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.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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(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:

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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

Start Up No.1443: our over-complex world, the metal asteroid, TSMC aims for 3nm, a killer iOS Wi-Fi exploit, Parler gets porny, and more


Hyperbolic paraboloids! And the canister is pretty good for Wi-Fi extenders too. CC-licensed photo by Chris on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

The modern world has finally become too complex for any of us to understand • OneZero

Tim Maughan:

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I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.

In other words: no one’s driving. And if we hope to retake the wheel, we’re going to have to understand, intimately, all of the ways we’ve lost control. This is the first entry in a series — called, yes, No One’s Driving — that aims to do exactly that. Each month, we’ll examine a technological system that has grown too complex to be understood by, well, just about any one person, and break down how it has spiraled out of control, why that is dangerous, and what we might do about it.

Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about the huge, complex systems that keep our technologically dependent society running. And with very good reason. It takes a certain amount of faith and belief — in ourselves, in capitalism, in the digital platforms that mediate our interactions with it, and in the infrastructures that support all of the above — in order to wake up and get through every day. But eating breakfast, pulling on our business-casual Zoom-appropriate shirts — all those mundane acts are made possible by an almost unfathomably complex, algorithmically calibrated, partly automated, and partly sweatshop-labor-dependent global supply chain.

There are currently over 17 million shipping containers in circulation globally, and at any given time, about 5 or 6 million shipping containers cross the sea. The US alone imports over 20 million shipping containers’ worth of products a year. While it’s common to talk about iPhones and high-end sneakers when we talk about imports from China and Asia, the truth is the vast majority of those containers are stuffed which much more mundane goods: socks, umbrellas, pencils, paper, packing materials, bedsheets, fruit, car parts, frozen food, pharmaceuticals — the endless inventory of physical items that make our modern lives possible.

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Maughan is a science fiction writer (based in Bristol) whose novel Infinite Detail posits a world where all this breaks down. It’s entertaining, if worrying.
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The geometry of Pringles, the crunchy hyperbolic paraboloid • Interesting Engineering

Kathleen Villaluz:

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Perfectly executed geometries are always pleasant to look at as their natural proportions are simply eye-catching. Just like how a perfectly symmetrical human face, that is naturally proportioned with the golden ratio, is always deemed beautiful or pretty. In the case of a Pringle chip, its intersecting curves form a sturdy structure as well as an attractive geometry.

This special geometry is referred to as the hyperbolic paraboloid in the world of mathematics.

What is interesting about a hyperbolic paraboloid is the point where the maximum and the minimum of the two principal curvatures meet each other at a zero point. This is known as the saddle point or the minimax point.

So, what makes it particularly interesting?

The hyperbolic paraboloid’s intersecting double curvature prevents a line of stress from forming, which doesn’t encourage a crack to naturally propagate. That’s why Pringles have that extra crunch in them when you either bite a piece off or when you put a whole Pringle in your mouth.

If you frequently eat Pringles you would know that they never break off symmetrically but instead, they crack in different directions and produce flakes with varying shapes. It’s all due to the hyperbolic paraboloid geometry of each chip.

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From 2017, but they’re still just as moreish, and the bottom one in a pack doesn’t get crushed just the same as ever.
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NASA: this rare metal asteroid is worth more than the global economy • Robb Report

Rachel Cormack:

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Humans just got one more reason to journey to outer space. There’s a rare asteroid the size of Massachusetts orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, and it’s worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion.

The rarity, known as 16 Psyche, was actually discovered back in 1852, but NASA’s Hubble Telescope has finally given earth-dwellers a closer look. The new study, which was published this week in The Planetary Science Journal, indicates that asteroid’s composition is key to its astronomical value.

To put this touted figure into perspective, when written out in full it boasts a line of zeros that could nearly stretch to the asteroid itself. That’s $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. This makes Psyche 70,000 times more valuable than the global economy, worth about $142 trillion in 2019, or enough to buy and sell Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is just shy of $200 billion, about 50 million times. That’s all thanks to some heavy metal.

Psyche, which spans 140 miles in diameter, appears to made entirely of iron and nickel. This metallic construction sets it apart from other asteroids that are usually comprised of rock or ice.

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It’s 230 million miles away, of course, and you’d have to think that the price of iron and nickel might just possibly fall if a colossal amount were suddenly made available. Supply and demand, what even are they?
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TSMC confirms 3nm tech for 2022, could enable epic 80 billion transistor GPUs • PC Gamer

Jeremy Laird:

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Monster chip foundry TSMC has confirmed its 3nm production node is on track for full mass production in the second half of 2022, according to Chinese tech site ItHome (in Chinese). TSMC reckons its 3nm node will pack in somewhere north of 250 million transistors per square millimetre of silicon, making it at least two and half times more dense than Intel’s latest 10nm node. In theory, TSMC’s 3nm tech could enable a GPU three times more complex than AMD’s new Radeon RX 6000 Series chips.

TSMC, of course, makes all of AMD’s high performance Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs. Until recently, it also produced Nvidia’s top graphics chips, too. Advances like TSMC 3nm tech matter because they allow for more complex, faster computer chips. Like, you know, CPUs and GPUs.

Intel reckons its new 10nm process is good for around 100 million transistors per square millimetre, while TSMC’s most refined 7nm process is rated at 113 million transistors per square millimetre.

While TSMC is promising at least 250 million transistors per square millimetre for its 3nm node, the reality may turn out nearer 300 million. All of which means that in late 2022, TSMC will have the capability of producing chips somewhere between 2.5x and 3x as dense as the 7nm tech used for current AMD CPUs and graphics chips.

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Apple’s M1 is on 5nm, of course, but going down to 3nm would still mean a dramatic increase in the number of transistors on a chip, and hence even more computing power. This would power, what, the M3?
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EU criticises ‘hasty’ UK approval of COVID-19 vaccine • Reuters

Francesco Guarascio:

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The European Union criticised Britain’s rapid approval of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, saying its own procedure was more thorough, after Britain became the first western country to endorse a COVID-19 shot.

The move to grant emergency authorisation to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been seen by many as a political coup for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has led his country out of the EU and faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

The decision was made under an ultra-fast, emergency approval process, which allowed the British drugs regulator to temporarily authorise the vaccine only 10 days after it began examining data from large-scale trials.

In an unusually blunt statement, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is in charge of approving COVID-19 vaccines for the EU, said its longer approval procedure was more appropriate as it was based on more evidence and required more checks than the emergency procedure chosen by Britain.

The agency said on Tuesday it would decide by Dec. 29 whether to provisionally authorise the vaccine from US drugmaker Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE.

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A difference of about three weeks. Some Tory MPs have been crowing that this was made possible by Brexit; in fact that isn’t true. But the EU’s criticism will be valuable fuel for getting the pro-Brexit crowd (some of whom are insistent Covid is nonsense) to get vaccinated, if only to annoy the EU.
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An iOS zero-click radio proximity exploit odyssey • Google Project Zero

Ian Beer:

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In this demo I remotely trigger an unauthenticated kernel memory corruption vulnerability which causes all iOS devices in radio-proximity to reboot, with no user interaction. Over the next 30,000 words I’ll cover the entire process to go from this basic demo to successfully exploiting this vulnerability in order to run arbitrary code on any nearby iOS device and steal all the user data

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There’s a short video which shows a laptop (screen not visible) doing something, and an array of iPhones just beside it winking off like lights going out in a power cut. If you really want to get into the weeds of how security researchers discover things (this took him six months of hard work, once he had the idea in 2018 after a mistake in an iOS beta by Apple) then you can.

Also: Apple fixed the vulnerability, which is quite an Independence Day-style thing (like when they upload the virus into the attacking spacecraft). Wi-Fi continues to be a fabulous source of security drama, as it has been from the beginning. (Ars Technica has a shorter writeup too.)
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Windows on M1 Macs: how to run ARM virtualization [Video] • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:

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Last week we saw the first successful virtualization of ARM Windows 10 on an M1 Mac. The good news is that it even appeared to be “pretty snappy.” Now we’ve got a look at a helpful walkthrough and peek at real-world performance in a new video, including the M1 Mac mini blowing away Microsoft’s Surface Pro X.

Alexander Graf was the first to successfully run an ARM Windows virtualization on an M1 Mac. He used the QEMU open source machine emulator and an Insider Preview of Windows.

…YouTuber Martin Nobel shared a useful video of the process to run an ARM Windows virtualization on Apple Silicon as well as a real-world look at the overall impressive performance considering it’s an unofficial workaround.

Impressively, the Martin’s M1 Mac mini benchmarked much higher than Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, almost doubling the single-core score, and coming in almost 2,000 higher in the multi-core score. Sure it’s not a desktop like the Mac mini, but you can get about the same performance from the $999 M1 MacBook Air, a closer competitor to the $999 Surface Pro X.

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It’s a very roundabout way to do something, but gets it done nonetheless. There must be a lot of meetings going on at Microsoft just now trying to figure out their strategy on this. Allow it? Continue ignoring it?
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Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth? • Our World in Data

Max Roser:

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If we want to transition to renewables, it is their price relative to fossil fuels that matters. This chart here is identical to the previous one, but now also includes the price of electricity from renewable sources.

All of these prices – renewables as well as fossil fuels – are without subsidies.

Look at the change in solar and wind energy in recent years. Just 10 years ago it wasn’t even close: it was much cheaper to build a new power plant that burns fossil fuels than to build a new solar photovoltaic (PV) or wind plant. Wind was 22%, and solar 223% more expensive than coal.

But in the last few years this has changed entirely.

Electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics cost $359 per MWh in 2009. Within just one decade the price declined by 89% and the relative price flipped: the electricity price that you need to charge to break even with the new average coal plant is now much higher than what you can offer your customers when you build a wind or solar plant.

It’s hard to overstate what a rare achievement these rapid price changes represent. Imagine if some other good had fallen in price as rapidly as renewable electricity: Imagine you’d found a great place to live back in 2009 and at the time you thought it’d be worth paying $3590 in rent for it. If housing had then seen the price decline that we’ve seen for solar it would have meant that by 2019 you’d pay just $400 for the same place.

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Astonishing chart. Onshore (and offshore) wind really do hold out a lot of hope; next you need other consumption to shift to electricity from fossil fuels too.
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Parler’s weak moderation attracts pornography • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman:

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Anyone following the #sexytrumpgirl hashtag on Parler, a social media site increasingly popular with conservatives, got an eyeful one recent Thursday evening as images of topless women and links to hardcore pornography websites appeared at a rapid-fire rate, often more than one per minute.

The surge of #sexytrumpgirl posts highlighted a broader dilemma for Parler: The site’s lax moderation policies, in keeping with its claims to being a bastion of free speech, have helped it become a magnet for pornographers, escort services and online sex merchants using hashtags targeting conservatives, such as #keepamericasexy and #milfsfortrump2020.

The pornography threatens to intrude on users not seeking sexual material and has the potential to complicate hopes the site may have to expand advertising, which is now limited. Experts on the impact of pornography say major companies typically avoid having their sales pitches appear alongside controversial imagery.

…Officials at Parler, including chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick and chief policy officer Amy Peikoff, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its handling of pornography.

Peikoff defended the company’s approach to content moderation in response to questions for a previous Post story about Parler. “Broadly, our whole guiding principle is that we want to allow everything that the First Amendment protects as speech, and nothing that it doesn’t,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared pornographic images of adults to be constitutionally protected speech.

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Pornography is one of those things (along with spam) that keeps tripping up those who oppose sites being able to remove content they don’t want. Parler, hoist with its own petard there. “One per minute” sounds like nothing, but it’s a tiny site as well.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1442: how machine learning is changing financial reports, the trouble with aircraft, Utah monolith takers revealed, and more


The iconic telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico has collapsed after cables suspending this system broke. CC-licensed photo by Meredith P. on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Salesforce to acquire Slack for $27.7bn • The New York Times

Erin Griffith and Lauren Hirsch:

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Demand for Slack’s products, which allow people to communicate and collaborate with one another, has increased as people work from home during the pandemic. While the company said in September that revenue rose 49% to $216m in the quarter ending in July and that the pandemic had created a “significant increase in demand and usage of Slack,” it also said it did not expect that rise to continue. Layoffs at some of its customers have hurt its business, the company said.

At the same time, Slack has faced increasing competitive pressure from Microsoft. Teams, Microsoft’s collaboration product, reported 115 million daily users in October, up 50% from April. Slack has not provided an update on the 12 million daily users it reported a year ago.
Editors’ Picks

In July, Slack filed a complaint against Microsoft with the European Commission, claiming Microsoft had unfairly bundled Teams with its suite of Microsoft Office work products. Microsoft has offered the software alongside Office since Teams was released in 2017.

“When you’re a scrappy start-up going against an 800-pound gorilla that’s one of the most well-capitalized companies in existence, its tough to compete,” Mr. Park said of Slack. “This is more or less saying, ‘We can’t compete with Microsoft Teams anymore. We need more firepower.’”

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I wonder if the complaint against Microsoft lapses once Slack becomes part of a much, much bigger company. I don’t think anyone’s expecting the interface to become any more friendly (or platform-specific). The amount works out to roughly $250,000 per paying user, by the way.
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52 things I learned in 2020 • Fluxx Studio Notes

Tom Whitwell:

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This year I edited another book, worked on fascinating projects at Fluxx, and learned many learnings.

1. Most cities plant only male trees because it’s expensive to clear up the fruit that falls from female trees. Male trees release pollen, and that’s one of the reasons your hay fever is getting worse. [Jessica Price]

2. In China, 🙂 doesn’t mean happy, it means “a despising, mocking, and even obnoxious attitude”. Use these, instead: 😁😄😀. [Echo Huang]

3. The hold music you hear when you phone Octopus Energy is personalised to your customer account: it’s a number one record from the year you were 14. [Clem Cowton]

4. If Apple AirPods was a standalone business (founded 2016, $12bn revenue, 125% growth, 30–50% margin), it would probably be the most valuable startup in the world. [Kevin Rooke]

5. Sarcasm detection has been a serious problem in computer science since the mid 2000s [Martin Gardiner]

6. All of the ten best-selling books of the last decade had female protagonists [Tyler Cowen]

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And that’s only the first six. Worth your time every year.
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Corporate reporting in the era of artificial intelligence • NBER

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Companies have long seen annual reports and other corporate disclosures as opportunities to portray their business health in a positive light. Increasingly, the audience for these disclosures is not just humans, but also machine readers that process the information as an input to investment recommendations.

In How to Talk When a Machine Is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the Age of AI (NBER Working Paper 27950), Sean Cao, Wei Jiang, Baozhong Yang and Alan L. Zhang explore some of the implications of this trend. Rather than focusing on how investors and researchers apply machine learning to extract information, this study examines how companies adjust their language and reporting in order to achieve maximum impact with algorithms that are processing corporate disclosures.

To gauge the extent of a company’s expected machine readership, the researchers use a proxy: the number of machine downloads of the company’s filings from the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s electronic retrieval system. Mechanical downloads of corporate 10-K and 10-Q filings have increased exponentially, from 360,861 in 2003 to around 165 million in 2016. Machine downloads have become the dominant mode during this time — increasing from 39% of all downloads in 2003 to 78% in 2016.

…Companies also go beyond machine readability and manage the sentiment and tone of their disclosures to induce algorithmic readers to draw favorable conclusions about the content. For example, companies avoid words that are listed as negative in the directions given to algorithms.

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First we shape our tools and then they shape us, financial reporting edition.
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EU urged to address aviation’s full climate impact, including non-CO2 emissions • Climate Home News

Chloé Farand:

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The aviation sector’s climate impact is three times bigger than the effect of its carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to a study by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (Easa), the EU’s aviation regulator, commissioned by the European Commission.

The study endorses findings published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, showing that non-CO2 emissions from planes such as of oxides of nitrogen (NOx), soot particles, sulphate aerosols, and water vapour at high altitude together drive significant global heating.

Current EU policies to curb the aviation sector’s growing emissions only take into account carbon dioxide emissions.

The EU estimates direct carbon emissions from aviation account for nearly 4% of the bloc’s total CO2 emissions. But when considering non-CO2 emissions, aviation is likely playing a much bigger role in the EU’s contribution to rising temperatures globally.

Campaigners at Transport & Environment (T&E) say the study is an acknowledgment by the European Commission that the aviation sector’s full impact on warming needs to be addressed — 12 years after it started to consider the issue.

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Nobody wants to take the hard decisions; and it’s impossible to defect because everyone else will continue. It’s too convenient. Which leads to our next item…
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Rising seas predicted to flood thousands of affordable housing units by 2050 – The Verge

Justine Calma:

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The number of affordable housing units vulnerable to flooding could triple by 2050 as the planet heats up, according to a new study. That amounts to more than 24,000 homes that could flood at least once a year by 2050, compared to about 8,000 in 2000.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, ranks the states and cities at greatest risk. Its authors also unveiled a new interactive map that people can use to see how their hometown might be affected.

As the world warms, seas rise. That means tides are creeping further ashore, and storm surges are becoming a bigger threat to homes along the coast. The encroaching waters are just one way climate change is transforming cities, and the dangers are piling up on lower-income communities.

“I hope this can guide policy that will help the people who are most vulnerable to coastal flooding, which is low-income people in affordable housing. We feel like we’ve really pinpointed that problem with this study,” said Benjamin Strauss, a co-author of the study who is also chief scientist and CEO of the nonprofit research organization Climate Central. Seventy-five% of the affordable housing stock vulnerable to future floods is concentrated in just 20 cities. Those cities are where policymakers can make the biggest difference in residents’ lives by making housing there more resilient.

Many homes lining American coastlines are vulnerable to flooding — not just affordable housing. The researchers wanted to focus on homes for lower-income residents because they’re often older buildings that could have a harder time standing up to the stress of climate-related disasters. Residents here might also have less money and political clout to push for changes to infrastructure so that their homes are better protected. There’s already a shortage of affordable housing in the US, according to the nonprofit National Housing Trust, which contributed to the study. Climate change could make that situation worse.

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Ben Shapiro, the helium-voiced rightwinger, has the perfect solution for this: the people whose homes are being flooded should just sell them.
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The Arecibo radio telescope’s massive platform has collapsed • Scientific American

Meghan Bartels:

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After two cable failures in the span of four months, Puerto Rico’s most venerable astronomy facility, the Arecibo radio telescope, has collapsed in an uncontrolled structural failure.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the site, decided in November to proceed with decommissioning the telescope in response to the damage, which engineers deemed too severe to stabilize without risking lives. But the NSF needed time to come up with a plan for how to safely demolish the telescope in a controlled manner.

Instead, gravity did the job this morning (Dec. 1) at about 8 a.m. local time, according to reports from the area.

…Images shared on Twitter by Deborah Martorell, a meteorologist for Puerto Rican television stations, compare views of the observatory taken yesterday — showing the 900-ton science platform suspended over the massive dish strung up on cables — and today, when the observatory’s three supporting towers are bare.

None of the three towers collapsed fully, which was one of NSF’s key concerns about leaving the structure as it was. Martorell’s image does appear to show some damage in the knot of buildings at the base of one of the support towers, which includes administrative buildings and a public visitor’s center, although the buildings are still standing.

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Couldn’t be repaired without putting workers at too much risk. This Ars Technica article from earlier in November explains a lot of the why, and also why Arecibo was so famous. The cables began failing at well below their expected stress, which meant none of it could be properly trusted.
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Earthlings, not aliens, removed the Utah monolith • The New York Times

Serge F. Kovaleski, Deborah Solomon and Zoe Rosenberg:

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The office of the San Juan County Sheriff at first announced that it was declining to investigate the case in the absence of complaints about missing property. To underscore that point, it uploaded a “Most Wanted” poster on its website, or rather a jokey version of one in which the faces of suspects were replaced by nine big-eyed aliens. But by the end of Monday, the sheriff’s office had reversed its position and announced that it was planning a joint investigation with the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency.

It was left to an adventure photographer, Ross Bernards, to disclose evidence on Instagram. Mr. Bernards, 34, of Edwards, Colo., was visiting the monolith on Friday night when, he said, four men arrived as if out of nowhere to dismantle the sculpture. Mr. Bernards had driven six hours for the chance to ogle the sculpture and to take dramatic photographs of it. Using upscale Lume Cube lights attached to a drone, he produced a series of glowy, moonlit pictures in which the monolith glistens against the red cliffs and the deep blue of the night sky.

Suddenly, around 8:40 p.m., he said, the men arrived, their voices echoing in the canyon. Working in twosomes, with an unmistakable sense of purpose, they gave the monolith hard shoves, and it started to tilt toward the ground. Then they pushed it in the opposite direction, trying to uproot it.
“This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” one of them said, suggesting that he viewed the monolith as an eyesore, a pollutant to the landscape, according to Mr. Bernards.

The sculpture popped out and landed on the ground with a bang. Then the men broke it apart and ferried it off in a wheelbarrow.

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Oh well. We still don’t know who put it there, of course.
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Another mysterious monolith has disappeared, in Romania • CNET

Abrar Al-Heeti:

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In case you thought the story of the mysterious metallic monolith couldn’t get any weirder, just remember it’s 2020 and anything’s possible. After the surprising discovery and subsequent disappearance of a monolith in the middle of the Utah desert earlier this month, it seems a similar object was found in Romania – before also disappearing.

A structure that appears to be identical to the one in the Utah desert was found on Batca Doamnei Hill in Romania on Nov. 26, according to The Mirror. But it didn’t remain for very long; according to a Tuesday report by Reuters, the Romanian monolith disappeared four days later.

“The 2.8 metre (9ft) tall structure disappeared overnight as quietly as it was erected last week,” journalist Robert Iosub of the Ziar Piatra Neamt local newspaper told Reuters. “An unidentified person, apparently a bad local welder, made it … now all that remains is just a small hole covered by rocky soil.”

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Not really as good as something really remote in Utah, though, is it. That’s 2020’s best mystery yet. (Thanks Gregory for the link.)
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The rhetoric and the reality of Operation Moonshot • Manchester Evening News

Jennifer Williams:

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If you were to follow the story of mass testing through ministerial pronouncements alone, you could be forgiven for making a number of assumptions.

You might think everywhere in ‘tier three’ is about to test its entire population using new, rapid turnaround tests, as has been the case in the pilot in Liverpool. You might think, too, that this was about to be carried out by thousands of soldiers.

Equally you might assume there was conclusive evidence that Liverpool’s pilot had been instrumental in bringing rates down on Merseyside – and that there was no debate whatsoever about the effectiveness of the technology being used. 

“This is a success story which we want other parts of the country to replicate,” said Boris Johnson decisively of the Liverpool whole-city testing trial this week. “So we will work with local government, public health leaders and our fantastic armed forces, to offer community testing to tier 3 areas as quickly as possible, opening the way for them to follow Liverpool’s example.” This, he has told MPs, is the route out of the top tier.

The reality is, as usual, more complicated.

Rapid testing, using the kind of new ‘lateral flow’ pregnancy test-style devices being piloted in Liverpool, involving a swab of the nose and throat and a 30-minute turnaround, is indeed about to be rolled out to other places, including – public health departments here hope – in Greater Manchester and other parts of northern England.

But it won’t be like the Liverpool trial. There won’t be thousands of squaddies out on the ground, for starters. In fact currently it is understood there are just four military personnel expected to be involved across the entire North West of England, largely doing logistical planning.

The testing due to begin at Manchester’s universities from this week will largely be carried out not by soldiers but by student nurses and other healthcare undergraduates, after no military support was made available.

Rapid testing won’t happen in every single place currently in tier three, either, because there isn’t the capacity in the national or local system. And where it does, we won’t all be offered a test, Liverpool-style.

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Williams has been slogging away writing about this topic, which is of enormous importance in the north of England. The reality of Cummings’s Operation Moonshot is more like Operation Firework.
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Start Up No.1441: how Ocado succeeded, why national economies aren’t households, the PS5 scalpers, the fake electric vehicle story, and more


DeepMind has made a significant breakthrough in forecasting protein folding – and it matters. CC-licensed photo by Enzymlogic on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 8 links for you. Neatly folded. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘It will change everything’: DeepMind’s AI makes gigantic leap in solving protein structures • Nature

Ewen Callaway:

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The ability to accurately predict protein structures from their amino-acid sequence would be a huge boon to life sciences and medicine. It would vastly accelerate efforts to understand the building blocks of cells and enable quicker and more advanced drug discovery.

AlphaFold came top of the table at the last CASP — in 2018, the first year that London-based DeepMind participated. But, this year, the outfit’s deep-learning network was head-and-shoulders above other teams and, say scientists, performed so mind-bogglingly well that it could herald a revolution in biology.

“It’s a game changer,” says Andrei Lupas, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who assessed the performance of different teams in CASP. AlphaFold has already helped him find the structure of a protein that has vexed his lab for a decade, and he expects it will alter how he works and the questions he tackles. “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything,” Lupas adds.

In some cases, AlphaFold’s structure predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography and, in recent years, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). AlphaFold might not obviate the need for these laborious and expensive methods — yet — say scientists, but the AI will make it possible to study living things in new ways.

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It’s really hard to overstate the importance of this, though it will take years to become apparent; rather as sequencing the human genome in the late 1990s led to us being able to produce an mRNA vaccine in just two days, given its sequence (the rest of the time has been spent on production and trials). The complexity of protein folding is mindblowing: it depends on interactions between existing parts of the protein as it’s produced, which then are influenced by subsequent parts. And it all works.
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‘Christmas slots went in five hours’: how online supermarket Ocado became a lockdown winner • The Guardian

Harry Wallop:

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From the viewing platform you can watch these metal cubes endlessly whiz around, moving thousands of plastic crates as if they were playing an enormous game of chess. You occasionally sight bottles of bleach or rosé, packets of noodles and dog biscuits, before they are sent down to a lower level.

“I find it quite mesmerising, like robotic ballet,” says Mel Smith, CEO of Ocado Retail, the UK arm of the business. “The day I decided I wanted this job was when I went to [the warehouse] and thought, this is absolutely the future.”

Smith is a plain-speaking, cheery New Zealander who joined just over a year ago from Marks & Spencer. She was hired in part to oversee the potentially tricky move of Ocado taking on M&S as its main supplier, after its longstanding relationship with Waitrose turned sour. The day I visit, it is just 48 hours after Ocado switched to M&S.

A floor below the robots, Elizabeth, a personal shopper, is standing at pick station number 29. Her average “each” time – Ocado jargon for individual products – is flashed up on a screen in front of her: 6.7 seconds, beating the target of seven seconds. This is how long it takes her to reach into the crate that has flown down a shaft from the floors above, take a product – in this case a bag of Cafédirect Machu Picchu ground coffee – scan its barcode and place it in one of Ocado’s distinctive grey plastic bags.

This is what makes the online retailer so different. If you place an order for a large shop from Tesco, Sainsbury’s or any of the other supermarkets, they will usually send a worker to walk along the aisles and pick your shopping in either an actual store or a so-called “dark store”, which caters exclusively to online shopping. Even if they are very quick, this is likely to take 20 minutes to half an hour. “There’s no way you can pick as quickly in store as here. Nothing like it,” says Simon Nottage, who runs the warehouse and is showing me around. He points to Elizabeth, who is now placing some cat litter into a bag: “This one station will do up to 400 ‘eaches’ an hour.”

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The start of lockdown in March was like a DDOS attack. But in a good way.
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Economists urge BBC to rethink ‘inappropriate’ reporting of UK economy • IPPR

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is a centrist (in the British, not American, sense) thinktank on economics, and this is from its executive director Carys Roberts:

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We are writing to you with regards to coverage of the 2020 Spending Review on Politics Live, Wednesday 25th November. Specifically, when responding to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s public sector borrowing projections, BBC News political editor Ms Kuenssberg said that “this is the credit card, the national mortgage, everything absolutely maxed out”, and later went on to comment that “for next few years, there is really no money”. We argue that this commentary misrepresents the financial constraints facing the UK government and reproduces a number of misconceptions surrounding macroeconomics and the public finances.

To focus on the “credit card” analogy, we would argue that this is never an appropriate metaphor for public finances. Maxing out a credit card would imply that the government is approaching a hard limit on its ability to borrow. This is not the case. It is the consensus amongst economists that the government should at this point in time not focus on reducing the deficit, but rather on delivering the spending necessary to secure a recovery from Covid-19. Modelling suggests that public debt as a proportion of GDP could actually fall were the government to embark upon a major investment package boosting jobs and growth, a position similar to that of the IMF in its flagship publication (pp 18-19) on the issue. This is in line with standard macroeconomic literature which stresses the beneficial effects of countercyclical government spending during crises.

Interest rates currently charged on government bonds are at record lows, so much so that the government is set to spend less on debt interest over the next five years than previously forecast, despite the rise in national debt over the course of the pandemic. Moreover, it is likely that interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future; the interest rate charged on the 30-year gilt is currently 0.88%. These are not the signs of an institution approaching its credit limits.

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Margaret Thatcher created the idea of the economy being like the household budget in the 1980s, and it stuck firmly in the national consciousness. It also happens to be wrong.
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We talked to a PS5 scalper about how they got their consoles • Pocket Lint

Max Freeman-Wills:

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After getting four consoles himself when pre-orders went live, each through manual means, Jack [the PS5 scalper] set about getting ready for launch-day stock. That meant, in practice, buying up the use of bots and proxies through connections on Discord, and choosing where they’d target come launch.

If that sounds hyper-technical, he says “it’s one of those things where once you get into it, it becomes very clear.” The Discord community helps newbies set stuff up, to avoid situations where someone “wastes a load of money on proxies” and badmouths the process. If people make money without too much hassle, more people will buy bots and the developers who act as the beating heart of reseller communities will continue making more and more money themselves. 

Most communities can be found by carefully watching Twitter, he says -“you kind of have to gamble a bit on joining a group and finding one on Twitter, but I think Twitter always has been and always will be one of the best resources for releases like this because you’ve got your chronological timeline”. If you’re let in, the simplest step is to simply pay another reseller to run a bot for you – for a fee of around £50, you’ll have bought a far higher chance of getting a console than your average consumer, with a risk of detection and cancellation to go with it. 

From there things have a steeper learning curve, but the picture Jack paints still summons some dismay – this isn’t something that’s hard to get into if you’re relatively comfortable using computers and browsing the web, which is hardly the highest bar to clear. That said, there is still an undeniable risk to be taken at some point when card details need to be handed over, and addresses (and mates’ addresses) detailed. 

Those risks don’t disappear when you’ve got a console either – resellers regularly have their time wasted by frustrated non-buyers (something that’s easy to see the satisfaction in), which can be harmless but can make them feel vulnerable while it’s happening. In turn, he’s heard about a reseller who was apparently stabbed during a handover this week, showing that more unacceptable levels of anger are bubbling away at scalpers. 

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He targeted John Lewis, the big department store chain, on the basis that it probably wouldn’t be prepared for an onslaught. And picked correctly. Used to be that sites worried about bots taking them down; now it’s about cleaning them out. Except that’s good for John Lewis, and Sony.
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How venture capitalists are deforming capitalism • The New Yorker

Charles Duhigg:

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From the start, venture capitalists have presented their profession as an elevated calling. They weren’t mere speculators—they were midwives to innovation. The first V.C. firms were designed to make money by identifying and supporting the most brilliant startup ideas, providing the funds and the strategic advice that daring entrepreneurs needed in order to prosper. For decades, such boasts were merited. Genentech, which helped invent synthetic insulin, in the 1970s, succeeded in large part because of the stewardship of the venture capitalist Tom Perkins, whose company, Kleiner Perkins, made an initial hundred-thousand-dollar investment. Perkins demanded a seat on Genentech’s board of directors, and then began spending one afternoon a week in the startup’s offices, scrutinizing spending reports and browbeating inexperienced executives. In subsequent years, Kleiner Perkins nurtured such tech startups as Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems, and Compaq. When Perkins died, in 2016, at the age of 84, an obituary in the Financial Times remembered him as “part of a new movement in finance that saw investors roll up their sleeves and play an active role in management.”

The V.C. industry has grown exponentially since Perkins’s heyday, but it has also become increasingly avaricious and cynical. It is now dominated by a few dozen firms, which, collectively, control hundreds of billions of dollars. Most professional V.C.s fit a narrow mold: according to surveys, just under half of them attended either Harvard or Stanford, and 80% are male. Although V.C.s depict themselves as perpetually on the hunt for radical business ideas, they often seem to be hyping the same Silicon Valley trends—and their managerial oversight has dwindled, making their investments look more like trading-floor bets. Steve Blank, an entrepreneur who currently teaches at Stanford’s engineering school, said, “I’ve watched the industry become a money-hungry mob. V.C.s today aren’t interested in the public good. They’re not interested in anything except optimizing their own profits and chasing the herd, and so they waste billions of dollars that could have gone to innovation that actually helps people.”

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That’s the core of this piece, which is mostly about WeWork – which is of course the object lesson in VC gone wildly wrong. And what an object. (Theranos had almost no VC money.)
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Astongate: fake emission figures, an embattled carmaker and a sock puppet PR company • LinkedIn

Michael Liebreich:

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You may have seen the news story last week about a new report purporting to show that it takes 50,000 miles before an EV’s emissions beat those of a petrol car. First of all, the figures were comprehensively debunked – the correct figure is nearer 16,000 miles – then, over the weekend I uncovered evidence that the report was written by a sock-puppet PR company run from an address owned by Aston Martin’s Director of Global Government and Corporate Affairs.

Before I start, a caveat. This story is about getting the truth out EV carbon emissions, and how much lower they are than internal combustion cars. It does not deal with any other aspect of the environmental footprint of EVs, which are considerable and still require much investment and innovation. Nor does it show that EVs are superior to every other form of transport. Even the best EV will always have a carbon footprint, a material supply chain, and will cause particulate pollution. Active travel – walking, cycling, scooting and so on – should always be our first choice. With that said, let’s get stuck in!

“Astongate”, as I call it, started with widespread coverage of a new study, purporting to show that building an EV involves such huge CO2 emissions that you have to drive it 48,000 miles before it breaks even with a petrol equivalent. It was just the sort of story loved by UK media on the political right – always keen to pour cold water on any sign of green over-reach.

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It’s quite the story, where an overzealous PR company with links to the car firms managed to plant a story which has been unravelling for days.
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A lack of transparency is undermining pandemic policy • WIRED

Roxanne Khamsi:

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I’ve seen this happen again and again since the start of the pandemic: a new, “science-based” Covid-19 measure is prescribed, but the science in support of it is either vague or missing altogether. Just last week, for example, I was working on a story about the latest research into quarantine procedures. The best data to this point suggests that an eight-day stretch of quarantine, combined with a Covid test, provides the same level of protection as the traditional 14-day quarantine. But then I saw New York state’s new policy: Some people who arrived from out of state are allowed to quarantine for just four days. I asked New York’s Department of Health how they’d come to this decision, and they sent me another statement from Cuomo, in which he said only that he’d “worked with global health experts” on the plan. A formal guidance from the state health department gave no research citations, either, but it did find space to boast about New York’s record of “strict adherence to data-driven, evidence-based protocols.”

This problem is hardly limited to one state. While reporting on that same quarantine story, I reached out to Alberta, Canada, which allows for an even riskier-seeming 48-hour period of quarantine for some travelers. What was the scientific basis for this policy? I never heard back.

A lack of transparency has even shown up in guidance from the World Health Organization. Back in March, I emailed the headquarters in Geneva to ask how they felt so certain at the time that the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus was not “airborne.” The press office responded to my questions with a pair of unhelpful scientific documents. In that case, the decision to omit (or ignore) existing research—which suggested that other coronaviruses are likely to be spread by air—might well have been a deadly mistake.

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It’s not so much a lack of transparency, as gigantic inertia – being both slow to start shifting from a position, and being slow to change course once headed in a direction. The WHO’s absurd refusal first to recommend masks and then to acknowledge that Covid transmits via aerosol has arguably cost a lot of time, and hence lives.

This is a consequence of organisations with strict organisational flows: they can’t flex. Social media flows more like water.
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How an anti-lockdown ‘truthpaper’ bypasses online factcheckers • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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photo that was spreading across Facebook, they were confused. The picture – which had been uploaded by users in the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere in the world – showed a headline that made the false claim that a US government agency had declared Covid-19 did not exist. It appeared to be from a real print newspaper, but no credible outlet would publish such a claim.

Then they had a breakthrough: it turned out the headline was from a new self-published conspiracy theorist “truthpaper” called the Light, edited by a man from Manchester who runs a business selling anti-vaccine T-shirts and 9/11 conspiracy merchandise.

The outlet, which has published three issues since it first appeared in September, draws heavily on the gloop of long-running online conspiracies about a new world order, which have attached themselves to the current pandemic. Among other things it encourages people to stop wearing masks and disobey lockdown on the basis that the coronavirus is a hoax.

It has been formed as a reaction to attempts by major tech platforms to clamp down on coronavirus disinformation – but the same tech outlets also help enable its reach: the Light’s distribution relies on a 5,000-strong private Facebook group where volunteers offer to hand out copies and post them through their neighbours’ doors.

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Claims a circulation of 100,000 – which is sure to be untrue. That would be super-expensive. But shows how they’re trying to route around expectations by producing a printed thing: print is trusted.
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