Start Up No.1466: the trouble with social media algorithms, happy at work?, the vaccine’s good news, the carbon capture conundrum, and more


Israel has vaccinated more than a quarter of its population and says its Covid problem is over. CC-licensed photo by Israel Defense Forces on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Heartily. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Social-media algorithms rule how we see the world. Good luck trying to stop them • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we lost control of what we see, read—and even think—to the biggest social-media companies.

I put it right around 2016. That was the year Twitter and Instagram joined Facebook and YouTube in the algorithmic future. Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, they promoted stuff we’d most likely tap, share or heart—and buried everything else.

Bye-bye, feeds that showed everything and everyone we followed in an unending, chronologically ordered river. Hello, high-energy feeds that popped with must-clicks.

At around the same time, Facebook—whose News Feed has been driven by algorithms since 2009—hid the setting to switch back to “Most Recent.”

No big deal, you probably thought, if you thought about it at all. Except these opaque algorithms didn’t only maximize news of T. Swift’s latest album drops. They also maximized the reach of the incendiary—the attacks, the misinformation, the conspiracy theories. They pushed us further into our own hyperpolarized filter bubbles.

“There are bad people doing bad things on the internet—QAnon, white supremacists—it’s not that Facebook, YouTube and other social-media sites allow it on their platform. It’s that they amplify it,” says Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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The only social network I use to any extent is Twitter, and I use that through a third-party app (Tweetbot) which doesn’t show the algorithmic timeline – it’s the reverse-chronological timeline due to limitations of the API. That suits me fine. There aren’t similar solutions for Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube (though turning off Autoplay – which Google keeps trying to turn back on – helps a lot). What we might call the “Tweetbot solution” could help us all, a lot.
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A wristband that tells your boss if you are unhappy • BBC News

Suzanne Bearne:

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At first glance the silicone wristband could be mistaken for one that tracks your heart rate when you are doing exercise.

However, the wearable technology, called a Moodbeam, isn’t here to monitor your physical health. Instead it allows your employer to track your emotional state.

The gadget, which links to a mobile phone app and web interface, has two buttons, one yellow and one blue. The idea is that you press the yellow one if you are feeling happy, and the blue one if you are sad.

Aimed at companies who wish to monitor the wellbeing of staff who are working from home, the idea is that employees are encouraged to wear the wristband (they can say no), and press the relevant button as they see fit throughout the working week.

Managers can then view an online dashboard to see how workers are feeling and coping. With bosses no longer able to check in physically with their team, Moodbeam hopes to bridge the gap.

“Businesses are trying to get on top of staying connected with staff working from home. Here they can ask 500 members: ‘You ok?’ without picking up the phone,” says Moodbeam co-founder Christina Colmer McHugh.

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Trials found that people didn’t want these to be anonymous; they’d rather be identifiable. Lots of people dunked on this idea on social media, but as described it could clearly have beneficial effects.
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Underselling the vaccine • The New York Times

David Leonhardt:

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Here’s my best attempt at summarizing what we know:

• The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — the only two approved in the U.S. — are among the best vaccines ever created, with effectiveness rates of about 95% after two doses. That’s on par with the vaccines for chickenpox and measles. And a vaccine doesn’t even need to be so effective to reduce cases sharply and crush a pandemic.

• If anything, the 95% number understates the effectiveness, because it counts anyone who came down with a mild case of Covid-19 as a failure. But turning Covid into a typical flu — as the vaccines evidently did for most of the remaining 5% — is actually a success. Of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in a research trial, do you want to guess how many contracted a severe Covid case? One.

• Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. “If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one!” Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine. (And, no, exclamation points are not common in medical journals.) On Twitter, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco, argued: “Please be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters — disease and spreading.”

• The risks for vaccinated people are still not zero, because almost nothing in the real world is zero risk. A tiny percentage of people may have allergic reactions. And I’ll be eager to see what the studies on post-vaccination spread eventually show. But the evidence so far suggests that the vaccines are akin to a cure.

Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me we should be greeting them with the same enthusiasm that greeted the polio vaccine: “It should be this rallying cry.”

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The point about whether vaccinated people can spread the virus is giving me whiplash. So many people have said you shouldn’t assume you won’t pass it on. Then we have other experts saying ah, no, that’s hardly going to happen. What is clear is that the second shot makes a huge difference (raising antibody count by 6x – 20x) and that even the first shot means you don’t get seriously ill. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Businesses aim to pull greenhouse gases from the air. It’s a gamble • The New York Times

Brad Plumer and Christopher Flavelle:

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Occidental Petroleum and United Airlines are investing in a large “direct air capture” plant in Texas that will use fans and chemical agents to scrub carbon dioxide from the sky and inject it underground. Stripe and Shopify, two e-commerce companies, have each begun spending at least $1 million per year on start-ups working on carbon removal techniques, such as sequestering the gas in concrete for buildings. Microsoft will soon announce detailed plans to pay to remove one million tons of carbon dioxide.

The United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said nations may need to remove between 100 billion and 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century to avert the worst effects of climate change — far more than can be absorbed by simply planting more trees. But many carbon removal technologies remain too expensive for widespread use, often costing $600 or more per ton of carbon.

The hope, companies say, is that early investments can help drive down prices to something more palatable — say, $100 per ton or less — much as investments in wind and solar have made those energy sources cheaper over time.

But there are risks, too. As more companies pledge to zero out their emissions by 2050, some experts warn that they could hide behind the uncertain promise of removing carbon later to avoid cutting emissions deeply today.

“Carbon removal shouldn’t be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Jennifer Wilcox, a leading expert on the technology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It has a role to play, particularly for sectors that are very difficult to decarbonize, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for everyone to keep emitting greenhouse gases indefinitely.”

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Remove 100 billion to 1 trillion ton(ne)s of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s an astonishing amount. It’s so easy to think that targets like being “carbon-neutral” by 2050 mean the problem’s over. But it’s absolutely not; it just means the greenhouse gases that will warm the atmosphere as long as they are there aren’t being added to. To stop the heating, you need to remove the excess of gases that trap heat.
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That’s not how 2FA works • Terence Eden’s Blog

Pointing to someone being advised, on seeing a credible phishing site, to use two-factor authentication:

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A second factor allows a site to better authenticate you. It does not help you identify the site.

If you log on to fake-bank.com, the scammers will immediately take your username and password and send it to real-bank.com – the fake bank will then ask you for your 2FA token. That could come via SMS, email, an authenticator app, or even post. Then the fake site uses your real token and logs in as you. Game Over.

There is almost nothing you can do to authenticate that a site is legitimate:
• Any information that you can request from the real site can be proxied to the fake site.
• The green SSL padlock means nothing for validity. Anyone can get one.
• The top result on Google is invariably an advert for a scam site.

Realistically the only thing you can do is look for “out of band” verification. What’s the URL stamped on your credit card? What’s written on the welcome letter sent by snail mail? None of these are infallible – and they can all be manipulated by a suitably determined attacker.

The best defence is to use a password manager. I recommend the open source Bit Warden.

A password manager stores your passwords. But it also stores the web address of site’s login page. If you visit githud, the password manager won’t prompt you to use the login details for github.

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Never heard of Bit Warden before. The Google and Apple password managers would also do the same thing.
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Top official: Israel in ‘final stages’ of COVID, showing world an exit strategy • The Times of Israel

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Israel is in the “final stages” of the coronavirus pandemic, a senior health official said Friday after data showed the country was seeing clear results of its massive vaccination drive.

“We are in the final stages of the coronavirus. Israel, with the scale of its vaccine drive, is showing the world that there is an exit strategy,” Ronni Gamzu, who was Israel’s COVID czar and has since returned to his job as director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, told Channel 12 news.

His assessment appears to be shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recorded earlier this week telling a closed-door meeting that “It’s over.”

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“You all understand that everything we are talking about the corona is just compensation for the past. It’s over,” Netanyahu told members of a protest group representing independent business owners in leaked remarks recorded Wednesday and broadcast by Channel 12 on Friday.

The confidence comes with Israel having vaccinated nearly a quarter of the eligible population and clear signs the shots are having an impact.

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Worth having a look at the vaccination page on Our World In Data. UAE in second, Bahrain third, UK fourth, US fifth. Israel is miles ahead of everyone. Though of course this is only the first shot: they only started in the week of 20 December. Five weeks have elapsed since then, so many people are going to be due for the second quite soon.
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Misinformation went down after Twitter banned Trump • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:

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Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73% after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week, research firm Zignal Labs has found, underscoring the power of tech companies to limit the falsehoods poisoning public debate when they act aggressively.

The new research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm reported that conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter.

Election disinformation had for months been a major subject of online misinformation, beginning even before the Nov. 3 election and pushed heavily by Trump and his allies.

Zignal found it dropped swiftly and steeply on Twitter and other platforms in the days after the Twitter ban took hold on Jan. 8.

The president and his supporters also have lost accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, Spotify, Shopify and others. Facebook called Trump’s suspension “indefinite” but left open the possibility that the account could later be restored.

The findings, from Jan. 9 through Friday, highlight how falsehoods flow across social media sites — reinforcing and amplifying each other — and offer an early indication of how concerted actions against misinformation can make a difference.

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Wonder how it will look after Wednesday. A clear illustration of how untruths spread far more quickly than the truth on social networks because untruths can be manipulated into simpler, more outrageous messages.
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Massive blackouts have hit Iran. The government is blaming bitcoin mining • The Washington Post

Miriam Berger:

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Iran’s state-owned electricity firm Tavanir announced Wednesday that it had shut down a large Chinese-Iranian-run cybercurrency center in the southeastern province of Kerman because of its heavy energy consumption. The company reportedly was licensed to operate under a process the government had put in place to regulate the industry.

Alongside pointing a finger at legal operations, Iranian officials have specifically singled out illegal cryptocurrency miners as a strain on the electricity grid spurring outages, Mostafa Rajabi Mashhadi, a spokesperson for the electricity industry at Iran’s energy ministry, told the IRNA state-run news agency. On Wednesday, Ali Vaezi, a spokesperson for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said the government would be investigating cases of unlicensed cryptocurrency farms.

But Iranians in the bitcoin industry reject the government’s accusations, saying the industry is being blamed for a broader problem.

“The miners have nothing to do with the blackouts,” Ziya Sadr, a cryptocurrency researcher in Tehran, told The Washington Post. “Mining is a very small percentage of the overall electricity capacity in Iran.”

He added, “It is a known fact that the mismanagement and the very terrible situation of the electricity grid in Iran and the outdated equipment of power plants in Iran can’t support the grid.”

The government itself has pointed to cheap electricity rates, enabled by government subsidies, as another major cause of the blackouts. A member of the board of the Iranian Blockchain Association told IRNA that the electricity used by cybercurrency miners in Iran was estimated to be about equal to the electricity lost by the network during distribution.

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So it’s like doubling the network loss? You can see why Iranians might want to do this on the down-low, though.
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An oral history of Wikipedia, the web’s encyclopedia • OneZero

Tom Roston:

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Jimmy Wales: The big battle was between Google and their algorithmic search, and Yahoo!, which categorized things. They manually approved links, and they put them into categories. And nobody knew which was going to prevail as the dominant way of searching.

I thought, “Gee, [Yahoo!’s model] doesn’t scale very well, because Yahoo! has to hire people to do it. [Instead] we could just let anybody come and create a category.”

[Bomis [the company under which this was being done] created a model for information discovery called] a web ring. [Note: web rings were groups of topic-based blogs which linked to each other and selectively quoted each other and linked to each other. – CA] And people could come and create web rings on any topic. One of the first examples was somebody collected a bunch of links about Jupiter and they made a web ring about Jupiter.

Andrew Lih: It was trying to create an open source version of Yahoo!.

Jimmy Wales: We asked, “Who’s looking at all [these web rings]?” Well, it was men in their twenties. So, we did a baseball blog web ring. That went nowhere. Tim Shell built a web ring for Pamela Anderson, the actress, and it was like, unbelievable traffic. And then it turned out that people loved building web rings for actresses and models and porn stars. We didn’t set it up to do that.

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Wikipedia narrowly avoided being sucked up into the maw of internet porn. The step that’s astonishing, in retrospect, is deciding not to engage experts, but to trust in the wisdom of the crowd.
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Bitcoin cannot store energy (but could it help to build solar?) • Noahpinion

Noah Smith, having explained why people who say “bitcoin is a store of energy!” are wrong:

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Physical storage is one way of dealing with intermittency. You produce as much energy as you can during the sunny hours, and then you store that energy in a battery or in water reservoir etc. Then you draw down the energy when you need it. In fact, if you want energy at night, when there’s no sun at all, you definitely need physical storage.

But another way of dealing with intermittency is to overbuild. You build so many solar panels that even on a cloudy winter morning you can produce enough to power your home or office or factory.

But overbuilding costs money. Yes, solar is coming down fast in price, but it would still be nice to have some way to defray the costs of overbuilding.

Well, Bitcoin may help with that. If you build enough solar to power you during a cloudy winter morning, you have a lot of extra, wasted capacity on a clear summer midday. This is what produces the famous “duck curve”.

So if you’re not going to store it, what do you do with all that extra solar electricity during the sunny times? One thing you could do is to use it to mine Bitcoin. That will make some money for the utility company, which it can then use to recoup some of the cost of building the solar plant in the first place.

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But as he quickly points out, that won’t work if more people get into the bitcoin mining business. In which case you might as well do other more profitable things with the surplus energy. Or more useful things, like desalinating water or electrolyzing water. In fact, forget about bitcoin. Just build the solar.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the iOS app that I used to check my heart rate variability (HRV) is called Heartwatch.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1466: the trouble with social media algorithms, happy at work?, the vaccine’s good news, the carbon capture conundrum, and more

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