Start Up No.1514: Amazon’s toilet problem, Tesla’s bitcoin swizz, Medium pivots (yet) again, assess your news bubble, and more


The Zodiac killer of the 1960s, still unidentified, left cryptic ciphers. Now they’ve been cracked. CC-licensed photo by tommy jonq on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you, chief impact officer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon denies workers pee in bottles. Here are the pee bottles • Vice

Lauren Kaori Gurley:

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Amazon’s PR team is beefing with a Wisconsin congressman about the company’s labor conditions, among them whether its workers pee in bottles. 

On Wednesday evening, Wisconsin representative Mark Pocan called out the tech behemoth for its well-documented labor abuses in a tweet: “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.” 

In response, @AmazonNews, the company’s official news account countered, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.” 

But the fact that Amazon delivery drivers pee in bottles and coffee cups in their vans is not invented. It has been well-documented, and is a huge talking point among many delivery drivers. It is one of the most universal concerns voiced by the many Amazon delivery drivers around the country that Motherboard has interviewed. Delivery workers, who drive Amazon emblazoned vans, often deliver up to 300 packages a day on a 10 hour shift. If they take too long, they can be written up and fired. So spending time locating and using a bathroom is not always an option. 

In fact, here’s a photo of an Amazon delivery driver’s pee bottles. Motherboard confirmed the driver’s position and employment.

“We’re pressured to get these routes done before night time and having to find a restroom would mean driving an extra 10 minutes off path to find one,” an Amazon delivery driver told Motherboard. “Ten to fifteen minutes to find a bathroom can add up, meaning 20 to 30 minutes there and back all together.” 

“Obviously we drink a lot of water throughout the day so this is happening a lot through the drive,” they continued.

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This reminds me of the story about Lauren Hough, who had a job installing cable and fixing people’s routers. She measured customers by whether they offered her the use of the toilet.
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The solution of the Zodiac Killer’s 340-character cipher • Wolfram Blog

Sam Blake:

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The Zodiac Killer (an unidentified American serial killer active during the 1960s and 70s) sent numerous taunting letters to the press in the San Francisco area with regard to a local murder spree. In these letters, the killer took responsibility for the crimes and threatened to commit further murders. He also included three ciphers, each containing one-third of a 408-character cryptogram. The killer claimed that this cryptogram would reveal his identity when deciphered. The killer sent the fourth and final cipher (discussed in this blog post) to the San Francisco Chronicle after the 408-character cryptogram, deciphered in 1969, did not reveal the killer’s identity.

In 2020, Melbourne, Australia, had a 112-day lockdown of the entire city to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The wearing of masks was mandatory and we were limited to one hour a day of outside activity. Otherwise, we were stuck in our homes. This gave me lots of time to look into interesting problems I’d been putting off for years.

I was inspired by a YouTube video by David Oranchak, which looked at the Zodiac Killer’s 340-character cipher (Z340), which is pictured below. This cipher is considered one of the holy grails of cryptography, as at the time the cipher had resisted attacks for 50 years, so any attempts to find a solution were truly a moonshot.

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They really did go to the moon. Much easier to create a cipher than to break it. (The answer isn’t Ted Cruz, disappointingly.)
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Musk: Tesla accepts bitcoin as payment, won’t convert it “to fiat currency” • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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An all-caps warning from Tesla told buyers to be careful of mistakes that could result in lost cryptocurrency. “We will provide to you a digital wallet address (‘Bitcoin Address’) in both alphanumeric and QR code form. This is the payment address location to which you will need to send Bitcoin from your digital wallet… IF YOU INPUT THE BITCOIN ADDRESS INCORRECTLY, YOUR BITCOIN MAY BE IRRETRIEVABLY LOST OR DESTROYED,” Tesla said.

On any refunds of purchases made with bitcoin, Tesla will decide whether to give the customer dollars or bitcoin. This could result in a loss of value for customers because the price of bitcoin changes rapidly.

“If you are entitled to a refund of your payment or to a buyback, we reserve the right to refund to you either the exact Bitcoin Price that you provided to us at the time of purchase or an amount of U.S. Dollars that is equivalent to the U.S. Dollar price of the product that you purchased, at our sole and absolute discretion, taking into consideration operational efficiency,” Tesla said.

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So, note all the elements of this. First, you’re using a payment method that can screw up irretrievably, and which might be harder to get right than a normal bank transfer.

Second, heads you lose, tails Musk wins: you pay in bitcoin, but if its value goes up then you get a refund for less. If its value goes down, you get that lower value.

All this independent of the environmental waste of hawking bitcoin. But Musk is more interested in memes than the environment, it seems.
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Facebook has been autogenerating pages for white supremacists • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before Congress today, and he may have a few more uncomfortable questions to answer. Among them, why is Facebook autogenerating pages for white supremacist groups?

Researchers at the Tech Transparency Project found that Facebook created dozens of pages for groups like the “Universal Aryan Brotherhood Movement” when a user did something as simple as listing it as their employer. Some of the autogenerated pages garnered thousands of likes by the time they were discovered by researchers. TTP also discovered four Facebook groups that had been created by users. The researchers shared their findings with Facebook, which removed most of the pages. Yet, two of the autogenerated pages and all four Facebook groups remained active when the group published its findings.

Facebook reportedly banned “white nationalist” content following the 2019 mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque, expanding on an earlier ban of white supremacist content. 

It wasn’t hard for the researchers to find offending pages and groups. They simply searched Facebook for the names of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups identified by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Facebook has been doing this for ages – in my forthcoming book, I point to examples where it was ever so helpfully doing this for Isis and Al-Shabab. What’s more interesting is precisely why this happens, and keeps happening. Yes, I do cover that.

Zuckerberg also told Congress that lies aren’t allowed in ads. Not true.
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Broad Institute launches $300m initiative to fight diseases with artificial intelligence • The Boston Globe

Andy Rosen:

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The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is launching a new, $300 million initiative that applies advanced computer science to some of the hardest problems in medicine — an endeavor it said could uncover new ways to fight cancer, infectious disease, and other illnesses.

The Cambridge research center early Thursday announced the creation of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center, named for the former Google chief executive and his wife, who are major funders of the effort.

The money comes as biological and medical researchers are unlocking information about the human body at a scale that could take lifetimes to analyze and fully understand without the help of sophisticated artificial intelligence software. The institute hopes that by focusing its resources and expertise on developing and improving these programs, it will be able to spot patterns and unlock some of the basic mysteries of the human body.

In an interview, Eric Schmidt said he views the contribution as key to continuing the work of “mapping the language of life,” a hugely complicated proposition that is only conceivable because of the rapidly developing capacity of computer programs to help researchers find patterns in massive sets of data.

…He and Wendy Schmidt both said they believe most people would be astonished by the scope of things that science still cannot explain, such as the tangled web of interactions between the cells in our bodies.

“Life is full of patterns,” said Wendy Schmidt. She said advances in computing can help tease those out in ways that individual scientists’ observations cannot. “Then you get to the frontiers of whole new ways of looking at disease, and aging, and all of the things that plague humans.”

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Wasn’t really aware of Wendy Schmidt before. She and Eric S met because she edited his doctoral thesis at the University of California. (She was doing journalism.)
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The mess at Medium • The Verge

Casey Newton spoke to current and former employees at the Ev Williams-funded project:

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Like most such efforts, Medium’s renewed push into original journalism in 2018 was greeted with optimism by the reporters and editors who were hired to build the project out. One editor recounted to me the joy at being told they could pay freelancers $1 a word — more than they had been able to pay at previous jobs.

The company launched publications including OneZero, for tech; Elemental, for health; and Zora, for Black and brown women. Over the next two years, much of its fresh, insightful journalism would be acclaimed by an industry beleaguered by layoffs. At OneZero, Matt Stroud revealed that the CEO of a tech company backed by SoftBank had once been a neo-Nazi, leading to the CEO’s departure from the company; “The Zora Canon,” a list of the best books written by African American women, earned coverage everywhere from NPR to the New York Public Library.

The push into original reporting was rewarded with strong growth in paid subscriptions, current and former staffers said. But journalism was rarely at the center of the company’s marketing efforts. Employees expressed frustration that the company did so little to promote their work, hampering efforts to grow their publications’ brands — particularly during the crucial early months in which readers were forming impressions of them. Publications often had only skeletal branding or visual design; some “launched” before their editors-in-chief had even been hired. (On the other hand, I’m told, Medium’s public relations team exclusively promoted owned and operated publications, as did its social media accounts.)

With millions of dollars sunk into the effort, Medium’s push into journalism represented a significant investment. But individual publications often got little attention — and what resources they did get began shrinking within months. It was too much, and too little, all at once. “We were set up to fail,” a former employee told me.

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About 700k paid subscribers, generates about $35m in revenue annually, yet has burnt through more than $130m since 2016 with 75 editorial employees. It’s a mystery how. Hard to see things improving from here.
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How much of your stuff belongs to big tech? • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:

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[Michael] Heller and [James] Salzman open their new book, “Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives” (Doubleday), with the brouhaha that became known as “reclinegate.” In January, 2020, on the day that the Trump Administration declared covid-19 a “public health emergency,” a woman named Wendi Williams travelled from New Orleans to Charlotte on American Airlines. She was sitting in the next-to-last row, and some minutes into the flight she pressed the metal button on her armrest and leaned back. The man behind her responded by pounding on her seat. Williams filmed him with her phone and tweeted the video, which went viral. Everybody, it seemed, had an opinion on the matter.

“The proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s O.K. first,” Ed Bastian, the head of Delta Air Lines, said.

“The only time it’s ever O.K. to punch someone’s seat is if the seat punches you first,” Ellen DeGeneres declared.

According to Heller and Salzman, neither party was exactly right or exactly wrong. When Williams bought her ticket, she’d been led to believe that she was buying access to her seat and to the triangle of space behind it. The man in the last row believed that the triangle properly belonged to him. The airline had left the “rules of ownership” vague so that it could, in effect, sell the same wedge of space twice. The result was an aerial imbroglio.

In “Mine!,” Heller and Salzman examine a wide array of ways that people lay claim to things, both actual (as in treasure) and more abstract (as in ideas). Since ownership is constructed, it’s always up for grabs. Consider perhaps the most basic argument for possession: it’s mine because it’s me. Heller and Salzman recount the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn man who worked to match desperately ill patients with kidney donors. Had the donors given away their organs, Rosenbaum would probably have been considered a hero. As it was, the donors were paid. Under U.S. law, a person is forbidden to sell a kidney, even if it’s her own, and Rosenbaum was convicted of organ trafficking. At his sentencing hearing, in Trenton, several people said that he had saved their lives. Nevertheless, he ended up spending two and a half years in prison.

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Since we’ve had NFTs, and the question of “ownership”, this seemed apposite about ownership rights of physical spaces and virtual objects.
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Dr. Zeynep Tufekci to join Columbia Journalism School’s Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security • Columbia Journalism School

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Zeynep Tufekci, a leading scholar and writer on the complex relationship between technology and society, will be joining Columbia Journalism School’s faculty as a visiting professor in the fall of 2021 to shape the school’s new Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security. 

Tufekci is currently an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill at the School of Information and Library Science and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, WIRED and Scientific American, among other publications. Professor Tufekci’s book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” (Yale University Press, 2017) examined the competing innovations and weaknesses of digital tools in mass social movements.

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What would be really useful – if it’s what is happening – would be for Tufekci to teach people how she thinks. Because she is surely one of the smartest people around, and everyone could benefit from there being more people who can think like her.
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It ‘might take weeks’ to free ship stuck in Suez Canal • NPR

Scott Neuman:

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Eight large tugboats were continuing a struggle to free a giant container ship lodged crossways in the Suez Canal after the vessel ran aground earlier this week, bringing transit through one of the world’s busiest waterways to a halt.

The Suez Canal Authority said in a statement Thursday that it had officially suspended traffic while efforts to dislodge the 1,300-foot Ever Given continued. The salvage operator working to free the ship said it could be weeks before it is refloated — raising the possibility of major new disruptions to global commerce just as supply chains have begun to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ever Given — one of the largest container vessels in operation and nearly twice as long as the canal is wide — ran aground on Tuesday amid high winds, a dust storm and poor visibility for navigation. It was heading north en route from China to the Netherlands through the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

The tugs have been concentrating efforts around twice-daily high tides in the canal when they have the best chance of nudging the vessel into deeper water, shipping experts said.

But Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis, which is trying to free the ship, compared it to “an enormous beached whale” and said “it might take weeks” to get the vessel off, possibly necessitating “a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tugboats and dredging of sand.”

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So that’s going to be 10% of world trade stuff for a while. They need a shipping midwife.

…I’ll get me coat.
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Do you have a news blindspot? Analyze the news diet of any account on Twitter • Blindspotter

Lots of people playing with this on Twitter. However…

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Limitations of the tool

Our tool cannot decipher if an interaction with news content is positive or negative.

The results of the tool may be less meaningful for accounts largely run by assistants/staffers.

Our tool only records interactions with news sources that have a bias rating, so smaller local publications may not be included as a “news interaction”

We source our bias ratings from allsides, mediabiasfactcheck and adfontesmedia. You can read more about the methodology behind our bias ratings here.

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It’s all very dependent on what you classify as “left” and “right” and “centrist”. I get the feeling that the New York Times is classed as “left” and that it’s all very US-centric. Rather different from the view one might get this side of the Atlantic. (Via John Naughton.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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