Start Up No.1652: Facebook whistleblower urges regulation, the cult of Ozy, carmakers v chipmakers, Salesforce’s bad dataviz, and more


Air source heat pumps will have to replace gas boilers – but they’ll jack up electricity demand substantially. Can the grid cope? CC-licensed photo by Krzysztof Lis on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Unregulated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook whistleblower urges lawmakers to regulate the company • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

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In more than three hours of testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Frances Haugen, who worked on Facebook’s civic misinformation team for nearly two years until May, spoke candidly and with a level of insight that the company’s executives have rarely provided. She said Facebook had purposely hidden disturbing research about how teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products and how it was willing to use hateful content on its site to keep users coming back.

Ms. Haugen also gave lawmakers information on what other data they should ask Facebook for, which could then lead to proposals to regulate the Silicon Valley giant as it increasingly faces questions about its global reach and power.

“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Ms. Haugen, 37, said during her testimony. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.”

…Facebook has repeatedly pushed back on the criticism, saying its research was taken out of context and misunderstood. On Tuesday after the hearing, the company defended itself by questioning Ms. Haugen’s credibility. Lena Pietsch, a Facebook spokeswoman, said Ms. Haugen had never attended a decision-making meeting with high-ranking executives.

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Facebook’s PR team are completely stuffed over this. Attending a decision-making meeting doesn’t mean you don’t understand research discussed in it. (Haugen’s site doesn’t have much yet.) No clarity on what form the regulation should take, though.
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Still a good time to buy my book,
Social Warming, which explains how algorithmic amplication and our natural instincts create mayhem on social networks.


Understanding how Facebook disappeared from the internet • Cloudflare

Celso Martinho and Tom Strickx:

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“Facebook can’t be down, can it?”, we thought, for a second.

Today at 15:51 UTC, we opened an internal incident entitled “Facebook DNS lookup returning SERVFAIL” because we were worried that something was wrong with our DNS resolver 1.1.1.1.  But as we were about to post on our public status page we realized something else more serious was going on.

Social media quickly burst into flames, reporting what our engineers rapidly confirmed too. Facebook and its affiliated services WhatsApp and Instagram were, in fact, all down. Their DNS names stopped resolving, and their infrastructure IPs were unreachable. It was as if someone had “pulled the cables” from their data centers all at once and disconnected them from the Internet.

This wasn’t a DNS issue itself, but failing DNS was the first symptom we’d seen of a larger Facebook outage.

How’s that even possible?

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This is a technical but clear description of what happened, at least as far as outsiders are able to tell. Facebook has published a couple of blog posts about the events, but they’re incredibly bland, with essentially zero detail – and certainly nothing admitting to staff being unable to get into server rooms because the card passes require the Facebook domain to be reachable.
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48-hour internet outage plunges nation into productivity • The Onion

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An Internet worm that disabled networks across the US Monday and Tuesday temporarily thrust the nation into its most severe maelstrom of productivity since 1992.

“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Price Stern Sloan system administrator Andrew Walton, whose effort to restore web service to his company’s network was repeatedly hampered by employees busily working at their computers. “The local-access network is functioning, so people can transfer work projects to one another, but there’s no e-mail, no eBay, no flaminglips.com. It’s pretty much every office worker’s worst nightmare.”

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As ever, the most consistently accurate depictor of events, past, present and future. (This first appeared in October 2003.)
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Carlos Watson’s mismanagement of Ozy: ‘it was culty’ • NY Mag

Jeff Wise:

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“Carlos didn’t like that people slept,” Crane says. “There was one meeting where he stood up and he said, ‘I’m sick of hearing about how people need to sleep! This is a start-up! This is not for the weak!’”

The way Watson and [COO Samir] Rao defined the editorial mission of the site created an ongoing challenge for the staff. It was hard enough to find topics that no major outlets had covered; to do that at a fast pace, with a freelance budget that might amount to no more than $150 per story, at times felt unworkable, former employees said. The story mix that resulted leaned toward obscure topics in remote places.

“The reason those stories weren’t reported by the big outfits is that they weren’t that significant,” says the former Ozy editor. “You have to be a real social-justice trooper to read article after article about, you know, the fight for women’s rights in some province in Nigeria. It’s great that Carlos wanted to cover stuff like that, but it turns out there’s no audience for it.”

Even as Watson was running around telling advertisers and investors that Ozy had tens of millions of readers, staffers knew the truth. Each story had a counter at the bottom showing how many people had read it. “You work your ass off on a thing, and then it gets like 60 readers, you know?” says the former editor. “There was just no one there. It’s crickets.”

Ozy removed the counters.

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Apple told a showbiz union it had less than 20 million North American TV+ subscribers • CNBC

Kif Leswing:

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Apple claimed its TV+ service had less than 20 million subscribers in the US and Canada as of July, allowing it to pay behind-the-scenes production crew lower rates than streamers with more subscriptions, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a union that represents TV and movie workers who perform jobs like operating cameras and building sets.

Apple has never revealed subscriber numbers for its Apple TV+ streaming service, which launched in the fall of 2019. Analysts are reluctant to offer estimates, but many say that its scale pales in comparison to services like Netflix, which claimed 209 million subscribers as of Q2, and Disney+, which claimed 116 million.

The fact that Apple can pay a discounted rate despite being the most valuable publicly traded company in the world highlights some of the issues facing Hollywood workers as streaming supplants linear TV and movies, and is raising ire among union members who are deciding whether to strike for better pay and working conditions.

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Company that routes billions of text messages quietly says it was hacked • Vice

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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A company that is a critical part of the global telecommunications infrastructure used by AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and several others around the world such as Vodafone and China Mobile, quietly disclosed that hackers were inside its systems for years, impacting more than 200 of its clients and potentially millions of cellphone users worldwide. 

The company, Syniverse, revealed in a filing dated September 27 with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that an unknown “individual or organization gained unauthorized access to databases within its network on several occasions, and that login information allowing access to or from its Electronic Data Transfer (EDT) environment was compromised for approximately 235 of its customers.”

A former Syniverse employee who worked on the EDT systems told Motherboard that those systems have information on all types of call records. 

Syniverse repeatedly declined to answer specific questions from Motherboard about the scale of the breach and what specific data was affected, but according to a person who works at a telephone carrier, whoever hacked Syniverse could have had access to metadata such as length and cost, caller and receiver’s numbers, the location of the parties in the call, as well as the content of SMS text messages.

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So, basically, they’ve known absolutely everything about perhaps every text almost every American has been sending for years. Wonder who’s been using that data? Police? Spies? Private detectives?
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“It is truly bonkers”: Greg Jackson, Octopus CEO, on the UK’s broken energy system • New Statesman

Will Dunn:

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Jackson accuses the management of the UK energy grid as being stuck in the past, describing the National Grid as a “monopoly” and its control room as “like a minicab office. There’s some blokes with phones, and what they’ve always done is phoned up coal and gas power stations and told them to turn on and off. What we have to do now is… a million times more complicated.”

The result of this simplified central planning could be seen the previous week, when “electricity prices were colossally high, we were having to use lots of back-up supplies… [and] we were literally paying wind generators in Scotland to turn off, because there weren’t enough cables connecting Scotland, where the electricity was being generated, to England, where we needed it.”

The solution, he says, is for the energy grid to become more like the internet. “It is truly bonkers,” he says, that the UK persists with a system in which “central planners decide what cables are going to go where… you can centrally plan a system that’s got 100 power stations. You can’t centrally plan a system that’s got 20 million electric cars, two million houses with solar panels, a million houses with batteries, and 5,000 large-scale wind and solar farms.”

Jackson applauds Boris Johnson’s aspiration to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind”, and believes such a project could transform our economy: “If we build enough wind generation to meet our winter needs, nine months of the year we’re going to have unbelievably cheap electricity. You’ll be able to fuel your car for free, make steel for free, do indoor farming with virtually zero energy costs.” But the current reality is that in government, too, the pace of change is frustratingly slow: a wind farm can be built in 12 months, and an undersea cable between the UK and France can be laid in ten days, but approval and grid connections can take years.

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If – when – the UK installs heat pumps to replace gas boilers, electricity demand will spike • The Conversation

Ali Ehsan:

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In its bid to massively reduce household use of greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, the UK government aims to encourage the installation of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028.

Heat pumps are a relatively new technology that take heat from the air outside, or the ground, to be circulated around a central heating and hot water system, using electricity. They are far more clean and energy efficient than gas.

The increased electricity demand caused by heat pumps if millions more people switch to this form of heating could place an “unmanageable burden” on the electrical grid, increasing the risk of power cuts, according to recent research using data from 6,600 gas-heated homes and 600 homes with heat pumps.

Without additional investments in electricity networks and additional innovations, such power cuts will be more likely.

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What’s the betting the government will put off doing this until it’s much too late?
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Why carmakers can’t just transition to the newest chips • Jalopnik

Adam Ismail:

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Car companies use a varied selection of chips that tend to be many times larger than what’s employed in most consumer electronics — perhaps as big as 45 or 90 nanometers. [For comparison, this year’s phones use 5nm processes.] These are often used for simple tasks like raising and lowering windows and climate control.

The dilemma is that if those chips are tiny rather than huge, a given size wafer will yield many more of them. Miniaturization thus makes supply easier to maintain, and allows chip manufacturers to reap a more lucrative return on their investments.

“So, chip fabrication for older (bigger) lithographic features tends to be retired or at least new fabs using these older technologies won’t be built to meet an increase in demand,” [Fellow at the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers, Thomas] Coughlin sums up. “Overall, the chip companies do have a valid point.”

However, to suggest as Gelsinger did that the burden to adapt should fall squarely on automakers simplifies the issue. General purpose chipmakers don’t seem to grasp the unique challenges of the automotive sector — something that became clear to me after chatting with Jon M. Quigley, Society of Automotive Engineers member and columnist at Automotive Industries.

“Qualifying a product, specifically testing activities, are costly and requires time, talent, and equipment,” Quigley said. “Some of the test equipment requirements are expensive and often not on hand at the OEM but will require an external lab, and booking time at this lab can be a long lead time activity, and is necessary for certain product certifications. Depending upon the vehicle system commonality, this testing might have to be performed on multiple vehicle platforms.”

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So the chips aren’t in plentiful supply, and the fabs can’t really be turned on and off like light switches.
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Salesforce accidentally teaches us about visual weight • The Good Data Project

Nate Elliott, on a truly egregious bit of data misrepresentation from Salesforce’s site:

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1. The bubble chart overweights the largest responses. The chart above says about twice as many companies involve IT in app development as involve marketing (81% vs 42%). But the bubble representing IT is 3.7x bigger than the bubble representing marketing — almost double the size it should be.

The problem: Salesforce used diameter rather than area to scale the bubbles. The “marketing” bubble is about half as wide as the “IT” bubble, which at first sounds correct. But as we learned in school, the area of a circle is πr². If you want to make one circle half the size of another, reduce the diameter by about 29%, not by 50%.

Nearly every bubble chart I see contains this error. If you’re going to represent data with bubbles, scale them based on their area.

2. Salesforce’s pyramid charts are even worse. Think this report can’t do worse than the bubble chart? Think again. Salesforce’s triangles are much more deceptive than their circles.

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Then they have a pie chart that’s even worse. Just when you thought you couldn’t screw up a pie chart.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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