Start Up No.1454: Facebook turns up the misinformation dial, another Google project dies, Fitbit purchase cleared, and more


You might not know where the air comes from in passenger jets. It’s surprising and new data suggests it’s worrying. CC-licensed photo by Mark Hodson Photos on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Present, correct? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Please note that this will be the last daily Overspill for this year: service ought to resume on January 4. Let’s hope for a Vaccinated New Year.


How toxic fumes seep into the air you breathe on planes • Los Angeles Times

Kiera Feldman:

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The air you breathe on airplanes comes directly from the jet engines. Known as bleed air, it is safe, unless there is a mechanical issue — a faulty seal, for instance. When that happens, heated jet engine oil can leak into the air supply, potentially releasing toxic gases into the plane.

For decades, the airline industry and its regulators have known about these incidents — called fume events — and have maintained that they are rare and that the toxic chemical levels are too low to pose serious health risks.

But a Times investigation found that vapors from oil and other fluids seep into planes with alarming frequency across all airlines, at times creating chaos and confusion: Flight attendants vomit and pass out. Passengers struggle to breathe. Children get rushed to hospitals. Pilots reach for oxygen masks or gasp for air from opened cockpit windows.

Such events are documented in airport paramedic records, NASA safety reports, federal aviation records and other filings reviewed by The Times.

Tellmann, the Spirit Airlines pilot, was one of hundreds of airline crew members and passengers who reported being sickened or impaired on flights in recent years. A Times analysis of NASA safety reports from January 2018 to December 2019 identified 362 fume events that airline crew members reported to the agency, with nearly 400 pilots, flight attendants and passengers receiving medical attention. During at least 73 of those flights, pilots used emergency oxygen. Four dozen pilots were described as impaired to the point of being unable to perform their duties.

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You weren’t planning on flying anywhere soon, were you? Though reading the Wikipedia page on bleed air suggests that it’s used for loads of things on commercial planes. But the article indicates that “fume events” are more common than previously thought, and that there’s a certain amount of denial from the airline/aircraft industry.
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An Alabama nurse did not die after taking the coronavirus vaccine • Politifact

Daniel Funke:

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As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge across the country, some Facebook users say frontline health care workers are in trouble. But not because of the virus.

A Dec. 15 text post said “one of the first nurses to receive the vaccine in AL is now dead.”  Similar posts said a 42-year-old nurse who got the vaccine died at least 8 hours later.

“Not an internet rumor, my FB friend’s friend’s aunt,” one of the posts says. “If you want to play Russian roulette with your life for a flu with a 99.997% survival rate, that’s your choice. Just don’t force it on others or shame those who don’t.”

The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.

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Ah, the classic “my friend’s friend”, always the most reliable source (of completely made-up nonsense). Notice that Facebook isn’t deleting the posts, just dialling them down.

Meanwhile, Facebook is turning down the algorithm that boosted news from authoritative sources. Because now the election’s done, who needs authority? That’s never going to keep the fires of outrage, and thus “engagement”, going.
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Google to shut down Android Things, a smart home OS that never took off • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Google plans to shut down Android Things, a stripped-down version of Android designed for smart home devices. The OS never really got off the ground, so this isn’t all that much of a loss, but it is yet another entry in Google’s expansive graveyard of shut-down projects.

The smart home project got its start in 2015 under the name Brillo, which was meant to provide the “underlying operating system for the internet of things.” In 2016, Google revamped Brillo and relaunched the initiative as Android Things, which was likewise meant to run on products like connected speakers, security cameras, and routers. By relying on Android, the OS was supposed to be familiar to developers and easy to get started with.

Then nothing happened. In 2018, some initial smart speakers and smart displays came out using the underlying OS. It seems no other companies were interested, because in February 2019, Google announced it was “refocusing” Android Things to cater specifically to smart speakers and smart displays.

Nearly two years later, and Android Things is now on track to be shut down.

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Android No Things. Apart from smartphones, Android hasn’t actually shaped peoples’ experience in anything – by which I mean that it hasn’t determined how large numbers of people interact with a system. (Smartphones are important, of course.) We’ve seen tablets, TVs, IoT and many more be offered up but be mostly ignored or run aground. You could ask: why? Is it because of fundamental limitations in Android – unlikely, since it’s basically Linux – or Google? If you want to think more on the latter, this piece by Alex Hern might get you thinking. He suggests: “Google is just a really badly run company.” And expands on how, and why.
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Texas accuses Google and Facebook of an illegal conspiracy • WIRED

Gilad Edelman explains what that antitrust complaint is about when it relates to Facebook and Google:

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As described in the complaint, the scheme between Google and Facebook has its roots in 2017, when Facebook announced it would start supporting something called “header bidding.” The details are too wonky to get into here. Basically, Google, which runs the biggest online ad exchange, likes to make publishers give it first dibs on bidding to place an ad. (“Publisher” just means any website or app that runs ads.) Header bidding was a technical hack that allowed publishers to earn higher prices by soliciting bids from multiple exchanges at once. Google hated this, because it created more competition. When Facebook declared that it would work with publishers that used header bidding, it was seen as a provocation. The millions of businesses that advertise with Facebook don’t just advertise on Facebook; through the Facebook Audience Network, the company also places ads across the web, making it one of the biggest ad buyers on the internet. If it began supporting header bidding, that could cause Google’s ad platform to lose a lot of business.

Drawing on internal documents uncovered during its investigation, however, the Texas attorney general claims that Facebook’s leaders didn’t actually want to compete with Google; they wanted Google to buy them off. This seems to have worked. In September 2018, the companies cut a deal. Facebook, the complaint says, agreed to “curtail its header bidding initiatives” and send the millions of advertisers in its Facebook Audience Network to bid on Google’s platform. In return, Google would give the Facebook Audience Network special advantages in ad auctions, including setting aside a quota of ad placements to Facebook, even when the company didn’t make the highest bid. The agreement, the complaint says, “fixes prices and allocates markets between Google and Facebook.”

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Given the two companies’ dominance, but especially Google’s, this is antitrust on its face – restraint of trade, as Edelman explains. It’s going to get walloped in court. (Meanwhile, eight states filed another antitrust case against Google, over search dominance; though I don’t think that’s going to stick.)
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Blob Opera • Google Arts & Culture

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Create your own opera inspired song with Blob Opera – no music skills required ! A machine learning experiment by David Li in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture

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You wanted uplifting and fun? Here it is! Doesn’t work in Safari, works nicely in Microsoft Edge. And Google Chrome, if you haven’t deleted it. (Thanks, Kieran.)
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Google AI researchers lay out demands, escalating internal fight • Bloomberg

Josh Eidelson and Mark Bergen:

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A group of Google artificial intelligence researchers sent a sweeping list of demands to management calling for new policies and leadership changes, escalating a conflict at one of the company’s prized units.

The note centers on the departure of Google AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, which set off protests inside the company. Citing that situation, the employees called for a company vice president, Megan Kacholia, to no longer be part of their reporting chain. “We have lost trust in her as a leader,” the researchers wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Bloomberg.

Gebru has said she was fired after the company rejected a research paper she co-authored that questioned an AI technology at the heart of Google’s search engine. The company has said she resigned and Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai told staff he is investigating the incident.

“Google’s short-sighted decision to fire and retaliate against a core member of the Ethical AI team makes it clear that we need swift and structural changes if this work is to continue, and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere,” the letter reads.

It was sent Wednesday to officials including Pichai by employee Alex Hanna, who worked with Gebru, on behalf of Google’s Ethical AI team.

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This is turning into a real problem for Google. It’s either going to fester over Christmas, or they’ll figure out some way to calm it all down (by firing a lot of people?).
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Inside the UK’s pandemic spending: waste, negligence and cronyism • The New York Times

Jane Bradley, Selam Gebrekidan and Allison McCann:

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To shine a light on one of the greatest spending sprees in Britain’s postwar era, The New York Times analyzed a large segment of it, the roughly 1,200 central government contracts that have been made public, together worth nearly $22bn. Of that, about $11bn went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.

“The government had license to act fast because it was a pandemic, but we didn’t give them permission to act fast and loose with public money,” said Meg Hillier, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour Party and chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee. “We’re talking billions of pounds, and it’s quite right that we ask questions about how that money was spent.”

The procurement system was cobbled together during a meeting of anxious bureaucrats in late March, and a wealthy former investment banker and Conservative Party grandee, Paul Deighton, who sits in the House of Lords, was later tapped to act as the government’s czar for personal protective equipment.

Eight months on, Lord Deighton has helped the government award billions of dollars in contracts –– including hundreds of millions to several companies where he has financial interests or personal connections.

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As bad as the US is, this is bad too. Sometimes it takes the outside perspective to remind you just how bad things are.
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I was the Homeland Security adviser to Trump. We’re being hacked • The New York Times

Thomas Bossert :

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This is what is called a supply-chain attack, meaning the pathway into the target networks relies on access to a supplier. Supply-chain attacks require significant resources and sometimes years to execute. They are almost always the product of a nation-state. Evidence in the SolarWinds attack points to the Russian intelligence agency known as the S.V.R., whose tradecraft is among the most advanced in the world.
According to SolarWinds S.E.C. filings, the malware was on the software from March to June. The number of organizations that downloaded the corrupted update could be as many as 18,000, which includes most federal government unclassified networks and more than 425 Fortune 500 companies.

The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate.

The Russians have had access to a considerable number of important and sensitive networks for six to nine months. The Russian S.V.R. will surely have used its access to further exploit and gain administrative control over the networks it considered priority targets. For those targets, the hackers will have long ago moved past their entry point, covered their tracks and gained what experts call “persistent access,” meaning the ability to infiltrate and control networks in a way that is hard to detect or remove.

While the Russians did not have the time to gain complete control over every network they hacked, they most certainly did gain it over hundreds of them. It will take years to know for certain which networks the Russians control and which ones they just occupy.

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Bossert worked for Trump from January 2017 to April 2018, having previously worked for the GWBush administration. From his Wikipedia entry: “On April 10, 2018, Bossert resigned, a day after John R. Bolton, the newly appointed National Security Advisor, started his tenure. Bossert’s departure corresponded with the dissolution of the global health security team that he oversaw.”
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EU: Google can acquire Fitbit, but users’ health data can’t be used for ads • PC Mag

Michael Kan:

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The European Commission on Wednesday approved Google’s $2.1bn deal to acquire Fitbit, with conditions. Google can buy Fitbit as long as the tech giant avoids using the wearable maker’s user health data for advertising purposes.

EU regulators have been scrutinizing the deal for months over concerns the merger would undermine competition in the tech sector. A major worry is that Google will tap Fitbit’s customer data to create more personalized ads, giving the tech giant an even greater edge in the online advertising industry. The commission also feared Google might cut access to Fitbit’s API for third-party apps and services.

“Such a strategy would come especially at the detriment of start-ups in the nascent European digital healthcare space,” the commission said.

By buying Fitbit, Google will for the first time have its own hardware products in the smartwatch market. However, EU regulators question whether the company will continue to play fair or try to undermine its rivals. “The Commission is concerned that following the transaction, Google could put competing manufacturers of wrist-worn wearable devices at a disadvantage by degrading their interoperability with Android smartphones,” it added.

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It’s a little like when Google bought Motorola, the smartphone company (remember? 2011?), but the difference then was that there was a thriving smartphone business; Motorola was a tiny part of it, and Google’s acquisition was about getting hold of defensive patents. There’s no comparable Android smartwatch business; Google could completely overwhelm it.
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Nuclear weapons agency breached amid massive cyber onslaught • POLITICO

Natasha Bertrand:

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The Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the US nuclear weapons stockpile, have evidence that hackers accessed their networks as part of an extensive espionage operation that has affected at least half a dozen federal agencies, officials directly familiar with the matter said.

On Thursday, DOE and NNSA officials began coordinating notifications about the breach to their congressional oversight bodies after being briefed by Rocky Campione, the chief information officer at DOE.

They found suspicious activity in networks belonging to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico and Washington, the Office of Secure Transportation and the Richland Field Office of the DOE. The hackers have been able to do more damage at FERC than the other agencies, the officials said, but did not elaborate.

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It’s going to take weeks, possibly longer, to figure all this out. Biden’s going to be sworn in and they’ll still going to be trying to figure it out. And even while there’s a lot of certainty that the hack is Russia’s work, the Trump admin has been silent.
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‘Like a hand grasping’: Trump appointees describe the crushing of the CDC • The New York Times

Noah Weiland:

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“Everyone wants to describe the day that the light switch flipped and the C.D.C. was sidelined. It didn’t happen that way,” Mr. McGowan said. “It was more of like a hand grasping something, and it slowly closes, closes, closes, closes until you realize that, middle of the summer, it has a complete grasp on everything at the C.D.C.”

Last week, the editor in chief of the C.D.C.’s flagship weekly disease outbreak reports — once considered untouchable — told House Democrats investigating political interference in the agency’s work that she was ordered to destroy an email showing Trump appointees attempting to meddle with their publication.

…Dr. Tom Frieden, the C.D.C. director under President Barack Obama, said it was typical and “legitimate” to have interagency process for review. “What’s not legitimate is to overrule science,” he said.

Often, Mr. McGowan and Ms. Campbell mediated between Dr. Redfield and agency scientists when the White House’s guidance requests and dictates would arrive: edits from Mr. Vought and Kellyanne Conway, the former White House adviser, on choirs and communion in faith communities, or suggestions from Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and aide, on schools.

“Every time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won,” Mr. McGowan said.

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There are going to be reams and reams and reams of stories like this from January 20 – and, as this shows, from before then. People who were inside and are getting out will have so many beans to spill, but what it’s going to show, again and again and in greater and greater depth, is the utter corruption and stupidity of those who were in charge. But that was always on show, from the top.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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