Start Up No.1603: Google and Facebook demand workers get jabbed, the thermocline of truth, hello social media managers, and more


If you don’t know who the inspiration for the TV detective Columbo is, you’ll be surprised. CC-licensed photo by RTP on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Papers, please (again). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Google and Facebook to require workers get vaccinated, a first for big tech – The Washington Post

Heather Kelly and Gerrit De Vynck:

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Silicon Valley’s tech giants are starting to require vaccines for employees returning to the office and pushing back campus reopening dates as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the United States and around the world.

Google became the first Big Tech company to announce on Wednesday that it will require employees who work in its offices to be fully vaccinated. Facebook later announced a similar policy requiring all in-person workers to get vaccinated before coming into a Facebook office in the U.S.

Google also followed Apple in pushing back its return to office to mid October from early September — moves that could trigger a flurry of copy cats across corporate America.

In a note to employees announcing the changes, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company has seen high vaccination rates for Google employees so far, which is why it is comfortable bringing workers back into the office. Currently, there are some early volunteers who are already working at various Google campuses. Workers will have to start reporting back to the office on Oct. 18.

“I hope these steps will give everyone greater peace of mind as offices reopen,” said Pichai in the message.

Any Google employee who doesn’t wish to get vaccinated but doesn’t have approval to work remote indefinitely will need to contact human resources and discuss their options, the company said.

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I guess it would be a bit weird for someone at Facebook to claim they don’t want to get vaccinated. Ditto Google. Though ironically it might be their chance to continue remote working.
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Columbo: an origin story • THE COLUMBOPHILE

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February 20 1968 is a red-letter day in the annals of TV history as the day Prescription: Murder first aired, bringing Lieutenant Columbo, as we mostly know and love him, to the collective consciousness of millions.

But what many casual fans don’t realise is that Columbo, the character, was created by William Link and Richard Levinson nearly a decade earlier and had already graced both the stage and screen long before Peter Falk assumed the beige raincoat and ever-lit cigar.

Levinson and Link were fresh young screen writers on the Hollywood scene when the now infamous Writers Guild strike of 1960 took place. The strike would go on for five months from January to June, leaving the dynamic duo at a loss at how to supplement their incomes.

Fortunately for the world they uncovered a loophole that allowed them to flex their creative muscles. Despite the strike action, it was still permissable for Guild members to write for live television. And so targeting the newly launched Chevy Mystery Show and its weekly one-hour live broadcasts, the two got to work on the script for a murder mystery entitled Enough Rope – the first official script featuring one Lieutenant Columbo.

They based the character squarely on Porfiry Petrovich, the astute but meandering lead investigator in Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment – a book both had studied at college.

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That last one is quite the pub quiz answer.
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The thermocline of truth • Roblog

Rob Miller:

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In the ocean, temperature decreases with depth: the deeper you go, the colder it gets. But sometimes, what’s called a thermocline forms: a temperature barrier, a point at which the temperature changes rapidly. Go above the thermocline and the water is warm; pass beneath it, and it’s suddenly cold. This can have huge ramifications for life in the ocean, preventing the passage of oxygen and nutrients past the barrier.

In a 2008 blogpost, legendary IT consultant Bruce F. Webster applied the idea of the thermocline to large-scale IT projects. Why was it, Webster asked, that so many projects seemed to be on-track until just before their launch date, at which point it became suddenly clear that they were miles behind schedule?

Webster observed that, generally speaking, those at the bottom of an organisation have a fairly accurate view of what’s going on. They’re close to the detail; they know whether their area of the project is on-track, and can infer from that the state of the wider project.

Those at the top, though, have no such first-hand knowledge. They rely on the bubbling-up of information from below, in the form of dashboards and status reports. But, Webster noticed, those status reports tend to produce a comically optimistic view of the state of the project. Individual contributors presented a rosy picture of what they were working on to their line managers; middle managers gave good news to their bosses; and senior managers, keen to stay on the promotion track and perhaps hopeful that other parts of the project would fail before theirs, massage the truth yet again.

The result is that there is a thermocline within the organisation: not of temperature, but of truth.

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Lovely idea. Miller uses it to examine how the Post Office IT scandal (criminalising a lot of innocent people) could have happened.
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Social media manager, the most millennial job, comes of age • WSJ

Krithika Varagur:

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Some 15 years after Facebook and Twitter opened their platforms to the public, social media is an established, mainstream career field. There are academic programs dedicated to its practice. Workers say it’s sometimes still treated as a job for rookies, both through pay grades and interpersonal dynamics from those who think it’s just not that serious. But that’s changing: Those in the field see more bargaining power and more full-time roles than ever before.

Many social media-specific jobs still offer lower salaries than comparable fields like marketing. The average annual salary for marketing managers is $102,496 and $109,607 for marketing directors on Glassdoor, according to a spokesperson for the jobs website. Meanwhile, the average annual salary is $67,892 for social media directors and $47,908 for social media assistants.

“There’s still this idea that everyone uses social media, so it must be easy,” says 30-year-old Alana Visconti, a brand social account lead at Verizon.

But Ms. Visconti notes that the field has become more professionalized in recent years. When she got her undergraduate degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2015, she says, “It definitely wasn’t seen as a career path.” Today, following work for clients including Hyatt and Puma, she believes she can dedicate her whole career to social media. “What I love about it is that it’s the way to connect most directly with consumers,” she says.

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People are appalled by this idea. I really hope nobody’s going to spend money on a degree for something you can – possibly should – learn in a bedroom.

(This is completely a side note, but the grammar choices in this and the weightlifting story (below) are mad. The WSJ hyphenates “social-media” as an adjective but not as a thing. What?? [I’ve changed it in the extract here.] The NYT knows that it’s the International Weightlifting Federation. So what does it call the sport? Weight lifting.)
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Police are telling ShotSpotter to alter evidence from gunshot-detecting AI • Vice

Todd Feathers:

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On May 31 last year, 25-year-old Safarain Herring was shot in the head and dropped off at St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago by a man named Michael Williams. He died two days later. 

Chicago police eventually arrested the 64-year-old Williams and charged him with murder (Williams maintains that Herring was hit in a drive-by shooting). A key piece of evidence in the case is video surveillance footage showing Williams’ car stopped on the 6300 block of South Stony Island Avenue at 11:46 p.m.—the time and location where police say they know Herring was shot.

How did they know that’s where the shooting happened? Police said ShotSpotter, a surveillance system that uses hidden microphone sensors to detect the sound and location of gunshots, generated an alert for that time and place.

Except that’s not entirely true, according to recent court filings. 

That night, 19 ShotSpotter sensors detected a percussive sound at 11:46 p.m. and determined the location to be 5700 South Lake Shore Drive—a mile away from the site where prosecutors say Williams committed the murder, according to a motion filed by Williams’ public defender. The company’s algorithms initially classified the sound as a firework. That weekend had seen widespread protests in Chicago in response to George Floyd’s murder, and some of those protesting lit fireworks.

But after the 11:46 p.m. alert came in, a ShotSpotter analyst manually overrode the algorithms and “reclassified” the sound as a gunshot.

…The case isn’t an anomaly, and the pattern it represents could have huge ramifications for ShotSpotter in Chicago, where the technology generates an average of 21,000 alerts each year. The technology is also currently in use in more than 100 cities.

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The idea that people just reach in and change what could be crucial trial evidence is amazing. The claim was thrown out against Williams because his lawyer objected that it wasn’t a satisfactory forensic method. But the lack of a “chain of evidence” in the system suggests it never should have been.

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Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka highlight the 24-hour rolling hell of Big Sport • The Guardian

Barney Ronay:

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Keith Miller famously said that pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. The point being, when you’ve fought in a world war, pressure isn’t playing Test cricket in the 1950s. Well, Keith, the world has changed. And in the process we seem to have created a particular kind of 24-hour rolling hell for our superstar athletes.

At times this can look like some kind of unregulated social experiment. Be brilliant, constantly. Give us that thing we crave. And yes, you will be judged. You will be diced and dissected to the most minute degree. You will be asked to carry our hopes and fears, to embody our politics, to mean something, and to become even here a kind of commodity. This is unsustainable.

Naomi Osaka has already told us this, if we care to listen. Anyone can lose a tennis match, particularly an Olympic tennis match at the end of a strange, disjointed schedule during a strange, disjointed period in the life of planet Earth. She was gracious in defeat by the world No 42 Marketa Vondrousova.

Asked whether pressure was a part of it, she had the self-possession to avoid giving a definite answer. What words do you really want from me? How many billions of people are hanging, in real time, on the nuances of my answer? What kind of space have we made here? All of these might have been reasonable responses.

Osaka, who knows this world better than anyone because it is her world, eventually said: “Yes and no.” She suggested her recent mental health break hadn’t helped her performance. The question answers itself. Here is a young tennis player who has taken a mental health break, in part to avoid being asked painful questions, who is now answering painful questions about her mental health break.

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As Ronay points out, there’s no respite now from the kleig light glare of attention.
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Weightlifting, an original Olympic sport, may be dropped • The New York Times

Ognian Georgiev and Ken Belson:

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The weightlifting federation is not the first sports body to run afoul of the Olympic committee, of course. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is running the boxing tournament at the Tokyo Games while it investigates the International Boxing Association, or AIBA, over a series of failings. And in 2018, the IOC lifted a series of restrictions on the International Biathlon Union only after the organization approved governance reforms and greater transparency, particularly related to drug testing.

The scale of corruption at the IWF [International Weightlifting Federation] is far deeper. In January 2020, the German broadcaster ARD produced a documentary called “Lord of the Lifters” that illustrated how entire nations were sidestepping antidoping controls. Six months later, Richard McLaren, a Canadian antidoping investigator, published a 121-page report that pinned much of the blame for weightlifting’s problems on Tamas Ajan, the federation’s longtime leader, who ran the organization with an iron hand.

Ajan, who resigned as the president of the IWF in April 2020, was accused of accepting bribes to bury positive doping results. Efforts to hide positive tests date to at least the 1980s; McLaren said, for example, that in 2016, Ajan called the president of the Albanian weight lifting federation and demanded $100,000 in a suitcase to cover a fine for lifters who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. If the money was not paid, the Albanians were told, the country’s entire team would not be able to compete at the Rio Games.

In a phone interview, Ajan said that contrary to the allegations in the McLaren report, he had fought to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs and had been attacked by national federations he penalized for excessive doping.

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Not sure where 600 weightlifters having tested positive for drugs fits into that claim by Ajan. You could read it either way, after all.
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‘Disinfo kills’: protesters demand Facebook act to stop vaccine falsehoods • The Guardian

Kari Paul:

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Activists descended on Facebook’s Washington headquarters on Wednesday to demand the company take stronger action against vaccine falsehoods spreading on its platform, covering the area in front of Facebook’s office with body bags that read “disinfo kills”.

The day of protest, which comes as Covid cases surge in the US, has been organized by a group of scholars, advocates and activists calling themselves the “Real” Oversight Board. The group is urging Facebook’s shareholders to ban so-called misinformation “superspreaders” – the small number of accounts responsible for the majority of false and misleading content about the Covid-19 vaccines.

“People are making decisions based on the disinformation that’s being spread on Facebook,” said Shireen Mitchell, Member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women. “If Facebook is not going to take that down, or if all they’re going to do is put out disclaimers, then fundamentally Facebook is participating in these deaths as well.”

In coordination with the protest, the Real Oversight Board has released a new report analyzing the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook during the company’s most recent financial quarter. The report and protest also come as Facebook prepares to announce its financial earnings for that same quarter.

The report references a March study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that found a small group of accounts – known as the “dirty dozen” – is responsible for more than 73% of anti-vaccine content across social media platforms, including Facebook.

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Think this is a first, seeing Facebook being picketed as though it was Philip Morris selling cigarettes or an oil company cutting down rain forest.
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Techdirt is now entirely without any Google ads or tracking code • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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last summer, we had to pull all ads off of Techdirt, after we kept running into problems with Google, and its overly aggressive, overly sensitive (if somewhat arbitrary) advertising morality police (such as telling us all our stories about Google were “dangerous or derogatory”).

After announcing that, we had a few different companies approach us with possible alternatives, and earlier this year, we tried to put ads back on the site briefly, with a promise from a provider that they could both serve better quality ads as well as “deal with” Google if it started complaining again. Here’s the unfortunate secret underpinning nearly all of the internet advertising space: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies which will purport to put ads on your website. And all of them will promise “quality” ads and better rates.

But the unfortunate reality is that they’re all just backstopped by Google, and the ads are all the same crappy ads in the end. Only the largest websites (or highly, highly specialized ones) can really pull their own weight on advertising. And, tragically, wonky tech/legal/policy blogs don’t cut it (unless we wanted to just start running reviews of every silly tech product out there, and that’s not our thing).

So, we worked with a new partner, with promises of higher quality… and it all turned out to just be the same awful Google ads again, and with it, the same automated emails every damn day from Google threatening to cut us off for our “dangerous and derogatory” content. This time around, we just ignored those threats, because at this point, we’re so damn sick of it that if Google cuts us off, so be it.

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Amid Henan floods, China’s authorities focus not on climate change, but on control • Los Angeles Times

Alice Su:

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Large swaths of Henan north of Zhengzhou are underwater, with more rain forecast in coming days. Many of the flooded villages and smaller towns west of Zhengzhou have no running water, electricity or cellphone reception. A massive rescue effort is underway, including both Chinese military and grass-roots volunteers who have rushed from across the country to help.

At the same time, government propaganda is controlling the narrative. Chinese media have been instructed to report on post-disaster recovery, avoid an “exaggeratedly sorrowful tone” and adhere to official statistics on casualties and damage, according to a leaked censorship directive published in the China Digital Times.

Grief has become a target of control. On Monday, Zhengzhou residents laid dozens of bouquets of flowers at the entrance to the subway line where the 14 had drowned. But authorities soon erected a yellow barrier around the flowers, blocking them from view. Journalists and passersby shared photos of the blocked memorial online, sparking thousands of angry comments.

“They are even afraid of flowers,” one wrote.

Another circle of flowers and candles soon surrounded the yellow barrier. At night, videos shared online showed Zhengzhou residents pulling the barrier down as people applauded.

Another leaked directive instructed government workers to go door-to-door around the tunnel and warn shopkeepers: “Heighten awareness, do not accept foreign media interviews, do not give them any possibilities to twist the truth. If any relevant situation happens, report to the district workers or call the police.”

The Times was unable to verify the directive, but foreign reporters from at least five different media outlets were harassed while reporting near the tunnel in the last few days. One salesperson who spoke with The Times about economic losses was pulled away by two women and later threatened by her supervisor, who told her she would be questioned by police.

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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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