Start Up No.1518: Clegg defends Facebook’s algorithms, the Clubhouse party, WHO criticises China, bitcoin scam app nets $1m, and more


A big US Army contract means Microsoft’s Hololens bet is going to pay off handsomely. CC-licensed photo by NASA Johnson on Flickr.

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

You and the algorithm: it takes two to tango • Medium

Nick Clegg is not the Liberal Democrat leader or deputy British Prime Minister, he’s the chief PR for Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook:

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Every piece of content that could potentially feature [in your News Feed] — including the posts you haven’t seen from your friends, the Pages you follow, and Groups you joined — goes through the ranking process. Thousands of signals are assessed for these posts, like who posted it, when, whether it’s a photo, video or link, how popular it is on the platform, or the type of device you are using. From there, the algorithm uses these signals to predict how likely it is to be relevant and meaningful to you: for example, how likely you might be to “like” it or find that viewing it was worth your time. The goal is to make sure you see what you find most meaningful — not to keep you glued to your smartphone for hours on end. You can think about this sort of like a spam filter in your inbox: it helps filter out content you won’t find meaningful or relevant, and prioritizes content you will.

Before we credit “the algorithm” with too much independent judgment, it is of course the case that these systems are designed by people. It is Facebook’s decision makers who ultimately decide what content is acceptable on the platform. Facebook has detailed Community Standards, developed over many years, that prohibit harmful content — and invests heavily in developing ways of identifying it and acting on it quickly.

Of course, whether Facebook draws the line in the right place, or according to the right considerations, is a matter of legitimate public debate. And it is entirely reasonable to argue that private companies shouldn’t be making so many big decisions about what content is acceptable on their own. It would clearly be better if these decisions were made according to frameworks agreed by democratically accountable lawmakers. But in the absence of such laws, there are decisions that need to be made in real time.

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The News Feed is determined by machine learning systems, not people. Engagement is the critical metric, and measured by dwell time. And we have no way to tweak the levers of the algorithm except by Liking content and trying to ban content.

It’s very different from just choosing for yourself what you want to read on, say, Reddit. I find it impossible to read anything Clegg writes without constantly thinking it’s covering something up or skewing something. That’s not so much a hangover from his time in politics (where his big problem was that he wasn’t good enough at lying and scheming) as from how Facebook has been and continues to be. The culture won’t change while the leader doesn’t change.

(Side note: was his post on Medium, not Facebook, because anyone can read Medium?)
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Clubhouse feels like a party. But is it a good one? • The New Yorker

Anna Wiener:

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Over time, I found myself moving quickly from room to room on Clubhouse, restive and unsatisfied, as if at a party that hadn’t yet found its groove—staying home with a book would have been more nurturing, but maybe my friends would show up. For a while, I was content to eavesdrop. There were strangers telling stories, and discussing optimistic science fiction, and practicing second languages, and engaging in wild financial speculation. There were occasional flashes of revelation and inspiration.

It seemed plausible that somewhere on the app people were falling in love, or at least meeting future business partners. It was nice to stumble across friends’ avatars in rooms where I was also a listener—like spotting a familiar face at a lecture, or the bar—and exciting to see the names of people I admired from afar, their avatars flickering with the potential for a serendipitous encounter, a shared stage.

Yet I was always dropping in, swinging by. In so many rooms, I couldn’t remember what had drawn me inside; I knew only that I was just passing through, and wouldn’t stay for long.

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Data withheld from WHO team probing COVID-19 origins in China: Tedros • Reuters

Stephanie Nebehay, John Miller:

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Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing… “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by the WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the United States has alleged, hindered them.

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China won’t ever let a closer examination of the lab happen. That’s not because the lab is the cause (the report discusses the various possibilities pretty fairly), but because China hates being the source of the problem.
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Microsoft wins contract to make modified HoloLens for US Army • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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The Pentagon announced that Microsoft has won a contract to build more than 120,000 custom HoloLens augmented reality headsets for the U.S. Army. The contract could be worth up to $21.88bn over 10 years, a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday.

Microsoft shares moved higher after the announcement. The stock was up 1.7% to $235.77 per share at the end of Wednesday’s trading session.

The deal shows Microsoft can generate meaningful revenue from a futuristic product resulting from years of research, beyond core areas such as operating systems and productivity software.

It follows a $480m contract Microsoft received to give the Army prototypes of the Integrated Visual Augmented System, or IVAS, in 2018. The new deal will involve providing production versions.

The standard-issue HoloLens, which costs $3,500, enables people to see holograms overlaid over their actual environments and interact using hand and voice gestures. An IVAS prototype that a CNBC reporter tried out in 2019 displayed a map and a compass and had thermal imaging to reveal people in the dark. The system could also show the aim for a weapon.

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That’s the Hololens R&D all paid for, then. Does this push Apple’s plans for a headset forward, do we think?
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Big breakthrough for ’massless’ energy storage • Chalmers

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Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology have produced a structural battery that performs ten times better than all previous versions. It contains carbon fibre that serves simultaneously as an electrode, conductor, and load-bearing material. Their latest research breakthrough paves the way for essentially ’massless’ energy storage in vehicles and other technology.

​The batteries in today’s electric cars constitute a large part of the vehicles’ weight, without fulfilling any load-bearing function. A structural battery, on the other hand, is one that works as both a power source and as part of the structure – for example, in a car body. This is termed ‘massless’ energy storage, because in essence the battery’s weight vanishes when it becomes part of the load-bearing structure. Calculations show that this type of multifunctional battery could greatly reduce the weight of an electric vehicle.

The development of structural batteries at Chalmers University of Technology has proceeded through many years of research, including previous discoveries involving certain types of carbon fibre. In addition to being stiff and strong, they also have a good ability to store electrical energy chemically. This work was named by Physics World as one of 2018’s ten biggest scientific breakthroughs.

The first attempt to make a structural battery was made as early as 2007, but it has so far proven difficult to manufacture batteries with both good electrical and mechanical properties. 

But now the development has taken a real step forward, with researchers from Chalmers, in collaboration with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, presenting a structural battery with properties that far exceed anything yet seen, in terms of electrical energy storage, stiffness and strength.

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He downloaded the Trezor app on iOS. It was a scam and stole $1 million in bitcoin • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Phillipe Christodoulou wanted to check his bitcoin balance last month, so he searched the App Store on his iPhone for “Trezor,” the maker of a small hardware device he uses to store his cryptocurrency. Up popped the company’s padlock logo set against a bright green background. The app was rated close to five stars. He downloaded it and typed in his credentials.

In less than a second, nearly all of his life savings — 17.1 bitcoin worth $600,000 at the time — was gone. The app was a fake, designed to trick people into thinking it was a legitimate app.

But Christodoulou is angrier at Apple than at the thieves themselves. He says Apple marketed the App Store as a safe and trusted place, where each app is reviewed before it is allowed in the store.

Christodoulou, once a loyal Apple customer, said he no longer admires the company. “They betrayed the trust that I had in them,” he said in an interview. “Apple doesn’t deserve to get away with this.”

…Trezor, based in the Czech Republic and owned by a company called Satoshi Labs, is a well-known maker of hardware wallets. Trezor doesn’t have a mobile app, but crypto thieves created a fake one and put it on Apple’s App Store in January and the Google Play Store in December, according to those companies, tricking some unsuspecting Trezor customers into entering their seed phrases.

Kristyna Mazankova, a spokeswoman for Trezor, said the company has been notifying Apple and Google for years about fake apps posing as a Trezor product to scam its customers. Trezor has never had a mobile app, though the company is working on one. She said the process of reporting the apps is “painful” and that representatives of Apple and Google haven’t been in contact.

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Maybe a placeholder app, Trezor? It’s asking a lot of Apple to police all of these – though there could be a list of names to watch for. (Except if the app updates itself to a different name; that though should trigger a check.)
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The Tories are getting away with corruption on an epic scale – how can Labour make them pay? • New Statesman

Paul Mason:

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While nobody in their right mind thinks Line of Duty is real, its metaphoric truth is: when dealing with the commercialised and fragmented British state, you have to assume that everybody is on the make, everyone is gaming the system, everyone has something to hide, and that behind every investigation there is a cover-up.

Beyond this general feeling of numbness and indifference towards malfeasance in public office, there is also something more specific. For a minority of the electorate, so long as Johnson and his ministers go on delivering a steady diet of prejudice, illiberalism and provocations against “wokeness”, they will be forgiven any mistake. Tens of thousands of elderly people dead because of an unconscionably late lockdown? Christmas cancelled? The fishing industry destroyed? A trade border now drawn in the Irish Sea? None of it matters so long as Johnson, Priti Patel and the rest are prepared to fight the culture war.

But it should matter and the opposition needs to make it matter. Labour’s Rachel Reeves has carved out a strong position by meticulously pursuing evidence and explanations over the Covid cronyism scandals. Translating this into a potent political narrative requires Labour to go further.

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The Labour Party seems stunned by Johnson: while Keir Starmer easily bests him in Parliament, that’s not where the real fight is won. Nor does Labour seem to have any policies discernible from the Tories. Starmer hasn’t been helped by the pandemic. But he hasn’t helped himself.
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Dark web bursting with COVID-19 vaccines, vaccine passports • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

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Tired of waiting to get your vaccine appointment? For just $500, you could get a COVID-19 vaccine dose tomorrow (overnight shipping not included). Too rich for your blood? How about a vaccination card for just $150?

Security researchers have seen a spike in listings on dark web marketplaces in recent weeks. The sites are advertising everything from vaccine doses to falsified vaccine certifications and negative test results. Currently, more than 1,200 listings are offering a variety of vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sputnik, and Sinopharm.

Investigations by researchers at security firm Check Point have been monitoring the sites for COVID-19-related activity since January, and they report a three-fold increase in such activity over the last three months. It’s unclear if the doses are legitimate, and even if they were, there’s no guarantee that the vials have been stored at the correct temperature, potentially rendering them useless. 

Last week, Check Point researchers based in Israel attempted to buy the Sinopharm vaccine from one vendor, said Ekram Ahmed, a spokesperson for the company. “We tried to negotiate and buy the Chinese vaccine through one of the vendors,” he told Ars. The team messaged the vendor, who directed them to continue the negotiations on Telegram. Once there, the vendor provided reassurances that the vaccine doses were legitimate. The researchers sent $500 to a Bitcoin wallet, and while they have received a FedEx shipping label, they have yet to receive the shipment.

Dark web vendors are probably doing better business selling falsified vaccine cards and negative test results. “Lately, we’re seeing more vaccination certificates being offered” than vaccines, Ahmed said. “It’s probably a two-to-one ratio.”

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The fake vaccination certificates is the sort of thing the late, great British SF writer John Brunner predicted – in his case it was AIDS, but same sorta thing.
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Suez Canal: QAnon’s cargo ship conspiracies are getting wild(er) • Vice

David Gilbert:

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Within minutes of the Ever Given ship getting stuck in Egypt’s Suez Canal last week, an incident that created chaos in global supply chains, QAnon supporters were spreading wild conspiracies that the ship was operated by Hillary Clinton and carrying a cargo of child sex slaves.

The claims were based on the fact that the Taiwanese shipping company that operates the ship is called Evergreen, which was Clinton’s secret service name when she was first lady.

The baseless theory was given further credence — in the minds of QAnon followers at least — when it emerged that the ship’s call sign was “H3RC” which is close enough to Clinton’s own initials (HRC) for QAnon followers to make the link.

The theory quickly spread on Telegram and Gab, the platforms QAnon followers have fled to in the wake of a purge by mainstream social networks in recent months.

But the claims also made their way to Twitter and Facebook, where fact-checking group PolitiFact flagged and debunked them.

“There is no evidence that an Evergreen ship stuck in the Suez Canal is linked to a human trafficking operation run by Hillary Clinton. That claim has been pushed by supporters of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory,” Daniel Funke, an expert in online misinformation at PolitiFact, wrote.

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This actually ran last week, while the Ever Given was up the spout, and it’s unintentionally hilarious in what it says about the ARG* that is QAnon.

(* Alternative Reality Game.)

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:Pretty much everyone got in touch by some means or another to point out that the bomb dropped over Nagasaki was not a hydrogen (fusion) bomb but was a fission bomb – the difference from the Hiroshima bomb being that it used plutonium rather than uranium. The first “hydrogen” (H-) bomb – so called because the initial fission blast triggers a fusion process on a small amount of heavy hydrogen, thus unleashing a colossal amount of energy – was tested in 1952.

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