Start Up No.1483: Facebook dials down the politics, is Clubhouse different?, how the Kent Covid variant emerged, and more


The next update to Apple Maps will let users record details about road accidents for crowdsourcing. CC-licensed photo by Mike McBey on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. That’s dialling down? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook dials down the politics for users • The New York Times

Kevin Roose and Mike Isaac:

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After inflaming political discourse around the globe, Facebook is trying to turn down the temperature.

The social network announced on Wednesday that it had started changing its algorithm to reduce the political content in users’ news feeds. The less political feed will be tested on a fraction of Facebook’s users in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia beginning this week, and will be expanded to the United States in the coming weeks, the company said.

“During these initial tests we’ll explore a variety of ways to rank political content in people’s feeds using different signals, and then decide on the approaches we’ll use going forward,” Aastha Gupta, a Facebook product management director, wrote in a blog post announcing the test.

Facebook previewed the change last month when Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, said the company was experimenting with ways to tamp down divisive political debates among users.
“One of the top pieces of feedback we’re hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services,” he said.

Political stories won’t disappear from users’ feeds altogether. Content from official government agencies and services will be exempt from the algorithm change, Facebook said, as will information about Covid-19 from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Last month, Mr. Zuckerberg said users would also still be able to discuss politics inside private groups.

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You probably feel that you’ve been hearing this story repeatedly over the past few months. That’s because you have. Zuckerberg said so two weeks ago. A block on political ads. A quiet block on political group recommendations in November.
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Clubhouse success shows niceness can exist on social media • Bloomberg

Tyler Cowen:

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To me, a lot of Clubhouse sounds like elders chatting around a traditional campfire, with many of the younger people listening in (noting that “elder” here is defined more by status than by age). Extra points go to those who are genuine, engaging and good at thinking out loud and leading a group. There is a subtle but definite set of hierarchies, though to the benefit of the conversation.

Tech is a major topic on Clubhouse, but there is also chatter about the NBA, South Asian cuisine, Nigerian politics, and dating advice, as well as many other topics. If you are a member, you can start your own room. Black voices are prominent.

Many of the virtues of Clubhouse stem from its software. Although the company has only about 10 people, the user experience is fun and empowering. For one thing, you can be involved immediately by the mere push of a single button, a kind of “one-click” listening.

Unlike a Zoom call, there is no video option, so it is more relaxing (or you can do the dishes while listening). The audience is represented by tiles with photos, so speakers feel the force of the crowd, which further encourages pleasant behavior. Room moderators can decide who has speaking rights and who does not. Practices of calling on people, and granting speaking rights, produce orderly discussions, though there are also more rowdy rooms with 30 or more people with speaking rights.

Members participate by invitation only, although membership has become increasingly easy to obtain since the service’s debut in spring 2020. Through access to your address book and the list of people you “follow,” Clubhouse connects you to conversations and people in a way that Zoom does not.

Recording conversations is against the rules. That lowers the risk of being canceled for a wayward remark. People still say bad things on Clubhouse, of course — but the people who get upset tend to go to Twitter to complain. The expectation is that moderators will restore order, and disgruntled listeners can just leave the room.

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So lovely to see someone who believes that there’s a social network where its wonderful design means bad things won’t happen, while admitting that bad things have already happened. Clubhouse is small. That’s why it hasn’t had huge rows. But they’ll come, don’t worry. (Especially now that Elon Musk has agreed to do an interview with, gods preserve us, Kanye West.)
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Apple Maps is getting Google and Waze-like accident reporting • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Apple is bringing accident, hazard, and speed check reporting to Apple Maps. The feature is currently only available to users with the iOS 14.5 beta, and is similar to user-reporting features found in Waze and Google Maps.

When you’re using the feature, you (or preferably a passenger) can press a new Report button in the bottom tray, and select what type of incident or hazard you’re reporting. You can even do this using Siri: I was also able to say “there’s a speed trap here” or “there’s something on the road.” MacRumors shows that the interface is available on the CarPlay version of Maps, too.

This user-centric reporting feature is now something that all the major maps app either have, or have in development. While this feature was popularized with Waze, it’s been available in Google Maps since April of 2019, so Apple is playing catch-up here (like it’s also trying to do by adding user-generated photos and reviews to Maps).

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A lone infection may have changed the course of the pandemic • WIRED UK

Matt Reynolds:

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natural selection might push the virus to transmit more easily, or become resistant to our immune response, but in the pressure-cooker environment of a single human body these changes can accelerate. Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge studied the evolution of Sars-CoV-2 in a man with lymphoma who had undergone chemotherapy and had been chronically infected with the virus for 102 days before dying.

After the man was treated with blood plasma from a recovered Covid-19 patient, at day 63 of his illness, the genetic makeup of the Sars-CoV-2 viruses within him started to shift. By day 82, viruses with a six-letter deletion in the spike gene were now the dominant population. This deletion – called ΔH69/V70Δ – also seems to be partly behind the increased transmission of the B.1.1.7 variant, as it makes it easier for the virus to enter host cells. The same mutation was also found in another chronically infected patient, a 47-year-old woman admitted to hospital in Saint Petersburg who has been ill for more than four months.

Within the man Gupta and his colleagues studied, the composition of the viral population kept changing. By day 86, the ΔH69/V70Δ population had been overtaken by a subset of Sars-CoV-2 with a different mutation in its spike gene. A week later both of these previous populations were barely anywhere to be seen and a new mutant had become the most populous strain.

For Gupta, this genetic tug-of-war is a likely explanation for the emergence of the UK variant. “What’s going on biologically within a person is probably going to explain this because there are very different selection pressures going on,” he says.

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In hindsight it’s obvious, and scientists were saying from early on that it was likely that the British variant emerged from a single, chronically infected person. But I don’t think we heard this sort of explanation before it happened. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Big Sur upgrade not enough free space = serious issue & possible data loss! • Mr Macintosh

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When you start the macOS Big Sur upgrade, the installer should first check to make sure your Mac has enough free space available. If the installer finds that you do not have enough free space for the upgrade, it will stop and not let you continue. You should see a pop up message showing you how much space is needed before you can attempt the upgrade again.

This free space check is NOT working. The upgrade will start even if you only have 1% of free space left and will fail. Your hard drive is now 100% full and the installer is now stuck in a boot loop attempting to finish the install. This leaves you unable access your data! I will go over all the details below and show you a fix at the end.

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Amazing that this was never spotted in all the development. But it’s a serious problem which has left some people with corruption or lost data.
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Authorities arrest SIM swapping gang that targeted celebrities • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Eight men were arrested across England and Scotland this week as part of a coordinated crackdown against a SIM swapping gang that has hijacked the identities and social media profiles of US celebrities.

The UK National Crime Agency, which made the arrests on Tuesday, said the gang targeted well-known sports stars, musicians, and influencers, primarily located in the US.

“These arrests follow earlier ones in Malta and Belgium of other members belonging to the same criminal network,” Europol, which coordinated the multi-national investigation, said today.

Officials said this gang engaged in SIM swapping attacks, where they tricked US mobile operators into assigning a celebrity’s phone number to a new SIM card under the attacker’s control.

While they had access to the victim’s phone number, the SIM swappers would reset passwords and bypass two-factor authentication on the victim’s accounts.

“This enabled them to steal money, bitcoin and personal information, including contacts synced with online accounts,” the NCA said.

Europol said the gang stole more than $100m worth of cryptocurrency using this method.

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This was more about targeting people who had cryptocurrency, it seems, and some of the big names got hit too. Quite an international gang – though the internet has made all that a lot simpler at least.
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TikTok sale to Oracle and Walmart is shelved as Biden reviews security • WSJ

John D. McKinnon and Alex Leary:

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A US plan to force the sale of TikTok’s American operations to a group including Oracle and Walmart has been shelved indefinitely, people familiar with the situation said, as President Biden undertakes a broad review of his predecessor’s efforts to address potential security risks from Chinese tech companies.

The TikTok deal—which had been driven by then-President Donald Trump—has languished since last fall in the midst of successful legal challenges to the US government’s effort by TikTok’s owner, China’s ByteDance.

Discussions have continued between representatives of ByteDance and US national security officials, the people said. Those discussions have centered on data security and ways to prevent the information TikTok collects on American users from being accessed by the Chinese government, they said.

But no imminent decision on how to resolve the issues surrounding TikTok is expected as the Biden administration determines its own response to the potential security risk posed by Chinese tech companies’ collection of data.

“We plan to develop a comprehensive approach to securing US data that addresses the full range of threats we face,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said.

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Larry Ellison came so close, SO close, to having it in his hand. But Trump’s administration could never hold focus. There is a case (being made by Ben Thompson and Matt Stoller) that TikTok does pose a security risk because who knows what the algorithm, controlled out of China, is doing?
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Elon Musk wants clean power. But Tesla’s carrying bitcoin’s dirty baggage • Reuters

Anna Irrera and Tom Wilson:

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The digital currency is created when high-powered computers compete against other machines to solve complex mathematical puzzles, an energy-intensive process that currently often relies on fossil fuels, particularly coal, the dirtiest of them all.

At current rates, such bitcoin “mining” devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, the latest available data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency shows.

Bitcoin production is estimated to generate between 22 and 22.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, or between the levels produced by Jordan and Sri Lanka, according to a 2019 study in scientific journal Joule.

The landmark inclusion of the cryptocurrency in Tesla’s investment portfolio could complicate the company’s zero-emissions ethos, according to some investors, at a time when ESG – environmental, social and governance – considerations have become a major factor for global investors.

“We are of course very concerned about the level of carbon dioxide emissions generated from bitcoin mining,” said Ben Dear, CEO of Osmosis Investment Management, a sustainable investor managing around $2.2 billion in assets that holds Tesla stock in several portfolios.

“We hope that when Tesla’s bitcoin ventures are over, they will concentrate on measuring and disclosing to their market their full suite of environmental factors, and if they continue to buy or indeed start mining bitcoin, that they include the relevant energy consumption data in these disclosures.”

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Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI)

A useful reference about the amount of energy consumed by bitcoin – with upper and lower bounds, because it has to be a guess.
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bitcom • The World Is Yours*

Alex Hern:

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That long-run electricity cost is effectively built in to bitcoin. If more electricity is spent than the total value of the rewards, then eventually, the least efficient miners go bankrupt, because they’ve been spending money on electricity and computers and not winning any rewards. But if less electricity is spent than the total value of the rewards, then that means there’s money being left on the table. Imagine a daily raffle with a £25 grand prize, where you learned that only two other £1 tickets were sold each day. It’d make sense, in that situation, to start buying up to £23 worth of tickets each day – since in the long run, that’s how much you could expect to win.

(With bitcoin, in the really long run, there’s going to be interesting interactions between this system, the free-floating exchange rate between bitcoin and the real money people use to pay electricity bills, the fact that the block rewards, that 6.25BTC, halve every four years, and the ability of miners, the lottery entrants, to charge a small fee to validate transactions.)

All of which is to say that Bitcoin doesn’t just use energy, like anything else. It inherently uses a lot of energy. The already-large energy budget of the currency is only as small as it is because, regardless of its potential, it is barely used. If Bitcoin were to live up to its potential, if it were to – I don’t know, replace Visa, or the US dollar, or hamburgers – then that 6.25BTC reward wouldn’t be worth £200k, it would be worth £200m, or £2bn, and the energy budget would go up accordingly.

And so simply handwaving the problem away, saying “this isn’t wasteful because bitcoin isn’t a waste”, doesn’t cut it.

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The idea of bitcoin using more energy in line with its price going up is quite scary, yet borne out by the evidence. (The whole article is an excellent explainer about bitcoin’s madness.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Bridgewater Associates (re bitcoin yesterday) is “the largest hedge fund in the world” rather than some dopey financial analysis company (though I guess they do that too). Thanks, Neil Cybart.

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