Start Up No.1638: Facebook’s infuriating algorithm, Apple’s CPU gains hit a wall, Microsoft’s no-password path, Congress to quiz Instagram, and more

An employee at OpenSea, one of the biggest NFT sellers, has been front-running sales to make insider profits. CC-licensed photo by id-iom on Flickr. No idea if the one you’re looking at is *the* NFT, I’m afraid.

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

Facebook tried to make its platform a healthier place. It got angrier instead • WSJ

Keach Hagey and Jeff Horwitz:


Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said the aim of the algorithm change [in autumn 2018] was to strengthen bonds between users and to improve their well-being. Facebook would encourage people to interact more with friends and family and spend less time passively consuming professionally produced content, which research suggested was harmful to their mental health.

Within the company, though, staffers warned the change was having the opposite effect, the documents show. It was making Facebook’s platform an angrier place.

Company researchers discovered that publishers and political parties were reorienting their posts toward outrage and sensationalism. That tactic produced high levels of comments and reactions that translated into success on Facebook.

“Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content, such as politics and news,” wrote a team of data scientists, flagging Mr. Peretti’s complaints, in a memo reviewed by the Journal. “This is an increasing liability,” one of them wrote in a later memo.

They concluded that the new algorithm’s heavy weighting of reshared material in its News Feed made the angry voices louder. “Misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares,” researchers noted in internal memos.

Some political parties in Europe told Facebook the algorithm had made them shift their policy positions so they resonated more on the platform, according to the documents.

“Many parties, including those that have shifted to the negative, worry about the long term effects on democracy,” read one internal Facebook report, which didn’t name specific parties.

Facebook employees also discussed the company’s other, less publicized motive for making the change: Users had begun to interact less with the platform, a worrisome trend, the documents show.


As I describe in Social Warming: our inherent tribalism makes outrage powerful, and so we highlight it; the algorithm amplifies it; the lack of moderation lets the feedback increase. To the extent, as it says here, that politics is affected.
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Apple CPU gains grind to a halt and the future looks dim as impact from CPU engineer exodus to Nuvia and Rivos starts to bleed in • SemiAnalysis

Dylan Patel on the minimal performance improvements between this year’s A15 and last year’s A14 A-series chip powering the iPhone and the rest:


The most important thing to note is that the CPU gains are identical from the [2018] A12 to [2020’s] A14 as they are from A12 to A15. The GPU gains are quite impressive with a calculated 38.5% improvement. This is larger than the [2019] A13 and A14 improvements combined.

These are performance gains are generally paltry despite a huge increase from 11.8bn transistors to 15bn. Furthermore, with next year’s A16 on the N4 process rather than N3, gains look to continue to slow.  The slowing of process technology, and especially SRAM is going to be a hammer for the industry. Apple is clearly investing their transistor budget in the non-CPU aspects of the SOC. Fixed function and heterogenous compute reign supreme.

It appears Apple has not changed the CPU much this generation. SemiAnalysis believes that the next generation core was delayed out of 2021 into 2022 due to CPU engineer resource problems. In 2019, Nuvia was founded and later acquired by Qualcomm for $1.4bn. Apple’s chief CPU Architect, Gerard Williams, as well as more than 100 other Apple engineers left to join this firm. More recently, SemiAnalysis broke the news about Rivos Inc, a new high performance RISC V startup which includes many senior Apple engineers. The brain drain continues and impacts will be more apparent as time moves on. As Apple once drained resources out of Intel and others through the industry, the reverse seems to be happening now.

We believe Apple had to delay the next generation CPU core due to all the personnel turnover Apple has been experiencing. Instead of a new CPU core, they are using a modified version of last year’s core. One of these modifications is related to the CPU core’s MMU. This work was being done for the upcoming colloquially named “M1X” generation of Mac chips. Part of the reason for this change is related to larger memory sizes and virtualization features/support.

…Regardless of the paltry CPU gains and potential core architecture delays, Apple is still the leader in performance per watt.


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A decade of the Tim Cook machine • Benedict Evans

The tech analyst on ten years of Tim Cook (and new iPhones):


sure, AirPods are cool. But where’s the next Jesusphone? 

One answer is that Apple now has two very big projects — glasses and cars. A pair of glasses that become a display, and add things to the world that look real, seems worth trying — it might be the next universal device after smartphones, and Apple’s skills should put it at the forefront. But people have been trying for a long time: there are basic, unsolved optics problems, and we don’t know if Apple has the answer, or when it might. Apple Glasses might launch next week, or next summer, or never. Cars are a puzzle as well. Apple might design a better Tesla (and build one, with its $207bn of cash), but what problem would that solve? The iPhone wasn’t a better BlackBerry. Autonomous driving is a big problem, but is it an Apple kind of problem? Why would Apple solve a primary machine learning problem when Alphabet can’t?

Maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe Apple can find and solve another huge problem (or fail to solve it, as happened with TV and a few other things). But meanwhile it will carry on making a certain kind of product for a certain kind of customer. That’s been the plan ever since the original Macintosh, and in some ways all that’s changed is how many more of those customers there are. The original Mac sold a few hundred thousand units in 1984, but Apple now sells half a million iPhones every day. Apple and the market grew into each other.


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Microsoft accounts can now go fully passwordless • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Microsoft now lets you remove passwords from Microsoft accounts to embrace a passwordless future. Starting today, the software giant will let consumers sign into Microsoft accounts with its Microsoft Authenticator app, Windows Hello, a security key, or an SMS / email verification code instead of a password.

The new option arrives just months after Microsoft started rolling out passwordless authentication for commercial users in March to help people adjust to the realities of remote work. “When I think of security, I think you’ve got to protect your whole life,” says Vasu Jakkal, corporate vice president of Microsoft security, compliance and identity, in an interview with The Verge. “It’s no longer enough just to think about work or home and anything in between.”

Microsoft has been working toward a passwordless future for years, and the pandemic has only accelerated things. “When you have digital transformation and businesses having to go remote overnight … the number of digital surfaces has increased exponentially,” explains Jakkal. “The number of attack surfaces has increased exponentially, so that was a big driving factor for us in accelerating a lot of our security initiatives.”


How would you pick up the email verification code to log in, since presumably that would be on your locked computer? It all assumes another device to hand, which shows how the expectation of interaction has changed: the PC has become secondary to the phone.
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Largest NFT marketplace admits the fix was in, surprising no one • Mashable

Jack Morse:


OpenSea, the self-described “largest” non-fungible token marketplace, admitted Wednesday that an employee had been secretly buying NFTs in advance of their listing on the site’s front page. Using this non-public information, the employee was able to swoop up NFTs before their prices skyrocketed, and presumably make a hefty profit flipping them at a later date.

Think of it as investor front-running, but for the digital pixel-art age.

“We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take,” read an OpenSea blog post.

Notably, OpeSea suggests that it was only after this incident was discovered that the company implemented internal policies to ban this kind of behavior.

“OpenSea team members are prohibited from using confidential information to purchase or sell any NFTs, whether available on the OpenSea platform or not,” the company explained.

We reached out to OpenSea in an attempt to determine which employee used confidential information to game its system, and whether or not they are still employed at OpenSea. We also asked how many NFTs the employee flipped in this manner and how much profit they made doing so. We received no immediate response.


Subsequently reckoned to be Nate Chastain, the company’s product officer, based on some odd little trades he made. The people are no more or less honest than the many operating on Wall Street, but now it’s a little easier to track them down. (Also: an obvious reason not to get involved in NFTs.)
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Congress will investigate claims that Instagram harms teens • The Verge

Makena Kelly:


Senators. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) announced their investigation into Facebook in a statement released Tuesday. The senators said that they were in touch with “a Facebook whistleblower” and would seek new documents and witness testimony from the company related to the reporting.

“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens,” the lawmakers said. “When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram’s impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm.”

House lawmakers also criticized Facebook over the Journal’s new reporting, and Republicans even issued a new amendment to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation seeking to address tech’s effects on teens. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced the measure that would direct the Federal Trade Commission to go after “unfair and deceptive acts or practices targeting our children’s mental health and privacy by social media.” The amendment failed.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, said in a tweet, “Big Tech has become the new Big Tobacco. Facebook is lying about how their product harms teens.”


Notable that you have a Democrat and a Republican pushing this. Aisle-crossing actions are very, very rare in the US these days.
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Using research to improve your experience • Instagram blog

Karina Newton is head of public policy at Instagram, and authored a post to try (perhaps?) to downplay the WSJ’s story about its internal studies on Instagram’s effects:


The internet has drastically increased how many people we all connect to, and how much information we consume. As a society, we’re working out how to process these changes, and what’s right for each of us individually. At Instagram, we hire the best researchers and scientists we can to look at these changes, and to help us understand how they impact people. We also consult with leading experts and researchers around the world to help us see beyond our own work.

External research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving, and social media itself is changing rapidly. Some researchers argue that we need more evidence to understand social media’s impact on people. Each study has limitations and caveats, so no single study is going to be conclusive. We need to rely on an ever-growing body of multi-method research and expert input.

The research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.

A mixed methods study from Harvard described the “see-saw” of positive and negative experiences that US teens have on social media. The same person may have an important conversation with their friend on one day, and fall out with them the next day. According to research by Pew Internet on teens in the US, 81% of teens said that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while 26% reported social media makes them feel worse about their lives.


Naturally it’s self-serving, but you have to wonder about the response when you find that your product leaves a quarter of its users less happy about themselves.

Facebook also unable to stop itself from giving every other publication in the world the chance to have another bite by essentially confirming the WSJ’s excellent piece from Tuesday. It’s as if the tobacco industry were to take out adverts saying “Sure, cigarettes have a strong link with lung cancer, but they taste great!”
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So why not buy Social Warming, my latest book?

Illinois lawmakers approve subsidies to keep Exelon nukes online • S&P Global Market Intelligence

Darren Sweeney:


On the day Exelon Corp. prepared to permanently shut down its two-unit, 2,346-megawatt (MW) Byron Generating Station, Illinois lawmakers approved legislation that will keep the nuclear plant online for several more years.

The Illinois Senate voted 37-17 on Sept. 13 to approve an amended version of Senate Bill 2408, a massive energy bill that includes nearly $700m in subsidies for Exelon’s Byron, 1,805-MW Dresden and 2,384-MW Braidwood nuclear plants.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has signaled he will sign the legislation passed late Sept. 9 by the Illinois House of Representatives.

“After years of debate and discussion, science has prevailed, and we are charting a new future that works to mitigate the impacts of climate change here in Illinois,” Pritzker said in a Sept. 13 written statement. “I look forward to signing this historic measure into law as soon as possible, because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer.”

Exelon subsidiary Exelon Generation Co. LLC, which owns and operates the plants, said in a Sept. 13 news release that it is now preparing to refuel the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants as it anticipates the bill being signed by the governor.

The bill provides support for the state’s carbon-free nuclear generation through a competitive “carbon mitigation credit procurement plan” administered by the Illinois Power Agency. The contracts for winning bidders would begin June 1, 2022, and end May 31, 2027. The carbon mitigation credit is defined as a “tradable credit that represents the carbon emission reduction attributes of one megawatt-hour of energy produced from a carbon-free energy resource.”


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Pandemics initially spread among people of higher (not lower) social status: evidence from COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu • Social Psychological and Personality Science

Berkessel et al:


According to a staple in the social sciences, pandemics particularly spread among people of lower social status. Challenging this staple, we hypothesize that it holds true in later phases of pandemics only. In the initial phases, by contrast, people of higher social status should be at the center of the spread. We tested our phase-sensitive hypothesis in two studies.

In Study 1, we analyzed region-level COVID-19 infection data from 3,132 U.S. regions, 299 English regions, and 400 German regions.

In Study 2, we analyzed historical data from 1,159,920 U.S. residents who witnessed the 1918/1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

For both pandemics, we found that the virus initially spread more rapidly among people of higher social status. In later phases, that effect reversed; people of lower social status were most exposed. Our results provide novel insights into the center of the spread during the critical initial phases of pandemics.

…people of higher social status—among other things—show higher spatial mobility (Xu et al., 2018), higher relational mobility (Thomson et al., 2018), and have more heterogenous social networks (Carey & Markus, 2017). Stated otherwise, people of higher social status usually meet more diverse (novel and varying) persons than people of lower social status


I guess this means we can blame airlines for spreading Covid?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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