Start Up No.1929: how Facebook tried to dial back on politics, how Jordan led to the iPlayer, Hololens hors de combat, and more


A guitar solo that only existed on the 8-track version of Pink Floyd’s Animals and which joins the end to the beginning has been rediscovered. CC-licensed photo by Loco Steve on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not a prince. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook wanted out of politics. It was messier than anyone expected • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz, Keach Hagey and Emily Glazer:

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In late 2021, tired of endless claims about political bias and censorship, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Meta’s board pushed for the company to go beyond incremental adjustments, according to people familiar with the discussions. Presented with a range of options, Mr. Zuckerberg and the board chose the most drastic, instructing the company to demote posts on “sensitive” topics as much as possible in the newsfeed that greets users when they open the app—an initiative that hasn’t previously been reported.

The plan was in line with calls from some of the company’s harshest critics, who have alleged that Facebook is either politically biased or commercially motivated to amplify hate and controversy. For years, advertisers and investors have pressed the company to clean up its messy role in politics, according to people familiar with those discussions.

It became apparent, though, that the plan to mute politics would have unintended consequences, according to internal research and people familiar with the project.

The result was that views of content from what Facebook deems “high quality news publishers” such as Fox News and CNN fell more than material from outlets users considered less trustworthy. User complaints about misinformation climbed, and charitable donations via the company’s fundraiser product through Facebook fell in the first half of 2022. And perhaps most important, users didn’t like it.

One internal analysis concluded that Facebook could achieve some of its goals by heavily demoting civic content—coverage of political, community and social issues—in the newsfeed, but it would be at “a high and inefficient cost.”

At the end of June, Mr. Zuckerberg pulled the plug on the most extreme plan. Unable to suppress political controversy through blunt force, Facebook has fallen back on more gradual changes to how its newsfeed promotes what the company deems “sensitive topics,” such as health and politics.

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Getting people riled up is great for business, but you have to rile them in the right way. (The link should give you free access, if you don’t subscribe to the WSJ.)
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‘We’re not leaving this bar until we’ve come up with such a great idea that I can’t sack you” • Medium

Matt Locke transcribed a talk by Tony Ageh, who you’ll recall was one of the people on that plane to San Francisco and Wired earlier this week. Here, it’s a few years later:

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When I first joined the BBC, I had a very interesting job, I was head of search, listings and core websites. I also had, in my responsibility, two other parts of bbc.co.uk — BBC3 and BBC4’s websites. I didn’t have any control over them, I was just to blame if they went wrong.

BBC3’s website went wrong one day. We had a programme on about Jordan. That’s the glamour model, not the country. The editor of the BBC3 website put together a nice little micro-site, which had nice pictures of Jordan — that’s the model, not the country — in various states of undress. It was very embarrassing, and the Evening Standard phoned up and said, ‘Have you gone a bit soft porn, BBC?’ They phoned Jana Bennett, who was the Director of Television, and she got very angry, and I said that I would take the site down, so I took the site down, and then she said, ‘Great. I’m glad that’s all done. Can you sack the person responsible?’

So I take this guy out, and I say, ‘We have to go drinking tonight,’ and he says, ‘You’re going to sack me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Not necessarily, but we are going to go drinking.’ We go down the stairs to the bar at Bush House, which stays open all night, because that’s where the World Service is, and I said, ‘We’re not leaving this bar until we’ve come up with such a great idea that I can’t sack you, because I’m going to have to tell her tomorrow that you can’t be sacked, because you’ve got the greatest idea the BBC has ever had.’

We sit there and we come up with some of the worst ideas the BBC has ever had. Some real stinkers. We should have written them down, because they would be worth-, anyway, around-, I can’t tell you what time of the morning it is, because it’s very late, and we are really, very, drunk.

We come up with this thing — ‘Suppose you can download’ — this is for BBC3, remember — ‘Three programmes and keep them and watch them whenever you want?’ What’s not to like? We even had a name for it, based on the TiVo. We called it the ThreeVo.

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You know the name of this product now, don’t you? But there’s plenty more to the story. (Thanks to Matt for the link.)
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Revealed: Cambridge chip startup Flusso acquired by Chinese firm • UK Tech News

Robert Scammell and George Simister:

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Cambridge-based semiconductor company Flusso has been wholly acquired by a Chinese entity for £28m, company filings reveal.

Flusso, a University of Cambridge spinout that develops flow sensor technology, announced last August that it had been “jointly acquired” by a “company and global private equity fund”.

The announcement notably omitted the name of the acquirers. However, Companies House documents filed on 6 January show that Shanghai Sierchi Enterprise Management Partnership, a special purpose vehicle, took 100% ownership of Flusso on 11 August 2022.

That same month, Flusso appointed two Chinese nationals based in Shanghai – Dan Zhou and Feiran Shi – as company directors. UKTN was unable to reach Zhou and Shi for comment.

Flusso CEO and co-founder Dr Andrea De Luca told UKTN that Shanghai Sierchi Enterprise Management Partnership is controlled by the private equity firm and company mentioned in the initial announcement.

The two acquirers were not named in the August announcement because the unnamed company is currently going through an initial public offering, De Luca said, and “chooses to not publicise its name so it doesn’t affect the IPO”.

De Luca added that the acquiring company “sells components to many of the world’s top 100 companies”.

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The company’s web page is still up (presently). Will the government try to unwind this, as it did the Welsh semiconductor company?
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Swiss company Climeworks has removed CO2 from air, put it underground • CNBC

Catherine Clifford:

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Swiss company Climeworks announced Thursday that it has successfully taken carbon dioxide out of the air and put it in the ground where it will eventually turn into rock in a process that has been verified by an independent third-party auditor. It the first time a company has successfully taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, put it underground to be locked away permanently and delivered that permanent carbon removal to a paying customer.

The development has been a long time coming. Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher co-founded Climeworks in 2009 as a spinoff of ETH Zürich, the main technical university in Switzerland’s largest city. They have been scaling the technology for direct carbon removal, wherein machines vacuum greenhouse gasses out of the air.

Over the last couple of years, Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify have all bought future carbon removal services from Climeworks in a bid to help kick-start the nascent industry. Now Climeworks is actually removing the carbon dioxide and putting it underground in a process that has been certified by DNV, an independent auditor.

…The cost of carbon dioxide removal and storage for these corporate clients is confidential and depends on what quantity of carbon dioxide the companies want to have removed and over what period of time. But the general price for carbon removal runs to several hundred dollars per ton. Individuals can also pay to Climeworks to remove carbon dioxide to offset their personal emissions.

In addition to getting corporate clients to pay for future removals, Climeworks has raised more than $780 million to scale up from a wide variety of investors including venture capitalist John Doerr and insurance company Swiss Re.

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Wait for it, wait for it…

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In June, Climeworks announced it had begun construction of its second commercial-sized plant in Iceland that will capture and store 36,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide. Even when complete, that will amount to a tiny percentage of the total global emissions of carbon dioxide released into the air each year: In 2021, they hit a record high of 36.3 billion metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency.

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Sooooo.. 0.0001% (rounding up) of annual emissions. I hope that the system is powered by geothermal energy. Otherwise it’s probably generating more CO2 than it’s collecting. I’d love to be more positive about these things, but the phrase “420 parts per million” (the current CO2 atmospheric concentration) means you’ve got to process a million tonnes of air to extract 420 tonnes of CO2 (roughly). It’s a fairly pointless process; far better to capture it at the point where it’s generated, such as power station outputs, where concentrations will be far higher.
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Mexico’s subway drivers depend on WhatsApp to keep the trains running • Rest of World

Daniella Dib:

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“I find unacceptable that train operators are allowed to drive while on their cellphones,” América Gómora, a Mexico City subway rider, tweeted on January 7. Metro drivers’ conduct has come under particular scrutiny after two trains collided that day, leaving one dead and dozens injured. 

Although there’s no evidence so far to suggest conductors using their phones played a role in the crash, many local subway riders took to social media to express concerns that distracted train operators might be putting commuters’ lives at risk. But one former and four current Metro workers told Rest of World that because the system is poorly maintained, drivers depend on their phones to communicate with each other and keep the trains running.

For years now, drivers have said that the Metro system’s faulty automatic pilot program has forced conductors to operate many of the trains manually. To do this, they need to be in close contact to avoid collisions, and workers say the trains’ radio-based communications system is not up to the task. So instead, they often have to use their own cellphones and WhatsApp chats to coordinate with the control center. 

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People improvise: necessity is the mother of invention (and technology adoption). About 15 years ago, people who needed to share files more easily between each other, and locations, and inside and outside their organisation, started using Dropbox. It wasn’t part of the “official” system, but it worked better than any solution their business offered.

This article, though, reminds me of a terrific podcast episode by Tim Harford from his excellent Cautionary Tales series, about a train crash (it’s the second part, called “Blood on the Tracks”) in which he discusses the gap between “work as imagined” (by the rulebooks) and “work as done” (by the workers). The adoption of WhatsApp here fits into that dichotomy perfectly.
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Trump discussed using a nuclear weapon on North Korea in 2017 and blaming it on someone else, book says • NBC News

Rebecca Shabad:

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Behind closed doors in 2017, President Donald Trump discussed the idea of using a nuclear weapon against North Korea and suggested he could blame a US strike against the communist regime on another country, according to a new section of a book that details key events of his administration.

Trump’s alleged comments, reported for the first time in a new afterword to a book by New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt, came as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un escalated, alarming then-White House chief of staff John Kelly.

The new section of “Donald Trump v. the United States,” obtained by NBC News ahead of its publication in paperback Tuesday, offers an extensive examination of Kelly’s life and tenure as Trump’s chief of staff from July 2017 to January 2019. Kelly previously was Trump’s secretary of homeland security. For the account, Schmidt cites in part dozens of interviews on background with former Trump administration officials and others who worked with Kelly. 

Eight days after Kelly arrived at the White House as chief of staff, Trump warned that North Korea would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” When Trump delivered his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if Kim, whom he referred to as “Rocket Man,” continued his military threats. 

…Kelly tried to use reason to explain to Trump why that would not work, Schmidt continues.

“It’d be tough to not have the finger pointed at us,” Kelly told the president, according to the afterword.

Kelly brought the military’s top leaders to the White House to brief Trump about how war between the U.S. and North Korea could easily break out, as well as the enormous consequences of such a conflict. But the argument about how many people could be killed had “no impact on Trump,” Schmidt writes.

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Not sure which is worse: the fool thinking that saying “Big boy done it and ran away” would work, or Kelly being so pusillanimous he didn’t point out that every detail of a missile’s flight would be visible internationally and also that North Korea would launch its own missiles. Unhinged.
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Microsoft combat goggles falter as Congress says no to buying more • Bloomberg

Tony Capaccio:

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Microsoft Corp. won’t be getting more orders for its combat goggles anytime soon after Congress rejected the US Army’s request for $400m to buy as many as 6,900 of them this fiscal year.

The rejection of the request, in the $1.75 trillion government funding bill, reflects concern over field tests of the goggles, which are adapted from Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets. The tests disclosed “mission-affecting physical impairments” including headaches, eyestrain and nausea.
Instead, lawmakers approved the transfer of $40m of those procurement funds to develop a new model of the goggles, Army spokesman David Patterson said in an email. 

Over a decade, the Army projects spending as much as $21.9 billion for as many as 121,000 devices, spares and support services if all options are exercised. It has already ordered the first 5,000 goggles, which will be used for training as the improved model is developed.

Late last month, the Army awarded a $125m “task order” for the new model, labeled version 1.2. That money came from the the previous year’s appropriations.

“This task order will provide improvements based on completed test events” to address “physiological impacts identified during testing, and a lower profile Heads-Up Display with distributed counterweight for improved user interface and comfort,” the service said in a statement.

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Headaches, eyestrain and nausea? Sounds delightful! Can’t imagine why Meta is struggling to get people to adopt headsets like this.
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JP Morgan says startup founder used millions of fake customers to dupe it into an acquisition • Forbes

Alexandra Levine:

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JPMorgan Chase is suing the 30-year-old founder of Frank, a buzzy fintech startup it acquired for $175m, for allegedly lying about its scale and success by creating an enormous list of fake users to entice the financial giant to buy it.

Frank, founded by former CEO Charlie Javice in 2016, offers software aimed at improving the student loan application process for young Americans seeking financial aid. Her lofty goals to build the startup into “an Amazon for higher education” won support from billionaire Marc Rowan, Frank’s lead investor according to Crunchbase, and prominent venture backers including Aleph, Chegg, Reach Capital, Gingerbread Capital and SWAT Equity Partners.

The lawsuit, which was filed late last year in U.S. District Court in Delaware, claims that Javice pitched JP Morgan in 2021 on the “lie” that more than 4 million users had signed up to use Frank’s tools to apply for federal aid. When JP Morgan asked for proof during due diligence, Javice allegedly created an enormous roster of “fake customers – a list of names, addresses, dates of birth, and other personal information for 4.265 million ‘students’ who did not actually exist.” In reality, according to the suit, Frank had fewer than 300,000 customer accounts at that time.

“Javice first pushed back on JPMC’s request, arguing that she could not share her customer list due to privacy concerns,” the complaint continues. “After JPMC insisted, Javice chose to invent several million Frank customer accounts out of whole cloth.” The complaint includes screenshots of presentations Javice gave to JP Morgan illustrating Frank’s growth and claiming it had more than 4 million customers.

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Further to the story, the claim is that Javice approached a university professor, who was asked to generate 4 million fake IDs. (Whether the professor was complicit or thought it was for testing isn’t clear yet, but probably will when the trial comes.)

Not going swimmingly for young women founders just presently.
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Alphabet unit Verily to trim more than 200 jobs • WSJ

Miles Kruppa:

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Verily Life Sciences, a healthcare unit of Alphabet is laying off more than 200 employees as part of a broader reorganization, the first major staff reductions to hit Google’s parent following a wave of layoffs at other technology companies.

The cuts will affect about 15% of roles at Verily, which will discontinue work on a medical software program called Verily Value Suite and several early-stage products, CEO Stephen Gillett said in an email to employees Wednesday. Verily has more than 1,600 employees.

Verily oversees a portfolio of healthcare projects largely focused on applying data and technology to patient treatments, including a virtual diabetes clinic and an online program for connecting research participants to clinical studies. 

…Verily has recently looked to pare back a once sprawling collection of projects spanning insurance to mosquito breeding. Last year, the company hired McKinsey & Co. and Innosight to do consulting work, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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Ah yes, this is the chunk of Alphabet that was going to develop diabetes-detecting contact lenses (then wasn’t) and a Star Trek tricorder (zapped). Sure, it’s good to aim high, but technology involves successive steps, and you can’t walk to the Moon. And rockets are in short supply in medical technology.
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Out of print gems: the Pink Floyd holy grail • The Blind Man Sees All

“Judah”:

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In 1977, the [Pink] Floyd released Animals, the second in a trilogy of albums which toyed with the idea of cyclical music. 1975’s Wish You Were Here was bookended with two halves of an extended song, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and 1979’s The Wall ended with the question fragment “Isn’t this where…” and began with its completion, “…we came in?” Similarly, Animals was bookended by two short acoustic song fragments, “Pigs on the Wing,” parts 1 and 2. Given the nature of the 8-track format, the band decided to record a guitar solo that would connect the two halves of the song and explicitly bring the album back full circle. Floyd associate Snowy White was assigned the task after David Gilmour’s take was accidentally erased, and the resulting “complete” version of “Pigs on the Wing” was included exclusively on British and American pressings of the 8-track tape when the album was released.

As time passed and the 8-track went extinct, though the Floyd remained as popular as ever well on through the beginning of the CD era, this solo slipped out of the discography as the catalog was standardized to reflect the more familiar tracklisting associated with the original LP. As time went by, Snowy White’s solo took on mythic stature among the band’s fanbase, particularly as reissues continued and it became the only commercially unavailable piece of music the band had ever officially released.

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But he has taken the trouble to find an 8-track player and a copy of Animals on 8-track tape, and there indeed is a guitar solo bridging the second and the first. I don’t think you’d easily mistake it for Gilmour, though. Worth a listen if you know the album, but unlikely to change your perspective on it.
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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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