Start Up No.1847: Zuckerberg tells Meta to tighten up, Covid is Wuhan market zoonosis, time to kill the leap second?, and more

The price of British fish and chips is set to soar, because much of the fish used comes from… Russia? CC-licensed photo by mangocyborgmangocyborg on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Unsalted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mark Zuckerberg braces Meta employees for ‘intense period’ • The Verge

Alex Heath and David Pierce:


“Hi there,” the first prerecorded employee question started. “I’m Gary, and I’m located in Chicago.” His question: would Meta Days — extra days off introduced during the pandemic — continue in 2023?

Zuckerberg appeared visibly frustrated. “Um… all right,” he stammered. He’d just explained that he thought the economy was headed for one of the “worst downturns that we’ve seen in recent history.” He’d already frozen hiring in many areas. TikTok was eating their lunch, and it would take over a year and a half before they had “line of sight” to overtaking it.

And Gary from Chicago was asking about extra vacation days?

“Given my tone in the rest of the Q&A, you can probably imagine what my reaction to this is,” Zuckerberg said. After this year, Meta Days were canceled.

For Zuckerberg, the company he founded 18 years ago was facing existential threats on multiple fronts. Both Facebook and Instagram were being rearchitected to compete with TikTok. Apple’s iOS privacy settings had disrupted the company’s once-stable ad business, costing it billions in revenue. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s bet on the metaverse was a money pit that he didn’t see turning a profit until at least the end of the decade.

But first, Gary from Chicago. As the all-hands escalated, it became clear that Zuckerberg saw that fixing his company’s culture was critical to surviving the tough times ahead. Two years into the pandemic, his company was in a very different, more vulnerable place. It even had a new name.

The days of coddling employees would be over.

“Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg said on the June 30th call, according to a recording obtained by The Verge. “And part of my hope by raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might just say that this place isn’t for you. And that self-selection is okay with me.”


Zuckerberg growing angry with those who tend to his creation? That seems like a first. But things are changing…
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Facebook’s TikTok-like redesign marks the sunset of social networking era • Axios

Scott Rosenberg:


Under the social network model, which piggybacked on the rise of smartphones to mold billions of users’ digital experiences, keeping up with your friends’ posts served as the hub for everything you might aim to do online.

Now Facebook wants to shape your online life around the algorithmically-sorted preferences of millions of strangers around the globe.

That’s how TikTok sorts the videos it shows users, and that’s largely how Facebook will now organize its home screen.

The dominant player in social media is transforming itself into a kind of digital mass media, in which the reactions of hordes of anonymous users, processed by machine learning, drive the selection of your content.

Facebook and its rivals call this a “discovery engine” because it reliably spits out recommendations of posts from everywhere that might hold your attention.

But it also looks a lot like a mutant TV with an infinite number of context-free channels that flash in and out of focus at high speed.

That’s what younger users right now seem to prefer, and it’s where Facebook expects the growth of its business to lie, now that new privacy rules from Apple and regulators’ threats around the world have made its existing ad-targeting model precarious.


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Coronavirus jumped to humans at least twice at market in Wuhan, China • EurekAlert!


elemental to understanding pandemic origins is pinpointing not just where, but how, a pathogen successfully jumps from a non-human animal host to human, known as a zoonotic event.

“I think there’s been consensus that this virus did in fact come from the Huanan Market, but a strong case for multiple introductions hasn’t been made by anyone else yet,” said Joel Wertheim, senior author of the study that posits the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, jumped from animals to humans at least twice and perhaps as many as two dozen times.

According to researchers, two evolutionary branches of the virus were present early in the pandemic, differentiated only by two differences in nucleotides — the basic building blocks of DNA and RNA.

Lineage B, which included samples from people who worked at and visited the market, became globally dominant. Lineage A spread within China, and included samples from people pinpointed only to the vicinity the market. If the viruses in lineage A evolved from those in lineage B, or vice versa, Wertheim said this would suggest SARS-CoV-2 jumped only once from animals to humans.

But work by Wertheim and collaborators found that the earliest SARS-CoV-2 genomes were inconsistent with a single zoonotic jump into humans. Rather, the first zoonotic transmission likely occurred with lineage B viruses in late-November 2019 while the introduction of lineage A into humans likely occurred within weeks of the first event. Both strains were present at the market simultaneously.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion by deciphering the evolutionary rate of viral genomes to deduce whether or not the two lineages diverged from a single common ancestor in humans. They used a technique called molecular clock analysis and an epidemic simulation tool called FAVITES, invented by Wertheim team member Niema Moshiri, PhD, an assistant professor of computer science at Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and study co-author.


The dual lineage data, which has been known for a long time, had always been a puzzle. Now they seem to have worked it out: two instances where the virus crossed from animals to humans, at almost the same time. This paper looks at the epidemiological spread related to the market; this looks at the genomes. There are also some tweet threads by authors of the papers.

This will put an end to all the claims about lab leaks, right?
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Drought fears after England suffers driest spell since 1976 • The Times

Ali Mitib, Anna Lombardi, Venetia Menzies:


England is facing a drought next month as analysis shows that the first six months of this year were the driest since 1976.

The government and water companies will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss potential hosepipe bans and restrictions on farmers under a drought plan.

The country is not yet in widespread drought but most of England except for the northwest has moved into a state of “prolonged dry weather”, the step before drought is declared, the Environment Agency said.

The last time drought was declared was in 2018.

England and Wales recorded 330.9mm of rain from January to June, the least since the summer of 1976, a Times analysis of Met Office data shows. It was the 12th lowest rainfall in the period since 1900.

The figure is a sharp drop from previous years and comes after a drier than average winter. The forecaster recorded 471.7 mm of rainfall from January to June in 2021 and 455.7 mm in the year before that.

Mark McCarthy, a science manager at the Met Office, said it recorded a succession of drier-than-average months in England and Wales. Only February registered more rain than average.

He said Atlantic rain systems had moved further north this year, hitting Iceland and Scandinavia but missing large parts of the rest of Europe.


There’s a graph of rainfall for the first six months of the year, and to be honest it looks like a random walk. But having the hottest-ever days plus the least rain starts to look like part of a pattern.
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Can ring vaccination contain monkeypox in the US? • WIRED

Maryn McKenna:


In the last years of the campaign to eradicate smallpox, the health workers fanning out to the disease’s stubborn hot spots developed a strategy: Official reports or gossip relayed by missionaries and village kids would identify someone carrying the disease’s telltale blisters. The health workers would track down the unlucky person, and then launch into quick interviews with them: What did they do everyday? Where did they go? Who were their closest contacts? Then they would find those people, assess whether they were infected, and repeat the process, rapidly constructing a map of an invisible network nestled inside a village’s visible society.

Their final action would be to vaccinate everyone within the network, drawing an immunological barrier around the group and blocking the virus’s transmission to the rest of the village. This ring vaccination strategy, as it came to be called, used fewer vaccine doses and required fewer personnel than the mass vaccination campaigns that preceded it. It closed the loop around the last natural case of smallpox in 1977, and allowed it to be eradicated—the only human disease for which that’s happened—in 1980.

Four decades on, the World Health Organization and major governments, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have said ring vaccination is the preferred strategy for controlling the new pox epidemic: monkeypox. It began spreading in Europe in May and has now caused more than 15,500 cases worldwide, including more than 10,000 in Europe and almost 2,600 in the US. The strategy makes sense, hypothetically: Compared to trying to vaccinate everyone, ring vaccination is a faster, cheaper, more targeted means of getting a pathogen under control. But whether ring vaccination is achievable now for monkeypox is an open question.


We can hope, but the CDC didn’t cover itself in glory during Covid – it’s become too politicised, not focused enough on expertise – and seems to have been caught flatfooted by this. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Half of Britain’s fish and chip shops could close due to soaring prices • The Sun

Natasha Clark:


Half of Britain’s 10,500 fish and chip shops could close due to rocketing costs.

As many as 5,000 face being battered by crippling tariffs and the soaring prices of ingredients, government figures reveal. The combination means the price of a fish and chip supper could rise from an average £8.50 to £11.50, and hake and other types of white fish could replace traditional cod and haddock shipped in from overseas.

The latest blow came last week when ministers pressed ahead with a 35% tariff on all seafood imported from Russia in a bid to hammer President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine. Around a third of all white fish imported to the UK comes from Russia, which controls up to 45% of the global supply.

Lancashire chip shop owner Andrew Crook, of the National Federation of Fish Friers, said his cod supplies have already risen from £8 to £14 a kilo.

He warned: “These extra tariffs will push thousands of shops over the edge.”

The Sun understands the issue split the Cabinet — with Boris Johnson insisting standing with Ukraine was worth the price.


Didn’t know that about Russia’s role in fish supply.

The move was postponed in April to “discuss the potential effect” with seafood firms. Wonder what they said? Anyway, here’s what Seafood Source says:


The United Kingdom is heavily reliant on imported whitefish to meet demand, sourcing 432,000 metric tons (MT) with a value of almost £800m ($1bn, €952.1m) in 2020. According to U.K. public body Seafish, the United Kingdom imported 48,000 metric tons (MT) of whitefish directly from Russia in 2020. A considerable proportion of Chinese whitefish imports was also of Russian origin.


Can’t find a figure for the UK’s total consumption of whitefish, though. Notice in passing the dig at Johnson as not caring about (y)our local chippie.
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Zimbabwe launches gold coins as legal tender to tackle hyperinflation • Sky News


Zimbabwe has launched new gold coins to be sold to the public in a bid to tackle chronic hyperinflation.

The gold coins – called Mosi-oa-Tunya – will have “liquid asset status”, meaning they can be converted to cash, traded locally and internationally, and used for transactions, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe said.

People can only trade the coins for cash after holding them for at least 180 days.

Zimbabwean economist Prosper Chitambara said: “The government is trying to moderate the very high demand for the US dollar because this high demand is not being matched by supply.”

According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation in Zimbabwe reached 837% (year on year) in July 2020 and, although tighter fiscal policy helped reduce it to 60.7% by the end of last year, it remains in the high double-digits.

This wipes away the value of people’s savings – many people saw their savings wiped out by the 5 billion% inflation seen in 2008, according to the IMF.

This insecurity affects trust in the local currency, the Zimbabwe dollar – many retailers don’t accept it and many Zimbabweans prefer to use US dollars for savings or daily transactions.


Not being able to spend it until you’ve held it for a while is a smart way to reduce the velocity of the money in circulation (a factor in inflation). But six months is a long time to hold on to it in a country where savings have been wiped out. (Also, where are all the people saying “they should have used bitcoin”?)
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Eutelsat boss battles to convince investors of OneWeb deal • Financial Times

Leila Abboud, Jim Pickard, Peggy Hollinger and Harriet Agnew:


Eutelsat’s chief executive Eva Berneke was on Tuesday battling to convince shareholders in the French satellite group of the case for combining with UK start-up OneWeb, admitting that the merger marked a “big change” for a company prized for its dividends.

Shares in Paris-listed Eutelsat have tumbled more than 30% since the group revealed on Monday that it was in talks over an all-share deal with OneWeb, a satellite group backed by SoftBank and rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 by the UK government and Indian telecoms billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal.

Announcing the deal on Tuesday, Eutelsat said it would suspend its dividend for two years to plough investment into OneWeb’s low Earth orbit satellite network. Billed as a merger of equals, the companies cast the tie-up as a step towards creating a European champion better positioned to compete with billionaire space entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Eutelsat and OneWeb said in a joint statement that the proposed transaction would create a stronger player to offer space connectivity for everything from cruise ships to rural areas by combining Eutelsat’s fleet of 36 geostationary satellites with OneWeb’s constellation of 648 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.


Shareholders are fleeing this (the fall in share price reflects falling belief in total profit the company will make over its lifetime).

OneWeb really is something of an anchor.
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Why one critical second can wreak havoc on the internet • CNET

Stephen Shankland:


Since 1972, the world’s timekeeping authorities have added a leap second 27 times to the global clock known as the International Atomic Time (TAI). Instead of 23:59:59 changing to 0:0:0 at midnight, an extra 23:59:60 is tucked in. That causes a lot of indigestion for computers, which rely on a network of precise timekeeping servers to schedule events and to record the exact sequence of activities like adding data to a database.

The temporal tweak causes more problems – like internet outages – than benefits, they say. And dealing with leap seconds ultimately is futile, the group argues, since the Earth’s rotational speed hasn’t actually changed much historically.

“We are predicting that if we just stick to the TAI without leap second observation, we should be good for at least 2,000 years,” research scientist Ahmad Byagowi of Facebook parent company Meta said via email. “Perhaps at that point we might need to consider a correction.*

The tech giants and two key agencies agree that it’s time to ditch the leap second. Those are the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its French equivalent, the Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM).

This governmental support is critical, given that ultimately it is governments and scientists – not technology companies – that are in charge of the world’s global clock system.  

The leap second change triggered a massive Reddit outage in 2012, as well as related problems at Mozilla, LinkedIn, Yelp and airline booking service Amadeus. In 2017, a leap second glitch at Cloudflare knocked a fraction of the network infrastructure company’s customers’ servers offline.


Google, Microsoft, Meta and Amazon are all behind this. So we’d stop making our timepieces accord with the Earth’s rotation because it upsets our computers. But.. though the drift wouldn’t be big, it would be there. Does that mean we change the times of dawn?
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How Generation Z became obsessed with subtitles • Daily Telegraph

Guy Kelly:


If you ever stray onto social media, it’s likely you’ve seen the memes. Screenshots from Stranger Things, frozen with a wonderfully descriptive sound-effect caption at the bottom of the screen. “Eldritch thrumming,” is one (eldritch being a synonym for “supernatural”). “Desiccated withering” is another, plus “wet writhing” and “sibilant trilling”.

In the spirit of popular “no-context” Twitter accounts (accounts devoted to the posting of random screenshots from films or TV shows), the images are often funniest without explanation – or, in the case of Stranger Things, simply pointing out that each one would make a fine band name.

The novelist Jonathan Coe probably expressed it best. “Whoever writes the Stranger Things subtitles is definitely a frustrated poet,” he tweeted. A frustrated poet, or at least somebody slowly working through the thesaurus entry for “moist” and thoroughly enjoying it.

Plenty is written about the death of reading among Generation Z, but those critics clearly aren’t taking into account the millions of words they consume every year while watching TV and films. A 2021 survey by the captioning charity Stagetext found that in the 18-25 age group, four out of five use subtitles all or part of the time, despite having fewer hearing problems than older generations. By contrast, less than a quarter of those aged between 56 and 75 said they watch with captions on.

Explanations for this sudden surge in read-watching among young people are many and varied. Ranging from US audiences increasingly watching British shows with impenetrable-to-their-ears regional accents, such as Peaky Blinders or Derry Girls, to the frequent complaint that modern dramatic actors – who aim for realism over perfect diction but land squarely at “incoherent murmuring” – are just too mumbly for even perfect ears to follow without assistance.


I suspect American viewers had to have Derry Girls on subtitles, and even then probably struggled. (“Catch yourself on!”) But the key point is that bit towards the end: the incoherent murmuring and mumbling. It’s the audio equivalent of Game Of Thrones’s battles carried out at night under poor lighting: bloody hard to figure out what’s going on.
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• 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?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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