Start Up No.1520: a feminist future internet?, Ted Chiang on AI v capitalism, Facebook sees huge data leak, Waymo CEO goes, and more


In 1945, scientists began dangerous lab tests on the “demon core” – which would have been the third atom bomb. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Michals on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Subcritical. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why a more feminist internet would be better for everyone • MIT Technology Review

Charlotte Jee:

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So what would a “feminist internet” look like? 

There’s no single vision or approved definition. The closest thing the movement has to a set of commandments are 17 principles published in 2016 by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a sort of United Nations for online activist groups. It has 57 organizational members who campaign on everything from climate change to labor rights to gender equality. The principles were the outcome of three days of open, unstructured talks between nearly 100 feminists in 2014, plus additional workshops with activists, digital rights specialists, and feminist academics. 

Many of the principles relate to redressing the vast power imbalance between tech companies and ordinary people. Feminism is obviously about equality between men and women, but in essence it is about power—who gets to wield it, and who gets exploited. Building a feminist internet, then, is in part about redistributing that power away from Big Tech and into the hands of individuals—especially women, who have historically had less of a say. 

The principles state that a feminist internet would be less hierarchical. More cooperative. More democratic. More consensual. More customizable and suited to individual needs, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model.

For example, the online economy would be less reliant on scooping up our data and using it to sell advertising. It would do more to address hatred and harassment online, while preserving freedom of expression. It would protect people’s privacy and right to anonymity. These are all issues that affect every internet user, but the consequences are often greater for women when things go awry. 

To live up to these principles, companies would have to give more control and decision-making power to users. This would mean not only that individuals would be able to adjust things like our security and privacy settings (with the strongest privacy as the default), but that we could act collectively—by proposing and voting on new features, for example. Widespread harassment would not be seen as a tolerable price women have to pay, but as an unacceptable sign of failure.

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Ted Chiang: fears of technology are fears of capitalism • kottke

Chiang, the SF writer whose short “Story of Your Life” was turned into the fantastic film Arrival, appeared on the Ezra Klein podcast recently:

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I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off.

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Here’s the whole podcast. If you haven’t read any of Chiang’s stories, you utterly should.
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Supreme Court’s pro-Facebook ruling could unleash “flood” of robocalls • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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A Supreme Court ruling today in favor of Facebook limits the reach of a 1991 US law that bans certain kinds of robocalls and texts. The court found that the anti-robocall law only applies to systems that have the ability to generate random or sequential phone numbers. Systems that lack that capability are thus not considered autodialers under the law, even if they can store numbers and send calls and texts automatically.

Advocates say the ruling will make it harder to block automated calls and texts, potentially unleashing a “flood” of new robocalls.

The ruling “nullifies one of the most important protections against unwanted robocalls: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s (TCPA) prohibition against autodialed calls and texts to cellphones without the called party’s consent,” said the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), which had filed a brief in the case.

“Companies will use autodialers that are not covered by the Supreme Court’s narrow definition to flood our cellphones with even more unwanted robocalls and automated texts,” said Margot Saunders, the group’s senior counsel. The court ruling “interpreted the statute’s definition of autodialer so narrowly that it applies to few or none of the autodialers in use today,” the NCLC also said.

The Facebook case was decided over a question of grammar, as the court had to decide exactly what Congress meant in a key section of the TCPA. The law imposes restrictions on calls made with an “automatic telephone dialing system” and defines that term as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.”

What that sentence means was at the heart of the case that Noah Duguid filed against Facebook.

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Bizarrely, Duguid didn’t even have a Facebook account. That was the origin of the problem.

Other Facebook news: 533 million users’ mobile number, Facebook ID, name, gender, location, relationship status, occupation, date of birth, and email addresses have leaked onto hacker forums. They include Zuckerberg’s details, and that of other Facebook founders. Inevitable, really.
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Apple Arcade just got a huge update of new games, including some mobile classics • The Verge

Andrew Webster:

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Apple’s gaming subscription service just got a massive influx of new titles. The headliner is Fantasian — the latest release from the creator of Final Fantasy — which is joined by other titles like new versions of NBA 2K and The Oregon Trail, and World of Demons from PlatinumGames. As part of the update, the service is getting two new categories of games: Apple calls them “Timeless Classics” and “App Store Greats.”

For the greats, Apple is adding a number of high-profile mobile hits to the service, including Threes, Monument Valley, Mini Metro, and a remaster of Cut the Rope. Timeless classics, meanwhile, refers to iconic games like backgammon, solitaire, and Zach Gage’s recent takes on chess and sudoku. While most Arcade games are playable across Apple TV, Mac, and iOS, these new categories will only work on iPhone and iPad. The update adds more than 30 titles to the service, bringing the entire library to more than 180.

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What’s probably attractive to people is not the “new” titles, but the old ones. Who wants to try out a service that has loads of games of unknown quality? Whereas you know just where you are with old favourites.
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Waymo CEO John Krafcik steps down • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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John Krafcik, the former auto industry exec who took over Google’s self-driving car project in 2015, is stepping down as CEO of Waymo. Waymo, which spun off as a separate Alphabet subsidiary in 2016, accomplished a lot during Krafcik’s 5.5-year tenure. Still, Krafcik failed to meet the lofty expectations he faced when he took the helm.

Until 2015, the Google self-driving car project was led by engineer Chris Urmson. At that point, Google CEO Larry Page believed the technology was nearly ready for commercialization, so he hired a car guy—Krafcik—to manage the practicalities of turning the technology into a shipping product.

Krafcik spent his first few years negotiating partnerships with automakers. Talks over a potential partnership with Ford fell apart in early 2016. Krafcik then inked a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to buy 100 hybrid Pacifica Minivans—a deal that was later expanded to 500 minivans.

In early 2018, Waymo announced plans to buy “up to” 20,000 Jaguar I-PACE electric cars and “up to” 62,000 more Pacificas. Around the same time, Waymo said it planned to launch a driverless commercial taxi service before the end of 2018.

In short, Waymo expected its self-driving taxi service to be a big business by around now.

…the pace of growth seems glacial compared to the expectations the company set a few years ago. A Waymo spokeswoman told Ars that the company’s fleet has “well over 600 vehicles across all of our locations.” Six hundred vehicles is fewer than 1% of the 82,000 vehicles Waymo ordered three years ago.

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Hard not to see this as an admission of failure. Has Google’s “Other Projects” done anything that has lasted?
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The digital news industry was built on lies • The Atlantic

Josh Marshall:

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Have you ever wondered why digital ads, which were fairly sedate 15 years ago, suddenly started taking over your screen or demanding your attention with hideous images? Or why publications let advertisers track you across the web? It’s simple: The chronic oversupply of publications chasing a fixed number of ad dollars has required publishers to continually charge less for ads that demand more of readers. For the biggest players, which scaled up quickly to dominate digital media, there was—at first—enough money to go around. But most digital publications were funded on the premise that scale would eventually lead to dominance and stability, much as it had with technology firms. News publishing, however, doesn’t work that way.

By the middle of the 2010s, the highfliers were still flying high, but their success was mostly an illusion. They were sustained by ongoing infusions of equity investment, all in the hunt for eventual dominance and lock-in. And this is where the real darlings of venture-capital investing, the emerging platform monopolies, came into the picture decisively. Scaling up quickly and wiping out competitors didn’t work in the news business, but it allowed platforms such as Google and Facebook to take control of the advertising industry, and they took an ever-mounting share of its profits for themselves.

Platforms dissolved the privileged space that publishers held in the advertising economy, sending ad revenues at digital publications into sharp decline. Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot. Publications that had spent lavishly to build up scale were suddenly whipsawed by catastrophic declines in their two primary sources of money.

Many of the jobs that have disappeared over the past three or four years never had business models that could sustain them—at least not in the old-fashioned sense of bringing in more revenue than they cost. These hires were made in pursuit of a theory of publishing economics that was simply wrong. The journalists themselves, in most cases, weren’t read into this part of the equation.

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Marshall runs a site with an optional subscription; he’s done so for years. And it works.
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The chilling story of the ‘Demon Core’ and the scientists who became its victims • Science Alert

Peter Dockrill:

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After Nagasaki proved Hiroshima was no fluke, Japan promptly surrendered on August 15, with Japanese radio broadcasting a recorded speech of Emperor Hirohito conceding to the Allies’ demands.

As it turns out, this was the first time the Japanese public at large had ever heard one of their emperors’ voices, but for scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico – aka Project Y – the event had a more pressing significance.

It meant the functional heart of the third atom bomb they’d been working on – a 6.2-kilogram (13.7-pound) sphere of refined plutonium and gallium – wouldn’t be needed for the war effort after all.

If the conflict had still been raging, as it had for almost five straight years, this plutonium core would have been fitted into a second Fat Man assembly and detonated above another unsuspecting Japanese city just four days later.

As it was, fate issued those souls a reprieve, and the Los Alamos device – code-named ‘Rufus’ at this point – would be retained at the facility for further testing.

It was during these tests that the leftover nuke, which ultimately became known as the demon core, earned that name.

The first accident happened less than a week after Japan’s surrender, and only two days after the date of the demon core’s cancelled bombing run.

That mission may have never launched, but the demon core, stranded at Los Alamos, still found an opportunity to kill.

The Los Alamos scientists knew well the risks of what they were doing when they conducted criticality experiments with it – a means of measuring the threshold at which the plutonium would become supercritical, the point where a nuclear chain reaction would unleash a blast of deadly radiation.

The trick performed by scientists in the Manhattan Project – of which the Los Alamos Lab was a part – was finding how just how far you could go before that dangerous reaction was triggered.

They even had an informal nickname for the high-risk experiments, one which hinted at the perils of what they did. They called it “tickling the dragon’s tail”, knowing that if they had the misfortune to rouse the angry beast, they would be burned.

And that’s exactly what happened to Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian.

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Since last week there was a discussion about the second atomic bomb.. I didn’t know they had a third ready. (Though of course they would, on reflection.) Turns out there was nearly a third blast. Twice.
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How Trump steered supporters into unwitting donations • The New York Times

Shane Goldmacher:

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hat the Blatts believed was duplicity was actually an intentional scheme to boost revenues by the Trump campaign and the for-profit company that processed its online donations, WinRed. Facing a cash crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the campaign had begun last September to set up recurring donations by default for online donors, for every week until the election.

Contributors had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually uncheck a box to opt out.

As the election neared, the Trump team made that disclaimer increasingly opaque, an investigation by The New York Times showed. It introduced a second prechecked box, known internally as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution. Eventually its solicitations featured lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.

The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists — retirees, military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives. Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

“Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It recurred seven more times — adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”

The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts issued more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3m to online donors. All campaigns make refunds for various reasons, including to people who give more than the legal limit. But the sum the Trump operation refunded dwarfed that of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6m in that time.

The recurring donations swelled Mr. Trump’s treasury in September and October, just as his finances were deteriorating. He was then able to use tens of millions of dollars he raised after the election, under the guise of fighting his unfounded fraud claims, to help cover the refunds he owed.

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The level of grift is such an incredible, lasting stain on America. It’s hard to know what will ever wash it out.
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Novel HIV vaccine approach shows promise in “landmark” trial • European Pharmaceutical Review

Hannah Balfour:

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A novel vaccine approach for the prevention of HIV has shown promise in Phase I trials, reported IAVI and Scripps Research. According to the organisations, the vaccine successfully stimulated the production of the rare immune cells needed to generate antibodies against HIV in 97% of participants.

The vaccine is being developed to act as an immune primer, to trigger the activation of naïve B cells via a process called germline-targeting, as the first stage in a multi-step vaccine regimen to elicit the production of many different types of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). Stimulating the production of bnAbs has been pursued as a holy grail in HIV for decades. It is hoped that these specialised blood proteins could attach to HIV surface proteins called spikes, which allow the virus to enter human cells, and disable them via a difficult-to-access regions that does not vary much from strain to strain.

…The company said this study sets the stage for additional clinical trials that will seek to refine and extend the approach, with the long-term goal of creating a safe and effective HIV vaccine. As a next step, the collaborators are partnering with the biotechnology company Moderna to develop and test an mRNA-based vaccine that harnesses the approach to produce the same beneficial immune cells. According to the team, using mRNA technology could significantly accelerate the pace of HIV vaccine development, as it did with vaccines for COVID-19.

…The scientists believe the same approach could also be applied to vaccines for other challenging pathogens such as influenza, dengue, Zika, hepatitis C and malaria.

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Clouds, silver linings.

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It looks like a Vespa, rides like a Vespa, but doesn’t smell like a Vespa • The New York Times

Nick Czap on a British entrepreneur who created a kit that could (reversibly) turn polluting Vespas into electric Vespas to conform with low-emission rules which original Vespas couldn’t:

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Three years later, Retrospective Scooters sells kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Costing £3,445 (about $4,750), each includes a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can push a scooter to a top speed of 50 miles an hour and go 30 to 35 miles on a charge.

Certain scooters can accommodate two or three batteries. A Lambretta GP for instance, packed with three lithium-ion units, can go 120 miles between charges. Mr. McCart, though, thinks a single battery is sufficient.

“Let’s not forget what scooters were invented for — traveling in a 20-to-30-mile radius of where you lived,” he said.

To date, Mr. McCart has sold 60 kits — 24 in Britain (20 of them installed at his shop), and 36 to customers overseas, mostly, and somewhat surprisingly to Mr. McCart, in the United States.

“I expected more to go into Europe,” he said, “but there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy and official inspections of any vehicle alterations, so there’s really no incentive for Europeans to buy our kit with all that up against them.”

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What I find interesting here is the distance. 30 miles per charge doesn’t sound much, but if you just do two trips per day, you’ll struggle to go that far. I had been idly wondering the other day about whether there are electric motorbikes as there are cars. Clearly, yes. (Via John Naughton.)
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NFTs were supposed to protect artists. They don’t • The Atlantic

Anil Dash was the technical co-creator (with an artist) of the NFT idea in 2014:

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the NFT prototype we created in a one-night hackathon had some shortcomings. You couldn’t store the actual digital artwork in a blockchain; because of technical limits, records in most blockchains are too small to hold an entire image. Many people suggested that rather than trying to shoehorn the whole artwork into the blockchain, one could just include the web address of an image, or perhaps a mathematical compression of the work, and use it to reference the artwork elsewhere.

We took that shortcut because we were running out of time. Seven years later, all of today’s popular NFT platforms still use the same shortcut. This means that when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.

But the situation gets worse.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1520: a feminist future internet?, Ted Chiang on AI v capitalism, Facebook sees huge data leak, Waymo CEO goes, and more

  1. Re: The digital news industry was built on lies • The Atlantic

    The biggest misunderstanding seems to me the premise that a ‘digital ad’ is the same as an ‘advertisment’. It is not: it’s Direct Marketing. Why would a business need to advertise if they can deal with a costumer directly?

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