Start Up No.1659: Congress suggests algorithmic regulation, the unreal TikTokers, into the bat cave!, UK braces for shortages, and more


Waymo cars in San Francisco are taking a puzzling detour to a dead end – again and again – for no reason anyone can work out. CC-licensed photo by zombieite on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not a dead end. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Top Democrats unveil bill to rein in tech companies’ ‘malicious algorithms’ • The Washington Post

Cristiano Lima:

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Top Democratic lawmakers unveiled a major proposal Thursday that could hold digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter legally responsible for making personalized recommendations to users that lead to their physical or emotional harm.

The bill comes amid a groundswell of scrutiny of how algorithms can amplify harmful content in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen about Facebook’s risks. Her disclosures to the media and policymakers have shined a spotlight on the way Silicon Valley’s often-opaque systems can surface dangerous material.

The legislation marks one of the most significant threats in years to the tech industry’s liability protections under Section 230, a decades-old law that shields a broad range of digital services — from giants like YouTube and Instagram to smaller sites like Etsy and Nextdoor — from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content.

The bill is set to be introduced Friday by four leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — which holds broad jurisdiction over tech issues including Section 230.

“Designing personalized algorithms that promote extremism, disinformation and harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it,” Pallone said.

The legislation would carve out Section 230 so that a digital service could face liability if they knowingly or recklessly make a personalized recommendation that “materially contributed to a physical or severe emotional injury to any person.” The bill would apply to recommendations that use algorithms to boost certain content over others based on users’ personal information.

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Hmm. Mike Masnick at Techdirt isn’t impressed. It’s like threading a needle in the dark.
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Want a better suggestion for how to fix social networks? There’s one in my book, Social Warming, along with a whole lot more.


Your favourite TikTok accounts may be fictional characters by FourFront • Insider

Palmer Haasch:

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“I have had enough of men keeping me in the dark like I’m an afterthought!” Tia, a TikToker with over 112,000 followers (@thatsthetia), says emphatically while slamming open her closet door and launching into a monologue about her dramatically twisted love life in a September 21 TikTok. 

Tia is a student, PR intern, and future princess — well, only if she gets back together with her royal ex. She’s passionate, smart, and no stranger to sharing her love life with thousands of viewers.

She’s also not a real person — but that doesn’t stop the likes, views, and comments asking for updates on her outlandish story from rolling in.

Tia is one of 22 fictional TikTok personalities conceptualized, scripted, and managed by FourFront, a social media and live event-focused entertainment startup. In eight months, TikTok accounts that the company manages have collectively amassed 1.93 million followers and over 281 million views, according to co-founder Ilan Benjamin.

The startup’s foray into fictional TikTok content — a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque web of interconnected characters, as Benjamin describes it — is finally coming to a head in a live “reveal party” on Thursday, where eight of its characters will compete for a fictional billionaire’s fortune for viewer’s entertainment. It’s intended to expose their scripted connections, while also revealing that this is all just for fun. 

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We saw things like this on Instagram, but TikTok just gets weirder and weirder. (The deep fake Tom Cruise is still going strong there.)

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Dead-end San Francisco street plagued with confused WayMo cars • CBS San Francisco

Wilson Walker:

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“I noticed it while I was sleeping,” says Jennifer King. “I awoke to a strange hum and I thought there was a spacecraft outside my bedroom window .”

The visitors Jennifer King is talking about don’t just come at night. They come all day, right to the end of 15th Avenue, where there’s nothing else to do but make some kind of multi-point turn and head out the way they came in. Not long after that car is gone, there will be another, which will make the same turn and leave, before another car shows up and does the exact same thing. And while there are some pauses, it never really stops.

“There are some days where it can be up to 50,” King says of the WayMo count. “It’s literally every five minutes. And we’re all working from home, so this is what we hear.”

At several points this Tuesday, they showed up on top of each other. The cars, packed with technology, stop in a queue as if they are completely baffled by the dead end. While some neighbors say it is becoming a bit of a nuisance, everyone finds it a little bizarre.

“I don’t really have a preference either way, but it is a little bit odd that they’re over here so much,” said Katie, who lives on the street.

“And especially across a slow street, and into a one-block street,” added Andrea Lewin. “It’s a little peculiar.”

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Looking on a map (it’s the intersection of 15th Avenue and Lake St in SF) doesn’t quite show why. It seems like an escape from the grid of streets, but it’s a dead end. A strange glitch in the machine mind.
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In coronavirus origins search in China, Enshi caves and wildlife farms draw new scrutiny • The Washington Post

Michael Standaert and Eva Dou:

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Hundreds of caves are spread throughout the mountains of Enshi prefecture, an agricultural corner of China’s Hubei province. The most majestic, Tenglong, or “flying dragon,” is one of China’s largest karst cave systems, spanning 37 miles of passages that contain numerous bats.

Nearby are small farms that collectively housed hundreds of thousands of wild mammals such as civets, ferret badgers and raccoon dogs before the pandemic, farm licenses show — animals that scientists say can be intermediate hosts for viruses to cross over from bats to humans. It is areas such as Enshi that the World Health Organization has said may offer key details in the search for the origins of the covonavirus.

…The Washington Post made a rare trip in September to Enshi, six hours’ drive west of Wuhan (where the coronavirus was first detected). A reporter observed human traffic into Enshi caves, including domestic tourism, spelunking and villagers replacing a drinking water pump inside a cave. Defunct wildlife farms sat as close as one mile from the entrances.

Scientists briefed on The Post’s reporting said it documents a plausible pathway for how a coronavirus could have spread from bats to other animals, then to Wuhan’s markets.

In the rolling land near the caves, Enshi officials for years promoted wildlife farming to alleviate poverty. Enshi accounted for 17% of Hubei wildlife farms shut down in the pandemic, official announcements show. Authorities estimated that the 290 shuttered Enshi farms had 450,000 to 780,000 animals.

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One determined proponent of the lab leak hypothesis insisted, on seeing this, that the Chinese government must be certain the caves couldn’t be the source, otherwise they wouldn’t let people in. Quite the convoluted logic.
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Shortage nation: why the UK is braced for a grim Christmas • Financial Times

Tim Harford, with a long essay, from which these are the key paragraphs:

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A decade ago, software engineers at Netflix created Chaos Monkey, a system which randomly disables Netflix servers. The idea behind the crazy-sounding scheme was to push Netflix engineers to build more resilient systems. Servers do fail, after all, so it might be best to get some practice in. Having concluded that these random acts of self-sabotage were delivering the desired response, Netflix followed up with Chaos Kong, which simulates a much broader service failure.

Late in 2019, the British people decided that Chaos Kong would make a good prime minister and elected Boris Johnson by a large margin. Johnson has now decided to make a virtue of his own recklessness. After initially claiming that the shortage of truck drivers in the UK was entirely unconnected to Brexit, the government now boasts that the shortage is indeed Brexit-related and was the plan all along. True to the spirit of Chaos Kong, this tough love for the British economy is the only way to get it to shape up.

…There is one encouraging precedent: US manufacturing in the 1920s. The economic historian Paul David observed that there was a long delay after developing electric motors before they were productively used in manufacturing. Electric motors only fulfilled their potential once production lines were re-engineered, factory buildings redesigned, and workers retrained. This took courage, imagination and about three decades. Electrification caught on in US factories in about 1920 and productivity surged at rates never seen before or since.

What provoked this sudden reorganisation? Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Partly it was enabled by the falling cost and rising availability of power from the electricity grid. But David argued that factory owners rethought their operations once the flow of immigrant workers dried up. More than a million people a year had moved to the US from Europe before the war, but in 1914 this stopped — first because of the war itself, and then because of postwar legislation. Lacking workers, factory owners had to figure out how to get more from less. David concluded that real wages in manufacturing rose sharply along with productivity.

Immigration restrictions alone were not enough; productivity rose because a revolutionary technology lurked in the background.

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“Hacker X”—the American who built a pro-Trump fake news empire—unmasks himself • Ars Technica

Ax Sharma:

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Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And he fooled unwary American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, into regarding fake news sources more highly than the mainstream media.

Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.

“Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”

Previously dubbed “Hacker X,” he’s now ready to reveal who he is—and how he did it.

A note on sourcing: In a rigorous effort to fact-check the claims made here, Ars has seen written correspondence between the hacker and notable entities involved in producing fake news; emails sent to him by prominent personalities publicly known to own (or be associated with) fake news sites; tax forms showing income received by him from fake-news generation companies; receipts for IT asset purchases, such as domain names; emails from him to staff explaining strategy and assigning them tasks on a regular basis; and archived copies of webpages, forums, and tweets produced as a part of this large operation. We have also communicated with sources, both named and unnamed, some of whom are “writers” who worked at the same company and have corroborated the hacker’s claims. Because he requests that the company he worked for not be explicitly named, Ars has referred to the fake news company with… a fake name, Koala Media.

The fake news impresario who has now decided to break his silence is “ethical hacker” Robert Willis.

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Willis has his own Wikipedia page – no age given, and his activities before 2015 mostly unknown. He wasn’t doing it against his will: he’s a Republican.
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Roblox Squid Game: best Roblox experiences • Rock Paper Shotgun

Rebecca Jones:

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Less than a month after the show’s release, there are already dozens if not hundreds of Squid Game inspired experiences on Roblox. Most of these are — as regular visitors to the platform will no doubt have guessed — in a less-than-polished state. Also, nearly all of them are just called “Squid Game” or some minor variation on it, which makes searching for a particular one an absolute nightmare. So here, we’ve provided links to what we think are the really good Squid Game experiences on Roblox.

[Example game description:] While the entry by Trendsetter Games is more active in terms of current player numbers, Fish Game is the highest-rated and most-played Squid Game experience we’ve found. This is a simple affair without any fancy codes or paid power-ups, focussed instead on the core of what Squid Game is all about: getting horribly murdered in a playground. In addition to two challenges based on the TV series, Fish Game includes a semi-original level called Blood Rising that’s being heralded as a surprisingly tough obby [sic] by Roblox veterans.

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There’s a moral panic building, with schools sending out letters with Dire Warnings about children “playing” some version of the hit Korean series Squid Game (ironic, since the “games” in it are children’s games, such as what we’d call Grandmother’s Footsteps”). But as this shows, they don’t even have to watch the program to understand everything about the program. Similar stuff is available in Minecraft, AIUI.
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The carbon footprint of household energy use in the United States • PNAS

Goldstein et al, School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan:

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A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods.

If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement.

However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

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I’m sure we can all foresee a future where the US 1) decarbonises its grid 2) rebuilds American homes so they’re more energy efficient and the new ones are smaller. (This is from August 2020, but still relevant, especially with the inability of Congress to pass meaningful bills.
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The climate disaster is here – this is what the future looks like • The Guardian

Oliver Milman, Andrew Witherspoon, Rita Liu, and Alvin Chang:

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Since 1970, the Earth’s temperature has raced upwards faster than in any comparable period. The oceans have heated up at a rate not seen in at least 11,000 years. “We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet,” said Hayhoe. “The temperature has only moved a few tenths of a degree for us until now, just small wiggles in the road. But now we are hitting a curve we’ve never seen before.”

No one is entirely sure how this horrifying experiment will end but humans like defined goals and so, in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, nearly 200 countries agreed to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2ºC, with an aspirational goal to keep it to 1.5ºC. The latter target was fought for by smaller, poorer nations, aware that an existential threat of unlivable heatwaves, floods and drought hinged upon this ostensibly small increment. “The difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC is a death sentence for the Maldives,” said Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, president of the country, to world leaders at the United Nations in September.

There is no huge chasm after a 1.49ºC rise, we are tumbling down a painful, worsening rocky slope rather than about to suddenly hit a sheer cliff edge – but by most standards the world’s governments are currently failing to avert a grim fate.

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This doesn’t make jolly reading. But it is factual. Sometimes you have to confront it.
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Google modernizes US mobile search results with continuous scrolling • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Google announced today it’s changing the way search works on mobile devices, initially in the US. Now, when you reach the bottom of a set of search results on your phone, you won’t have to tap to go to the next page. Instead, the next set of results will automatically load so you can continuously scroll down to see more information.

The change will roll out on the mobile web and will be supported on the Google mobile app for both iOS and Android in the US for most English-language searches for the time being. Because it’s a staggered release, you may initially encounter some results which scroll and others that do not.

While most people find what they’re looking for in the first few results, says Google, those who are looking for additional information tend to browse through four pages of search results. That’s why the company is making the change, we’re told. Now, those users will be able to more seamlessly move between pages without having to click the “see more” button at the bottom of the page.

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Note this isn’t coming to desktop, where I suspect people are more likely to amend their search if they don’t find what they want on the first page. On mobile, amending your search is a bit more fiddly, and it’s easier to press a “next” button.

And this also lets Google insert any number of ads all through the feed, like Instagram or Facebook.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1659: Congress suggests algorithmic regulation, the unreal TikTokers, into the bat cave!, UK braces for shortages, and more

  1. But … but … before even approaching the issue of Our Friend Section 230 The Sacred, before any liability for a recommendation, there would need to be liability in the underlying article itself. And virtually everything at issue (anti-vaxxers, beauty standards, the Republican Party) is fully First Amendment protected. I wish that this point would be stressed more, especially in interviewing the proposers of these bills. It’s like someone proposed a bill against “Any “Rock-n-Roll” music which contributes to the worship of Satan”. Then in the responses, it often went unremarked that the government (in the US) legally can’t prohibit outright worship of Satan in the first place, much less music which “contributes” to it.

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