Start Up No.1653: how to regulate Facebook (and the rest), can fusion ever do it?, Twitter preps pre-tweet warning, a malaria vaccine!, and more


By next year all the new cars bought in Norway will be electric, on current trends – but petrol and diesel vehicles have a long way to go before they disappear there. CC-licensed photo by @abrunvoll on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Fissioned, not fused. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


I designed algorithms at Facebook. Here’s how to regulate them • The New York Times

Roddy Lindsay worked on the News Feed algorithm at Facebook from 2007:

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Facebook has had more than 15 years to demonstrate that algorithmic personal feeds can be built responsibly; if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.

…The solution is straightforward: Companies that deploy personalized algorithmic amplification should be liable for the content these algorithms promote. This can be done through a narrow change to Section 230, the 1996 law that lets social media companies host user-generated content without fear of lawsuits for libelous speech and illegal content posted by those users.

As Ms. Haugen testified, “If we reformed 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.” As a former Facebook data scientist and current executive at a technology company, I agree with her assessment. There is no AI system that could identify every possible instance of illegal content. Faced with potential liability for every amplified post, these companies would most likely be forced to scrap algorithmic feeds altogether.

Social media companies can be successful and profitable under such a regime. Twitter adopted an algorithmic feed only in 2015. Facebook grew significantly in its first two years, when it hosted user profiles without a personalized News Feed. Both platforms already offer nonalgorithmic, chronological versions of their content feeds.

This solution would also address concerns over political bias and free speech. Social media feeds would be free of the unavoidable biases that A.I.-based systems often introduce. Any algorithmic ranking of user-generated content could be limited to nonpersonalized features like “most popular” lists or simply be customized for particular geographies or languages. Fringe content would again be banished to the fringe, leading to fewer user complaints and putting less pressure on platforms to call balls and strikes on the speech of their users.

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Still a good day to buy
Social Warming, my book about how algorithmic amplification leads to bad effects on social networks because of our human instincts.


Can nuclear fusion put the brakes on climate change? • The New Yorker

Rivka Galchen:

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In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around nine billion a year in today’s dollars—described as the “Maximum Effective Effort”—it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to “Fusion Never.” “And that’s about what’s been spent,” the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. “Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there.”

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Which pretty much sums it up. This article also obeys Betteridge’s Law, unless something wonderful happens in the next few years.
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Norway to hit 100% electric vehicle sales early next year • Drive

Rob Margeit:

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According to monthly new car sales data released by Norway’s Road Traffic Information Council (OVF), the last internal combustion engine vehicle is set to leave the dealership next April, almost three years ahead of the Norwegian government’s 2025 stated target for the phasing out completely of sales of new petrol and diesel cars.

…[However] seven out of every eight cars bought and sold in Norway a used car. The NAF’s [Norwegian Automobile Federation] numbers show that of the 357,176 ownership registration changes so far in 2021, electric vehicles only accounted for 12%.

“Most people still own a used petrol or diesel car,” said Braadland. “Around 85% of cars on Norwegian roads still have a petrol or diesel engine. But new car sales show that we see the beginning of the end for the fossil-powered car.”

Norway’s numbers are in stark contrast to the Australian market, where electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles account for less than 1% (0.73%) of new car sales while petrol vehicles alone make up 55.5% of the new car market.

Diesel vehicles enjoy 33% market chare while conventional hybrid vehicles are outgunned by their Norwegian counterparts with 6.7% market share.

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Norway shows how much inertia there is in the installed base: how long will it take for even a small country to switch over completely, even with all the incentives? We’d better hope hard for net zero to be a feasible solution to “only” leaving emissions as bad as they already are.
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Twitter’s latest pre-tweet prompts let you know when you’re about to jump into a Twitter fight • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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The prompts are the company’s latest attempt to reduce the persistent harassment and abuse on the platform. One other prompt, for example, warns you before you tweet something that might be offensive. Twitter also might show a prompt if you try to retweet an article it thinks you haven’t read, which could help decrease the spread of misinformation. While they might help prevent some bad tweets from being shared, the growing list of potential warnings to wade through before you tweet is a worrying indicator of the entire experience.

As always, if you’re not sure if you should post something, the best pre-tweet prompt is the one that Twitter won’t show you: never tweet.

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I’m fairly sure I’ve pre-deleted three times more tweets than I’ve actually pressed “Tweet” on. Even so, it’s the ones you write that cause the trouble. Would be good to know whether the scheme to warn people before they tweet articles without reading them has worked to any appreciable degree.
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Africa internet riches plundered, contested by China broker • SF Gate

Alan Suderman, Frank Bajak and Rodney Muhumuza:

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Millions of internet addresses assigned to Africa have been waylaid, some fraudulently, including through insider machinations linked to a former top employee of the nonprofit that assigns the continent’s addresses. Instead of serving Africa’s internet development, many have benefited spammers and scammers, while others satiate Chinese appetites for pornography and gambling.

New leadership at the nonprofit, AFRINIC, is working to reclaim the lost addresses. But a legal challenge by a deep-pocketed Chinese businessman is threatening the body’s very existence.

The businessman is Lu Heng, a Hong Kong-based arbitrage specialist. Under contested circumstances, he obtained 6.2 million African addresses from 2013 to 2016. That’s about 5% of the continent’s total — more than Kenya has.

The internet service providers and others to whom AFRINIC assigns IP address blocks aren’t purchasing them. They pay membership fees to cover administrative costs that are intentionally kept low. That left lots of room, though, for graft.

When AFRINIC revoked Lu’s addresses, now worth about $150m, he fought back. His lawyers in late July persuaded a judge in Mauritius, where AFRICNIC is based, to freeze its bank accounts. His company also filed a $80m defamation claim against AFRINIC and its new CEO.

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All reminds me of the shenanigans over the ownership of sex.com, as detailed by Kieren McCarthy.
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First malaria vaccine approved by WHO • The New York Times

Apoorva Mandavilli:

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The vaccine, called Mosquirix, is not just a first for malaria — it is the first developed for any parasitic disease. Parasites are much more complex than viruses or bacteria, and the quest for a malaria vaccine has been underway for a hundred years.

“It’s a huge jump from the science perspective to have a first-generation vaccine against a human parasite,” Dr. Alonso said.

In clinical trials, the vaccine had an efficacy of about 50% against severe malaria in the first year, but the figure dropped close to zero by the fourth year. And the trials did not directly measure the vaccine’s impact on deaths, which has led some experts to question whether it is a worthwhile investment in countries with countless other intractable problems.

But severe malaria accounts for up to half of malaria deaths and is considered “a reliable proximal indicator of mortality,” said Dr. Mary Hamel, who leads the W.H.O.’s malaria vaccine implementation program. “I do expect we will see that impact.”

A modeling study last year estimated that if the vaccine were rolled out to countries with the highest incidence of malaria, it could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths in children younger than 5 each year.

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This isn’t the mRNA version, though; that’s still in development and testing.
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Two new studies suggest the coronavirus did not originate in China • Medical News Today

Hannah Flynn:

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As the pandemic was thought to originate in Wuhan, many efforts have focused on China, with the assumption that, as the virus was first detected there, it probably started there.

Now, two papers under review by the journal Nature and published as preprints are casting some doubt on these assumptions and indicate that in order to discover the origins of the virus, researchers may have to look farther afield.

One of the reasons SARS-CoV-2 is so infectious is a region on its spike protein that gives it its ability to bind to a receptor present on the surface of many human cells called ACE2.

In a paper submitted to Nature, researchers from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France, and from Laos have now reported finding viruses with receptor binding domains very similar to those found on SARS-CoV-2 in cave bats in North Laos.

The researchers took blood, saliva, anal feces, and urine samples from 645 bats from 46 different species found in limestone caves in North Laos, which is close to the Southwest China border.

They discovered three separate virus strains in three different species of Rhinolophus bat, commonly known as horseshoe bat. RNA sequencing revealed that these viruses were over 95% identical to SARS-CoV-2, and one, the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 found so far, was 96.8% similar.

Further experiments showed that the receptor binding domain of the viruses had a high affinity for human ACE2 receptors.

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That 96.8% figure is significant because the previous closest match was in a cave of bats in China, at 96.1%. Doesn’t mean either is the direct precursor of SARS-Cov-2.
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Ten years after Steve Jobs’s death: what Apple lost and gained • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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For one thing, even Jobs didn’t change history with anything like the frequency that people thought he did. For another, Cook deserved more than two years to prove how much vision Apple would have under his leadership.

Enough time has passed that it’s now fair to compare Cook’s biggest products to Jobs landmarks such as the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Apples biggest all-new product since 2011 has unquestionably been the Apple Watch, which is now worn by 100 million people, including a third of iPhone users in the U.S. Judged purely as a revenue generator, the smartwatch deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs’s signature products: It’s a bigger business than the iPod was at its height.

The other obvious megahit of the Cook years are AirPods, which defined the modern wireless-earbud category and still lead it; they’re as iconic as wired iPod earbuds once were—and vastly more profitable for Apple.

Any Apple rival would salivate at the prospect of creating a business as successful as the Apple Watch and AirPods have been. Still, neither is culturally transformative in the way that Jobs’s biggest successes were.

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In hardware, Apple is absolutely fine: after some wobbles five years ago (unspecced laptops particularly) it’s righted ship. But the software is running into the sand: trying to coordinate five software platforms (iPhone, iPad, Mac, TV, Watch) is beginning to create problems in the user interface. Consistency is rotting. The designer is prized over the user. it’s bad.
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How Steve Jobs once chucked an iPhone prototype to impress a room full of journalists • CNET

Roger Cheng:

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This was months before the iPhone actually went on sale, a little after Jobs unveiled the groundbreaking smartphone in January 2007. Jobs had paid a visit to The Wall Street Journal’s headquarters, then in Manhattan’s World Financial Center area, to offer more than two dozen editors and reporters a peek at the device. It was there that he fielded questions about the gadget, with someone asking about its durability.

Jobs’ response: tossing the prerelease model he held into the air toward the center of the room, eliciting a small gasp and then hushed silence as it hit the (carpeted) floor.

The memory underscores the lengths Jobs went to in order to make an impression. On the 10-year anniversary of Jobs’ death, those in the tech industry have begun to pay their respects by sharing stories and memories of the tech luminary, a visionary who shook up multiple industries and changed the way we interact with our mobile devices. This was mine.

As a telecom reporter based in New York, I rarely got the chance to attend Apple events, including the MacWorld at which Jobs unveiled the iPhone. But my beat meant I was invited to attend this private session with other editors and reporters at the Journal.

Jobs spent a good portion of the session answering general questions about Apple. I won’t share what was discussed at the meeting – it was off the record and Jobs insisted everyone not only turn off and put away their recorders, but also stow away their notebooks and pens. Everyone complied, eager to see the device.

It wasn’t until after he took out the iPhone that he was asked about its durability, prompting the throw. While the phone in his hand was more polished than the original, buggy prototype he showed off at MacWorld, knowing now just how prone to issues those early units were makes his nonchalant toss even more impressive. Imagine how disastrous it would’ve been if that iPhone had broken or shut down in front of so many journalists.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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