Start Up No.1581: Facebook wins FTC antitrust trial, what’s after AMP?, ‘SafeDollar’ gets hacked to $0, a political wife writes, and more


A group of (American) biohackers reckon they can make insulin in quantity, cheaply. But can they really? CC-licensed photo by Sprogz on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Hot in here? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why biologists like Carl Bergstrom are warning that social media is a risk to humanity • Vox

Shirin Ghaffary:

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Social media has drastically restructured the way we communicate in an incredibly short period of time. We can discover, “Like,” click on, and share information faster than ever before, guided by algorithms most of us don’t quite understand.

And while some social scientists, journalists, and activists have been raising concerns about how this is affecting our democracy, mental health, and relationships, we haven’t seen biologists and ecologists weighing in as much.

That’s changed with a new paper published in the prestigious science journal PNAS earlier this month, titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior.”

Seventeen researchers who specialize in widely different fields, from climate science to philosophy, make the case that academics should treat the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society as a “crisis discipline.” A crisis discipline is a field in which scientists across different fields work quickly to address an urgent societal problem — like how conservation biology tries to protect endangered species or climate science research aims to stop global warming.

The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress. For example, the paper says that tech companies have “fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation” that has hindered widespread acceptance of masks and vaccines. The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”

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There’s an interview with Carl Bergstrom, who is a smart presence on Twitter. They’ve independently pointed to the same things that I do in Social Warming.

Or you can look at the latest XKCD.
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Good news: Google no longer requires publishers to use the AMP format. Bad news: what replaces it might be worse • The Register

Scott Gilbertson:

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Programmers hate HTML. It’s messy, vague, imprecise, and user agents must deal with that, which is a huge pain for programmers. It’s a valid criticism in many ways, but it also misses the fact that these are exactly the qualities that have enabled millions of people to use HTML. It’s messy, vague, imprecise, and perfect for creating the web. What’s more, it is developed very slowly, by many people, representing many points of view, many needs. AMP is a set of programming guidelines shoved down your throat by Google.

The third problem with AMP is that it disrupts the web’s decentralised design. This is really an outgrowth of the two things, but important in its own right when we start considering Google AMP’s ostensible replacement, “Core Web Vitals.”

Decentralisation means that no one entity controls web content. With AMP, Google gets total control of the content. Google hosts it, and Google alone knows who visits it.

The final point is either ironic or, if you lean towards conspiracy, proof that Google knows exactly what it’s doing here – namely, locking up content where Google can control it and mine users for data. Are you ready for it? Google AMP pages aren’t any faster than regular HTML pages. Worse, they’re often slower. Nope, not kidding. When AMP pages are faster, it’s because Google is pre-loading them, which Google could do for any page on the web.

Still, getting a spot in the Top News carousel of Google News is a powerful carrot, and it worked. Nearly every major publisher on the web (including this one) publishes AMP versions of their pages.

Now AMP is no longer required of publishers, those of us shouting about how this is bad can just shut up now, right?

Unfortunately, there are problems with AMP’s replacement as well. And those problems go right back to what was wrong with AMP in the first place: Google is in charge of it.

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An announcement about the comment section • In the Pipeline: Science Magazine

Derek Lowe:

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Not too many people come in blazing with ad hominem attacks about someone else’s opinions on mass spectrometry, cellular counterscreening assays, or the other sorts of things that have made up the bulk of the postings here.

The pandemic changed that. The readership here increased, but that’s not the main problem by itself. I’m sure that many people will drift off – or already have started drifting off – as this site stops becoming a daily stop for coronavirus news and commentary. Some will stay around, and I’m happy to have them. But – and you know where this is going – there have also been several commentators here who have for some time been abusing this site’s hospitality. I have mentioned to these people that they don’t have to be here, that starting constant wrangling arguments about vaccines, pandemic statistics, etc. in the comments section does not have to be a regular feature of their day. No one’s taken the hint. I’ve also been hoping that these folks would just go away on their own, as fewer and fewer coronavirus posts get written, but that’s not happening very smoothly, either. I will still be writing about the pandemic from time to time, naturally, which sets things off again. And even the posts that aren’t on that topic tend to get their comments sections diverted all too quickly.

So after much thought, here’s what’s going to happen. Longtime readers will know that I have kept a very light hand on the comments here over the years, but starting today I will be deleting whatever I feel are tendentious comments meant to keep the coronavirus arguments going. I’ve actually canned a good number of comments over the last few months that are full of outright misinformation, and I’m going to lower my cutoff for that stuff, too. Complaints about censorship, freedom of expression, and so on will be allowed to stay up on this post, but only this one. I’ll be deleting those as well if they show up in the comments to other posts, and after an interval the comments to this post will be closed as well. Update: my job will be easier if people refrain from responding to obvious troll comments before I can get to them.

To the people who have been abusing the system: you are of course free to have your own opinions, and you are free to express them on your own site or anywhere else that will have you, but this is a warning notice. Do what you like but don’t do it here.

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As you’d expect. It’s Gresham’s Law applied to comments, as ever.
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SafeDollar ‘stablecoin’ drops to $0 following $248,000 DeFi exploit on Polygon

Liam Frost:

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The price of SafeDollar (SDO), an algorithmic decentralized finance (DeFi) stablecoin based on the Polygon (MATIC) blockchain, has plummeted to literally zero as a result of what appears to be an exploit today.

While details are yet scarce, block explorer Polygonscan shows that 202,000 USDC and 46,000 USDT stablecoins were suddenly drained from SDO’s smart contract today—worth around $248,000 in total.

As a result, SafeDollar’s price—which was supposed to always be equal to $1 since it’s a stablecoin—has plummeted to zero, according to the protocol’s own website.

Stablecoins are a special type of cryptocurrency tokens that are pegged to certain fiat currencies, usually the US dollar. They are designed to always retain the value of their corresponding assets and—in theory—should always be tradeable or redeemable in a one-to-one ratio.

In SafeDollar’s case, the stablecoin uses a combination of “unique features of seigniorage, deflation protocol and synthetic assets” as its basis.

The attack was also confirmed in a Telegram channel called “SafeDollar Announcements” today, with developers urging users to stop all operations with SDO and ostensibly promising to come up with a compensation plan in the future.

“SafeDollar has been under attack. We have paused activities on SafeDollar and investigating the matter. IMPORTANT: PLEASE STOP ALL TRADING RELATED TO $SDO. We will announce the post-mortem after the investigation done with compensation plan for Liquidity Providers,” said the announcement.

Notably, this is not even the first time SDO was exploited. Just a week ago, SafeDollar developers published a “Postmortem Analysis” about an exploit that resulted in the loss of the protocol’s 9,959 SDS tokens—worth around $95,000 at the time.

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Still, at least they can’t lose any more actual money through being exploited again. “Smart contracts” seem to be anything but.
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Biohackers figure out how to make insulin 98% cheaper • Freethink

Jack Berning on attempts to route around the US’s crazy pricing for insulin:

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A group of dedicated biohackers believes that making insulin more accessible requires taking the monopoly away from the big three pharmaceutical companies that produce it. So they’ve started the Open Insulin Foundation, a non-profit with plans to develop the world’s first open-source insulin production model.

The team consists of dozens of volunteers led by founder Anthony DiFranco, a type I diabetic. They’re now able to produce the [genetically engineered] microorganisms needed for insulin with a bioreactor. They’re also working to develop equipment that can purify the proteins produced by the bioreactor.

With open-source hardware equivalent to proprietary bioreactors, the foundation hopes to give labs across the world access to the equipment needed to produce the insulin protein on a small scale.

“Very few people really have any concrete ideas about how to solve these problems,” says DiFranco. “At the level of the technical fundamentals, it’s clear that we can do this. And if we can, we must.”

But the process hasn’t been easy. For six years, DiFranco’s team has attempted to reverse-engineer the production of insulin with volunteer-led experiments at their community labs in cities like Oakland, Baltimore, and Sunnyvale, CA.

Today, they’re beginning to see hopeful signs of a major breakthrough — like getting an FDA-approved protocol for making injectables. The team estimates that costs will be 98% cheaper than big pharma, reaching prices as low as $5-15 per vial. The best part? They’re willing to give away their plans for how to make insulin for free.

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Not really much use, unless someone has their own bioreactor, and that’s more likely to go wrong than right. It’s really not like brewing beer.

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Judge dismisses FTC and state antitrust complaints against Facebook • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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The FTC sued the company last December, alongside attorneys general from 48 states, arguing that Facebook engaged engaged in a systematic strategy to eliminate threats to its monopoly, including the 2012 and 2014 acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, respectively, which the FTC previously cleared. 

However, the court ruled Monday said the FTC failed to prove its main contention, and the cornerstone of the case: That Facebook holds monopoly power in the US personal social networking market.

“Although the Court does not agree with all of Facebook’s contentions here, it ultimately concurs that the agency’s Complaint is legally insufficient and must therefore be dismissed,” reads the filing from US District Court for the District of Columbia. “The FTC has failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish a necessary element of all of its Section 2 claims – namely, that Facebook has monopoly power in the market for Personal Social Networking (PSN) Services.”

The court found the FTC did not provide enough detailed data to prove Facebook has market power in the loosely defined market for personal social networking services.

“The Complaint is undoubtedly light on specific factual allegations regarding consumer-switching preferences,” the court wrote. “These allegations – which do not even provide an estimated actual figure or range for Facebook’s market share at any point over the past ten years – ultimately fall short of plausibly establishing that Facebook holds market power.”

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That really is a colossal failure on the FTC’s part. “Wait, I thought you were putting in the numbers in the introduction that would establish market dominance!” Could have just used the Pew Internet page on it. (69% of American adults use Facebook. Of those, 70% (or 48% of all adults) say they use it daily.

Possibly related: Facebook’s market capitalisation hit $1 trillion post-judgement.
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The Big Tech business model poses a threat to democracy • Global Witness

The team at Global Witness decided to see what they could do with political ads targeted across Northern Ireland’s flammable social divide:

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We looked at the potential for stoking divisions and inciting violence along sectarian (Protestant/Catholic) lines in Northern Ireland. When we were devising these ads, tensions in Northern Ireland were increasing, making it a good context in which to test the extent to which Facebook would allow ads that are targeted in a polarising way. 

In fact, not long after Facebook accepted our ads, violence broke out on the streets with masked youths rioting and a bus hijacked and set on fire. We’re not suggesting that religiously-targeted ads contributed to these tensions; we’re demonstrating the harm that could be caused when political ads are targeted to narrow groups. This sort of material has the potential to further inflame tensions and lead to real-world violence, not just in Northern Ireland, but anywhere our differences can be exploited by those who wish to divide us. 

Facebook says that during its ad review process one of the things it checks is how an ad is targeted. Yet they allowed us to target inflammatory political ads across the sectarian divide by: 

• Targeting people in Northern Ireland that Facebook has profiled as having an interest in Protestantism
• Targeting people in Northern Ireland that Facebook has profiled as having an interest in the Catholic Church
• Targeting people living on the predominantly Catholic Falls Road side of the peace wall in west Belfast by using postcode targeting
• Targeting people living on the predominantly Protestant Shankill Road side of the peace wall in west Belfast by using postcode targeting

In the wrong hands, there’s a lot of damage that can be done by ads targeted in this kind of way – they’re perfect for inflaming tensions.

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Again, the problem with Facebook is that it’s just not sensitive enough to the way its platform can be misused. Its argument for allowing political ads is that it lets small politicians compete with big ones. But in countries which limit election spending more seriously than the US, the limit is easily reached with standard media.
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Windows 11 will create heaps of needless trash • NBailey

Noah Bailey:

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The latest announcements for Windows 11 have revealed that the next version of the Windows operating system will have very stringent hardware requirements. Some of them are, in my opinion, quite reasonable. For example, they’re finally dropping support for 32 bit X86 and legacy BIOS boot. These make sense, because almost every PC manufactured since 2011 has supported X64 and UEFI. It also sheds a substantial amount of technical debt and cruft, and simplifies the system slightly. Those are good things, and make sense from a technical perspective.

Even the very controversial TPM requirement could maybe make sense. If Microsoft truly believes that encrypting your drive is going to stop Moldovan teenagers from hitting your PC with ransomware, maybe a TPM is the solution. After all, security is all about feelings rather than safety. If “encryption at rest” makes consumers feel at ease, so be it.

Alas, the truly problematic requirement for Windows 11 is that it will create an unbelievable amount of electronic waste because of its arbitrary CPU specs.

A modest Intel Skylake laptop from 2016 meets all the core requirements. It is 64 bit, supports UEFI, and even contains a hardware TPM 2.0 module on board. Practically nothing has changed in five years when it comes to PCs and laptops, aside from power consumption and battery life. And if Microsoft gets their way, that machine is going straight in the trash.

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It would be useful to see some sort of analysis of what proportion of PCs now in use will be able to run this. Though of course, they’ll still run Windows 10 just fine, and that will be supported with security patches etc until at least 2025.
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An algorithm that predicts deadly infections is often flawed • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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A complication of infection known as sepsis is the number one killer in US hospitals. So it’s not surprising that more than 100 health systems use an early warning system offered by Epic Systems, the dominant provider of US electronic health records. The system throws up alerts based on a proprietary formula tirelessly watching for signs of the condition in a patient’s test results.

But a new study using data from nearly 30,000 patients in University of Michigan hospitals suggests Epic’s system performs poorly. The authors say it missed two-thirds of sepsis cases, rarely found cases medical staff did not notice, and frequently issued false alarms.

Karandeep Singh, an assistant professor at University of Michigan who led the study, says the findings illustrate a broader problem with the proprietary algorithms increasingly used in health care. “They’re very widely used, and yet there’s very little published on these models,” Singh says. “To me that’s shocking.”

The study was published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine. An Epic spokesperson disputed the study’s conclusions, saying the company’s system has “helped clinicians save thousands of lives.”

Epic’s is not the first widely used health algorithm to trigger concerns that technology supposed to improve health care is not delivering, or even actively harmful.

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The problem with the political wife is she knows you’re not Master of the Universe • Daily Mail Online

Sarah Vine (who is the wife of disappointed Tory leadership hopeful and current Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove):

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[Samantha Cameron] made sure [PM and husband David] cooked, took care of the children, did his fair share. She never allowed the job to consume him, and she certainly never allowed it to consume her. And when she had had enough of living in the fishbowl, they left.

Yes, he resigned over Brexit but in truth the decision to leave No 10 had already been made. And it was, in large part, hers.

Of course, there are many who would argue that Cameron’s ability to switch off – his famous ‘chillaxing’ – made him a less effective politician, and I’m sure in some ways they would be right. But it also depends on what you want from a leader: someone who prioritises power at all costs – or someone who has a wider set of interests.

The other problem with top-level politics is that, inevitably, you start to believe your own hype.

Ministers are surrounded by people telling them how brilliant they are. Their departments treat them like feudal barons. Their every whim is treated as law. No one ever says No to them. They certainly don’t get asked to unload the dishwasher. And after a while, it changes them. It becomes increasingly difficult for anything to compete with the adrenaline of power.

How can anyone be expected to put the bins out when they’ve just got home from a day saving the world? Domestic life can seem dull and dispiriting by comparison. And so they begin to avoid it. So much easier to stay late or say Yes to a fundraiser, or show your support at a fellow MP’s drinks party.

Westminster is a place of myriad distractions for the politician seeking refuge from his or her home life.

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I found this piece, and its analysis of how a divide grows between the non-political wife and the very political husband, insightful for what it tells us about Matt Hancock – who last Thursday told his wife of 15 years (and three children) he was leaving her. He forbade the children from using social media. I wonder if they’ll stick to that.
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You can order Social Warming, my new book.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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