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Speed and American elections

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PHOTO: STEPHANIE MITCHELL/HARVARD UNIVERSITY

“As you love your country, fly to your polls,” the Gazette of the United States urged voters in 1800, in a presidential election that pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams. But voters hardly raced to the polls that year: Balloting began in March and ended in November and the winner was declared only weeks before inauguration. In the centuries since, both voting and counting in the United States have gotten faster, if not always more fair, and this year, the communication of results long before they can possibly be known threatens to undermine not only the election but democracy itself.

Republicans have raised alarms about old-fashioned, well-regulated technologies: the paper ballot and the post office. But the real danger this election comes from new-fangled, unregulated social media companies. “What’s the Plan if Trump Tweets that He’s Won Re-election?” The New York Times asked last month. Twitter plans to slow down communications on its platform beginning 20 October. That may be too little, too late.

The push for speed came, first, from newspapers. In 1852, The New York Times promised that a new technology of communication, the telegraph, would “enable the Press of the entire country to announce the result of the national election on the morning after the closing of the polls.” But as late as 1896, newspapers were still using homing pigeons to collect returns although, by 1904, electricity allowed big-city newspapers headquartered in tall buildings to speed results to the public by way of lights that could be seen for miles (that’s what’s meant by a “news flash”): Steady light to the west meant a Democratic victory; steady light to the east a Republican one.

The emergence of radio in the 1920s and modern polling in the 1930s made election reporting more frantic and, equally, more prone to error. In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune famously went to press with the dead-wrong headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. But the real turn came in 1952 when CBS Television News brought in a UNIVAC computer to predict the outcome of the contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. With the introduction of “giant electronic brains” into election-night television coverage, Americans came to expect to learn of the outcome of a presidential election before turning in for the night.

In 1960, all three television networks used computers to make projections in the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, which proved to be one of the closest elections in American history. On CBS, an IBM 7090 predicted a Kennedy victory at 8:12 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, while polls remained open in much of the country. Republicans pushed for a recount; Nixon decided to concede. Afterward, IBM published a promotional brochure called “The Fastest Reported Election,” boasting, “For waiting millions on election night, the computer cut down the time of waiting.” Newspapers soon began commissioning computers, too. In 1962, The New York Times hired the Simulmatics Corporation, a pioneering predictive analytics company. Simulmatics promised that it could help the newspaper report the results of the mid-term elections in “real time,” a term that had been coined by the U.S. Department of Defense, at the height of the Cold War, to explain how computers predicted, by way of simulation, the path and velocity of missiles.

Ballots aren’t bombs. Honestly, what’s the hurry? Haste is not in the public interest. It has also not infrequently undermined the democratic process. In 1980, NBC Television News called Ronald Reagan the presidential winner at 8:15 p.m. At 10 p.m., Jimmy Carter conceded. Polls hadn’t closed yet in the West, and down-ticket Democrats who lost their races blamed Carter. But, really, NBC was to blame. As a consequence, television networks adopted new rules, barring the calling of elections before the polls close. In 2000, every television network, relying on computer projections, called the presidential election for George W. Bush over Al Gore, leading Gore to concede, prematurely. Again, television networks established new rules.

Media companies fix their mistakes. Journalists work in the public interest. “We are not a media company,” Mark Zuckerberg insisted after the 2016 election, deflecting blame. For 2020, Facebook has established a Voting Information Center; one of its purposes, Zuckerberg says, is “to prepare people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results.” That might work. Or, it might not. Either way, after the 3 November election, control of the nation’s election reporting needs to be wrested out of Zuckerberg’s clutches and returned to journalists.

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Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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