Start Up No.1664: Twitter says its algorithm has a rightwing bias, Google cuts Play Store fees, “waning” immunity isn’t, and more


The popularity of *that* programme has led ISPs in various to demand money from Netflix. What, for encouraging people to use their products? CC-licensed photo by Huw Gwilliam 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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why do social networks drive us 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?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


Twitter algorithms bias toward right-wing content – Protocol

Anna Kramer:

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Twitter is publicly sharing research findings today that show that the platform’s algorithms amplify tweets from right-wing politicians and content from right-leaning news outlets more than people and content from the political left.

The research did not identify whether or not the algorithms that run Twitter’s Home feed are actually biased toward conservative political content, because the conclusions only show bias in amplification, not what caused it. Rumman Chowdhury, the head of Twitter’s machine learning, ethics, transparency and accountability team, called it “the what, not the why” in an interview with Protocol.

“We can see that it is happening. We are not entirely sure why it is happening. To be clear, some of it could be user-driven, people’s actions on the platform, we are not sure what it is. It’s just important that we share this information,” Chowdhury said. The META team plans to conduct what she called a “root-cause analysis” to try to discover the “why,” and that analysis will likely include creating testable hypotheses about how people use the platform that could help show whether it’s the way users interact with Twitter or the algorithm itself that is causing this uneven amplification.

Twitter didn’t define for itself what news outlets and politicians are “right-leaning” or belong to right-wing political parties, instead using definitions from other researchers outside the company. The study looked at millions of tweets from politicians across seven countries and hundreds of millions of tweets of links from news outlets, not tweets from the outlets themselves.

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At a guess, right-wing outrage content triggers people’s selfish responses more than the left-wing kind, which (sweeping generalisation) tends to be about failure to share. Good to see Twitter acknowledging this, though.
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Google lowers Play Store fees for subscriptions and music streaming apps • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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As regulatory pressure on the Play Store for Android increases, Google is once again making changes to its business structure. It has announced that more categories of apps will be eligible to pay significantly less than the usual 30% fee. The company is announcing that all subscription-based apps will now pay a fee of 15%. It’s also says that “ebooks and on-demand music streaming services” will be “eligible” for a fee “as low as 10%.”

Google’s stated reason for the cheaper prices on ebooks and music streaming apps is that “content costs account for the majority of sales” and that the rates “recognize industry economics of media content verticals.” It’s unstated but also surely true that regulatory pressure and public pressure from companies like Spotify have factored in to Google’s decision. Currently, signing up for a Spotify subscription on Android redirects you to Spotify’s website to enter your payment information.

The lower fee structure for music streaming is still at Google’s discretion, both for which apps are eligible and how low that fee will be. When asked how exactly developers can know if they qualify for the reduced fees, a Google spokesperson said, “Developers can review program guidelines and express interest now and we’ll follow up with more information if they are eligible.”

As for subscriptions, Google’s previous structure was similar to Apple’s: 30% the first year, 15% thereafter. The new change simplifies that by offering 15% right off the bat and is likely a strong incentive for developers to switch over from one-time payments to subscriptions.

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Ball very much in Apple’s court now. How long before Google lowers it again to 5% – five years, perhaps?
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Worldcoin launches a global cryptocurrency that will be given to every person on earth • VentureBeat

Dean Takahashi:

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Worldcoin is unveiling a new global cryptocurrency that will be given to every human on earth. It has raised $25m at a $1bn valuation. [ie it sold 2.5% of its shares for $25m.]

Coming out of stealth today, the company is unveiling hardware device, dubbed an Orb, for the first time, along with testing data that suggests it could onboard its first billion people into crypto within the next two years.

Cofounded by Alex Blania, Sam Altman and Max Novendstern, Worldcoin plans to create a new global digital currency that is fairly distributed and used by as many people as possible. Its investors include Andreesen Horowitz, the big Silicon Valley investment company that has made a  lot of cryptocurrency bets. Altman is president of Y Combinator and CEO of OpenAI.

To rapidly get its new currency into the hands of as many people as possible, the project lets everyone claim a free share of it. While a globally adopted cryptocurrency would open social and economic doors for billions of people, cryptocurrency as a technology is still in the early stages of adoption, so far only reaching about 3% of the world’s overall population. Worldcoin hopes to change this, rapidly, the company said.

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This sounds like the setup for a fairly terrible film, or the McGuffin for one. I can see Tom Cruise or Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie being in a last-minute dash for the Orb, which has been stolen by… (Note: requires iris scanning. To create a hash. In a database. For everyone on earth. OK. Perhaps a Bond movie?)

Anyway, we’ll see quite how that “every person on earth” one goes. Tie it to carbon emissions and you might have something. No word meanwhile on how El Salvador is doing with its bitcoin experiment.
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The good part about “waning” immunity • The Atlantic

Katherine J. Wu:

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Antibodies are supposed to peter out; that’s why they always do. Still, even as our antibodies are dwindling in absolute quantity, these scrappy molecules are enhancing their quality, continuing to replace themselves with new versions that keep improving their ability to bring the virus to heel. Months after vaccination, the average antibody found in the blood simply has higher defensive oomph. “That’s why I hate the word waning,” Jennifer Gommerman, an immunologist at the University of Toronto, told me. “Antibody levels are declining, but something good is happening too: The immune response is evolving.”

The focus on antibody counts alone actually does a disservice to our understanding of immunity, experts told me. Like a block of wood being hewn into a sharper blade, vaccinated immune systems can hone their skills over time. Part of waning certainly does mean fewer. But it can also mean better.

A couple weeks after vaccination, a group of immune defenders called B cells starts to pump out antibodies en masse. But many of these early antibodies are, as Bhattacharya told me, “really crappy” at their jobs. Their raison d’être is to be clingy—the Y-shaped molecules hook their tips onto a specific hunk of SARS-CoV-2’s anatomy, and hang on for dear life. The better they are at glomming on, the better chance they have of waylaying the threat. Sometimes it’s a solo act: Antibodies alone can grab on so firmly that they block the virus from hacking into a cell, a process called neutralization. Or they’ll use the stems of their Ys to flag down other members of the immune system in a destructive assist.

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Worth reading to understand what’s going on, since “waning immunity” is on so any people’s lips. Although: apparently a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine gives you 96% better protection than the first two doses do. And the two doses give 95% better protection than nothing. (Thanks G for the link.)
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ISPs want more money because so many people are streaming Squid Game • Vice

Karl Bode:

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ISPs around the world claim the unprecedented bandwidth demands Netflix’s Squid Game is placing on their broadband networks means they should be getting more money. But experts say that’s not how telecom networks work, suggesting that already cash-flush telecom giants are just positioning themselves for an underserved hand out.

The popular South Korean thriller, a not so thinly-veiled critique of late-stage capitalism, tracks a group of indebted people who compete in deadly children’s games for cash. According to Netflix, Squid Game is the most popular show in company history, the number one program in 94 countries, and has been watched by 142 million households. [Depending on “watched”; see yesterday’s edition – CA]

ISPs around the world also claim the show’s popularity is driving a massive surge in bandwidth consumption, and they want their cut. 

In South Korea, Internet service provider SK Broadband sued Netflix earlier this month, claiming that between May and September the ISP’s network traffic jumped 24 times to 1.2 trillion bits of data processed every second. This surge is Netflix’s fault, the ISP insists, and Netflix should be held financially responsible.

In the UK, British Telecom executives have been making similar complaints, insisting that Netflix should be forced to help pay for the surge in network traffic caused by the show.

But broadband experts say that’s not how broadband networks actually work. “It makes no sense for ISPs to cry victim because they provide a popular service, and are expected to provide it,” John Bergmayer, telecom expert at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard.

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How dare Netflix encourage people to use ISPs’ services!
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China conducted two hypersonic weapons tests this summer • Financial Times

Demetri Sevastopulo:

»

On July 27 the Chinese military launched a rocket that used a “fractional orbital bombardment” system to propel a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle” around the earth for the first time, according to four people familiar with US intelligence assessments.

The Financial Times this week reported that the first test was in August, rather than at the end of July. China subsequently conducted a second hypersonic test on August 13, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Three people familiar with the first test in July said it stunned the Pentagon and US intelligence because China managed to demonstrate a brand new weapons capability, although they declined to elaborate on the details.

One person said government scientists were struggling to understand the capability, which the US does not currently possess, adding that China’s achievement appeared “to defy the laws of physics”. 

Space and missile experts have been debating the Chinese test since the FT revealed the event at the weekend. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said China appeared to have developed a new innovation, but stressed the need to maintain a degree of scepticism. “We should be open to the reality that China is also capable of technological innovation,” he said.

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Could search engines be fostering some Dunning-Kruger? • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

»

Many of us make jokes about how we’ve outsourced part of our brain to electronic devices. But based on a new paper by the University of Texas at Austin’s Adrian Ward, this is just a variation on something that has been happening throughout human history. No person could ever learn everything they need to know. But that’s OK, according to Ward: “No one person needs to know everything—they simply need to know who knows it.”

Over time, we’ve developed alternatives to finding the person who has the information we need, relying on things like books and other publications. The Internet simply provides electronic equivalents, right?

Not entirely, according to Ward’s latest results. Based on data he generated, it seems that search engines now return information so quickly and seamlessly that we tend to think we remembered information that we actually looked up. And that may be giving us unjustified confidence in our ability to pull facts out of our brain.

Ward’s hypothesis is based on the idea that we probably categorize the recall process based on how easy it is. Wading through all the extraneous information in a book to find the single nugget we require can be arduous, even when the book is right at hand. While it can sometimes be difficult to latch onto a fact in our memory, it’s generally much more convenient. For the easy-to-recall items—like the lyrics to annoying pop songs from our high school years—it’s often instantaneous.

Of the two, Ward argues, Internet searches are more like remembering something, in that they’re generally quick, don’t have a lot of extraneous information, and are displayed via interfaces that are easy to process. “Thinking with Google,” he writes, “which delivers information as unobtrusively as possible, may simply feel more like thinking alone.”

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Needs a graph in the rise of Dunning-Kruger effect alongside number of Google searches carried out.
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Apple’s product design has improved since Jony Ive left • Bloomberg

Alex Webb:

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Take the iPhone. The latest iterations have ditched the curved edges that made the display liable to crack if dropped on its side. Or the Apple TV remote, whose symmetry made it visually appealing, but meant that users often inadvertently pressed the wrong buttons by holding it upside down. The design was revamped in May.

“Since Jony Ive left, there’s not that gravitational force driving aesthetic before function,” Paul Found, a lecturer in industrial design at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, England. “Those who have taken over are now listening to what customers are saying.”

Apple has long maintained an obstinacy when it comes to design, as my colleague Mark Gurman wrote in August. That can be an attribute: the academic Roberto Verganti praised the approach in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article with the headline “Apple’s Secret? It Tells Us What We Should Love.” Indeed, should Apple become too beholden to consumer wishes, it might lose what has helped make it a success: the iconoclasm captured in the “Think Different” advertising slogan. And Apple devices’ appeal, and ability to charge premium prices, lies partly in their design.

But there is merit in sometimes listening to your customers, particularly when the pendulum has swung too far away from function and towards form. After all, you’re liable to lose professional customers – architects, musicians, film-makers – if they can’t plug their laptops into external monitors. And professional users can afford to pay for the top-of-the-range devices that are more profitable to Apple.

Dieter Rams, a significant influence on Ive, compiled 10 principles for “Good Design.” Number three was “good design is aesthetic”. Apple seems to have remembered numbers two and four: “good design makes a product useful” and “good design makes a product understandable”.

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I mean, it’s hard to disagree. The New Yorker profile of Ive in February 2015 seems, in retrospect, to have marked the ebbing of his tide of influence – even interest? – in the company. Takes a long time to correct course, because hardware is slow to design and change.
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Strong evidence for the continued contribution of lead deposited during the 20th century to the atmospheric environment in London of today • PNAS

Resongles, Dietze, Green et al, led from Imperial College London:

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Although leaded gasoline was banned at the end of the last century, lead (Pb) remains significantly enriched in airborne particles in large cities. The remobilization of historical Pb deposited in soils from atmospheric removal has been suggested as an important source providing evidence for the hypothetical long-term persistency of lead, and possibly other pollutants, in the urban environment.

Here, we present data on Pb isotopic composition in airborne particles collected in London (2014 to 2018), which provide strong support that lead deposited via gasoline combustion still contributes significantly to the lead burden in present-day London.

Lead concentration and isotopic signature of airborne particles collected at a heavily trafficked site did not vary significantly over the last decade, suggesting that sources remained unchanged. Lead isotopic composition of airborne particles matches that of road dust and topsoils and can only be explained with a significant contribution (estimate of 32 ± 10 to 43 ± 9% based on a binary mixing model) of Pb from leaded gasoline.

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Possibly ineradicable. Not widely known: the same man invented CFCs (ozone hole creators) as created leaded petrol (engine backfire preventers). Now, if you give you a time machine and tell you to go back in history and kill one person…
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CleanUp.pictures

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Some photobomber ruined your selfie? There’s a ketchup stain on your shirt? You want to replace some text or graphic?

CleanUp.pictures is a free web application that lets you cleanup your photos with a quick & simple interface.

It uses LaMa, an open-source model from Samsung’s AI Lab to automatically and accurately redraw the areas that you delete.

CleanUp.pictures has been built by the engineering team at ClipDrop and it’s open-source under the Apache License 2.0.

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Neat; it’s not Photoshop, but doesn’t come encumbered with a giant costly licence either. Another one for the bookmarks. (Sure that someone can turn it into a little app?)
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Supply challenges dampen growth in the PC market • IDC

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Global shipments of Traditional PCs, inclusive of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, reached 86.7 million units during the third quarter of 2021 (3Q21), up 3.9% from the prior year according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. This marks the sixth consecutive quarter of growth for the PC market as the onset of the pandemic has led to a surge in demand while also contributing to component shortages and other supply challenges.

“The PC industry continues to be hampered by supply and logistical challenges and unfortunately these issues have not seen much improvement in recent months,” said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile and Consumer Device Trackers. “Given the current circumstances, we are seeing some vendors reprioritize shipments amongst various markets, allowing emerging markets to maintain growth momentum while some mature markets begin to slow.”

“Bottlenecked supply chains and ongoing logistic challenges led the U.S. PC market into its first quarter of annual shipment decline since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Neha Mahajan, senior research analyst, Devices and Displays at IDC. “After a year of accelerated buying driven by the shift to remote work and learning, there’s also been a comparative slowdown in PC spending and that has caused some softening of the U.S. PC market today. Yet, supply clearly remains behind demand in key segments with inventory still below normal levels.”

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I’d overlooked this – it’s more than a week old. Gartner puts the growth at 1%, to 84.1m, and has now started including Chromebooks in its figures (it didn’t before, while IDC ..did?, which was sometimes helpful to figure out Chromebook sales). Just as, it says, shipments of them have declined due to lower demand in education. Counterpoint Research also reckons there have been six quarters of growth, and puts the shipments at 84.2m.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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