Start Up No.1666: Facebook in the spotlight again, making wood sharper than steel, Google ad antitrust case, GHGs hit record, and more


A new process can make wooden knives that are harder and sharper than steel – and even go in the dishwasher. CC-licensed photo by Michael Randall on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. The number of the kilobeast. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The mailbox and the megaphone • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

»

Now that it’s broadly understood that Facebook is a social disease, what’s to be done? In “How to Fix Social Media”, an essay in the new issue of The New Atlantis, I suggest a way forward. It begins by seeing social media companies for what they are.

Companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are engaged in two very different communication businesses. They transmit personal messages between individuals, and they broadcast information to the masses. They’re mailbox, and they’re megaphone. The mailbox business is a common carriage business; the megaphone business is business with a public calling. Disentangling the two businesses opens the way for a two-pronged regulatory approach built on well-established historical precedents.

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The essay is pretty long (though not paywalled); yet the two paragraphs above give a very clear picture of the problem and the possible solution(s), in Carr’s eyes.
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We were the unpaid janitors of a bloated tech monopoly • Garbage Day

Ex-Buzzfeed writer Ryan Broderick:

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In the beginning of my time abroad [from 2015-2019], there was always the feeling that the internet was doing something to the way democracies functioned, but it was unclear how. Mainstream American news outlets were convinced that 4chan had suddenly invented racism, but 4chan’s estimated daily traffic in 2018 was around 20 million pageviews — big, but not huge. And, plus, it’s almost exclusively in English.

So I started documenting 4chan-like sites in other countries, like South Korea’s incel hub Ilbe Storehouse, Spain’s radicalized car forum Forocoches, France’s Gamergate-esque jeuxvidéo.com (videgames.com), or Brazil’s school shooter fan site Dogolachan. But, again, these sites were small and there was very little proof that they were accomplishing the “meme magic” that they claimed they were.

So, then, for a while, there was the hunch that maybe these sites were working in conjunction with other platforms. I spent months hiding out in far-right Discord servers, watching users in French and German network with English-speaking extremists. My Discord handle was in so many extremist servers that during a platform-wide purge around 2019, my account was banned and I had to email Discord and explain that I wasn’t a neo-Nazi, just a reporter who was hiding out in all those rooms. They brought my account back online, which was nice.

I investigated troll farms, astroturfing campaigns, WhatsApp misinformation, Telegram groups, bad YouTubers, toxic fandoms, and conspiracy theories like PizzaGate and QAnon and antivaxxers. Every single time, regardless of the country, regardless of the conflict, when faced with hard numbers on traffic and user engagement, there was pretty much only one thing large enough online to actually mobilize people: Facebook.

Around 2016, it became increasingly hard to deny that the platform was acting as a vacuum for the darkest, most wildly out of control content on the internet, which it was then spitting back out to billions of users.

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Five years later…
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How Frances Haugen became a power player in the Facebook Leaks • The New York Times

Ben Smith:

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there was an uncomfortable moment on October 7, when a communications firm working with Ms. Haugen invited [Ben] Horwitz [the WSJ journalist to whom she originally leaked content] and two of his editors to a Zoom call with a group that would grow to include journalists from 17 other US media outlets.

On the call, Ms. Haugen offered to share redacted versions of the trove of Facebook documents under an embargo to be set by the group. The firm, which was founded by the former Barack Obama aide Bill Burton, would help manage the process. After she made her pitch, Mr. Horwitz and his colleagues found themselves in a strange position: The source who had provided them with the stuff of so many exclusive scoops now seemed to be going rogue.

“This is a little awkward,” Jason Dean, an editor at The Journal, said on the call, according to three participants.

The Journal team left before the call was over. Since then, journalists at The Atlantic, The Associated Press, CNN, NBC News, Fox Business and other outlets including The New York Times have been poring over the first tranche of Ms. Haugen’s documents, along with a parallel group in Europe, with a plan to publish their findings on Monday (though stories began trickling out Friday night).

We live in a time of mega-leaks, enabled by the same digital technology that allows us to surveil one another and document our lives as never before. These leaks have given the leakers and their brokers a new kind of power over the news media, raising tricky questions about how their revelations should enter the public sphere. There are questions, in particular, on the balance of power between the sources of vital information and the reporters who benefit from them.

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Not only me who found it odd that The Guardian was excluded while tech middleground site The Verge was included. Haugen hasn’t explained how participants were chosen, as far as I can see.
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Here are all the Facebook Papers stories • Protocol

David Pierce and Anna Kramer:

»

Monday morning’s news drop was a doozy. There was story after story about the goings-on inside Facebook, thanks to thousands of leaked documents from Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who wants the information within those files to spread far and wide. Haugen was also set to speak in front of the British Parliament on Monday, continuing the story that is becoming known as The Facebook Papers.

«

They linked to them all (as of Monday) so I don’t have to; I could have filled today’s edition three or four times over with Facebook stories. There are a lot.
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Could there be a book any more topical just now than
Social Warming, my book published this year about the (often unintended) effects of social networks on society?


Scientists have found a way to harden wood to make a knife that rivals steel • CBC Radio

Mark Crawley:

»

[Materials scientist Teng] Li added that the knife can be sharpened when it becomes dull, and even survive the dishwasher.

The process of making hardened wood is really quite simple, said Li. Wood gets much of its strength from cellulose, the substance that makes up the fibres of the wood.

Cellulose itself is a remarkably strong material, whose strength relative to its density is “higher than almost all the metals and alloys in the world,” said Li.

But cellulose comprises only 40% to 50% of wood. So the first step in developing a higher-density wood-based material was to reduce the components that weren’t cellulose. In particular they targeted lignin, which acts like a kind of glue in normal wood, binding fibres together.

“We use chemicals to partially remove lignin. And after the first step the wood becomes soft, flexible and somewhat squishy,” said Li.

“So the second step is that we apply pressure. We also increase the temperature. The purpose of that is to really densify the natural wood and also remove the water, reducing its thickness to around 20% of the original natural wood.”

«

Can also be used to create wooden nails, which won’t rust. Written up as a scientific paper. What’s not specified is how much extra pressure is needed.
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Scandalous Google antitrust suit accuses company of market manipulation, collusion, and worse • Android Police

Will Sattelberg:

»

Thanks to some newly-unredacted filings first unsealed on Friday, we’re finally getting a good idea as to how Google runs its advertising business, including claims of collusion, manipulation, shady deals, and more.

There’s a lot to break down in these documents, ranging from claims of market manipulation to the sheer size and scope of just how large Google’s ad exchange truly is (via Patrick McGee). However, the biggest — and likely most impactful — story here is a possible case of collusion.

According to this [court] report, Google and Facebook allegedly joined together in secret on an initiative known as “Jedi Blue.” Starting in 2017, as Facebook looked to shift away from Google’s “waterfall” ad buys to an alternative method known as “header bidding,” Google requested the social network stick to its auction style, where each publisher would get a chance to buy impressions at increasingly reduced prices. In exchange, Facebook was offered specific quotas on how often it would win in those bidding auctions, complete with manipulated minimum spending.

If this all sounds pretty bad so far, you aren’t wrong — and Google knows it. As reported in these filings, the company was terrified of how header bidding would affect its own ad exchange, even as it publicly announced it wasn’t concerned. Employees also knew that, should this information ever get out to the press, it would result in overwhelmingly negative coverage. One employee reportedly proposed a “nuclear option” that would cut its exchange rates to nothing.

«

Also written up at Ad Exchanger. Mindbendingly complex for the uninitiated 🙋‍♂️.
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Greenhouse gas concentrations hit new record in 2020 • Los Angeles Times

Jamey Keaten:

»

Greenhouse gas concentrations hit a new record high last year and increased at a faster rate than the annual average for the last decade despite a temporary reduction during pandemic-related lockdowns, the World Meteorological Organization reported Monday.

In its annual report on heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the United Nations weather agency also pointed to signs of a worrisome new development: Parts of the Amazon rainforest have gone from being a carbon “sink” that sucks carbon dioxide from the air to a source of CO2 because of deforestation and reduced humidity in the region, it said.

According to the report, concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide were all above levels in the pre-industrial era before 1750, when human activities “started disrupting Earth’s natural equilibrium.”

…”The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a stark, scientific message for climate change negotiators at COP26,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said of his agency’s report. “At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius [2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels.

“We are way off track,” he said.

«

No surprise that GHG concentrations hit a record: there’s nothing taking them out of the atmosphere, and they last hundreds of years. This is the problem with trying to slow down warming: all we’re doing is adding to it.
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From homes to cars, it’s now time to electrify everything • Yale E360

Saul Griffith:

»

The supply-side climate challenge is a question of a relatively small number of giant machines, including coal mines, LNG terminals, pipelines, refineries, and natural gas- and coal-fired power plants, all of which are owned by corporations. The demand-side climate challenge involves a very large number of relatively small machines. In the United States, it’s our 280 million cars and trucks, our 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves, ovens, and cooktops.

…To address global warming in time to keep the Earth livable, we need to get to zero emissions as soon as possible. It should be obvious that we can’t “efficiency” our way to zero and that we need to transform our way to no emissions. Starting on the demand side, this leads to a clear conclusion: we must electrify everything. And quickly. And we must supply all those new electric machines on the demand side with cleanly generated electricity on the supply side.

…We still have a slim chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC (3.6ºF), without changing entirely the fabric of everyday living. It may not be everyone’s version of climate success, but it is possible to help avoid extreme warming with a substitution of the machines in our lives. To do so, we need to achieve a close to 100% adoption rate of the right technologies as we replace the fossil-fueled machines we use today.

Fortunately, technologies now exist for the majority of these things. Electric cars currently have sufficient range, and are close enough to cost-parity at the dealership, that we can imagine that transition. The cost per mile drops significantly, too. Air-source heat pumps have such high performance now that they beat traditional furnaces and boilers in many climates. The modern induction cooking experience is better than cooking with gas. It is not yet true in the US that rooftop solar is the cheapest energy source, but it is true in Australia, and the difference has to do with regulations.

«

The more I hear phrases like “we still have a slim chance” the more I think we don’t have a chance absent an amazing deus ex machina which we would probably like even less than the warming.
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Danger: UXC – these seven perils, including exploding capacitors, can kill your power supplies • EEJournal

Steven Leibson:

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John Dyson [is] the Business Development Manager for Advance Product Services (APS), a British company specializing in the repair, refurbishment, and replacement of old power supplies. Dyson regularly posts photos of old power supplies. Dead ones. Now you might think there’s nothing notable about old, dead power supplies, but the photos Dyson posts show badly wrecked power supplies that have died catastrophically because of component failure, neglect, and downright abuse.

The failed power supplies depicted in Dyson’s photos reminded me of the “Danger: UXB” TV series because many of the photos showed exploded and badly burned components, and there was one big, recurring theme in the photos: the failure began with an exploding capacitor. So my fevered brain immediately realized that every power supply in operation today contains multiple UXCs – unexploded capacitors. Many capacitors have little timers inside just counting down the seconds until they explode.

What particularly fascinated me about Dyson’s series of posts is that they depict failed power supplies that have given up the ghost after providing decades of reliable service. They died from old age.

Some of the power supplies in Dyson’s posts died from component failures; others died from spikes and surges that sneak through the power main’s protection circuits; some died from aged and embrittled solder joints; and others failed after dust and dirt buildup overwhelmed cooling systems or as water and pollution have eaten away circuit board traces or created conductive paths between them. There are myriad ways for old power supplies to die, it appears, and APS has spent two decades fixing these old supplies and, better for us, chronicling and photographing the failures.

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When your device blows up or melts down (and there are some gory internal – to the machine – pictures), tick it off against these failure modes. Rather as in House it’s always (never) lupus, in power supply failure it’s always (near enough) capacitors.
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Malware found in npm package with millions of weekly downloads – The Record by Recorded Future

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

A massively popular JavaScript library (npm package) was hacked and modified with malicious code that downloaded and installed a password stealer and cryptocurrency miner on systems where the compromised versions were used.

The incident was detected on Friday, October 22. It affected UAParser.js, a JavaScript library for reading information stored inside user-agent strings. According to its official site, the library is used by companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Slack, IBM, HPE, Dell, Oracle, Mozilla, Shopify, Reddit, and many of Silicon Valley’s elites. The library also regularly sees between 6 million and 7 million weekly downloads, according to its npm page.

“I believe someone was hijacking my npm account and published some compromised packages (0.7.29, 0.8.0, 1.0.0) which will probably install malware,” said Faisal Salman, author of the UAParser.js library.

Hours after discovering the hack, Salman pulled the compromised library versions—to prevent users from accidentally infecting themselves—and released clean ones.

Analysis of the malicious code revealed extra scripts that would download and execute binaries from a remote server. Binaries were provided for both Linux and Windows platforms.

“From the command-line arguments, one of them looks like a cryptominer, but that might be just for camouflage,” a GitHub user said on Friday.

But on Windows systems, the scripts would also download and execute an infostealer trojan (possibly a version of the Danabot malware) that contained functionality to export browser cookies, browser passwords, and OS credentials, according to another GitHub user’s findings.

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Once again, the way that the modern internet (or at least the Javascript-powered part of it) is lots of Jenga blocks, where any block might be taken out and replaced with a malicious one, goes mostly unnoticed. Good thing that there were people watching this, but even so there are inherent risks.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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