Start Up No.1574: half of ads on fake news via Google, the ‘green vortex’ saving the US, airlines may drop a pilot on long-haul, and more


Groundskeepers are the unseen force in football, able to alter how quickly or slowly a pitch plays, to the home team’s advantage. CC-licensed photo by Daniel Novta on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. It’s Friday, after all. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Less than a week to preorder Social Warming, my next book.


Nearly half of all ads on fake news sites come from Google, study finds • Morning Brew

Ryan Barwick:

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Fake news is a problem. Yet the sites that publish it keep surviving because ad servers keep sending them advertisements.

According to a white paper published last month by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Information, 48% of ad traffic on “fake” news publishers is served by Google. Nearly a third (32%) of “low credibility sites” like Breitbart, Drudge Report, and Sputnik News were delivered by Google.

The researchers analyzed more than 1,700 publishers, identifying 545 as either “fake” (sites filled with pseudoscience and straight-up lies) or “low credibility” (hyper-partisan), using a data set compiled by Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor at Merrimack College.

Additionally, the researchers found that the “top-10 credible ad servers,” like Lockerdome and Outbrain, make up 66.7% of fake and 55.6% of low-quality ad traffic. Even so, the researchers said that the dollars these firms make from such placements represents a “negligible fraction” of their overall revenue.

Using digital emulators that mimicked browsing behaviour on the sites, the researchers could identify which ad servers were supporting misinformation sites.

The researchers didn’t reach out to Google, but the search engine told Marketing Brew in a statement that the company removed ads from “more than 1.3 billion pages that breached” its policies in 2020.

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They’re not a problem for Google. It’s in the position of not caring what adverts appear where; it just wants those that appear to be served by it, so it gets paid. One of the key elements of social warming: indifference caused by a conflict of broader ethics with corporate aims. (Corporate aims pretty much always win.)
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China isn’t the issue. Big Tech is • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

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Here’s what an official at NetChoice, a group that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, told The Washington Post about the crop of Big Tech regulation bills: “At the same time Congress is looking to boost American innovation and cybersecurity, lawmakers should not pass legislation that would cede ground to foreign competitors and open up American data to dangerous and untrustworthy actors.”

And this is what the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy group that gets funding from telecommunications and tech companies, said this week about the appointment of Khan as FTC chair: “In a time of increased global competition, antitrust populism will cause lasting self-inflicted damage that benefits foreign, less meritorious rivals.”

Sounds bad! You might notice that these statements don’t name China, which is the magic word to make stuff happen in Washington. But that’s what they mean by referencing unnamed foreign rivals.

Yes, it’s reasonable for Americans to want strong US companies in a competitive global economy. But making a handful of tech kings play fair isn’t likely to break them.

As for the security arguments, the logic doesn’t work if you think about it for more than two seconds. Does preventing Amazon from selling its own brand of batteries — as one congressional bill might do — hold America back from fighting foreign cyberattacks? Nope. How do proposals that might restrain giant companies from doing whatever they want with our personal information weaken America on the world stage? They do not.

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The ‘green vortex’ is saving America’s climate-change future • The Atlantic

Robinson Meyer:

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That 2009 climate bill, the one that President Barack Obama couldn’t pass? It required the US to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% by 2020 as compared with their all-time high. Yet last year, our emissions were down 21%. The same bill said that the US had to generate 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Last year, we met that target. We will surpass it in 2021.

These numbers are not a mere fluke. Last year was a singular, awful moment in economic history, but even accounting for the effects of the COVID-19 recession, America’s real-world emissions last decade outperformed the Obama bill’s targets. From 2012 to 2020, real-world U.S. emissions were more than 1 billion tons below what the bill would have required, according to my analysis of data from Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm. (Of course, had the bill passed, the U.S. might have done even better.)

Meanwhile, across the economy, companies are learning how to decarbonize. Ford is already producing more electric Mustang Mach-Es than gas-powered Mustangs; General Motors, Honda, Volvo, and Jaguar have promised to stop selling gas cars altogether by 2040. Royal Dutch Shell was court-ordered last month to cut its emissions, and shareholders just forced Exxon to replace a quarter of its board with climate-concerned activist investors. Most important of all, the costs of solar and batteries have declined in the United States by a factor of 10 over the past decade, and the cost of wind has fallen 70%. Ten years ago, virtually no analyst thought they would fall so low. The International Energy Agency made headlines this year when it called solar “the cheapest electricity in history,” but the entire apparatus of renewable energy has seen cost declines.

What gives? America is supposed to be doing nothing right. Yet we’re making progress anyway. How? Why?

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Meyer’s argument is that there’s a virtuous cycle (though he calls it the “green vortex”). I’m not sure I buy it. (Also: why do subs allows phrases like “declined by a factor of 10” through? “Fell by 90%”, they mean.)(Thanks G for the link.)
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Amazon is blocking Google’s FLoC — and that could seriously weaken the system • Digiday

Kate Kaye:

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Most of Amazon’s properties including Amazon.com, WholeFoods.com and Zappos.com are preventing Google’s tracking system FLoC — or Federated Learning of Cohorts — from gathering valuable data reflecting the products people research in Amazon’s vast e-commerce universe, according to website code analyzed by Digiday and three technology experts who helped Digiday review the code.

Amazon declined to comment on this story.

As Google’s system gathers data about people’s web travels to inform how it categorizes them, Amazon’s under-the-radar move could not only be a significant blow to Google’s mission to guide the future of digital ad tracking after cookies die — it could give Amazon a leg up in its own efforts to sell advertising across what’s left of the open web.

“This move is in direct correlation with Google’s attempt to provide an alternative to the third-party cookie,” said Amanda Martin, vp of enterprise partnerships at digital agency Goodway Group. She called Amazon’s choice to block FLoC on most of its sites another example of the chess moves Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are making as data privacy pressures force the destruction of the foundation of data tracking across the internet: the third party cookie.

With the help of three technologists, Digiday watched last week as Amazon added code to its digital properties to block FLoC from tracking visitors using Google’s Chrome browser.

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The post-cookie world is getting so, so complicated. Though one could always hope it will mean the end of those bloody cookie consent popups.
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Nuclear energy: fusion plant backed by Jeff Bezos to be built in UK • BBC News

Matt McGrath:

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A company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is set to build a large-scale nuclear fusion demonstration plant in Oxfordshire.

Canada’s General Fusion is one of the leading private firms aiming to turn the promise of fusion into a commercially viable energy source.

The new facility will be built at Culham, home to the UK’s national fusion research programme.
It won’t generate power, but will be 70% the size of a commercial reactor.

General Fusion will enter into a long-term commercial lease with the UK Atomic Energy Authority following the construction of the facility at the Culham campus.

While commercial details have not been disclosed, the development is said to cost around $400m.
It aims to be operational by 2025.

…A major international effort to build a fusion reactor is underway in the south of France with the Iter project. But this $20bn venture has been hampered by delays and isn’t likely to be working effectively until after 2035.

Frustrated by the slow progress, private companies across the world have been following their own approaches, and General Fusion’s effort is seen as one of the most advanced.

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“Significant” amounts of government money supplied to make Culham attractive. Good way to keep those who used to work there re-employed.
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Airbus, Cathay ‘Project Connect’ plan to ditch two pilots in cockpit for long-haul flights • Traveller.com

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The programme, known within Airbus as Project Connect, aims to certify its A350 jet for single-pilot operations during high-altitude cruise, starting in 2025 on Cathay passenger flights, the sources said.

High hurdles remain on the path to international acceptance. Once cleared, longer flights would become possible with a pair of pilots alternating rest breaks, instead of the three or four currently needed to maintain at least two in the cockpit.

That promises savings for airlines, amid uncertainty over the post-pandemic economics of intercontinental flying. But it is likely to encounter resistance from pilots already hit by mass layoffs, and safety concerns about aircraft automation.

…Proponents suggest single-pilot operations may be accepted by a flying public used to crew leaving the cockpit for bathroom breaks. They also point to higher error rates from human pilots than automated systems.

Both arguments miss the point, according to a source close to Lufthansa – who said the airline’s executives were advised last year that the programme could not meet safety goals.

Flying solo for hours is a “completely different story”, the source said, citing the 2009 AF447 disaster as an example of malfunctions occurring in cruise. The Air France A330’s copilots lost control after its speed sensors failed over the Atlantic, while the captain was resting.

“Airbus would have had to make sure every situation can be handled autonomously without any pilot input for 15 minutes,” the source said. “And that couldn’t be guaranteed.”

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But the AF447 crash was caused by too many pilots, or one too many. It’s not an argument against having fewer (better than the unfortunate one who triggered the crash) pilots.
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Aliens wouldn’t need warp drives to take over an entire galaxy, simulation suggests • Gizmodo

George Dvorsky on a study from Columbia University:

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Things start off slow in the simulation, but the civilization’s rate of spread really picks up once the power of exponential growth kicks in. But that’s only part of the story; the expansion rate is heavily influenced by the increased density of stars near the galactic center and a patient policy, in which the settlers wait for the stars to come to them, a result of the galaxy spinning on its axis.

The whole process, in which the entire inner galaxy is settled, takes one billion years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s only somewhere between 7% and 9% the total age of the Milky Way galaxy.

Another neat aspect of the video is that it shows a civilization transitioning from Kardashev II status—in which it harnesses the power of entire star systems—to a full-blown Kardashev III civilization, which has tapped into the energy output of the entire galaxy (more about the Kardashev scale here).

That a civilization might want to embark on such an ambitious enterprise might seem implausible, but it’s important to remember Steven J. Dick’s Intelligence Principle, which states that the “maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved,” as the science historian wrote in his 2003 paper, “Cultural Evolution, the Postbiological Universe and SETI.” Our civilization keeps pushing the envelope of what’s possible, and we have no reason to believe this urge will cease any time soon. Hence the assumption that advanced civilizations will eventually seek to occupy every corner of the galaxy and set up camp around precious energy sources, namely stars.

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Don’t know whether to be worried or not now. Are they just about to arrive? After all, we’re near the edge of the spiral arm. Or are we being overlooked intentionally or by accident?
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Influence

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Players take turns to select and color a tile. At the end of a turn, each tile will influence its neighbors by imparting some of its color.

If a tile gains enough color to pass the threshold, it can no longer be selected and will have a dark border. Conversely, a tile can lose its dark border and become selectable if it loses enough color.

The game ends when all tiles pass the color threshold. The player with the most colored tiles wins!

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Like a watered-down version of Go, but it’s Friday, enjoy yourself!
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‘The Silicon Valley of turf’: how the UK’s pursuit of the perfect pitch changed football • The Guardian

William Ralston:

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When it comes to sports-turf management, the UK is a talent factory like no other. “We’re 10 years more advanced than anywhere else in the world,” Richard Hayden, author of Fifa’s official handbook on pitch maintenance, told me. “If you want to work in technology, you go to Silicon Valley. Well, the UK is the Silicon Valley of turf!”

The English grounds-management sector alone is valued at more than £1bn and employs more than 27,000 people, with specialists in every area, from seed enthusiasts who can breed grasses that grow in the shade to scientists who develop chemicals to make grass greener. In West Yorkshire, the Sports Turf Research Institute is an R&D powerhouse, studying everything from how quickly water passes through different types of sand to how the fineness of a stem of grass influences the roll of a golf ball. In hardware, too, the UK has no rival. Bernhard and Company in Warwickshire make the world’s best sharpening systems for mower blades; Allett, in Staffordshire, provides elite mowing and maintenance equipment, as does Dennis, based in Derbyshire. Dennis mowers are used across the world’s top sports arenas, from Wimbledon to Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. Calderwood uses them at PSG, too.

The turf-care techniques developed in the UK have been applied in tennis, golf, rugby and just about any professional sport that takes place on grass. But it is football, with its vast wealth and global fanbase, that has powered the revolution. No groundskeeper would claim their work was the main reason for any team’s success, but, just as Olympic swimmers don’t compete in beach shorts and professional cyclists shave their legs, top football teams obsess over tiny details that can be the difference between winning or losing. When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, he asked for the grass to be cut to just 19mm, in line with the ultra-fast pitches he had demanded at his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. (In the end he had to settle with 23mm, because short grass is more vulnerable to wear and Manchester’s cold climate means it can’t recover quickly.

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Now I really want to know the grass length of each of the pitches that each Euros match is played on. The speed of playing surfaces matters in every sport (that has a playing surface…), yet it’s so overlooked.
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In token crash postmortem, Iron Finance says it suffered crypto’s ‘first large-scale bank run’ • Yahoo Finance

Kevin Reynolds:

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A near-total collapse in the price of a share token of a decentralized finance (DeFi) protocol was “the world’s first large-scale crypto bank run,” the people behind Iron Finance said in a blog post providing a postmortem. The run brought the worth of the protocol down from $2bn to near zero on Wednesday.

A “negative feedback loop” was created when a series of large holders tried to redeem their IRON tokens and sell their iron titanium (TITAN), the token of the Iron Protocol, the post said. That, in turn, caused more TITAN holders to run for the virtual hills, leading to what the team labeled “a classic bank run.”

“What we just experienced is the worst thing that could happen to the protocol, a historical bank run in the modern high-tech crypto space,” the post said.

The run was enabled by the fact that Iron Finance is only partly collateralized. It had enough for normal day-to-day operations, but just like in the bank run depicted in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” if everyone wants their money all at once, the bank can’t pay up. Unfortunately for Iron Finance, there was no George Bailey around on Wednesday.

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The blogpost itself is pretty much incomprehensible. In essence, as they say, it’s like the bank in Wonderful Life, and the trigger was an arbitrage opportunity – if you sold the token when it was below a certain price, you’d get more than that price in real money. So of course everyone did, which drove the price lower, which increased the arbitrage opportunity. (There’s another writeup here.)

*First* large-scale bank run, demonstrating that cryptoassets have zero inherent value. The folk at Tether, which essentially underpins most crypto exchanges but it only 3% backed by real funds, might be worried.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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