Start Up No.1674: Facebook’s climate denial problem, DeepMind tries drugs, LA’s oil fields, Surface Duo 2 reviewed, and more


The software chief from Apple, Craig Federighi, came to Lisbon to perform his new offering ‘Don’t Make Me Sideload On The iPhone, Ma’. CC-licensed photo by Web Summit on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Just seven to go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Surprise! Facebook’s climate denial problem got worse this year – The Verge

Justine Calma:

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As world leaders scramble to forge global agreements in Glasgow this month in a last-ditch effort to avert the worst of the climate crisis, there’s a threat to meaningful climate action lurking on social media. Climate denial on Facebook has gotten even worse this year, according to a new study led by climate advocacy group Stop Funding Heat and the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group made up of academics, journalists, and activists. It’s evidence that Facebook’s efforts to stomp out lies about climate change are failing, the study’s authors say.

Reactions, comments, and shares per post from Facebook pages and groups dedicated to spreading climate misinformation jumped a whopping 77% since January, the report found. Each day, it found, climate misinformation on the platform gets between 818,000 and 1.36 million views. Less than 4% of the posts it analyzed had been fact-checked.

“Facebook is the Big Tobacco of our generation, greenwashing to avoid responsibility and sewing [sic] confusion and doubt about climate change in the global conversation,” Real Facebook Oversight Board wrote in a statement.

The authors analyzed a dataset of 195 pages and groups and 48,700 posts written in English between January and August. That included 41 accounts focused entirely on climate misinformation, like a page called ‘Friends of Science’ that today posted a photo of a cake with icing that says “COP26 Much Ado About Nothing”— a reference to COP26 the high-profile United Nations climate summit taking place in Glasgow. Other pages and groups also have a history of posting false information about climate change. Fox News, Breitbart, and Sean Hannity were the three most prolific spreaders of climate misinformation identified in the report.

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Notice how traditional old media provides the seed, but Facebook provides the tractor with the seed spreader.
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Facebook and misinformation? Plenty more about its responses on Covid and other topics in Social Warming, my latest book, which examines why social media drives everyone (even non-users!) a little bit mad.


A new Alphabet company using DeepMind AI to find new drug candidates • Isomorphic Labs

Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind:

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The pandemic has brought to the fore the vital work that brilliant scientists and clinicians do every day to understand and combat disease. We believe that the foundational use of cutting edge computational and AI methods can help scientists take their work to the next level, and massively accelerate the drug discovery process. AI methods will increasingly be used not just for analysing data, but to also build powerful predictive and generative models of complex biological phenomena. AlphaFold2 is an important first proof point of this, but there is so much more to come. 

At its most fundamental level, I think biology can be thought of as an information processing system, albeit an extraordinarily complex and dynamic one. Taking this perspective implies there may be a common underlying structure between biology and information science – an isomorphic mapping between the two – hence the name of the company. Biology is likely far too complex and messy to ever be encapsulated as a simple set of neat mathematical equations. But just as mathematics turned out to be the right description language for physics, biology may turn out to be the perfect type of regime for the application of AI.‍

This is just the beginning of what we hope will become a radical new approach to drug discovery, and I’m incredibly excited to get this ambitious new commercial venture off the ground and to partner with pharmaceutical and biomedical companies. I will serve as CEO for Isomorphic’s initial phase, while remaining as DeepMind CEO, partially to help facilitate collaboration between the two companies where relevant, and to set out the strategy, vision and culture of the new company.

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China climate goals hinge on $440bn nuclear power plan to rival US • Bloomberg

Dan Murtaugh and Krystal Chia:

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China has over the course of the year revealed the extensive scope of its plans for nuclear, an ambition with new resonance given the global energy crisis and the calls for action coming out of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. The world’s biggest emitter, China’s planning at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35. The effort could cost as much as $440bn; as early as the middle of this decade, the country will surpass the US as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power.

The government’s never been shy about its interest in nuclear, along with renewable sources of energy, as part of President Xi Jinping’s goal to make China’s economy carbon-neutral by mid-century. But earlier this year, the government singled out atomic power as the only energy form with specific interim targets in its official five-year plan. Shortly after, the chairman of the state-backed China General Nuclear Power Corp. articulated the longer-term goal: 200 gigawatts by 2035, enough to power more than a dozen cities the size of Beijing.

It would be the kind of wholesale energy transformation that Western democracies — with budget constraints, political will and public opinion to consider — can only dream of. It could also support China’s goal to export its technology to the developing world and beyond, buoyed by an energy crunch that’s highlighted the fragility of other kinds of power sources. Slower winds and low rainfall have led to lower-than-expected supply from Europe’s dams and wind farms, worsening the crisis, and expensive coal and natural gas have led to power curbs at factories in China and India. Yet nuclear power plants have remained stalwart.

“Nuclear is the one energy source that came out of this looking like a champion,” said David Fishman, an energy consultant with The Lantau Group. “It generated the whole time, it was clean, the price didn’t change. If the case for nuclear power wasn’t already strong, it’s a lot stronger now.”

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Unfortunately, the contrast between what can get done by authoritarian governments and what can get done by sclerotically democratic governments (how’s that big infrastructure bill going?) is only going to get more stark as global warming kicks in.
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Half world’s fossil fuel assets could become worthless by 2036 in net zero transition • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts, Ashley Kirk, Niamh McIntyre, Pablo Gutiérrez and Niko Kommenda:

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About half of the world’s fossil fuel assets will be worthless by 2036 under a net zero transition, according to research.

Countries that are slow to decarbonise will suffer but early movers will profit; the study finds that renewables and freed-up investment will more than make up for the losses to the global economy.

It highlights the risk of producing far more oil and gas than required for future demand, which is estimated to leave $11tn-$14tn (£8.1tn-£10.3tn) in so-called stranded assets – infrastructure, property and investments where the value has fallen so steeply they must be written off.

The lead author, Jean-Francois Mercure of the University of Exeter, said the shift to clean energy would benefit the world economy overall, but it would need to be handled carefully to prevent regional pockets of misery and possible global instability.

“In a worst-case scenario, people will keep investing in fossil fuels until suddenly the demand they expected does not materialise and they realise that what they own is worthless. Then we could see a financial crisis on the scale of 2008,” he said, warning oil capitals such as Houston could suffer the same fate as Detroit after the decline of the US car industry unless the transition is carefully managed.

The challenge is evident at the ongoing Cop26 climate conference, where some of the nations most at risk of being left with stranded assets – such as the oil and gas exporters Russia and Brazil – are likely to try to slow down the transition as they have done at previous climate meetings, while those most likely to gain – such as the fuel-importing EU – are pushing for faster action.

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Tear down those paywalls, International Energy Agency • Our World in Data

Max Roser:

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Transitioning to a low-carbon energy system is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. Since 87% of annual carbon dioxide emissions come from the energy and industrial sectors, this transition is essential to address climate change.1 At the same time the provision of clean energy is also a priority for global health and human development: 10% do not have access to electricity; 41% do not have access to clean fuels for cooking, and estimates of the health burden of anthropogenic outdoor air pollution range from 4 to over 10 million premature deaths per year.

To understand the problems the world faces and see how we can make progress we need accessible, high-quality data. It needs to be global in scope – leaving no country absent from the conversation – and it needs to cover the range of metrics needed to understand the energy system: this includes primary energy, final energy, useful energy, the breakdown of the electricity mix, end-sector breakdowns of energy consumption, and the CO2 emissions that each sector produces.

This data exists. It is produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the IEA only makes a fraction of their data publicly available, and keeps the rest behind very costly paywalls. This is despite the fact that the IEA is largely funded through public money from its member countries. The reason that the IEA puts much of its data behind paywalls is that the funders made it a requirement that it raises a small share of its budget through licensed data sales. As a consequence of this requirement the data is copyrighted under a strict data license; to access more than the very basic metrics, researchers and everyone else who wants to inform themselves about the global energy system needs to purchase a user license that often costs thousands of dollars.

In 2018, the annual budget of the IEA was €27.8m. According to the IEA’s budget figures, revenues from its data and publication sales finance “more than one-fifth of its annual budget”. That equates to €5.6m per year. To put this figure in perspective, it is equal to 0.03% of the total public energy R+D budget for IEA countries in 2018, which was €20.7bn. Or on a per capita basis split equally across IEA member countries: 0.44 cents per person per year.

We believe that the relatively small revenues that the paywalls generate do not justify the very large downsides that these restrictions cause.

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Open data. It’s the same old rallying cry. And given how wrong the IEA has been in its forecasts about non-fossil forms of energy, the paywalls are protecting bad data.
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The urban oil fields of Los Angeles • The Atlantic

Alan Taylor:

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In the 1890s, the small town of Los Angeles (population 50,000) began a transformation driven by the discovery and drilling of some of the most productive oil fields in history. By 1930, California was producing nearly one quarter of the world’s oil output, and its population had grown to 1.2 million. In the decades that followed, many wells closed, but even more opened, surrounded by urban and suburban growth. Machinery was camouflaged, loud noises were abated, methane pockets were vented, as residents learned to live side-by-side with oil production facilities. To this day, oil fields in the Los Angeles Basin remain very productive, and modern techniques have centralized operations into smaller areas or moved offshore. Gathered here are images of some of the sites and machinery still in use among the homes, golf courses, and shopping malls of Los Angeles.

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This article is from 2014, so some of these might be gone. Still fascinating; the most shocking, to modern eyes, is the oil derricks on Venice Beach in 1952, within living memory. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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New dictionary words, October 2021 • Merriam-Webster

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Just as the language never stops evolving, the dictionary never stops expanding. New terms and new uses for existing terms are the constant in a living language, and our latest list brings together both new and likely familiar words that have shown extensive and established use.

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Words like “FTW” and “digital nomad” and “bit rot”? They seem pretty non-2021 to me. Google Trends shows “bit rot” popping up in 2004, and that’s probably not it.
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Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review: a bad case for two screens • WIRED

Lauren Goode:

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The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 is great for reading Dune. At least, that’s what I spent the majority of my time doing while I used it.

I also browsed TikTok more than a person my age probably should. The addictive app spanned the Duo 2’s dual screens in a way that almost—almost—made the weirdness of those dual screens worth it. One night at dinner, I scanned a menu QR code with half of the Duo 2 while using the second display to look up a bottle of wine. (Our server, intrigued, paused to ask what this thing was. I told him it was a new Microsoft foldable phone. Then I mentioned that it cost $1,500, and he lost interest.)

The Duo 2 is no doubt a conversation starter. It’s a glimpse into the folding-phone future. But doing all the usual phone stuff on the Duo 2—browsing the web, taking photos, texting, Slacking, Zooming—was awkward on this two-screens-with-a-hinge phone. The only time using the Duo felt truly natural to use was when I was kicking back and reading, holding it like a small book, which it so much resembles. So yes, it makes a really nice, really expensive, Kindle replacement. It’s just not great for much else.

…Some apps span both screens, sure, but for the most part you’re being urged to live in two states at once. Your calendar on one side, your Slack on the other. Your email inbox over here, your email compose window over there. Twitter sitting opposite the news article you should probably read before you tweet it. Google Docs, where you’ve jotted down your test notes about this befuddling phone, and Microsoft Teams, which you’ll use to ask Microsoft execs seven different versions of “Why?” Work and play. Work and life.

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The dual screen idea seems like it ought to work. Maybe there’s just too much of it.

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Don’t read the comments? For news sites, it might be worth the effort • Poynter

Elizabeth Djinis:

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Is the death of online newspaper comments greatly exaggerated? It largely depends on their function. If the goal is for online comments to serve as the primary form of discourse around an article, rather than social media or even external discussion, it’s probably unrealistic. But if the aim is mission-based, that of a newspaper providing a service to their readers, a way for readers to engage with content that at least gives them the appearance of being heard, then online newspaper comments may still have a long future yet.

That’s a compelling argument to Talia Stroud, a University of Texas at Austin professor and director of the Moody College of Communication’s Center for Media Engagement. She’s seen various newspapers get rid of their comments, but it doesn’t leave her with a lasting impression of a general trend.

“Over the years, I’ve heard a number of the ‘comment sections are all going to go away’ arguments, and it has never come to pass,” she said. “I feel like one or two papers or a high-profile organization do it, but there are so many publications out there who are doubling down.”

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Stroud is so wonderfully wrong. Maybe if she was given responsibility for looking after a newspaper’s comments section for a few months, and figuring out what to do about the terrible toxicity and irrelevance that the journalists in the article point to, she’d realise precisely how wrong. Practitioners v theorists. (I wrote about why newspaper comments degenerate back in 2014, and it remains true.)
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Craig Federighi vehemently speaks out against iPhone sideloading in Web Summit keynote • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

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Federighi repeatedly referred back to a house analogy during the event. He likened buying an iPhone to buying a “great home with a really great security system,” but then a new law gets passed that forces you to weaken the security of your home.

“The safe house that you chose now has a fatal flaw in its security system, and burglars are really good at exploiting it,” Federighi said.

The Apple executive also warned that the legislation comes as there have “never been more cybercriminals” determined to access the private information on your iPhone. “Sideloading is a cybercriminal’s best friend,” Federighi said. “And requiring that on iPhone would be a gold rush for the malware industry.”

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“As an engineer who wants iPhone to stay as secure as possible for our users, there is one part I worry about and that’s the provision that would require iPhone to allow sideloading. In the name of giving users more choice, that one provision would take away consumers’ choice of a more secure platform. All of this comes at a time where people are keeping more personal and sensitive information than ever on their iPhones. And I can tell you there have never been cybercriminals more determined to get your hands on it.” 

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Federighi went on to say that this legislation would open a “Pandora’s box of unreviewed, malware-ridden software and deny everyone the option of iPhone’s secure approach.”

He also spoke out against the counterargument of simply letting people “choose” to sideload, warning that people could be coerced or tricked.

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“Clearly, I’m no fan of sideloading, but I want to address an argument I hear a lot: ‘Let people choose whether or not to sideload. Let them judge the risks, and they can decide themselves.’ And it’s easy to see the attraction of this argument, but history shows us that it doesn’t play out the way we’d hope because even if you have no intention of sideloading, people are routinely coerced or tricked into doing it. And that’s true across the board, even on platforms like Android that sideloading somewhat difficult to do.”

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There’s a video of the whole speech in the post. This part certainly sounds Canute-ish.
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Sonos Voice Assistant leaks ahead of launch • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:

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Sonos may be getting close to the launch of its own voice assistant: code traces found in the company’s mobile app suggest that the company has been preparing the launch of “Sonos Voice Control,” an assistant focused on playback and device control.

A Sonos spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The code snippets were posted this week by a Reddit user, who was also able to unearth the assistant’s icon: a speech bubble not too dissimilar from the one used by Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

Those images also suggest that the assistant can be activated in addition to Alexa, making it possible for Sonos owners to invoke either assistant by using specific wake words. The same doesn’t seem to be true for Google Assistant, with the images suggesting that the two assistants won’t be able to be activated on the same device.

Google has long insisted that technical issues prevent it from running Google Assistant in addition to another voice assistant. Sonos executives have rejected that claim, and alleged that Google’s voice assistant policies are anti-competitive. The issue took center stage at a recent antitrust hearing, during which a Google representative signaled that the company may be willing to change its tune over time.

In addition to the interoperability issues, the leak also shines a light on some of the features Sonos Voice Control will be supporting: Users will be able to launch and control music playback and volume, change which speakers music is playing on and check the battery level of portable Sonos devices.

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Been a while coming.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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