Start Up No.1647: Facebook mulled ‘tweens’ targeting, Amazon gets robotic, Morocco sun to power UK, AirTag phishing, and more


What if the ‘psychohistory’ in Asimov’s Foundation novels is actually a discipline in common usage today? CC-licensed photo by James on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. In a queue. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why do social networks drive us all 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?

Order Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Facebook’s effort to attract preteens goes beyond Instagram Kids, documents show • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Jeff Horwitz:

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Facebook has come under increasing fire in recent days for its effect on young users and its efforts to create products for them. Inside the company, teams of employees have for years been laying plans to attract preteens that go beyond what is publicly known, spurred by fear that Facebook could lose a new generation of users critical to its future.

Internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show the company formed a team to study preteens, set a three-year goal to create more products for them and commissioned strategy papers about the long-term business opportunities presented by these potential users. In one presentation, it contemplated whether there might be a way to engage children during play dates.

“Why do we care about tweens?” said one document from 2020. “They are a valuable but untapped audience.”

Facebook isn’t the only technology company to court children and face scrutiny for doing so. Virtually every major social-media platform, including ByteDance’s TikTok and YouTube, has confronted legal or regulatory problems related to how children use its products. Federal privacy law forbids data collection on children under 13, and lawmakers have criticized tech companies for not doing more to protect kids online from predators and harmful content.

The Facebook documents show that competition from rivals, in particular Snapchat and TikTok, is a motivating factor behind its work.

The company’s approach to young users is expected to be addressed during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday, which is expected to probe the effects of Facebook’s Instagram platform on mental health.

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Every week I hope there won’t be stories about Facebook behaving terribly in some way or other, because it feels like they’re unending. But they are.
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‘The Big Delete:’ inside Facebook’s crackdown in Germany • Associated Press

David Klepper:

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Days before Germany’s federal elections, Facebook took what it called an unprecedented step: the removal of a series of accounts that worked together to spread COVID-19 misinformation and encourage violent responses to COVID restrictions.

The crackdown, announced Sept. 16, was the first use of Facebook’s new “coordinated social harm” policy aimed at stopping not state-sponsored disinformation campaigns but otherwise typical users who have mounted an increasingly sophisticated effort to sidestep rules on hate speech or misinformation.

In the case of the German network, the nearly 150 accounts, pages and groups were linked to the so-called Querdenken movement, a loose coalition that has protested lockdown measures in Germany and includes vaccine and mask opponents, conspiracy theorists and some far-right extremists.

Facebook touted the move as an innovative response to potentially harmful content; far-right commenters condemned it as censorship. But a review of the content that was removed — as well as the many more Querdenken posts that are still available — reveals Facebook’s action to be modest at best. At worst, critics say, it could have been a ploy to counter complaints that it doesn’t do enough to stop harmful content.

“This action appears rather to be motivated by Facebook’s desire to demonstrate action to policymakers in the days before an election, not a comprehensive effort to serve the public,” concluded researchers at Reset, a UK-based nonprofit that has criticised social media’s role in democratic discourse.

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Good old Facebook, still ineffectual at moderating the really important effects that it has.
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Amazon’s Astro home robot is like having Alexa on wheels • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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The Astro, which will initially cost $999.99 and available as a Day 1 Edition product that you can request an invite for the privilege of buying, is Amazon’s most ambitious in-home product yet. Amazon sees it as bringing together many different parts of the company — robotics, AI, home monitoring, cloud services — all into one device. Best described as the love child between a Roomba and an Echo Show smart display, the Astro is meant to be the next step in what Amazons believes to be the seemingly inevitable home robot.

Amazon claims the Astro can do a wide variety of things you might want from a home robot. It can map out your floor plan and obey commands to go to a specific room. It can recognize faces and deliver items to a specific person. It can play music and show you the weather and answer questions like any Echo smart display. It can be used for video calls, always keeping you in frame by literally following your movements. It can roam around your house when you aren’t home, making sure everything is okay. It can raise its periscope camera to show you whether you’ve turned the stove off. It can use third-party accessories to record data like blood pressure.

But as ambitious as the Astro is, it still is very much a first cut at what a home assistant robot could be. It doesn’t have any arms or appendages; it can’t clean your floors; it can’t climb stairs; it can’t go outside of your home; and it probably can’t do a zillion other things I’m not thinking of at the moment.

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There’s a rundown of all Amazon’s new things, which includes an in-house drone.
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The world’s longest subsea cable will send clean energy from Morocco to the UK • Electrek

Michelle Lewis:

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A 10.5 gigawatt (GW) solar and wind farm will be built in Morocco’s Guelmim-Oued Noun region, and it will supply the UK with clean energy via subsea cables. The twin 1.8 GW high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea cables will be the world’s longest.

UK-based renewables company Xlinks is the project’s developer. The Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project, as it’s known, will cover an area of around 579 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) in Morocco and will be connected exclusively to the UK via 2,361 miles (3,800 km) of HVDC subsea cables. They’ll follow the shallow water route from Morocco to the UK, past Spain, Portugal, and France.

The project will cost $21.9bn. Xlinks will construct 7 GW of solar and 3.5 GW of wind, along with onsite 20GWh/5GW battery storage, in Morocco. The transmission cable will consist of four cables. The first cable will be active in early 2027, and the other three are slated to launch in 2029. An agreement has been reached with the National Grid for two 1.8GW connections at Alverdiscott in Devon.

Xlinks says that the Morocco-UK Power Project will be capable of powering seven million UK homes by 2030. Once complete, the project will be capable of supplying 8% of Britain’s electricity needs.

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Creates lots of jobs (and money?) in Morocco. Quite a significant chunk of energy, at a point when some of the UK’s nuclear plants will be going offline. Probably quicker to build this than a nuclear plant, though you could argue about which will produce the more reliable base load. Can’t help wondering how much power will be lost over 2,361 miles of cable.
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Apple AirTag bug enables ‘Good Samaritan’ attack • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

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The AirTag’s “Lost Mode” lets users alert Apple when an AirTag is missing. Setting it to Lost Mode generates a unique URL at https://found.apple.com, and allows the user to enter a personal message and contact phone number. Anyone who finds the AirTag and scans it with an Apple or Android phone will immediately see that unique Apple URL with the owner’s message.

When scanned, an AirTag in Lost Mode will present a short message asking the finder to call the owner at at their specified phone number. This information pops up without asking the finder to log in or provide any personal information. But your average Good Samaritan might not know this.

That’s important because Apple’s Lost Mode doesn’t currently stop users from injecting arbitrary computer code into its phone number field — such as code that causes the Good Samaritan’s device to visit a phony Apple iCloud login page.

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Something of an oversight on Apple’s part. Fixable with a software update, which Apple plans to roll out at some point, apparently.
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How Apple built the iPhone 13’s Cinematic Mode • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:

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The A15 Bionic and Neural Engine are heavily used in Cinematic Mode, especially given that they wanted to encode it in Dolby Vision HDR as well. They also didn’t want to sacrifice live preview — something that most Portrait Mode competitors took years to ship after Apple introduced it.

But the concept of Cinematic Mode didn’t start with the feature itself, says [Human Interface Team designer Johnnie] Manzari. In fact, he says, it’s typically the opposite inside of this design team at Apple.

“We didn’t have an idea [for Cinematic Mode]. We were just curious — what is it about filmmaking that’s been timeless? And that kind of leads down this interesting road and then we started to learn more and talk more … with people across the company that can help us solve these problems.”

[Apple VP Kaiann] Drance says that before development began, Apple’s design team spent time researching cinematography techniques for realistic focus transitions and optical characteristics.

“When you look at the design process,” says Manzari, “we begin with a deep reverence and respect for image and filmmaking through history. We’re fascinated with questions like what principles of image and filmmaking are timeless? What craft has endured culturally and why?”

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Portrait Mode, for stills, was introduced in the iPhone 7 Plus in October 2016. That’s five years to go from stills to video.
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Coal prices hit decade high despite efforts to wean the world off carbon • WSJ

Joe Wallace:

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A shortfall of natural gas, rebounding electricity usage and scanty rainfall in China have lifted demand for thermal coal. Supplies have been crimped by a closed mine in Colombia, flooding in Indonesia and Australia and distorted trade flows caused by a Chinese ban on Australian coal.

Prices for thermal coal—which power plants burn to boil water into steam, spin turbines and generate electricity—have more than doubled over the past year as a result. Coal delivered into northwest Europe earlier this month hit its highest price since November 2011, having climbed 64% in 2021. Prices for coal exported from Newcastle in Australia, most of which heads to Asia, have risen 56%, according to Argus Media.

Both coal-price benchmarks have outstripped gains in oil, copper and other commodity markets that are benefiting from a vaccine-fired burst of economic activity. The upswing in fuel markets is contributing to higher electricity prices in the US and Europe.

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Another one of the candidates for “everything’s connected, everything’s fragile”: not enough rain means not much hydro power, forcing coal plants not to run in China pushes up the price of power there.
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Trump’s former press secretary details his mysterious 2019 hospital visit in behind-the-scenes look at his White House • CNNPolitics

Kate Bennett:

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[Stephanie] Grisham served as White House press secretary, chief of staff to Melania Trump and East Wing communications director during the Trump administration before resigning after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. In her book, “I’ll Take Your Questions Now,” which was obtained by CNN, Grisham gives a firsthand account of her time in the White House and describes a culture of lies in the Trump administration.

In the book, Grisham does not use the term colonoscopy but heavily implies that’s what the trip was for. She says Trump’s hospital visit, which stirred weeks-long speculation about his health was a “very common procedure,” during which “a patient is put under.” She also writes that former President George W. Bush had a similar procedure while in office; Bush had multiple colonoscopies during his time in office. Grisham writes Trump did not want then-Vice President Mike Pence to be in power while he was sedated, which was part of the reason he kept his visit private. He also “did not want to be the butt of a joke” on late-night television, writes Grisham.

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Wa-hey. So that’s that mystery solved. There’s some more minor revelations. As ever, hard to know what, if any, impact they’ll have.
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Density is destiny: economists predict the far future • Marginal REVOLUTION

Alex Tabarrok, in March 2019:

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In a paper that just won the JPE’s Robert Lucas Prize, Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg model the evolution of the world economy over the next 400-600 years! Is it laughable or laudatory? I’m not entirely sure. The paper does have an insight that I think is very important, in addition to a number of methodological advances.

If we look around the world today we see that the places with the densest populations, such as China and India, are poor. But in the long-run of history that doesn’t make sense. As Paul Romer, and others, have emphasized, ideas are the ultimate source of wealth and more people means more ideas. As a result, innovation and GDP per capita should be higher in places and times with more people. The fact that China and India are poor today is an out-of-equilibrium anomaly that happened because they were slower than the West to adopt the institutions of free markets and capitalism necessary to leverage ideas into output. China and India weren’t relatively poor in the past, however, and they won’t be relatively poor in the future. With that in mind, a key long-run prediction of Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg becomes clear. If people are not allowed to migrate then the places that are densest today will not only equal the West, they will overtake the West in innovation and productivity.

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Why this link now? Because Apple TV+ has a new series based on the Asimov “Empire and Foundation” SF books, in which the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon predicts the future thousands of years ahead. For psychohistory, read “economics”, really.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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