Start Up No.1753: Sandberg claims women don’t do war, perfect multiplication, how best to use Twitter, personalised TV?, and more


The use of lead in petrol to stop knocking depressed Americans’ IQ by about 5 points each up to 1996, research says. CC-licensed photo by frankieleonfrankieleon 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 10 links for you. Still going. 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?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Sheryl Sandberg on Russia-Ukraine: women-led countries wouldn’t go to war • CNBC

Ryan Browne:

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“No two countries run by women would ever go to war,” Sandberg told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Dubai on Tuesday during a fireside at a Cartier event marking International Women’s Day.

…Sandberg said that, if half the world were run by women, she believes the world would be “safer” and “much more prosperous.”

…Last week, Russian media censor Roskomnadzor said it would block access to Meta’s Facebook, claiming the social platform unfairly restricted access to several state-affiliated media outlets.

Russian authorities at first had ordered the platform to stop fact-checking and labeling content posted on Facebook by state-owned outlets like RT and Sputnik, Meta’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg said. Meta refused that request. Russia has since strengthened its crackdown on social media companies, with Facebook blocked and Twitter harder to use.

Sandberg summed up Russia’s decision to block Facebook from the country in six simple words.

“Social media is bad for dictators,” Sandberg said. “That’s why Putin took us down.” The move will only worsen the internet freedoms of citizens in Russia, she added. “The scariest part of all of this is the lack of access,” she said. “When we go down in Russia, people are losing their ability to actually understand what’s happening.”

“We need to fight for access [and] make sure that social media exists so that people do get information from from all over the world, and that that information is valid and real.”

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There was a longstanding theory that two countries with a McDonald’s wouldn’t go to war; Russia-Ukraine blew that one up. Sandberg really does talk some nonsense. Social media might be bad for dictators, but it’s also bad for democracies, at least as provided by the company she works for.

Yael Eisenstat, who worked there but quit in disgust, commented:

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“Is she that out of touch? What I don’t understand is: does Sandberg really believe what she says? Or is the world finally seeing the real her? Sidenote: When I was at Facebook, an employee asked her what her north star was. A number of us were surprised that she had no answer.”

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In the Ukraine conflict, fake fact-checks are being used to spread disinformation • ProPublica

Craig Silverman and Jeff Kao:

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Researchers at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub and ProPublica identified more than a dozen videos that purport to debunk apparently nonexistent Ukrainian fakes. The videos have racked up more than 1 million views across pro-Russian channels on the messaging app Telegram, and have garnered thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter. A screenshot from one of the fake debunking videos was broadcast on Russian state TV, while another was spread by an official Russian government Twitter account.

The goal of the videos is to inject a sense of doubt among Russian-language audiences as they encounter real images of wrecked Russian military vehicles and the destruction caused by missile and artillery strikes in Ukraine, according to Patrick Warren, an associate professor at Clemson who co-leads the Media Forensics Hub.

“The reason that it’s so effective is because you don’t actually have to convince someone that it’s true. It’s sufficient to make people uncertain as to what they should trust,” said Warren, who has conducted extensive research into Russian internet trolling and disinformation campaigns. “In a sense they are convincing the viewer that it would be possible for a Ukrainian propaganda bureau to do this sort of thing.”

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine unleashed a torrent of false and misleading information from both sides of the conflict. Viral social media posts claiming to show video of a Ukrainian fighter pilot who shot down six Russian planes — the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv” — were actually drawn from a video game. Ukrainian government officials said 13 border patrol officers guarding an island in the Black Sea were killed by Russian forces after unleashing a defiant obscenity, only to acknowledge a few days later that the soldiers were alive and had been captured by Russian forces.

For its part, the Russian government is loath to admit such mistakes, and it launched a propaganda campaign before the conflict even began. It refuses to use the word “invasion” to describe its use of more than 100,000 troops to enter and occupy territory in a neighboring country, and it is helping spread a baseless conspiracy theory about bioweapons in Ukraine.

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BBC radio interviewers tried haplessly to get Russian interviewees to engage with a few facts; this shows why there’s a problem. In passing, I think “conflict” is the wrong word for the headline. Crimea was a conflict. This is a war – Russia wants all of Ukraine, just as Hitler wanted all of, well, everything. “Civil war” is a struggle for the whole country. Conflict is limited, war is not.
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How to best use Twitter • Don’t Worry About the Vase

Zvi Mowshowitz:

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It is high time for me to talk about the only practical way I know about to follow developments in the world in real time, whether they be a war, a pandemic or something else entirely, which is Twitter and in particular Twitter Lists.

I do not know of any practical alternative. One can of course watch or read the usual news reports, which are mostly effectively State Media of various quality, for various different States. When you’re reading about an actual war, the State part of State Media becomes more prominent and harder to miss.

The best TV sources for international events like the war that I have are Bloomberg (as far as I can tell, the closest thing to non-state media) for the economic side of things and the BBC World News for the more general side. Occasionally I’ll take a glance at CNN or Fox News or various other networks to get a sense of what they are focusing on. I have not attempted to directly watch any Russian broadcasts but am curious what is the best option for that.

For domestic American events, there are no non-obvious TV sources I have found, and TV is essentially useless other than to know what the Narratives are saying or to cover discrete events like debates, elections or the State of the Union. Any kind of #Analysis is strictly fuhgeddaboudit.

For written media, the usual suspects are what they are so choose your favorites. None of them seem able to keep up with the pace of play other than Bloomberg offering insight into markets, so they are mostly again useful for ‘how are things being presented and sold’ than insight into actual events.

For what is happening, Twitter is where it is at.

To use Twitter properly, there are four vital pieces of technology.

• Tweetdeck or another similar alternative application
• Knowing who to follow and read
• Lists
• Unfollows, filters, mutes and blocks.

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Notably, Dominic Cummings gave much the same advice the other day: use Lists (self-curated groups of experts around a topic). Twitter’s timeline as normally configured is a jumble of the relevant and irrelevant, and using its algorithmic feed is a recipe for staying badly informed. Personally I use Tweetbot, and lots of lists. (Via John Naughton)
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Ukraine warns of radiation leak risk after power cut at occupied Chernobyl plant • Reuters

Natalia Zinets and Alessandra Prentice:

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Radioactive substances could be released from Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant because it cannot cool spent nuclear fuel after its power connection was severed, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear company Energoatom said on Wednesday.

It said fighting made it impossible to immediately repair the high-voltage power line to the plant, which was captured by Russian forces after the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. read more

Energoatom said there were about 20,000 spent fuel assemblies at Chernobyl that could not be kept cool amid a power outage.

Their warming could lead to “the release of radioactive substances into the environment. The radioactive cloud could be carried by wind to other regions of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Europe,” it said in a statement.

Without power, ventilation systems at the plant would also not be working, exposing staff to dangerous doses of radiation, it added.

On Tuesday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned that the systems monitoring nuclear material at the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl had stopped transmitting data.

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Considered dispassionately: possibility 1: Russia had no idea that keeping Chernobyl connected matters, and its forces in the field are just cutting power because that’s strategy. In which case the question becomes whether commanders will consider this a risk they should not take, and try to restore power (which also depends on how well they can communicate in the field). Or possibility 2: they knew this and did it on purpose. Seems like two of the three branches of possibility aren’t good.

However: there are backup generators, and the spent rods in question are more than 20 years old, and so don’t need much cooling – storage cooled by air will do it. Though the air probably needs filtration.
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Apple’s new 27-inch 5K Studio Display supports Center Stage • Pocket Lint

Maggie Tilman:

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One of the more interesting things about the Apple Studio Display is that it features an A13 Bionic chip inside to power the impressive camera and audio system, regardless of whether you have an M1 powered Mac connected to the display. 

There’s a 12-megapixel ultra-wide “Center Stage” ready camera – the same that’s been on the iPad. It supports the Center Stage feature, so video calls and conferences can be more engaging. It also includes an array of “studio-quality mics”, Apple said, in addition to a high fidelity six-speaker sound system consisting of four noise-canceling woofers and two high-performance tweeters.

And, thanks to Apple Silicon, it can process multi-channel surround sound. The speakers even support for Spatial audio for music and video with Dolby Atmos.

As for how the Studio Display connects with your other devices, it has three USB-C ports that deliver speeds up to 10 gigabits per second. There’s a Thunderbolt port, which allows you to connect Studio Display and any plugged-in peripherals to your Mac with a single cable. That same cable delivers 96 watts of power, so it can charge any Mac notebook and it can even fast charge a 14-inch MacBook Pro.

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I had wondered if the A13 chip was just to drive the pixels, but it’s for all the extra stuff too – the camera focus follow (what Center Stage does) – that the Intel-based Macs can’t handle.

And, as webcams should be, it’s on the LONG side of the device. Ahem, iPad designers. (Thanks Stuart for the link.)
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Future of TV: we’re putting new personalised features into shows using an ethical version of AI • The Conversation

Philip Jackson is a reader in machine audition at the University of Surrey:

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“Look away now if you don’t want to know the score”, they say on the news before reporting the football results. But imagine if your television knew which teams you follow, which results to hold back – or knew to bypass football altogether and tell you about something else. With media personalisation, which we’re working on with the BBC, that sort of thing is becoming possible.

Significant challenges remain for adapting live production, but there are other aspects to media personalisation which are closer. Indeed, media personalisation already exists to an extent. It’s like your BBC iPlayer or Netflix suggesting content to you based on what you’ve watched previously, or your Spotify curating playlists you might like.

But what we’re talking about is personalisation within the programme. This could include adjusting the programme duration (you might be offered an abridged or extended version), adding subtitles or graphics, or enhancing the dialogue (to make it more intelligible if, say, you’re in a noisy place or your hearing is starting to go). Or it might include providing extra information related to the programme (a bit like you can access now with BBC’s red button).

The big difference is that these features wouldn’t be generic. They would see shows re-packaged according to your own tastes, and tailored to your needs, depending on where you are, what devices you have connected and what you’re doing.

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But what happens if, as the photo shows, you’re watching it as a family? This is like when you order presents for your kids on Amazon, which messes up its algorithm forever. Though judging by the article they seem more worried about your TV becoming omnipotent.
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Ukraine says it hit Russian vehicles in Kyiv thanks to a Telegram tip • Business Insider

Natalie Musumeci and Oleksandr Vynogradov:

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Ukrainian forces successfully attacked Russian vehicles in the capital city of Kyiv thanks to a public tip made through the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Ukraine’s top law-enforcement agency said on Tuesday.

The Security Service of Ukraine said in a tweet that it was able to effectively target Russian convoys near Kyiv because of messages sent to an official Telegram bot account called “STOP Russian War.”

“Your messages about the movement of the enemy through the official chatbot … bring new trophies every day,” the government agency tweeted.

“This time we received the coordinates of enemy vehicles marked ‘V’ in Kyiv region,” it added.

“The result is on this photo: fiery ‘greetings’ to the invaders,” the Security Service of Ukraine wrote alongside a photo showing several military vehicles among plumes of black smoke.

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Quite a dramatic method of crowdsourcing. War is changing as we watch.
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Lead exposure in last century shrank IQ scores of half of Americans • Duke Today

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In 1923, lead was first added to gasoline to help keep car engines healthy. However, automotive health came at the great expense of our own well-being.

A new study calculates that exposure to car exhaust from leaded gas during childhood stole a collective 824 million IQ points from more than 170 million Americans alive today, about half the population of the United States.

The findings, from Aaron Reuben, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Duke University, and colleagues at Florida State University, suggest that Americans born before 1996 may now be at greater risk for lead-related health problems, such as faster aging of the brain. Leaded gas for cars was banned in the US in 1996, but the researchers say that anyone born before the end of that era, and especially those at the peak of its use in the 1960s and 1970s, had concerningly high lead exposures as children.

The team’s paper appeared the week of March 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead is neurotoxic and can erode brain cells after it enters the body. As such, there is no safe level of exposure at any point in life, health experts say. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead’s ability to impair brain development and lower cognitive ability. Unfortunately, no matter what age, our brains are ill-equipped for keeping it at bay.

“Lead is able to reach the bloodstream once it’s inhaled as dust, or ingested, or consumed in water,” Reuben said. “In the bloodstream, it’s able to pass into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which is quite good at keeping a lot of toxicants and pathogens out of the brain, but not all of them.”

One major way lead used to invade bloodstreams was through automotive exhaust.

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I’m just going to observe that a recent American president was born in 1946 and lived in Manhattan, New York, which has a lot of vehicles in a crowded city.
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Mathematicians discover the perfect way to multiply • Quanta Magazine

Kevin Hartnett:

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Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians invented multiplication. Last month, mathematicians perfected it.

On March 18, two researchers described the fastest method ever discovered for multiplying two very large numbers. The paper marks the culmination of a long-running search to find the most efficient procedure for performing one of the most basic operations in math.

“Everybody thinks basically that the method you learn in school is the best one, but in fact it’s an active area of research,” said Joris van der Hoeven, a mathematician at the French National Center for Scientific Research and one of the co-authors.

The complexity of many computational problems, from calculating new digits of pi to finding large prime numbers, boils down to the speed of multiplication. Van der Hoeven describes their result as setting a kind of mathematical speed limit for how fast many other kinds of problems can be solved.

“In physics you have important constants like the speed of light which allow you to describe all kinds of phenomena,” van der Hoeven said. “If you want to know how fast computers can solve certain mathematical problems, then integer multiplication pops up as some kind of basic building brick with respect to which you can express those kinds of speeds.”

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Which matters, of course, because computers have to do lots of multiplication of large numbers for cryptography and so on.

Meanwhile, the slowest method of multiplication can be witnessed when a new Secretary of State for Education does their first radio interview, and is asked what 8 x 7 is. (It is surely the hardest single-digit multiplicand.)
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As inflation heats up, 64% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck • CNBC

Jessica Dickler:

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At the start of 2022, 64% of the U.S. population was living paycheck to paycheck, up from 61% in December and just shy of the high of 65% in 2020, according to a LendingClub report.

“We are all seeing the cost of everything shooting up,” said Anuj Nayar, LendingClub’s financial health officer. However, paying more for gas and groceries is hitting households particularly hard, he said.

“You’ve got to eat, you’ve got to commute; these are not discretionary expenses.”

Even among those earning six figures, 48% said they are now living paycheck to paycheck, up from 42% in December, the survey of more than 2,600 adults found.

“Depending on here you live, $100,000 may not get you that far,” Nayar said.

In San Francisco, for example, a family of four with a household of under $120,000 is considered low income.

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Really scary. According to the US Census, median income there was $67,521 in 2020, slightly down from the 2019 figure. Can’t imagine things have improved since then.

In the UK, the median income was £29,900. A lot lower in apparent value (£1 = $1.36; £29,900 = $40,664) but having health included in taxes makes a big difference.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: thanks to all the people who pointed out that energy storage such as batteries can be counted as “generation” given that it stops surplus generated energy (from solar, say) from being wasted, so it can be fed back into the grid at times of need. (Hydro serves the same function, after all: it’s just a giant gravity-driven battery containing water.)

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