Start Up No.1650: internal dissent grows at Facebook, Ozy Media’s Ozymandias moment, Britain’s nightmarish winter, the methane problem, and more

You too can stay on the International Space Station – though the charge for using the toilet is a bit more than a penny. CC-licensed photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. What, don’t you like queueing? It’s still fashionable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook struggles to quell uproar over Instagram’s effect on teens • The New York Times

Mike Isaac, Sheera Frenkel and Ryan Mac:


some of Facebook’s containment has at times backfired with its own workers. This week, the company downplayed the internal research that The Journal had partly based its articles on, suggesting that the findings were limited and imprecise. That angered some employees who had worked on the research, three people said. They have congregated on group chats to decry the characterizations as unfair, and some have privately threatened to quit.

In one group text message chain shared with The New York Times, Facebook data scientists and researchers discussed how they were being “embarrassed” by their own employer. On a company message board, one employee wrote in a post this week: “They are making a mockery of the research.”

“Facebook’s UX research team is one of the best in the industry,” said Sahar Massachi, a Facebook engineer who worked on election integrity and left the company in 2019. “Instead of attacking their employees, Facebook should be giving integrity researchers the authority to more fully do their jobs.”

The furor is unlikely to die down. On Sunday, the whistle-blower who leaked the internal research and is a former Facebook employee is set to reveal her identity and discuss the documents on “60 Minutes.” She will then appear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday to testify about what she discovered while conducting research at Facebook.


Look like I chose the wrong week to stop linking to stories about Facebook getting in hot water over its effects on users.
unique link to this extract

• Learn more about the deleterious effects of Facebook (and other social networks) in Social Warming, my latest book.

Ozy Media, once a darling of investors, shuts down in a swift unraveling • The New York Times

Ben Smith and Katie Robertson:


Advertisers including Chevrolet, Walmart, Facebook, Target and Goldman Sachs itself — many of which had been paying for placement on “The Carlos Watson Show” — hit the brakes on their spending with Ozy.

By Friday afternoon, Mr. Watson and the other remaining board member, Michael Moe (another high-profile investment figure, who had published a book called “Finding the Next Starbucks”), concluded that the company could not recover and issued the farewell statement through a spokeswoman. Mr. Watson did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

CNN, Insider and other publications reported this week that working conditions at Ozy were difficult, and The Times, along with other publications, raised questions about the company’s claims of audience size for its online videos and website.

The Ozy staff received the news that the company was no more on Friday afternoon. “It’s heartbreaking for all the people who poured their hearts and souls into this company and produced journalism often under grueling, sometimes hostile, conditions that deserved a much wider audience,” Pooja Bhatia, a writer who worked at Ozy from 2013 until 2017, said in an interview shortly after she got word.

Nick Fouriezos, an Ozy reporter who left in June, said, “We were all devastated by the amount of deception that was going on by leadership, but I would stand 100% by the journalism that was done there, and the people that were working there were some of the most passionate hardworking journalists anywhere.”


Gave up the ghost on the day I forecast it might last four weeks. I think the journalists there were deceiving themselves. They were producing utter internet chum: stuff you spread in the water to attract attention, nothing more. And I think it would be worth asking the investors how much they really put into it.

Other reading: Axios (which previously wrote articles lauding Ozy to the sky, based on numbers provided by Ozy) and, better, Ryan Broderick goes into the analytics.
unique link to this extract

The media business has a bigger Ozy problem • The Rebooting

Brian Morrissey:


Back in 2003, Viacom’s Mel Karmazin visited Google, where founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin showed how the search engine could tell advertisers exactly what was working. Mel wasn’t impressed: “You’re fucking with the magic, boys.” Digital media, with its trackability and openness, would be where artifices crumble. The entire promise of internet publishing was that lazy gatekeepers would be overtaken by an army of newcomers that used the cheap reach of the internet to build solid businesses on the back of high quality content. Didn’t turn out that way.

In fact, more than being a source of truth, digital media has provided more opportunities to create what I think of as synthetic media. You can create Potemkin villages of media properties that appear like the real thing. Need numbers? Buy followers and email subscribers so you can boast about them in press releases. Pay ComScore to not report your internet traffic – and really, should we trust a company that’s admitted to accounting fraud to count audiences? Nobody takes sales kits as gospel, so why not redefine the metrics to make the numbers even bigger. Back in 2018, Vice claimed an audience of 288 million. Brit + Co still claims an audience of 175 million people. By the way, if you want high time on site, bots behave more reliably than humans. As Max Read memorably wrote in 2018, much of the internet is fake. Underpinning all of this is the fuel of digital media: the expectation to show hockey-stick growth. But publishing doesn’t work like that. Building sustainable brands, built on trust and habit, takes a long time.

This is a business culture problem. We tend to gloss over dishonesty as hustle and treat fake-it-till-you-make-it as a virtue when it’s just not being straight. I always felt naive and even moralistic because I have found this kind of dishonesty deplorable.


unique link to this extract

NASA will allow private astronauts on the ISS for $11,250-$22,500 a day • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:


the space agency issued a new directive that allows commercial manufacturing and production to occur on the ISS, as well as marketing activities. It’s not quite “anything goes,” though—approved activities have to have a link to NASA’s mission, stimulate the development of a LEO [low earth orbit] economy, or actually require a zero-G environment. NASA has published a price list for the ISS, and it’s setting aside 5% of the station’s annual resources (including astronaut time and cargo mass) for commercial use.

Be prepared to pay to reach LEO. The cheapest cargo option is $3,000/kg to get it there, then an additional $3,000/kg to dispose of it in the trash. If you want it back again, that’ll be a $6,000/kg return fee, although round trip prices per kg are more expensive if you need power or life support on the way home.

In addition to manufacturing and production, NASA set pricing for space tourists—it’s calling them private astronaut missions—aboard the ISS, too. Regenerative life support and toilet access? That’s a snip at $11,250 per crew day. The more expensive “Crew Supplies” option—$22,500—sounds more hospitable, including as it does “food, air, crew provisions, supplies, medical kit, [and] exercise equipment.” NASA says it will support up to two short-duration private missions to the ISS each year, and those missions will travel on a US launch vehicle developed under the Commercial Crew program.


Somehow that “$3,000/kg to dispose of it” reminds me of the planet Bethselamin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where


the net balance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete while on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave; so every time you go to the lavatory there, it is vitally important to get a receipt.


unique link to this extract

Hundreds of scam apps hit over 10 million Android devices • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:


Researchers from the mobile security firm Zimperium say the massive scamming campaign has plagued Android since November 2020. As is often the case, the attackers were able to sneak benign-looking apps like “Handy Translator Pro,” “Heart Rate and Pulse Tracker,” and “Bus – Metrolis 2021” into Google Play as fronts for something more sinister. After downloading one of the malicious apps, a victim would receive a flood of notifications, five an hour, that prompted them to “confirm” their phone number to claim a prize. The “prize” claim page loaded through an in-app browser, a common technique for keeping malicious indicators out of the code of the app itself. Once a user entered their digits, the attackers signed them up for a monthly recurring charge of about $42 through the premium SMS services feature of wireless bills. It’s a mechanism that normally lets you pay for digital services or, say, send money to a charity via text message. In this case, it went directly to crooks.

The techniques are common in malicious Play Store apps, and premium SMS fraud in particular is a notorious issue. But the researchers say it’s significant that attackers were able to string these known approaches together in a way that was still extremely effective—and in staggering numbers—even as Google has continuously improved its Android security and Play Store defenses.


My point here is to focus on the use of premium SMS scams. Years ago, hackers would take over the programs that dialled in to the internet (this used to be a thing, younger readers) so that rather than calling a local (cheap or free) number it would call a premium number. (British Telecom did nothing about this for ages, allowing people to unknowingly run up gigantic bills for their internet use. Under standard terms, BT got a slice of the revenue.)

Now it’s about premium text scams. But maybe you can see the connection: premium rate numbers. Always there to be abused.
unique link to this extract

Low oxygen levels along Pacific Northwest coast a ‘silent’ climate change crisis • The Seattle Times

Michala Garrison:


Nearly two decades ago, fishers discovered an odd occurrence off the coast of Oregon. They were pulling up pots of dead or lethargic crabs.

At first they suspected a chemical spill or a red tide. But instead, they learned, dangerously low levels of dissolved oxygen in the ocean water were to blame.

The crabs had suffocated.

These swaths of hypoxic areas have surfaced every summer on Pacific Northwest shores since it was first recorded in 2002. They are spurred by naturally occurring coastal upwellings and algae blooms, exacerbated by climate change, said Francis Chan, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies at Oregon State University.

Akin to fire season, hypoxia season arrived earlier this year — the earliest start in 20 years, according to Chan. But unlike wildfire, or other visible climate emergencies, it’s gone largely unrecognized.

“It’s kind of a silent problem happening out there,” said Chan. “This year, I can look out and see trees with one side burnt because of the heat wave. As I’m driving on McKenzie highway, I can see Mount Jefferson has no snow on it. But when you drive out to the ocean, it looks exactly the same as last summer.”


unique link to this extract

Pulling methane out of the atmosphere could slow global warming—if we can figure out how to do it • MIT Technology Review

Casey Crownhart:


Reducing methane in the atmosphere by 40% could reduce warming 0.4ºC by 2050, according to a new paper. Researchers also published a plan today outlining potential approaches and calling for more research into methane removal technology, which has so far been mostly confined to the lab.

Sucking methane from the air might deliver a bigger bang for the buck than just removing carbon dioxide.
“There’s probably nothing we could do that has a bigger effect on shaving peak temperatures over the next few decades than removing methane,” says Rob Jackson, a researcher at Stanford and a coauthor of both studies.

Methane is relatively scarce: carbon dioxide is about 200 times more concentrated in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it has contributed around 30% of total global warming to date, or about 0.5ºC, according to a recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though its lifetime in the atmosphere is only about ten years, over short time frames it is about 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

…Because of its short lifetime, if methane emissions were cut today, atmospheric levels would drop off quickly. In a recent UN Environment Programme report on methane that Naik coauthored, researchers estimated that cutting methane emissions 45% today could reduce warming 0.28ºC by midcentury—keeping the world under the target of less than 1.5ºC of warming over preindustrial levels, as defined by the Paris agreement.


It’s always about controlling emissions. We’re just not going to drag this stuff out of the air. CO2 is 0.04% of the air. So methane is an infinitesimal part of it. We have to rely on the decay, and control emissions.
unique link to this extract

October 2011: the crypto-currency • The New Yorker

Joshua Davis, writing in October 2011:


When bitcoin launched, my laptop would have had a reasonable chance of winning from time to time. Now, however, the computing power dedicated to playing the bitcoin lottery exceeds that of the world’s most powerful supercomputer. So I set up an account with Mt. Gox, the leading bitcoin exchange, and transferred a hundred and twenty dollars. A few days later, I bought 10.305 bitcoins with the press of a button and just as easily sent them to the Howard Johnson [hotel].

It was a simple transaction that masked a complex calculus. In 1971, Richard Nixon announced that US dollars could no longer be redeemed for gold. Ever since, the value of the dollar has been based on our faith in it. We trust that dollars will be valuable tomorrow, so we accept payment in dollars today. Bitcoin is similar: you have to trust that the system won’t get hacked, and that Nakamoto won’t suddenly emerge to somehow plunder it all. Once you believe in it, the actual cost of a bitcoin—five dollars or thirty?—depends on factors such as how many merchants are using it, how many might use it in the future, and whether or not governments ban it.

My daughter and I arrived at the Howard Johnson on a hot Friday afternoon and were met in the lobby by Jefferson Kim, the hotel’s cherubic twenty-eight-year-old general manager. “You’re the first person who’s ever paid in bitcoin,” he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically.

Kim explained that he had started mining bitcoins two months earlier. He liked that the currency was governed by a set of logical rules, rather than the mysterious machinations of the Federal Reserve. A dollar today, he pointed out, buys you what a nickel bought a century ago, largely because so much money has been printed. And, he asked, why trust a currency backed by a government that is 14 trillion dollars in debt?


It’s fascinating to read this, almost exactly ten years later. Those hotel payment bitcoins are now equivalent to half a million dollars (but the hotel owner sold them at once). Mt Gox was hacked into oblivion. And bitcoin is hardly used to *buy* things any more – unless the Great Experiment in El Salvador is regaining that ground. I suspect not.
unique link to this extract

Britain is heading into a nightmarish winter • The New York Times

Samuel Earle:


The signs of breakdown are everywhere: empty shelves in supermarkets, food going to waste in fields, more and more vacancy posters tacked to the windows of shops and restaurants. Meat producers have even called on the government to let them hire prisoners to plug the gap.

One of the main causes of this predicament is Brexit, or at least the government’s handling of Brexit. Britain’s protracted departure from the bloc, undertaken without any real effort by Mr. Johnson to ensure a smooth transition, led to an exodus of European workers — a process then compounded by the pandemic. As many as 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.

Yet as it became clear that Britain faced substantial shortages in labor, the Conservatives refused to respond. They bloviated, calling it a “manufactured situation.” They prevaricated, assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. And, seeing the chance to recast their negligence as benevolence, they claimed their failure to act was because they wanted companies to pay British workers more instead of rely on cheap foreign labor.

This alibi for inaction is unconvincing. In the Netherlands, for example, new legislation has improved the pay and working conditions for truck drivers. In Britain, conditions remain among the worst in Europe.


Nice use of “bloviated”.
unique link to this extract

Fuel supplies: mortar tanker tailed by drivers looking for petrol • BBC News


A tanker driver has told how he was tailed by about 20 drivers who were dismayed to discover he was not transporting petrol.

Johnny Anderson, who drives for Weaver Haulage, was transporting 44 tonnes of mortar from Bilston, Wolverhampton, to a building site in Northamptonshire.

When he reached his destination, he saw a line of traffic backed up behind him.

“The man at the front… actually said ‘You could have stopped and told us you weren’t a petrol tanker,” he said.

The incident came as lengthy queues formed at forecourts amid petrol and diesel supply problems.
Mr Anderson, from Harworth, Nottinghamshire, said he was delivering cement to the David Wilson Homes development at Overstone on Thursday.

He was on the A43 when he first realised he was being followed. “I didn’t notice initially but then on the dual carriageway, I noticed nobody was overtaking me and saw a string of about 20 cars behind me,” he said.


It’s basically a sort of imprinting, except with humans rather than ducklings.
unique link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Apologies for Friday, when those who subscribe by email received a 10-edition version, followed on Saturday by the email that should have gone out on Friday.

Why did this happen? Mailchimp is set up to poll the RSS feed for a new post that it hasn’t seen before at 0800 British time (BST or GMT). If I’ve failed to get the day’s post published by then, it won’t be in the RSS feed, so no email. In that situation, I can publish a little later and run an “urgent” (substitute) Mailchimp run – but that looks at the RSS feed and takes in the most recent 10, because it usually hasn’t been run in the previous 10 days.

But why was the post late? I usually do it the night before. In fact, I usually automate almost all the process (apart from writing the headlines and choosing the picture): I have a script that clicks the buttons on the web pages.

Except WordPress keeps changing the underlying HTML names of the buttons. This completely confuses the script, which then falls over, so I have to press the buttons myself. This I can usually manage, but on Thursday night WordPress (like many sites) had an SSL certificate failure (according to my install of MacOS, which is quite old), which meant I had to tweak some of the scripts so the curl command would work with the failed certificate.

In all the commotion, I forgot to press the key button to schedule the post. So you didn’t get an email on time. Until you did, and then got more.

This could be fixed if WordPress would stop monkeying around with the HTML, which seems to change almost from month to month. It was stable for years – and then in October 2020, they changed it all. Sometimes, not changing is the best change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.