Start Up No.1471:


Ever wondered why you have to scroll so far to find the recipes on recipe blogs? It’s for SEO – honest. CC-licensed photo by Mike on Flickr.

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

Trump wants back on Facebook. This star-studded jury might let him • The New York Times

Ben Smith:

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They meet mostly on Zoom, but I prefer to picture the members of this court, or council, or whatever it is, wearing reflective suits and hovering via hologram around a glowing table. The members include two people who were reportedly on presidential shortlists for the U.S. Supreme Court, along with a Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a British Pulitzer winner, Colombia’s leading human rights lawyer and a former prime minister of Denmark. The 20 of them come, in all, from 18 countries on six continents, and speak 27 languages among them.

This is the Oversight Board, a hitherto obscure body that will, over the next 87 days, rule on one of the most important questions in the world: Should Donald J. Trump be permitted to return to Facebook and reconnect with his millions of followers?

The decision has major consequences not just for American politics, but also for the way in which social media is regulated, and for the possible emergence of a new kind of transnational corporate power at a moment when almost no power seems legitimate.

…The company put $130m into a legally independent trust with a staff of 30, which two people involved said paid six figures annually to each board member for what has become a commitment of roughly 15 hours a week.

…the board has been handling pretty humdrum stuff so far. It has spent a lot of time, two people involved told me, discussing nipples, and how artificial intelligence can identify different nipples in different contexts. Board members have also begun pushing to have more power over the crucial question of how Facebook amplifies content, rather than just deciding on taking posts down and putting them up, those people said.

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Hoo boy. So they get $100k minimum for that job? For 15 hours a week? So there is a career path in content moderation. (And want to have a go at the recommendation algorithm. That’s going to be fun.)
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UK drivers have cut 550 million miles a week by working from home • By Miles Insurance

Ciara Knight:

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Year by year, cars in the UK are continuing to drive less. We’ve seen by just how much Britain’s mileage has been steadily decreasing thanks to our analysis of official MOT data from the Department for Transport earlier this year.

Before Covid-19 hit, it was expected that the average annual mileage of a car in the UK would reduce to around 6,970 miles in 2020. But now that we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic and a second lockdown, and we’ve seen the daily miles driven by our members reduce by a quarter since the first lockdown began, we project that the annual mileage will actually go as low as 5,960 miles per car in the UK. Clearly, the downward trend continues, albeit much steeper than expected.

We’ve surveyed UK drivers and learned that the number of people traveling to work by car has fallen by 3.5 million to 11.4 million, decreasing from a total of 14.8 million before Covid-19 happened. On average, commuters have been driving around 30 miles less each week, compared to their pre-lockdown mileage in March. Simply put, that’s a lot.

The Government’s advice to avoid unnecessary journeys has played a major role in this reduction in mileage, as drivers obeyed guidelines to only make essential car trips. Up to 26 million UK drivers are now driving less since the pandemic started.

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Why recipe bloggers make you scroll so far to read the recipe • OneZero

Byrne Hobart:

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Why does every single entree need a more detailed backstory than the Warhammer 40,000 universe?

People ask this rhetorically, but there’s an easy answer: Recipes are a commodity; you can copy them as soon as you have the text. And Google’s search engine algorithm penalizes sites whose content duplicates other sites while rewarding sites with original content and a trusted brand name. So the competition in recipes is to either be a beloved site with short blurbs, or be a less reputable site with longer ones.

But if there’s more than one site in category A, Google still has to choose, and they use original content as a factor.

A 2,000-word story about how eggs Benedict reminds you of idyllic summer vacations is just the digital equivalent of putting a fence around the commons.

Google doesn’t want to tell everyone how much to write before they have enough “original content”— they just want everyone to err on the side of caution. If they gave explicit guidelines, they could see who was gaming the system by looking at who just barely managed to stick to the guidelines. (This was the downfall of the content farm Demand Media back in 2011; because they followed the letter of the law so scrupulously, all Google had to do was slightly tweak the rules to punish Demand for violating their spirit.)

While this feels weird, in an odd sense Google is just doing something that reflects physical reality. Every Italian restaurant below the 95th percentile of quality is a block of pseudo-unique content — location, decoration, ambiance, service — designed so you’ll pay a big markup on stuff anyone can make at home.

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Apple “Computer” • Micromobility Industries

Horace Dediu on the prospects or lack of them for an “Apple Car”:

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The larger the unit market the more likely the user base is large and it needs to be very large indeed to attract third party developers who are effectively co-innovators moving the category to new use cases and more value. The vibrancy of a category—its dynamism, cadence of innovation and platform or ecosystem health depends on high number of users using the same version of the product. This is evident in that the Smartphone market which has at least 3.5 billion users, the PC market with about 1.2 billion, tablets probably at 0.5 billion, all new markets. While the automobile install base is about 1 billion it is highly fragmented and slow to change.

The unit data can be expanded into value by multiplying by the average selling price. This results in the respective industries’ yearly sales, shown below.

I added additional color to this sales graph:
• Growth (1 yr.) is shown with the grey outlines
• Apple’s Services is added as a new bar
• Apple’s share of the industries’ sales is shown in orange. The orange bars across the graph add up to Apple’s yearly revenues.
• Tesla’s share of the car industry (and thus its revenues) is shown for calibration.

A few observations:
• Apple’s decision to stay out of game consoles seems right and it should be seen in contrast to its enabling gaming on phones, tablets and Home (via Apple TV, part of Wearables). It might have seemed logical for Apple to enter into the console business the way Microsoft did but it chose to disrupt with “good enough” games and that seems to have been the right decision driving the stickiness and value of the devices business.

• The Cars market is very large but it’s difficult to gain a large share of it. Judging by its valuation, Tesla’s entry into the automotive market has been a great success. But during its first 16 years the share gained (500k units out of 70 million or 0.7%) is not extraordinary. Hyundai in combination with Kia, another recent entrant, gained about 10.5% share in 53 years. (And yes, 53 years makes one an entrant in this business). The reason Apple’s market revenue shares are so much greater is because it largely created the markets in which it participates. Rather than hacking out share from incumbents, it created its own and iterated to sustain.

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It would be really useful to know what criteria Apple uses to decide whether to enter (or leave) a market. Why get out of routers (essential, good privacy story, existing expertise) but get into the voice-controlled speaker space, say?
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The information warriors fighting ‘robot zombie army’ of coronavirus sceptics • The Guardian

Archie Bland:

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Sometimes, Stuart Ritchie feels like he’s being pursued by an army of smiley faces. The lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, is not delusional: instead, and somewhat to his surprise, he is on the frontline of a coronavirus information war.

The emojis often decorate the Twitter profiles of the self-proclaimed “lockdown sceptics”, a subset of social media users who remain unconvinced that coronavirus restrictions are necessary, even as the number of deaths in the UK approaches 100,000.

Often they are indignant at the efforts of Ritchie and others to refute the claims of a small but thoroughly amplified cadre of columnists, academics and enthusiastic amateurs, ranging from the free speech advocate Toby Young to the engineer and diet guru Ivor Cummins, who provide dubious but densely argued justifications for their stance. At some point they settled on the smiley as their membership badge. If it is meant to be friendly, it doesn’t necessarily come across that way.

“When you tweet anything to dispute these claims, they come after you endlessly,” said Ritchie. “And with the emoji, it’s almost cult-like. They make the same discredited arguments over and over again. It’s like a robot zombie army.” In the course of a telephone interview, he got four disapproving tweets from the same user, whose profile picture was a great big yellow grin.

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The site they’ve built is covidfaq.co. I’d have pulled extracts from it before but there’s something weird about its coding. (Bare HTML, people! It’s simple! Loads fast on everything!) The content, though, is terrific. Worth reading alongside this piece by Nick Cohen about a 46-year-old denier who died of Covid.
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I’m an ex Q, former conspiracy theorist, ama. • QAnonCasualties

Reddit user “diceblue” does an AMA (Ask Me Anything) about how he dropped out of believing:

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I believed it all. 9/11, pizzagate, illuminati, Qanon, area 51 aliens, everything but lizard people or flat earth “because that’s crazy”. I eventually got out. Ama

Edit: Because the mods pinned this: Please everyone check out Street Epistemology and the works of folk like Anthony Magnabosco on YouTube. I could be wrong but I think approaches like his might be a way to get through to conspiracy believers.

Edit edit: the right Q hasn’t come up for this, but worth mentioning – there is a perverse comfort in Con Ts because of the false sense of order and purpose it brings to the world. Either the world is a boardgame chess match between Good and Evil forces working behind the scenes, and you might be a pawn but at least you are on The Right Side tm or you admit that the world is a mess, nobody is in charge, there is no grand battle of good and evil behind the scenes and your life has less purpose and order than you hoped.

Edit 3: Thanks mods for the chance to help/tell my story.

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His epiphany related to a Q claim about shutting down supercomputers. Turns out simple little things can tip people from believing to disbelieving. (I like the reddit users’ use of “Qultist” for the dolts.) (Via Garbage Day.)
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How Reddit’s WallStreetBets pushed GameStop (GME) shares to the moon • Bloomberg

Brandon Kochkodin:

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GameStop has become a money geyser for the options-obsessed crowd that gathers in Reddit’s WallStreetBets (WSB) forum. For those wagering on a decline, it’s been a catastrophe.

Give credit where it’s due. In their frenzy, WSB’s cocky hordes have managed to turn the tables in a game short sellers invented, spinning gold from the complacency of others. Before this year, GameStop was a cash register for bearish traders, who borrowed and sold more shares than the company issued. Hedge funds had been winning so long that they overlooked the tinderbox they were creating should sentiment turn.

Now it has, violently. GameStop, which isn’t expected to turn a profit before 2023, has seen its market value triple to $4.5bn in three weeks, burning the skeptics whose any attempt to cover is likely to further propel its ascent.

A notable victim of the shift has been Citron Research’s Andrew Left, once Wall Street’s most celebrated iconoclast for his role hounding Bill Ackman out of another battleground stock, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, five years ago. Today, Left finds himself first among the hunted, his decision to stop publicly bashing GameStop helping drive it up as much as 78% on Friday.

“Price movement aside, I am most astounded by the thought process that goes in to making these decisions,” Left said in an email to Bloomberg News on Monday. “Any rational person knows this type of trading behavior is short lived.”

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Trolling short-sellers for the lolz is quite the move, and a neat proof about the market staying irrational longer than (some) people can stay solvent. Except now Reddit has become “the market”.
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Shell buys electric vehicle charging station network Ubitricity • The Times

Emily Gosden, Energy Editor:

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Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to buy one of the UK’s biggest electric vehicle charging networks as the oil giant steps up its push into the power sector.

The Anglo-Dutch group said that it would acquire Ubitricity, which operates more than 2,700 public charging points, for an undisclosed sum.

Ubitricity was founded in 2008 in Berlin and specialises in on-street charging points that can be installed into existing street lights or bollards, which it says removes the need for planning consent and reduces set-up costs.

Shell said that Ubitricity had the “largest public EV charging network” in the UK, with a 13% market share according to Zapmap, a third-party website. Zapmap ranks the company just ahead of BP’s Pulse network, which it says has more than 2,500 public charging points.

BP also lays claim to being “the largest public network of electric vehicle charging points in the UK” and says that it “operates more than 7,000 public charging points across the UK”. The discrepancy is understood to relate to different definitions of what counts as “public”.

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Makes sense: if you’re an energy company with a big line in fuelling vehicles then you’d want to shift your business as the fuel does.
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Scoop: Google is investigating the actions of another top AI ethicist • Axios

Ina Fried:

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Google is investigating recent actions by Margaret Mitchell, who helps lead the company’s ethical AI team, Axios has confirmed.

The probe follows the forced exit of Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher also on the AI ethics team at Google whose ouster ignited a firestorm among Google employees.

According to a source, Mitchell had been using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples showing discriminatory treatment of Gebru before her account was locked.

The AI ethics team has been under great stress since Gebru’s exit, while thousands of people both within and outside of Google have criticized the company’s actions.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a December memo that the company was looking further into its treatment of Gebru. Google has yet to detail any findings from that inquiry.

Workers cited that treatment as among the reasons for forming a minority union for employees at Google parent firm Alphabet.

What they’re saying: In a statement, Google confirmed that Mitchell’s email account has been locked and that the company is investigating why Mitchell downloaded a large number of files and shared them with people outside the company.

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“Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.”

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That’s kinda suspicious, now, isn’t it.
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Dominion voting machine firm sues Giuliani for more than $1.3bn • The Washington Post

Emma Brown:

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Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation lawsuit Monday seeking more than $1.3 billion from Rudolph W. Giuliani, the lawyer for former president Donald Trump who played a key role in promoting the falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged.

The 107-page complaint, filed in federal court in D.C., cites dozens of statements Giuliani made about Dominion — on Twitter, in appearances on conservative media shows and on his own podcast — to promote the “false preconceived narrative” that the election was stolen from Trump.

That “Big Lie” not only damaged Dominion’s reputation and business and led to death threats against its employees, but also laid the groundwork for hundreds of people to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the complaint says. Five people died as a result of the attack, and dozens of law enforcement officials were injured.

In a speech just before the Capitol was stormed, Giuliani spoke of “crooked Dominion machines” that were used to steal the election and suggested that Trump supporters conduct “trial by combat.” Federal officials have charged more than 135 people in connection with the riot, and more are expected to be charged as the investigation continues.

“Having been deceived by Giuliani and his allies into thinking that they were not criminals — but patriots ‘Defend[ing] the Republic’ from Dominion and its co-conspirators — they then bragged about their involvement in the crime on social media,” the complaint says.

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The lawsuit is pretty thorough – there’s barely a public occasion when Giuliani dissed Dominion that isn’t included (and quite a lot of is-this-relevant? stuff). Skip to p76 for the condensed version. The crux is on Giuliani having been told authoritatively that the claims were wrong but ignoring them and continuing. I think he loses this one.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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