Start Up No.1549: Apple unhires controversial ad man, seeking truth in India, beat that inbox!, Robinhood’s lottery design, and more

Why can’t phone networks stamp out spoofing? Because it would reveal which lines are subject to government tapping. CC-licensed photo by garann on Flickr.

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

The voice in your head could be mine if you buy the audiobook; or just have your own inner monologue. Preorder Social Warming, out June 24.

‘Misogynistic’ Apple hire is out hours after employees call for investigation • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:


Antonio García Martínez is no longer working at Apple hours after employees circulated a petition calling for an investigation into his hiring. Martínez, a former Facebook product manager on the ad targeting team, authored a controversial book about Silicon Valley where he expressed misogynistic views on women.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent hiring of Antonio García Martínez,” employees wrote in the petition. “His misogynistic statements in his autobiography — such as ‘Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit’ (further quoted below this letter) — directly oppose Apple’s commitment to Inclusion & Diversity.”

More than 2,000 employees signed the petition before it was published by The Verge.

Shortly after the petition began circulating internally at Apple, Martínez’s Slack account was deactivated. The ad platforms team was called into an emergency meeting where it was confirmed Martínez would no longer be working at the company.


Well, that escalated quickly. Martinez was hardly anyone’s idea of a gladhander, but he did get results. Perhaps it says something about the companies involved that he lasted two years at Facebook and roughly as many days (ok, maybe weeks) at Apple. Or maybe it’s because he wrote the book in the middle which made his views clear.

That’s not quite all, though. Jean-Louis Gassée, Que Dieu Préserve, asks how he got hired when the coming culture clash was out there for everyone to see. “How come he got hired, vetted? You know the one cockroach theory. How many such bad hiring decisions?”

The “one cockroach” theory, if you didn’t know it (I didn’t), is that when you see one cockroach you should realise there are a ton more of them too, just out of sight. So how many people who aren’t actually a good cultural fit have been hired at Apple, over what period? And what effect will that have, in time?
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Fact-checking Modi’s post-truth India • Rest of World

Sonia Faleiro:


Misinformation is a challenge globally, but in India, it’s practically baked into the ruling party’s communications. And while the platforms that are host to this misinformation, like Facebook and Twitter, have made attempts to curtail it, it hasn’t been enough to stem the tide. The average Indian media consumer is inundated with misinformation from the time they open the day’s paper to when they lie in bed scrolling on their smartphones at night, so much so that if they don’t make the effort to seek out facts for themselves, they risk responding to a fictional reality. 

It’s why two engineers, Zubair, 38, and his colleague Pratik Sinha, 39, banded together in 2016 to form Alt News, which debunks false information with meticulous documentation. But while their profile has risen in recent years, they still find themselves playing whack-a-mole in a country increasingly hostile to the truth.

Alt News is based in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat. Before the pandemic forced its team to stay home, 12 full-time staffers worked out of its office, located in a quiet residential lane. Now, back home in the southern city of Bangalore, Zubair, a charismatic extrovert, manages fact-checking assignments as well, in part, Alt News’s massive social media following — more than 1.3 million across its multiple platforms, including Zubair and Sinha’s own followings. 

Every day, Zubair pores over his smartphone, scanning social media accounts that he knows exist only to pump out misinformation. He also monitors Alt News’s WhatsApp number, where people are encouraged to send images and videos. Usually, there will be requests to verify gossip about Indian movie stars, and now, as the country reels from the impact of a second Covid wave, bogus home remedies are doing the rounds. 

But what makes the Indian media ecosystem unique, Zubair told me, is that much of the misinformation is focused on religious minorities, particularly Muslims, India’s largest such minority. “Typically,” he said, “it’s a Muslim doing something”: images from Egypt misrepresented as Ramadan gatherings in India at the height of the pandemic, scenes from Bangladesh misleadingly shared as anti-Hindu violence.


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An economist’s tips on making email work for you • Tim Harford

He’s sorted data, now he’s sorting your inbox:


First: use the tools that many email programs offer. If you want to send an email to a large group while ensuring that only you receive the replies, don’t type “PLEASE DO NOT REPLY ALL”. Make it impossible to do so by putting the group in BCC. If someone else fails to follow this rule and your inbox fills up with witty but irrelevant banter from colleagues, try “mute”. Use “schedule send” to ensure your email arrives during office hours, no matter when you send it. This is a kindness, but also trains your colleagues not to expect instant responses.

Second: be the change you want to see in the world. Try announcing that you are “moving Julia to BCC” as a way of politely excusing her from further duties in a group email. Dabble with changing the subject line: “Arrangements for AGM 8 July” ceases to be a good subject if the AGM has been moved to July 7. If your entire email is that the 4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes, then I recommend a subject line “The 4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes //” rather than “URGENT PLEASE READ”.

Why act like this? Because it makes you a more pleasant person to work with. Because people will notice, and they may learn. Just as people acquire appalling habits from each other, such as sending repeated invitations to the same Zoom URL (or is it the same?), they also follow good examples.
My third piece of advice is the most fundamental: clarify and decide. A hundred emails a day is a lot if you leave half of them sitting in your inbox. Keep that up and in a month you’ll have 1,500. Give it a year and you’ll be begging to be allowed to declare email bankruptcy, post the keys through the letterbox and walk away. The solution is to be sharper about your decisions. If no action is needed then delete or archive. Most archived email is easy to find again.

If action is needed, and it is brief and obvious, do it immediately. Otherwise, archive the email and note the project in a task manager such as Trello, Remember the Milk or even a simple text file.


Next in this series should be “how to choose a task manager” followed by “why the best way to empty your task manager is to email the tasks to yourself”.
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Emotion recognition: can AI detect human feelings from a face? • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia:


For most of the past year, students at True Light College, a secondary school for girls in Kowloon, Hong Kong, have been attending classes from home. But unlike most children around the world forced into home-schooling during the pandemic, the students at True Light are being watched as they sit at their desks. Unblinking eyes scrutinise each child’s facial expressions through their computer’s cameras.

The “eyes” belong to a piece of software called 4 Little Trees, an artificial intelligence program that claims it can read the children’s emotions as they learn. The program’s goal is to help teachers make distance learning more interactive and personalised, by responding to an individual student’s reactions in real time.

The 4 Little Trees algorithm works by measuring micro-movements of muscles on the girls’ faces, and attempts to identify emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and fear. The company says the algorithms generate detailed reports regarding each student’s emotional state for teachers, and can also gauge motivation and focus. It alerts students to “get their attention back when they are off track”.

Its founder, a former teacher, Vicky Lim, says it reads the children’s feelings correctly about 85% of the time. The popularity of the software has exploded during the pandemic, with the number of schools using 4 Little Trees in Hong Kong growing from 34 to 83 over the past year, according to Lim.

4 Little Trees uses one of a family of new algorithms that its creators claim can recognise human emotion and state of mind, such as tiredness, stress and anxiety, through the analysis of facial expression, micro-gestures, eye tracking and voice tones.

The technology is a natural evolution of facial recognition systems, which identify individuals but is far more invasive — it claims not just to understand how someone is feeling in the moment, but also to decode their intentions and predict their personality, based on fleeting expressions.


You can also try out a version the FT knocked up for you. (Requires camera access for Turns out I’m quite the poker face.)
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The problem with legal intercept and backdoors • Baby is 60

Tim Panton:


There’s a thing that seems to be missed in the debate about encryption. We know exactly what happens if you enforce government sanctioned access to mass communications. We have watched it in the stagnation of the telcos.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but the Legal Intercept (LI) requirements stifle innovation. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where I’ve been told that a proposed network topology change or customer experience improvement wasn’t possible because of LI. Having the government as a big and legally mandated cash cow slowed innovation to a crawl and hugely reduced the incentives for doing what is best for your other customers.

There is an even more insidious impact. LI enables and facilitates telephone fraud.

The problem is that the telephone system has to be constructed in such a way that legal interception isn’t detectable by the customers who are intercepted. This means that as a telco you can never, by law, offer your customers accurate callerID. If you did, they would be able to tell the difference between a normal call and one with the infamous ‘Man in the Middle’.

So next time you get a call from ‘windows support desk’ trying to defraud you, remember that this could have been engineered out of our phone system years ago but for legal intercept. This is a real societal and economic cost to LI that is often ignored in this debate.


This is from 2016, but you can bet that it’s still completely the case today. On Thursday I listened to a telephone executive swallow his way through a grilling on a consumer radio program where he repeatedly dodged explaining why spoofing hasn’t been designed out of the phone system. This is why. But of course he couldn’t explain that LI is why, because the phone networks can’t admit that LI happens. I do wonder how the US networks are doing this, given that LI happens there too (I think).
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Michael Lewis: ‘We were incentivised to have a bad pandemic response’ • The Guardian

Andrew Anthony reviews Michael Lewis’s new book The Premonition, and talks to him as well:


If Dean and Mecher are the good guys, there are no shortage of baddies. Chief among these, perhaps surprisingly, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, better known as the CDC. It’s an American federal institution with an international reputation. As Lewis himself admits, he’d always thought of the CDC as “one of the places in the government that America can be proud of”. This, he adds, is because he didn’t know what they were doing.

In the book, they are mostly not doing very much and a lot of their energy seems to go into preventing others from doing anything either. Back in the 1970s, the then head of the CDC, David Sencer, called for nationwide vaccination after a swine flu outbreak. Two hundred million doses of vaccine were ordered and 45m administered, only for the outbreak not to materialise. Sencer was blamed for overreacting and sacked. Henceforth, the CDC tended to err on the side of cautious inaction. “I think the CDC had virtues but it was not battlefield command. It had become a place where the generals had no experience fighting a war,” says Lewis.

He is impressed by what the Biden administration has achieved in a short time. “I feel like there’s an intelligent entity all of a sudden,” he says. Nor is he in any doubt how ill-suited Trump was to being the man in charge during a pandemic.


I think Michael Lewis’s next book should investigate how Michael Lewis is able to write so many amazing books that capture the zeitgeist. I would read that one too. (I’m currently reading The Premonition.)
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Robinhood’s big gamble • The New Yorker

Sheelah Kolhatkar:


The app features whimsical illustrations, swipe navigation, and a St. Patrick’s Day color scheme; all were developed by the company’s creative director, Zane Bevan, one of Robinhood’s earliest employees. Like many of his colleagues, Bevan knew little about finance when he joined Robinhood. He told me that a year and a half ago the design team had updated the app to a primary-green shade from a teal color. “We wanted it to feel kind of honest and true,” he said. He and the rest of the team found the interfaces of other financial-services companies dense and intimidating. They instead took inspiration from weather, news, and fitness apps that required no prior knowledge to operate.

Natasha Dow Schüll, the author of “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” and a professor in the media, culture, and communication department at N.Y.U., told me that little about Robinhood, or about many other popular mobile-phone applications, is novel. Clever engineers simply repurposed many of the design features of slot machines, which were developed over decades. Green, the color of luck and of money, is found throughout Las Vegas, and Schüll said that the physical design of casinos is also mirrored in Robinhood’s pursuit of a “frictionless” user experience. Even the ability to trade partial shares seemed to Schüll to fit into a trend of “nano monetization,” which also includes multiline video slot machines that run on pennies, and online-poker Web sites that offer players the option of betting a dollar or less on multiple tables simultaneously. One of Robinhood’s most popular features is the “free stock,” which is offered when a new user signs up. Until April, the stock appeared as an onscreen lottery ticket that you scratched off, revealing a share of a company you had likely never heard of.

Adam Alter is a professor of marketing at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, and the author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.” He told me, “In a case of a company like Robinhood, it’s not enough for them to have users on the site. You actually have to get them to hit the Buy or Sell button.” He went on, “You’ve got to make that feel like it’s inconsequential. You’ve got to lower all the barriers resistant people might have to making financial decisions, so that you don’t even think about the money at all.”


Most of the first half of the article is about the history of Robinhood, but it gets a lot more forensic from this point onward.
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Colonial Pipeline paid hackers nearly $5m in ransom • Bloomberg

William Turton , Michael Riley , and Jennifer Jacobs:


Colonial Pipeline Co. paid nearly $5m to Eastern European hackers on Friday, contradicting reports earlier this week that the company had no intention of paying an extortion fee to help restore the country’s largest fuel pipeline, according to two people familiar with the transaction.

The company paid the hefty ransom in difficult-to-trace cryptocurrency within hours after the attack, underscoring the immense pressure faced by the Georgia-based operator to get gasoline and jet fuel flowing again to major cities along the Eastern Seaboard, those people said. A third person familiar with the situation said U.S. government officials are aware that Colonial made the payment.

Once they received the payment, the hackers provided the operator with a decrypting tool to restore its disabled computer network. The tool was so slow that the company continued using its own backups to help restore the system, one of the people familiar with the company’s efforts said.

…[CEO of digital forensics firm LIFARS, Ondrej] Krehel said a $5m ransom for a pipeline was “very low.” “Ransom is usually around $25 million to $35 million for such a company. I think the threat actor realized they stepped on the wrong company and triggered a massive government response,” he said.


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After Musk bitcoin U-turn, which coins are more climate friendly? • Al Jazeera

Ben Piven:


After months of cheerleading for Bitcoin, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told his 54.3 million Twitter followers on Wednesday that the electric vehicle maker is hitting the brakes on allowing customers to use Bitcoin as payment.

“We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel,” Musk wrote on Wednesday.

Yet Bitcoin is far from the only environmental villain in the crypto space. There are plenty of other tokens that also rely on energy-sucking proof of work (PoW) consensus mechanisms to validate transactions and mint new coins.

PoW requires a decentralised network of mining rigs – sometimes made up of thousands of computers labouring in unison – to solve complex math problems in a race to verify transactions to win new Bitcoins.

Not all virtual coins use PoW, but all of the most energy-consumptive do.

Many experts say proof of stake can offer the crypto sector a dramatically greener future. The biggest coins using that consensus mechanism — which relies on larger coin owners to validate blockchain transactions — are Binance Coin, Cardano, Polkadot, Stellar and Solana.

Others hope a third consensus mechanism, proof of space, could be greener still. It relies on hard-drive storage rather than processing power. Chia coin is marketed as a cryptocurrency with an ecological “farming” method, though environmentalists say the e-waste issue is a problem.

Al Jazeera asked Alex de Vries, a Dutch crypto sustainability expert who runs the site Digiconomist, for his best estimates using the annual carbon footprint of PoW coins measured in terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption.


TL;DR: they’re all pretty rubbish: using the equivalent energy to country A, or country B, or country C. It’s all a boondoggle, and I still wonder what is needed to make the house of cards collapse, Big Short-style.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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