost of manufacturing electric vehicles, making them affordable for more drivers.

Any new product that employs existing manufacturing techniques has a higher likelihood of success than one that requires all the old production equipment be scrapped and replaced with new machines.

So far this week — and it’s only Friday — there are announcements from Ford, BMW, Toyota, and Solid Power claiming solid state battery technology is just around the corner. Here’s the latest.

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Very promising, particularly the fast charge: 50% in 15 minutes. That’s starting to approach what people expect from filling stations now. Now it needs governments to start pushing the chargers out.
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48 hours in September when ministers and scientists split over Covid lockdown • The Sunday Times

Insight:

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Two days earlier, Johnson had been forced to confirm the grim news that a second wave was “coming in”. His chief scientific and medical advisers were pressing him to bring in a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown that would save lives and arguably prevent the need for lengthy, economically damaging restrictions at a later date.

Johnson had reluctantly sided with the scientists and was preparing for a quick lockdown in the week of Monday, September 21, backed by his then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Two key members of his cabinet — Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister — were also supporting tougher restrictions.

But Sunak wanted a different strategy. Faced with dire predictions that half a million people could be made redundant in the autumn, he strongly opposed a second lockdown, which some economists were saying would wreak further havoc on Britain’s already limping economy.

Which is why three of the four academics who had been invited to speak by No 10 that Sunday evening advocated a less restrictive approach, which avoided lockdowns.

The strategy of allowing the virus to take its course and build up “herd immunity” in the population had been dropped by the government at the start of the first wave because of evidence that it would lead to an unacceptable death toll and potentially overwhelm the NHS.

The speakers that night included Professor Sunetra Gupta and her Oxford University colleague, Professor Carl Heneghan. Gupta says they were each given 15 minutes in which they argued that a lockdown was unnecessary at that point: the virus could be allowed to spread with lighter controls if those most vulnerable to serious illness were protected. Gupta says herd immunity could be achieved “in the order of three to six months”.

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And just to put the crap topping on the shite sandwich they had Sweden’s epidemiologist who advocated its calamitous “no lockdown” measure, which has seen deaths rise proportionally far beyond its neighbours. It’s incredible that these people were allowed to put this case in the face of a paper from SAGE, the government’s advisory team on this, which was calling for an immediate lockdown.

People died unnecessarily and avoidable because of this decision. This mishandling does call for a public inquiry.

(The team writing the story consists of Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott, Shanti Das, Tom Calver and Lily Russell-Jones.)
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Oracle’s move could could prompt others to relocate to Texas, experts say • Austin Business Journal

Mark Calvey:

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Oracle’s headquarters move from Redwood City to Austin, announced Dec. 11, is expected to make it easier for other corporate giants to join the San Francisco Bay Area exodus.

“These high-profile moves create precedent and raise the comfort for other companies to do likewise,” said John Boyd, principal at site selection consultant The Boyd Co. in New Jersey. “Everyone seems to be getting the message — except California lawmakers.”

Former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich echoed Boyd’s sentiment in a Dec. 11 email to me on Oracle’s big news: “California’s great migration continues. Wake up Sacramento. The golden goose is about to be roasted.”

California’s tax structure probably played a significant role in Oracle’s headquarters relocation, a business accountant said.

“California’s 13.3% top tax rate on personal income and capital gains versus no state income tax in Texas is likely a key driver in Oracle’s headquarters move,” said Alex Thacher, partner-in-charge of the state and local tax practice of San Ramon accounting firm Armanino.

To be certain, Oracle’s HQ relocation follows similar announcements from other Bay Area companies — and even more could occur before year-end.

“Oracle joins Schwab, McKesson, Toyota — and potentially Tesla — in rejecting California for Texas,” said Boyd, who has worked with several companies in moving to the Lone Star State. “These high-profile moves are not only an endorsement of Texas’ superior business climate, but also the talent assets there.

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A tax rate of 13% and they’re complaining? But of course it’s classic devil take the hindmost – employed people get healthcare, but unemployed ones don’t (so you fear being fired). This won’t necessarily be great news for staff. (If you’re wondering, much of Texas’s tax revenue – 47% – comes from property taxes.)

I doubt it’s a death knell for Silicon Valley, though. Talent and venture capital find each other.
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Here’s the 5G glossary every American is apparently going to need • Light Reading

Mike Dano:

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T-Mobile on Thursday introduced the market’s newest 5G moniker: “Ultra Capacity.”

The label will stew alongside “5G Ultra Wideband,” “Extended Range 5G,” “5G+,” “5Ge,” “5GTF,” “5G Nationwide” and plain-old “5G” in the US wireless industry, ensuring that if American mobile customers aren’t confused yet, it’s only a matter of time before they’re hopelessly bewildered by operators’ thesaurus-toting marketing executives.

“One midband Ultra Capacity 5G site can cover tens of thousands of times the area that one Verizon Ultra Wideband 5G site can cover, giving T-Mobile customers the Wi-Fi rivaling 5G speeds in waaaaay more places,” boasted T-Mobile in a release that – incredibly – did not include a glossary.

So here’s that 5G lexicon everyone is apparently going to need.

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Wow. And you thought USB and Wi-Fi had a lot of different brands.
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10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted • Climate Change News

This is written by a group of 41 scientists:

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The impacts of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly severe, everywhere. We are experiencing heat waves, floods, droughts, forest fires and sea level rise as a result of global heating. The average global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate, rapidly diminishing the prospect of keeping global warming below 1.5C and with increasing risks of crossing irreversible tipping points.

In the face of growing demands for action, many countries and companies are making promises and setting targets to reach “net zero” emissions or “carbon neutrality”. These often sound ambitious and may even give the impression that the world is awakening and ready to take on the climate crisis.

In practice, however, net zero targets several decades into the future shift our focus away from the immediate and unprecedented emissions reductions needed. Net zero targets are generally premised on the assumption that fossil fuel emissions can be compensated for by carbon offsetting and unproven future technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But offsetting does not cancel out our emissions – yet action to do so is immediately needed.

There are a number of myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting that must be dispelled. By revealing them, we aim to empower people, so that they can pressure governments and companies to create real solutions, here and now

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There’s a fair amount here to discomfort us all, unfortunately. Quite a lot of it around carbon offsetting and forests.
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What the BBC can learn from its journalists’ use of Twitter • The Guardian

Tom Mills is a lecturer in sociology at Aston University:

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Social media platforms have been blamed for increasing the perception of political partisanship by giving rise to online “echo chambers”, and the BBC itself has flagged up “social media vitriol and political polarisation”. However, criticisms have also been made of BBC journalists’ use of social media, particularly Twitter, which as a medium for breaking stories, relaying anonymous briefings and airing political gossip is not subject to the usual editorial controls. Addressing this has been a priority for the new director general, Tim Davie, who promised MPs in September that he would take “hard action” against anyone breaching impartiality rules on the site.

As is often the case with questions of BBC impartiality, though, there is much more heat than light. At present, thanks to some activist newspapers and Conservative MPs, the debate seems to centre on Gary Lineker’s use of Twitter to occasionally express liberal views on Brexit and immigration, rather than on the BBC’s journalism.

There is now a large body of scholarship on the influence of social media on journalism, and a number of recent studies examining journalists’ follow and interaction networks on Twitter. In the first quantitative study to look at BBC journalism specifically, two Aston colleagues, Killian Mullan and Gary Fooks, and I examine the use of the platform by 90 BBC journalists tweeting in their official capacity, using data extracted in early 2019.

Rather than looking at particular journalists or specific tweets – the meaning of which will always be contested – we examine the Westminster MPs followed, retweeted or mentioned by these journalists in aggregate.

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To be honest, I think this study was wasted effort. The Conservatives have been in power, one way or another, for the past ten years, which is two-thirds the lifespan of Twitter, so journalists will accumulate followers in that time. It doesn’t mean they pay attention to them. Far more important, and useful, would be a qualitative study of stories broken on Twitter by said journalists and the responses and effects they have.
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Nick Kristof and the holy war on Pornhub • The New Republic

Melissa Gira Grant:

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Anyone who wants to know that Pornhub has engaged in abusive and exploitative behavior toward women need only listen to the women whose videos were posted to the free porn site without their consent. That includes the abuse of people like Rose Kalemba, who has written about how she had to impersonate a lawyer to get Pornhub to remove a video that recorded a man raping her more than a decade ago. That also includes the numerous porn performers who have spoken publicly about how Pornhub routinely allows videos they made to be pirated and posted to the site, where it profits off the performers’ work and leaves them with nothing. Journalists who cover the tech company critically and with an eye toward its human costs have all been on this beat for some time. Slate covered the monopolistic model behind Pornhub’s parent company, Mindgeek, more than eight years ago, citing, among others, reporting by ABC’s Nightline, which preceded it, with performers stating they felt they couldn’t speak out against the company for fear of retaliation.

A failure to engage with this history and wider context is a failure to capture the real stakes of the conflict with Pornhub, and that’s the fundamental limitation behind the picture of abuse related by the New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristof in the latest entry in his long oeuvre concerning abuse, women, and sex.

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A reader sent me this link, which I found slightly weird. Grant seems to accept that all the things Kristof pointed to as happening are indeed happening, but that because other people had written about it that invalidates his work. Then it goes on and on and ON. I got serious MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) and never figured out whether there was a point to be made other than what the extract above says. If you find out, congratulations. (Also, let’s hope the many mentions of Pornhub are not taunting Google’s spam filters too hard.)
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Chrome is Bad • Loren Brichter

Brichter is a developer who got so annoyed about this he set up an entire website:

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Short story: Google Chrome installs something called Keystone on your computer, which nefariously hides itself from Activity Monitor and makes your whole computer slow even when Chrome isn’t running. Deleting Chrome and Keystone makes your computer way, way faster, all the time. Click here for instructions.

Long story: I noticed my brand new 16″ MacBook Pro started acting sluggishly doing even trivial things like scrolling. Activity Monitor showed *nothing* from Google using the CPU, but WindowServer was taking ~80%, which is abnormally high (it should use <10% normally).

Doing all the normal things (quitting apps, logging out other users, restarting, zapping PRAM, etc) did nothing, then I remembered I had installed Chrome a while back to test a website.

I deleted Chrome, and noticed Keystone while deleting some of Chrome’s other preferences and caches. I deleted everything from Google I could find, restarted the computer, and it was like night-and-day. Everything was instantly and noticeably faster, and WindowServer CPU was well under 10% again.

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More detail: Brichter is the guy who wrote the app that became the Twitter app; he invented the “pull to refresh” thing you now see everywhere. I haven’t tried this yet myself, but Firefox is a good alternative browser if you need to do things that for some reason you can’t in Safari. And of course Microsoft Edge uses the same underlying code as Chrome. (MacObserver also wrote about this a while back.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.1450: Facebook staff look back in anger, US Treasury hacked, Oracle off to Texas, Johnson’s herd immunity lockdown failure, and more

  1. Thank you for posting this link, even if you felt it made your eyes glaze over. Here’s the essential point—once again Kristof is working with suspect allies. This time it’s Exodus Cry, a far religious right group that use anti-trafficking rhetoric to pursue anti-sex ends:

    Poised to get the Kristof bump this time is a campaign run by a religious right organization, Exodus Cry, founded by a member of a Christian dominionist ministry, which has advanced anti-gay, anti-abortion, and antisemitic views.

    Exodus Cry uses “abolition” in the sense used by anti–sex work groups, meaning the abolition of the sex trade, including prostitution and porn, by means of the criminal law.

    openDemocracy has an article that mentions Exodus Cry’s propaganda activities in the UK:

    “They didn’t tell us anything about their links to any religious organisation,” said Helen Kennedy, head of media at the University of Brighton, which hosted a screening in May. “I had no indication that the individuals had any kind of extreme anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQI rights, anti-comprehensive sexuality education views.”

    My worry is that, once again, Kristof’s fixation with the most outrageous of examples will empower groups that want to make life more difficult for the actual people on the ground. Somaly Mam was a liar who helped multinationals like Nike economically trap poor women in sweatshops. What will Laila Mickelwait do, given that she believes that consensual pornography is the root cause of hold sex abuse?

    • But my point is that Kristof isn’t advocating for those groups, and any use he makes of them to achieve his narrower and more carefully defined objective – highlighting abuse on the platform – does not of itself make them more powerful. I think there’s a tendency, which is seen with advocacy groups of all stripes, to think that any publicity that draws its source from their enemies, even if only narrowly, is the harbinger of Total Defeat at their hands. It simply isn’t true, and I’ve seen no evidence of that in this case either.
      Sorry. But we aren’t going to agree on this.

      • All right, going broader than Kristof, perhaps you’d be interested in this article by Michael Hobbes about the dangers of child sex trafficking hysteria. Calls to “Save The Children” lead to truly perverse outcomes. And that is my real worry here: this outrage over PornHub will lead to lots of real women getting hurt and few to no actual children being helped.

        I’ve been enjoying your daily updates in my rss reader for ages and I find a ton of interesting and enlightening things to read through it. I apologize if I’ve been too strident.

      • Not strident at all. The Hobbes article comes around, from time to time, from various people; it was the topic of a recent episode of More Or Less, the Tim Harford series about statistics. That too makes the same point. But Kristof’s point is about consent, not children (though obviously children can’t consent). Again, I don’t see that there’s any connection between Kristof making specific points about women being exploited through Pornhub (about which more tomorrow) and the Qanon madness over sex trafficking.

  2. Eons ago I did a crude study on the effectiveness of published papers on the arms control policy, (in how they could influence the wider culture) so if you had a paper in ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists you were say 50,000th in influence, if you got it in Physics Today, 1,000th, and the New York Times, in the top 20. So it’s not surprising at all to me that Kristof’s article had such a significant effect on MasterCard and Visa (which in turn, brought the real pressure to bare).

    On a slightly different matter, I remain highly skeptical of the rapid introduction of solid state batteries for cars until they nail the mass production issues. As all the prototypes displayed so far do not produce anywhere near the same power out of a lithium battery (usually they are just one layer, when you need dozens to produce the same power out of one lithium car battery cell). So I don’t see this happening until 2024 at the very earliest and that’s being optimistic.

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