Start Up No.1580: TikTok’s factory of factory videos, Covid hypotheses examined, awful data viz, why concrete goes rotten, and more


In London’s Oxford Street, you can find a lot of shops selling American sweets. But why? CC-licensed photo by byronv2 on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


You can order Social Warming, now in print! Also in ebook and audiobook formats.


The Chinese content farms behind Factory TikTok • Rest of World

Andrew Deck on the “factory” videos that are so popular on the viral video platform:

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Across dozens of short-form video apps available in China, this type of labour content has become widely popular. Produced not only by factory workers, but also traditional craftsmen and agriculturalists, it usually caters to the curiosities of middle-class urbanites, who Wang argues are alienated from the labor that goes into their everyday purchases — whether a cosmetic cream, a pack of tissues, or a new pair of sneakers.  “We don’t know where [these things] come from, it is just presented to us as the perfect industrial product. But now we see the process, and because you see the human labor, it is no longer a cold product,” Wang said. “That is the reason it went viral among middle-class people who know nothing about industry.”

But when you visit the comment section of Factory TikTok, you won’t find messages from middle-class users in cities like Guangzhou — TikTok isn’t accessible in Chinese app stores. Instead, there are often messages from people who speak a wide array of different languages, like English, German, Japanese, Arabic, Thai, and Russian. The videos, set to trendy song clips, feel as if they’ve been manufactured to go viral in as many markets as possible. While many of the videos mimic the aesthetics used by amateur factory workers, some digging into their origins revealed that Factory TikTok doesn’t fit neatly into the same domestic social media trend in China. Instead, it’s part of a larger business enterprise.

Look closely at many of these clips, and hints emerge that corporate actors are hiding in plain sight. Some factories directly promote the goods they make, like the account run by a silicone factory, which links to an AliExpress page selling the fidget toys it produces. Other accounts publish content entirely unrelated to the products they list for sale. One went viral for a series of clips depicting a man injecting stuffed animals with polyester fiberfill, which were spun off into a subgenre of reaction videos and memes. The link in the account bio, however, briefly led to an e-commerce shop called Moda Island, which sells knockoff designer bags under a Swedish domain name. (The link has since disappeared.)

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China’s hubbub often feels like the insistent background roar of the internet, insisting that if you aren’t keeping up, you’re falling behind.
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The facts – and gaps – on the origin of the coronavirus • FactCheck.org

Jessica McDonald:

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Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist who studies viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the lead author of the letter in Science calling for a more rigorous investigation, told us in an email that he found natural zoonosis and lab accident scenarios involving a researcher being infected with a “natural collected virus” or “experimenting on and possibly growing or modestly modifying a naturally collected virus” all plausible.

“I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to estimate relative probabilities for these scenarios,” he said.

But to many others, the existing data tilts strongly toward a natural spillover.

“[W]hile both lab and natural scenarios are possible, they are not equally likely — precedence, data and other evidence strongly favor natural emergence as a highly likely scientific theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, while the lab leak remains a speculative hypothesis based on conjecture,” Kristian G. Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, told the New York Times.

“There are still gaps that have to be filled, but I think the evidence we do have right now points to an animal-to-human scenario,” Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah who has studied coronaviruses for most of the last decade, told us.

We’ll run through some of the arguments of the lab leak hypothesis and explain why most scientists still suspect a natural origin.

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This is really, really, really the best piece that I’ve read on the whole topic. If you’re trying to understand the warring (more than competing) hypotheses around this, then McDonald’s is the one to read. You can also read Zeynep Tufekci’s piece in the NY Times, but it’s slightly less informed than McDonald, who has the better contacts. Tufekci’s piece makes the important points about the need for better biosecurity. But that’s going to be the case no matter what.
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The inner life of the cell – protein packing [Narrated] [HD] • YouTube

David Franco:

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Protein Packing strives to more accurately depict the molecular chaos in each and every cell, with proteins jittering around in what may seem like random motion. Proteins occupy roughly 40% of the cytoplasm, creating an environment that risks unintentional interaction and aggregation. Via diffusion and motor protein transport, these molecules are directed to sites where they are needed.

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Included because there is a lot of talk about cells and proteins at the moment, of course, and has been for the past 18 months. But what is generally not appreciated is how crowded cells are. The idea that they’re big wastelands of nothing much turns out to be totally wrong. They’re incredibly crowded. This video gives an indication; for another, see this paper and just scroll to Figure 7, which gives a “here’s what it looks like” view of the protein packing in the cell. It’s like what the London Underground used to look like at peak rush hour.
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Collapsed building near Miami had serious concrete damage • The New York Times

Mike Baker, Anjali Singhvi and Patricia Mazzei:

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Three years before the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex near Miami, a consultant found alarming evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage under the 13-story building.

The engineer’s report helped shape plans for a multimillion-dollar repair project that was set to get underway soon — more than two and a half years after the building managers were warned — but the building suffered a catastrophic collapse in the middle of the night on Thursday, crushing sleeping residents in a massive heap of debris.

The complex’s management association had disclosed some of the problems in the wake of the collapse, but it was not until city officials released the 2018 report late Friday that the full nature of the concrete and rebar damage — most of it probably caused by persistent water leaks and years of exposure to the corrosive salt air along the South Florida coast — became chillingly apparent.

“Though some of this damage is minor, most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion,” the consultant, Frank Morabito, wrote about damage near the base of the structure as part of his October 2018 report on the 40-year-old building in Surfside, Fla. He gave no indication that the structure was at risk of collapse, though he noted that the needed repairs would be aimed at “maintaining the structural integrity” of the building and its 136 units.

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A lawyer for the condo residents says he can’t understand why repairs didn’t start at once. Two obvious answers: it would cost a lot of money while being very disruptive, and the report is written in the passive official-ish language that doesn’t transmit urgency at all. Reinforced concrete is always a problem: if it’s sitting in water, that will rust the reinforcing iron, but invisibly. It’s quite the metaphor for America’s crumbling infrastructure (for which a huge bill is struggling to get through the US Congress for lack of bipartisan backing, apparently).
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Microsoft’s Android app plan for Windows 11 is doomed • PC Mag

Sascha Segan:

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In a perplexing swerve, the new Windows 11 is going to run Android apps out of the box, integrating Amazon’s Android app store into Microsoft’s onboard app store. I have been running Windows since 1998 and running Android since the T-Mobile G1, and this seems like a half-fast [half-assed? Ed.] plan doomed to fail.

There are reasons to run Android apps on Windows. Specifically, some popular Android messaging and social-media apps (such as TikTok) don’t have native Windows versions. It may smooth your work- or life-flow to be able to interact with all of these apps using a physical keyboard and a single device.

But Microsoft can’t get around Google’s absolute, crushing dominance of the Android app world in the US. Although Android is an “open” platform (unlike iOS), nearly every Android phone outside China comes preloaded with Google Play. That makes Google’s app store the default and often the only choice for most Android app developers.

I saw this when reviewing Amazon’s most recent line of Fire tablets. The Fire HD 10 productivity bundle got absolutely slated as app after app wasn’t available on the Amazon Appstore—Signal, Slack, Rome2Rio, Booking.com, Google Sheets, what have you. Those specific apps aren’t a big deal on Windows, which has its own apps or terrific browser-based versions of those services. But when something awesome comes to Android, it often doesn’t come to the Amazon Appstore. At all.

The best possible outcome of this is that the huge new audience of potential Windows users will revitalize the Amazon Appstore and lead app developers to put their products in there. That is a thing that could happen, sure. I wouldn’t put money on that bet.

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Microsoft keeps trying to make mobile apps on Windows happen, and they keep not happening.
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Amazon and PetCo both invested in a $150 internet-connected cat feeder — one day it just stopped working • Business Insider

Becky Peterson:

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Allen Sampsell knew something was up when his cats started to act out. Freya, a “chonker” born without a tail, and May, a younger tortoiseshell with all of her appendages, were hungry. Sampsell had no idea how many days or hours the duo had gone without eating.

“My cats very obviously kept acting like they weren’t getting fed,” said Sampsell, who works on an Air Force base near Omaha and travels frequently for his job.

Normally, such daily business as feeding the cats went off without a hitch. For the last few years, Sampsell had used the PetNet SmartFeeder, an $150 Internet of Things device which dropped a set amount of kibble into a feeding bowl based on a schedule set using a smartphone app.

But in spring 2020, the feeder started to go offline. Then PetNet asked for more money. In a letter to customers last May, the company said that anyone who didn’t pay a $30 annual subscription fee would no longer have a working cat feeder.

“I am not even sure if people actually fell for that,” said Sampsell, who opted against the subscription. “And then they folded up shop completely.”

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This is much the same as the story with Wink, which abruptly pivoted in May 2020 from “smart home router interop” to “subscription for your smart home router interop”. It hasn’t issued a press release for more than four years, though it does at least seem to still be staggering along.
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Revealed: shocking scale of Twitter abuse targeting England at Euro 2020 • The Guardian

Caelainn Barr, Paul MacInnes, Niamh McIntyre and Pamela Duncan:

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England’s footballers have been subjected to sustained abuse online during their matches at Euro 2020, an exclusive analysis by the Guardian can reveal.

A study of Twitter messages directed at and naming the England team during the three group stage matches identified more than 2,000 abusive messages, including scores of racist posts.

The research, conducted in association with the anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate, illustrates the shocking levels of hatred, directed by hundreds of individuals at a time, at captain Harry Kane, forward Raheem Sterling, other England players and the manager, Gareth Southgate.

Across England’s three group games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic the Guardian identified 2,114 abusive tweets directed towards or naming the players and Southgate. This included 44 explicitly racist tweets, with messages using the N-word and monkey emojis directed at black players, and 58 that attacked players for their anti-racist actions, including taking the knee.

With parameters set only for the five hours around a match, there were also examples of antisemitic and ableist abuse, with nationalist messages and more insidious racial content also visible.

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*whispers* Social warming, innit
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The world relies on one chip maker in Taiwan, leaving everyone vulnerable • WSJ

Yang Jie, Stephanie Yang and Asa Fitch:

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As more technologies require chips of mind-boggling complexity, more are coming from this one company, on an island that’s a focal point of tensions between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own.

Analysts say it will be difficult for other manufacturers to catch up in an industry that requires hefty capital investments. And TSMC can’t make enough chips to satisfy everyone—a fact that has become even clearer amid a global shortage, adding to the chaos of supply bottlenecks, higher prices for consumers and furloughed workers, especially in the auto industry.

The situation is similar in some ways to the world’s past reliance on Middle Eastern oil, with any instability on the island threatening to echo across industries. Companies in Taiwan, including smaller makers, generated about 65% of global revenues for outsourced chip manufacturing during the first quarter of this year, according to Taiwan-based semiconductor research firm TrendForce. TSMC generated 56% of the global revenues.

Being dependent on Taiwanese chips “poses a threat to the global economy,” research firm Capital Economics recently wrote.

TSMC, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, reported $17.6bn in profits last year on revenues of about $45.5bn.

Its technology is so advanced, Capital Economics said, that it now makes around 92% of the world’s most sophisticated chips, which have transistors that are less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Samsung Electronics Co. makes the rest. Most of the roughly 1.4 billion smartphone processors world-wide are made by TSMC.

It makes as much as 60% of the less-sophisticated microcontrollers that car makers need as their vehicles become more automated, according to IHS Markit, a consulting firm.

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The comparison with reliance on oil is a good one – except this is even less diversified, and also at the mercy of another, potentially aggressive country. To continue the analogy, you need to set up oil wells in lots more countries, particularly in the west, and in a hurry.
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May 2017: The nine worst data visualizations ever created • Living Qlik

Aaron Couron:

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Every year, the worst movies of the year coming out of Hollywood are “honored” with an award called the Razzie. In an industry that normally pats itself on the back at every turn, the Razzies are a nice way to recognize that not every film churned out of the Hollywood machine is worthy of praise.

In similar fashion, I thought it would be fun to award some of the worst data visualizations coming out of our collective BI industry. Although it is always fun to poke fun at data visualizations that might be lacking in usefulness, it is also an opportunity for us to learn so that we do not make the same mistakes in our own work.

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OK, but I think that in fact all of those are outdone, in the worst possible way, by the visualisation used here by CNN. Look at it carefully. The worst thing is not, repeat not, the false y-axis, or the lack of attention to margin of error in the numbers. Look at it again, because you’ll howl when you spot what they’ve done to misrepresent the data here.
CNN awful data visualisation
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Why is central London suddenly full of American sweetshops? • Time Out

Amelia Tait:

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‘We were the first people to have a sweetshop in Oxford Street,’ says Alan Wiggett, managing director of Kingdom of Sweets, from behind an imposing mahogany desk in the company’s Soho offices. Framed pictures of sweets line the walls – an unlit and oddly small neon sign reading ‘Welcome to the Kingdom!!!’ distinguishes an otherwise ordinary kitchen. ‘We’ve had people spend over £1,000 before,’ he says. ‘We’ve had to take a trolley up to their house for them.’

The legend of the Kingdom goes like this: 18 years ago, founder Chase Manders started importing American candy to sell on his pick ’n’ mix stand in a Barnsley shopping centre. Customers went wild for it. By 2012, his Oxford Street shop had opened. Then a further five across London. But, as life got sweeter, along came the spies. In 2018, Kingdom of Sweets employees started to notice people sneaking into their stores and taking photographs of the shelves.

‘They come into the shop and they go off and copy us,’ Wiggett says, adding that staff have had to ‘politely’ ask competitors to leave. Since then, Manders has gone from having the only specialist sweetshop on Oxford Street to being merely one of nine. Many copycats used to be souvenir shops. Before that, some housed perfume ‘auctioneers’ with permanent closing-down sales. Wiggett says it’s affected sales. ‘It’s not a competition,’ says Riya, the manager of American Candy World, which has been open a year and which has an 8,000-piece motorised London Eye in the window (it took a week to build). Standing behind his counter next to a gutted bureau de change, he says that every sweetshop on Oxford Street has enough customers walking past to mean that notions of competition are irrelevant. ‘If they’re passing this way,’ he says, ‘they’ll buy it.’

Perhaps competition is irrelevant when the prices are more gut-wrenching than a tub of pickle-flavoured Pringles. An online review for one Oxford Street shop laments ‘Overpriced! overpriced!! overpriced!!!’ – the reviewer posting a picture of a receipt showing they spent £37 on two bags of crisps, a 99g box of sweets, and a jar of peanut butter. Riya says prices are high because of import fees and says his average customer spends between £25 and £30 on six or seven items. Which raises another question: why are so many people prepared to spend so much money on American sweets, and why now?

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Beware, Apple is now targeting leakers! • Pocketnow

Prakhar Khanna:

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It is being reported that several leakers have received warnings from lawyers representing Apple. One of the tipsters, known as ‘Kang’, posted on their Weibo account that Apple recently commissioned a law firm to send admonitory letters to a number of leakers. As per the posts, the Apple letter purportedly cautioned leakers that they must not disclose information about unreleased Apple projects.

The letter goes on to say that these leaks mislead customers because “what is disclosed may not be accurate.” Further, the leaks might give Apple’s competitors valuable information. Apple purportedly grabbed screenshots of Kang’s Weibo as evidence. The account talked about problems he experienced with the iPhone, product release dates, and purchase suggestions for his followers.

As a result, Kang explained that since “I have never published undisclosed product pictures” or sold his information, Apple must take exception to “riddles and dreams” about its undisclosed projects. For context, a leaker known as “L0vetodream” has popularized leaks vaguely characterized as “dreams.” Thus, providing a fun mechanism to hint at Apple’s future plans without giving a lot of information.

“Dreaming will violate their confidentiality mechanism,” as per Kang. He said that under Apple’s logic “if I have a dream, Apple’s competitors will obtain effective information.”

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Pretty sure those who receive these could just throw Apple’s letters in the bin. It’s not an offence to find stuff out, not to publish it. Of course it can be an offence to bribe (or blackmail?) an employee of the company to release information, in which case prosecute. But there’s no suggestion that the people who received this stuff did that. And if the information isn’t accurate, Apple can ignore it; or correct it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Just as a followup on last week’s item about Google calling someone a serial killer (wrongly), Terry points out that Google has done similar for a few photos: a little knowledge shows they’re wrong, but most people don’t have that.

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