Start Up No.1562: Twitter plans ‘wrongness’ markers, China’s coming pensioner boom, why UFOs aren’t aliens, more on Osaka, and more


Time to brush on your Greek alphabet – important Covid variants will now be assigned letters from it. The first four are already taken. CC-licensed photo by Dunk %uD83D%uDC1D on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Just play the effing chord. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Preorder Social Warming, my book coming out June 24. Also available as an audiobook (the first 200 pages, definitely).


Twitter may start labeling your tweets based on how wrong you are • Gizmodo

Alyse Stanley:

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Twitter is one of many social media companies that’s struggled to keep misinformation from running rampant on its platform over the years. Its latest attempt to move the needle looks to be a tiered warning label system that changes based on how wrong you are, according to app researcher Jane Manchun Wong.

So far, there are three levels of misinformation warning labels: “Get the latest,” “Stay Informed,” and “Misleading,” Wong tweeted on Monday. How accurate a tweet is determines if Twitter’s systems tack on one of these three labels, each of which includes a prompt directing users to additional information. Ostensibly, these would link to a Twitter-curated page or external vetted source, as is the case for Twitter’s covid-19 and U.S. presidential election misinformation labels.

Wong, who reverse engineers popular apps to uncover features still in development, shared a screenshot of her efforts experimenting with Twitter’s new system. For example, she tweeted, “Snorted 60 grams of dihydrogen monoxide and I’m not feeling so well now,” which triggered a “Get the latest” label with information about water.

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I wonder if it’s going to be automatically appended by machine learning, which would create all sorts of problems, or by some sort of fact-checking system, which would be slow and out of date by the time it was implemented.

Worth nothing that there’s a cottage industry in watching Wong dissect apps to find out what’s coming up next. She’s rarely wrong.
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Why Beijing has resisted raising the retirement age • Macro Polo

Houze Song:

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Why hasn’t China raised its oddly low retirement age yet? After all, a key solution to its rapid aging problem is right under Beijing’s nose, and it knows it too. As early as 2013, Beijing made it clear that the official retirement age (60 for men and 55 for women) would be raised by 2020—a priority that made it into the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). Yet so far, no move has been made on the retirement age.

The short answer is that the Chinese government cannot afford to delay retirement at the moment. In the near term, postponing retirement will actually be negative for the economy. For one, since job creation is paramount amid the post-Covid recovery, Beijing needs retirees to vacate their spots that can then be filled by the unemployed, including many of the nearly 9 million recent college graduates.

In 2018, those between the ages of 55 and 59 accounted for 7.3% of China’s total urban labor force (see Figure 1). If Beijing had raised the retirement age by one year to 61 for men and 56 for women, a quick estimate suggests that would’ve translated into 5 million and 4.5 million fewer job vacancies and raised the unemployment rate by more than one percentage point in 2019 and 2020, respectively. And given the necessity of solving the unemployment problem during the current economic slowdown, delaying retirement has to be put on hold.

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There are also budgetary reasons why it’s actually good, for now, for China to have lots of pensioners. But there’s bad news for men born in 1964 and women born in 1969 coming up: the retirement age is probably going to rise in 2023, as a colossal number of boomers come to cash in their pensions. That in turn could lead to big restructuring of the state. Mark it in your calendar.
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If the lab-leak theory is right, what’s next? • The Atlantic

Daniel Engber:

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Instead of calling for a new and better inquiry into origins, let’s stipulate that pandemics can result from natural spillovers or from laboratory accidents—and then let’s move along to implications. One important question has already gotten airtime (from right-wing media, at least): should scientists be fiddling with pathogenic genomes, to measure out the steps they’d have to take before ascending to pandemic-level virulence? Should the National Institutes of Health be funding them? This was the subject of a fierce, unresolved debate among virologists that started back in 2012; it still isn’t clear to what extent such research helps prevent devastating outbreaks, and to what extent it poses a realistic risk of creating them.

Other questions include: Should coronavirus samples gathered from the wild be studied at moderate biosafety levels, as appears to have been the case at the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Is there any significant cost, in terms of preparing for the next pandemic, from slowing down surveillance work with more demanding safety regulations? And should China end the practice of transporting virus-laden guano from sparsely populated regions to population centers, as appears to have been the case in Wuhan? (One might also ask: Should studies of Ebola, or other outbreak-ready pathogens, be carried out in Boston?) As Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, told me this week, we may yet discover that the COVID-19 story is a variation on “a small-town virus brought to the city, and suddenly becoming a star.”

Or we might be due for a far more substantial inquiry into the risks of scientific research. If we’re ready to acknowledge that a lab-induced pandemic is possible, and that we may be seeing the result, then “we’ll need to understand that the next major threat to public health could come from something else in biology—something that destroys crops, or changes the ocean, or changes the atmosphere,” Sam Weiss Evans, a biosecurity-governance scholar, told me. “This could be a moment of reckoning for the much wider biological community.”

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This is the far better way to deal with this possibility. There’s no proof (and nothing in the past few months has changed that), but it’s worth asking these questions and being sure of the answers.
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Return to office: employees are quitting instead of giving up work from home • Bloomberg

Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou:

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A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

“I had just had it,” said Twidt, 33, who lives in Marietta, Georgia.

With the coronavirus pandemic receding for every vaccine that reaches an arm, the push by some employers to get people back into offices is clashing with workers who’ve embraced remote work as the new normal.

While companies from Google to Ford Motor Co. and Citigroup have promised greater flexibility, many chief executives have publicly extolled the importance of being in offices. Some have lamented the perils of remote work, saying it diminishes collaboration and company culture. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon said at a recent conference that it doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle.”

But legions of employees aren’t so sure. If anything, the past year has proved that lots of work can be done from anywhere, sans lengthy commutes on crowded trains or highways. Some people have moved. Others have lingering worries about the virus and vaccine-hesitant colleagues.

And for Twidt, there’s also the notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.

“They feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us,” she said. “It’s a boomer power-play.”

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If this really goes wider than just an example, this will be a fascinating shift in how people work. (Also, it’s that time of the month when Bloomberg definitely lets you read articles.)
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The UFO sightings don’t impress this physicist • The New York Times

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, and works on detecting signals of alien life:

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If we are being frequently visited by aliens, why don’t they just land on the White House lawn and announce themselves? There is a recurring narrative, perhaps best exemplified by the TV show “The X-Files,” that these creatures have some mysterious reason to remain hidden from us. But if the mission of these aliens calls for stealth, they seem surprisingly incompetent. You would think that creatures technologically capable of traversing the mind-boggling distances between the stars would also know how to turn off their high beams at night and to elude our primitive infrared cameras.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll read with great interest the U.S. intelligence report about U.F.O.s that is scheduled to be delivered to Congress in June; I believe that U.F.O. phenomena should be investigated using the best tools of science and with complete transparency.

But there may be more prosaic explanations. For example, it’s possible that U.F.O.s are drones deployed by rivals like Russia and China to examine our defenses — luring our pilots into turning on their radar and other detectors, thus revealing our electronic intelligence capacities. (The United States once used a similar strategy to test the sensitivities of Soviet radar systems.) This hypothesis might sound far-fetched, but it is less extreme than positing a visit from extraterrestrials.

What’s most frustrating about the U.F.O.s story is that it obscures the fact that scientists like me and my colleagues are on the threshold of gathering data that may be relevant to the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. But this evidence involves subtle findings about phenomena far away in the galaxy — not sensational findings just a few miles away in our own atmosphere.

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It’s the banality of his points that seems to have eluded so many people for so long: they’re able to cross vast distances, but then they’re not able to stay out of the way of this traffic? They leave their lights on to cross the unfathomable void?

The puzzle is why people didn’t consider more quickly that these were weapons systems of some sort, either home-grown or from other countries. Perhaps it’s the timing: the first reports came about the same time as the space age was on the rise, and alien life was where the fun was. Not the Cold War and the prospect of being annihilated in a nuclear blast.
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Philips Hue Wall Switch Module review: smart-ish, at last • The Verge

Thomas Ricker:

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Many smart home fans can trace their obsession back to the very first Hue lightbulbs launched back in 2012 as an Apple Store exclusive. But Hue bulbs, like all smart bulbs, come with a few catches. First, they require a constant source of power to function. That means you’ll lose control over that fancy Hue bulb hanging above your kitchen table just as soon as someone flicks off the light switch. To solve this, many people disable the switch mechanism with tape or a dummy wall plate, only to realize that physical controls are useful when you or your housemates and guests can’t be bothered to yell a command or pull out a phone. So they buy a Hue remote control and tape it to the wall. This comedy of errors is then repeated over and over until they have a house full of mismatched wall switches and legitimate concerns about life priorities.

There’s a small cottage industry of aftermarket solutions for this, including Lutron’s Aurora dimmer that sits on top of a light switch. But Philips has never addressed it directly, until now. The new $39.95 Hue Wall Switch Module solves these issues by making most existing wall switches Hue-smart.

Note that I said Hue-smart, not smart. That’s because the switch you rewire to the Hue Module can only control Hue lightbulbs, not regular inexpensive lights like other smart switches. Nevertheless, it caters to fans of both smart lights and smart switches by offering the benefits of both, so long as they can stomach the cost and ecosystem lock-in.

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Benedict Evans pointed to this in his newsletter and says it “unintentionally makes the case that smart lighting, and a lot of other smart home, is a waste of time only good for hobbyists”.

I disagree. I’ve got a ton of IKEA smart bulbs, and they are great – connect with HomeKit (and Google, and Amazon), can work to times, available in single or multi-colour, eminently controllable. And leaving them on all the time uses pretty much zero energy if they’re not lit.
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Naomi Osaka’s complicated withdrawal from the French Open • The New Yorker

Louisa Thomas:

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[Tennis post-match] Press conferences, as a rule, are tedious and outdated. Nobody really likes them—not reporters, who would prefer to speak to athletes privately and at length, and not players, who are asked the same questions repeatedly, sometimes by people whose main motivation is to encourage controversy. Press conferences can seem particularly pointless to players who don’t need the press to promote themselves or reach their fans, which they can do more efficiently, and perhaps more effectively, through social media.

The press, particularly at the Grand Slams, can include people who are not well versed in tennis; tabloid reporters; and, not infrequently, people who ask ham-handed and offensive questions, particularly of Black women. Just the other day, a reporter who wanted to get a quote from the seventeen-year-old star Coco Gauff about the possibility of playing Serena Williams began by saying, “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American, too.”

Press conferences also typically offer reporters their only chance to ask players questions on any subject, including difficult ones. Without press conferences, it seems quite possible that Alexander Zverev would not have been asked about the allegations of domestic violence against him. Without press conferences, reporters might get to talk to players only under terms established by the brands that sponsor them, or in exchanges that are heavily mediated by layers of managers and agents.

And, for all of their obvious problems and weaknesses, press conferences do sometimes yield original insights into both the technical aspects of matches and the people who play them. That often seemed particularly true when Osaka walked into the room—until she declared that she would stay out.

…Shortly after her announcement, the president of the French tennis federation, Gilles Moretton, read a statement wishing Osaka a speedy “recovery.” Without any apparent awareness of the irony, he did not take questions from the press.

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Thomas makes a good point: that sometimes, these pressers are necessary to ask harder questions. Plus: it’s not the press obliging Osaka to attend. It’s the tournament organisers. I find it very hard to know quite where to place my sympathies. These days, doing press conferences is as much part of the job as actually turning up on the court. Is Osaka’s stance more like the woman Bloomberg found above, who didn’t want to turn up at “the office” because she could do her job fine from home? Or is it one that leaves her fellow pros labouring in the question mines, while she gets to pick and choose? (As ever, Marina Hyde guides you through the thickets. She’s not a fan of the organisers.)
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Covid-19 variants to be given Greek alphabet names to avoid stigma • The Guardian

Edna Mohamed:

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Coronavirus variants are to be named after letters of the Greek alphabet instead of their place of first discovery, the World Health Organization has announced, in a move to avoid stigma.

The WHO has named four variants of concern, known to the public as the UK/Kent (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1) and India (B.1.617.2) variants. They will now be given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta respectively, to reflect their order of detection, with any new variants following the pattern down the Greek alphabet.

The decision to go for this naming system came after months of deliberations with experts considering a range of other possibilities such as Greek Gods, according to bacteriologist Mark Pallen who was involved in the talks.

The organisation said the labels do not replace existing scientific names involving numbers, Roman letters and full stops, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.

The WHO said: “While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting … As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory.

“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, [the] WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

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There are people who believe that the “Indian variant” only affected people of Indian heritage. So this naming system makes a lot of sense. Except when they come to the 25th variant. They’re already on four after, what, one proper year, but we’re already hearing about variants in Thailand and Vietnam. The virus is coming under a lot of evolutionary pressure.
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Android 12 will spell the end of third-party share sheet replacements • Android Police

Scott Scrivens:

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It’s no secret that Google has struggled to implement a satisfactory share sheet in Android — you could say it’s been one of the platform’s weakest features. Even now, when I attempt to share something with a friend, I’m greeted by direct share targets of no use whatsoever. Either that or you get an app’s custom sharing menu instead, with varying degrees of usefulness. Because of this inconsistent experience, many users like to replace the default share sheet using a third-party app like Sharedr. Unfortunately, as of Android 12, that’s no longer going to be possible.

With the Android 12 beta, the ability to set a third-party service as the default share dialog was seemingly being blocked as it would no longer show the prompt necessary to select a default app. The developer of Sharedr took to the Android IssueTracker (via XDA Developers) to complain but Google’s response clarifies that this is the intended behavior going forward:

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It’s a long time since I used Android, but the share sheet that’s pictured with this post is quite the mess. Apple’s implementation has the virtue of not including every single app that might possibly want to share whatever you’re sharing, whether or not it’s capable of handling that content.

Very gradually, Google keeps on closing Android off. I’m not aware of any part where in the past five years it has become less rather than more restrictive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1562: Twitter plans ‘wrongness’ markers, China’s coming pensioner boom, why UFOs aren’t aliens, more on Osaka, and more

  1. Eh, any reader of Science Fiction can come up with a half-dozen or more story premises to explain “They leave their lights on …”. For example, you’re assuming analogous to that since big cruise ships or supersonic airliners are used for crossing oceans, nobody ever drives anywhere in an old car which is falling apart. Maybe our solar system has a busy intergalactic waypoint somewhere on the perimeter, where the finest enormous star-spanning craft go to and fro. And somebody there runs the equivalent of a little business taking amusement-seekers to do photography safaris of the primitive natives, using ancient jeeps. Those old Cloaking Devices tend to sputter a bit. Repairs cost galactic credits, dontchaknow. And there’s always the one tour guide who wants to make sure customers get their g-creds worth, and provokes the natives to make for a better show.

    In fact, the argument is more that the aliens are all too competent. The Cloaking Device never seems to fail entirely, or get turned off completely in range of cell phones cameras and streaming video. But maybe that’s even reasonable – if the Cloak starts malfunctioning, get out of there. A skilled provoker can skirt rules and make the Cloak run “dirty” (cause sputtering), but outright deactivation is not permitted by the onboard systems.

    Hmm … with the right writer, “Expedition Earth: Watch The Natives” has a lot of potential as a comedy series.

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