Start Up No.1686: redefining sharks via Reddit, the Long Boom in retrospect, Facebook Papers will be public, and more


In the UK, the seventh-biggest energy supplier has gone into administration, leaving just six standing – and millions in limbo. CC-licensed photo by MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not identified as a shark. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Multiple marine biologists are telling you it’s not a shark • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick, once more, for dammit he’s insightful:

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What I think this whole episode does illustrate, however, is how, essentially, every mechanism on the internet is broken, possibly irreparably. Let’s summarize:

A content creator learns a fun fact about a shark. The content creator either googles the name of the shark and tweets out the first picture they see or they’re sent that photo from someone else. But it’s the wrong photo because an SEO farm run by random man from Wales has inserted the “misinformation” into Google’s search results. The content creator, though, has to mute the Twitter thread they’ve created because it’s gone too viral for anyone to actually follow.

It’s also still doing traffic, so the content creator, when they finally learn that the tweet is incorrect, doesn’t actually delete the tweet. Then dozens of verified experts attempt to debunk the incorrect tweet, except all they’ve done is trick Twitter’s trending algorithms to further promote the tweet because of the attention being driven to the post.

The current landscape of the internet is essentially a series of levers and automations because the largest companies responsible for how we use the web are operating at a scale that can no longer be properly moderated by human beings. Which means, increasingly, that if a glitch makes its way into the system — in this instance, a photo of a monkfish incorrectly labeled as a shark — there is no chance for that glitch to be removed. And, even more confoundingly, if human beings do try and intervene, it only makes the glitch worse. idk seems bad!

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Seems like the perfect way for this to end would be for the monkfish at issue to be officially reclassified as a shark.
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1997: The Long Boom: a history of the future, 1980–2020 • WIRED

Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, writing in July 1997:

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A BAD MEME—A contagious idea—began spreading through the United States in the 1980s: America is in decline, the world is going to hell, and our children’s lives will be worse than our own. The particulars are now familiar: Good jobs are disappearing, working people are falling into poverty, the underclass is swelling, crime is out of control. The post-Cold War world is fragmenting, and conflicts are erupting all over the planet. The environment is imploding—with global warming and ozone depletion, we’ll all either die of cancer or live in Waterworld. As for our kids, the collapsing educational system is producing either gun-toting gangsters or burger-flipping dopes who can’t read.

By the late 1990s, another meme began to gain ground. Borne of the surging stock market and an economy that won’t die down, this one is more positive: America is finally getting its economic act together, the world is not such a dangerous place after all, and our kids just might lead tolerable lives. Yet the good times will come only to a privileged few, no more than a fortunate fifth of our society. The vast majority in the United States and the world face a dire future of increasingly desperate poverty. And the environment? It’s a lost cause.

But there’s a new, very different meme, a radically optimistic meme: We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for—quite literally—billions of people on the planet. We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world. And we’ll do it without blowing the lid off the environment.

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It’s wonderfully wild and overdone: “In 2020, humans arrive on Mars… the four astronauts touch down and beam their images back…” The printed article has Ten Scenario Spoilers. Pretty much all of which, unlike the scenarios in the article, have in fact happened.
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We’re making the Facebook Papers Public. Here’s why and how • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron, Andrew Couts, and Shoshana Wodinsky:

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The documents, captured by whistleblower Frances Haugen and first reported by the Wall Street Journal, were also handed to members of a Senate Commerce subcommittee chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut who last month called Instagram “a breeding ground for eating disorders and self harm.” And it’s from here that Gizmodo and some 300 other mostly Western journalists derived their access.

We believe there’s a strong public need in making as many of the documents public as possible, as quickly as possible. To that end, we’ve partnered with a small group of independent monitors, who are joining us to establish guidelines for an accountable review of the documents prior to publication. The mission is to minimize any costs to individuals’ privacy or the furtherance of other harms while ensuring the responsible disclosure of the greatest amount of information in the public interest.

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[List of great and good omitted]

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While our group is itself largely American, our first decision was to require local experts when reviewing any document focused on another country. One of the committee’s chief responsibilities is to vet local experts to work alongside our reviewers.

The internet was a much smaller place when Facebook arrived in 2004. Back then, beyond hookups and house parties, the social network held little sway over events in the real world. Unrecognizable today from its origin as a dorm-room novelty, Facebook is now one of the richest and most influential companies on the planet and the most pervasive information platform ever created. A tentacular machine that has altered the face of politics and life itself on a global scale. At its best, Facebook is a tool that connects billions, narrowing the divide between disparate peoples and cultures in ways previously unimaginable. At its worst, it has served as history’s most efficient delivery system for toxic propaganda, empowering bigots and extremists to commit egregious crimes against humanity, quite literally being wielded as an instrument of war.

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Will this all have been squeezed dry by the news orgs by the time it reaches the general public? And the disinformation that will come out of making them public will be amazing to see.
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The role of Facebook and other social media in the disruption of elections, journalism and ordinary life is part of our modern landscape. Understand it better by reading Social Warming, my latest book, and find explanations – and more.


The UK government’s plan to reform data-protection laws are terrifying • openDemocracy

Alex Stobart:

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Personal data is personal. It’s about living human beings. But with its ‘reform’ proposals, the UK government aims to put citizens’ data up for sale on global markets. A commodity to be traded. Like pork bellies or copper or debt.

The ‘Data: A New Direction’ consultation, which ends this Friday (November 19), has introduced the biggest wholesale attack on the rights of UK citizens in decades.

In his ministerial foreward to the consultation paper, published in September, then culture secretary Oliver Dowden said reforms are needed because existing General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) inherited from Europe are “unnecessarily complex or vague”. He said the government wants to end the “persistent uncertainty” that has prevailed since their introduction. But it uses even greater vagueness, apparently deliberately: words like ‘responsible’ (which appears 52 times in the consultation) and ‘safeguards’ (95 times) every time it’s introducing an attack on citizen rights – which the consultation never bothers to define. And, if implemented, it will produce even more uncertainty, which will last much longer than just three years.

The government justifies its proposals on the grounds that it is tackling ‘consent fatigue’, encouraging research and promoting the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Consent fatigue stems from the relentless series of requests to a citizen to accept something, such as a privacy policy or cookies, with no real explicit sense or value, over and over again, to drive them into submission. Again, there are also users that show a tendency to simply accept the privacy policy without even reading it extensively, which is related to ‘consent fatigue’.

This focus ignores the vast majority of organisations in the UK that collect personal data for the purpose of providing a service, which is allowed for by GDPR if it is in performance of a contract, and where there is no evidence of a need for reform.

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This has been largely overlooked, because it’s described in such arcane and roundabout language. Dowden has since been fired, to be replaced by Nadine Dorries, who gives the impression she wouldn’t know data if it drove over her foot.
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Apple just provided the perfect example of why you can’t trust App Store review scores • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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You pissed off people by somewhat breaking your app, and they’re leaving angry reviews. How can you salvage your reputation? Apple just found one incredibly effective way — get listeners to submit better reviews by interrupting their podcast experience with an in-app prompt to submit a rating.

That’s how the Apple Podcasts app went from a publicly embarrassing 1.8-star score all the way to 4.6 stars in a little over a month without any actual fixes, as developer and App Store watchdog Kosta Eleftheriou points out. And it’s still going up: according to AppFigures data, the app has been getting thousands of ratings every day since November 9th, with the vast, overwhelming majority of them issuing a 5-star score.

The app has made it to 4.7 stars overall as of this writing and is firmly the No. 1 App Store search result for “podcast.” It looks far more desirable to a new user than it might have before. AppFigures estimates 6,292 five-star ratings were submitted on November 17th alone.

If you think there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, you might be right — it could definitely be that people who bother to submit reviews tend to be angry, and a lot of people who love Apple Podcasts and never bothered to look it up in the App Store (remember, it’s preinstalled!) are finally balancing things out.

But do those people actually love Apple Podcasts? Because if you really look at the reviews, it seems like some funny business is going on. There are new, positive reviews, but they aren’t reviews of the Apple Podcasts app at all — they’re reviews of podcasts themselves.

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The Apple Podcasts app is absolutely, utterly, incredibly terrible. Forgets whether you’ve started listening to a podcast. Doesn’t play podcasts in the order you expect. Doesn’t let you easily reorder what you’re going to listen to. I hate it, but feel it would be Slog Work to shift over to another one (Marco Arment’s Overcast is the obvious alternative).
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Ableton: inside the music software company everyone wants to buy • Billboard

Steve Knopper:

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Before Ableton Live, dance music pioneers like Richie Hawtin had to build up what Detroit electronic music festival promoter Jason Huvaere calls “a spaceship of gear,” from samplers to drum machines. After the software started to catch on, though, Huvaere recalls taking Hawtin to visit Skrillex, who blew his mind when he told him, “Yeah, I’m pretty much using Ableton.”

The software allowed DJs to use their laptops to load into Ableton Live samples, snippets of original music or effects, then manipulate them live while performing. They could speed up or slow down a track, or add buzzing effects or bass drops, all with a few clicks. This audio manipulation congealed into a new sound that Michaelangelo Matos described as “a crisp, computery flutter — the seemingly true voice of the tinny, bright machines making it,” in his 2015 history of electronic music, The Underground Is Massive. Matos says this latest generation of EDM stars, who improvise with Ableton Live, create “laptop music.”

By making it easier to manipulate music, Ableton Live also freed a new generation of DJs — Skrillex, deadmau5, Steve Aoki — from behind their decks to dance, jump and, in Aoki’s case, smash cakes into the faces of their fans. Skrillex emerged as the “f–king Herbie Hancock of Ableton,” as Diplo calls him, reimagining the potential of Ableton Live the way Jimi Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar. As with Auto-Tune, the impact of Ableton Live goes far beyond DJs and even electronic music.

“It created a completely new type of producer,” says Huvaere. “It gave access to a versatile tool that would do what people want without spending thousands and thousands of dollars and training.” In recent years, Ableton’s reach has grown beyond DJs and other electronic-music tinkerers to the entire community of artists and songwriters.

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Ableton has turned down huge paydays in order to remain an independent company. (Paywalled article. Sadly, the Javascript on my browser broke, leaving me able to read it.)
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Prestigious UK Global Talent fast-track scheme for scientists hasn’t received any applications since it launched • New Scientist

Jason Arunn Murugesu:

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Not a single scientist has applied to a UK government visa scheme for Nobel prize laureates and other award winners since its launch six months ago, New Scientist can reveal. The scheme has come under criticism from scientists and has been described as “a joke”.

In May, the government launched a fast-track visa route for award-winners in the fields of science, engineering, the humanities and medicine who want to work in the UK. This prestigious prize route makes it easier for some academics to apply for a Global Talent visa – it requires only one application, with no need to meet conditions such as a grant from the UK Research and Innovation funding body or a job offer at a UK organisation.

The number of prizes that qualify academics for this route currently stands at over 70, and includes the Turing Award, the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science International Awards, and various gongs awarded by professional or membership bodies both in the UK and elsewhere.

“Winners of these awards have reached the pinnacle of their career and they have so much to offer the UK,” said home secretary Priti Patel when the prestigious prize scheme launched in May. “This is exactly what our new point-based immigration system was designed for – attracting the best and brightest based on the skills and talent they have, not where they’ve come from.”

But a freedom of information request by New Scientist has revealed that in the six months since the scheme was launched, no one working in science, engineering, the humanities or medicine has actually applied for a visa through this route.

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Something something sunlit uplands.
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Bulb Energy enters ‘special administration’ after collapse • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

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The energy regulator drew up plans over the weekend to put the company into a process designed to protect Bulb’s 1.7 million household customers and ensure continuity of supply, according to industry sources.

Bulb told its staff that it would continue to operate “with no interruption of service or supply to members” and urged customers not to worry “as your energy supply is secure and all credit balances are protected”.

The company’s collapse has been long expected by industry rivals after it struggled to find new investment, or a willing buyer, before the UK’s looming winter energy crisis.

“It has been like watching a zombie movie – you know they’re walking dead but you couldn’t be sure when they’d stop moving,” one senior industry source said. “They’ve long been dicing with death but the recent events in the energy market have been a catalyst for what would have happened anyway.”

Bulb blamed the surge in energy market prices ignited by the global gas crisis for scuppering its plans to raise funds to fuel its ongoing growth, which included new businesses in France, Spain and Texas.

“When we started exploring fundraising options, we were delighted to receive lots of interest from investors to fund our business plans and future growth,” the company said in a blogpost on Monday. “However, the rising energy crisis in the UK and around the world has concerned investors who can’t go ahead while wholesale prices are so high.”

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What’s unusual here is that the energy regulator cannot persuade other (surviving) energy companies to take those customers on, because those companies would all lose money supplying them because of the price cap introduced by the regulator. Hence the “special administration” – aka a form of quiet nationalisation where the government pays the deficit.

Bulb is the biggest supplier to have gone bust out of the 21 (!!) to go out of business since the start of September. There are now only six left that are solvent.
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NFT makers are trying to build the next Disney • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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In the online auction market OpenSea, you can pay around $600 to buy a portrait of a robot in streetwear — and, if you’re lucky, a stake in a new media empire.

The robot is called a TARS, and it’s part of the Voguverse, an elaborate 37th-century mythos involving space arcologies, a nuclear war, and interstellar travel. The portrait is one of countless digital assets being sold as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. But by pairing its fictional universe with a blockchain-based ledger, the creators think they can tap into a new way to tell stories.

As NFTs explode in popularity, entrepreneurs are imagining an entire media industry that’s built around them. At its most ambitious, the vision is sometimes dubbed a “decentralized Disney”: a world of fictional crossovers like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its many spinoffs but where different characters and creative properties are owned by a panoply of fans, not a single company. Talent agencies, comics authors, and countless NFT enthusiasts are buying in.

What does owned mean? Many are still figuring that out.

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Many, it turns out, don’t understand the difference between having static ownership of an object, and having ownership of the copyrights and trademarks immanent in that object – the right to make derivative works, for example.

For an example of how loose their understanding is, they might want to consider their use of TARS, an acronym that more people would associate with a robot in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.
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How $6.6bn of billionaire Elon Musk’s fortune could overcome world hunger • World Economic Forum

Johnny Wood:

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Billionaire Elon Musk challenged the United Nations (UN) to show how $6bn of his fortune could be used to overcome world hunger, prompting the UN’s World Food Programme to produce a detailed plan.

Musk’s challenge was sparked by earlier comments from World Food Programme chief, David Beasley, who told CNN that 2% of Musk’s wealth could end world hunger.

In a tweet, the world’s richest man suggested he would sell stock in his electric car manufacturing company Tesla and donate the billion-dollar proceeds if the UN could demonstrate exactly how his money would be spent.

Responding to the tweet, Beasley urged billionaires like Musk to step up and support the fight against hunger, giving a breakdown of how $6.6bn could help avert catastrophe. The UN plan outlines how the money – a small percentage of Musk’s fortune estimated in the hundreds of billions – could support 42 million people threatened with famine in 43 of the world’s worst-hit countries for a year.

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The WFP article detailing how the $6.6bn would be allocated is from November 3, and this article is from November 19.

Do we expect to see a Twitter poll by Musk on this one too, or will he just sell stock and fund it? If he does fund it, I think we could count it as one of humanity’s greatest successes, and all sparked by social media.
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April 2005: Effects of Skin Pigmentation on Pulse Oximeter Accuracy at Low Saturation • American Society of Anesthesiologists

Bickler et al in April 2005:

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Results: At 60-70% Sao2, Spo2 (mean of three oximeters) overestimated Sao2 (bias +/- SD) by 3.56 +/- 2.45% (n = 29) in darkly pigmented subjects, compared with 0.37 +/- 3.20% (n = 58) in lightly pigmented subjects (P < 0.0001). The SD of bias was not greater with dark than light skin. The dark-light skin differences at 60-70% Sao2 were 2.35% (Nonin), 3.38% (Novametrix), and 4.30% (Nellcor). Skin pigment-related differences were significant with Nonin below 70% Sao2, with Novametrix below 90%, and with Nellcor at all ranges. Pigment-related bias increased approximately in proportion to desaturation.

Conclusions: The three tested pulse oximeters overestimated arterial oxygen saturation during hypoxia in dark-skinned individuals.

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Just pointing out that yesterday’s item about pulse oximeters overestimating blood oxygen levels in darker skins is not new; as Adrian M points out, this study (the first he could find on the topic) is 16 years old, and there are plenty of followups confirming the finding. Bickler, meanwhile, is still going strong, with a paper published earlier this year on Covid and low oxygen blood levels.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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