Start Up No.1584: Instagram ‘no longer a photo app’, Robinhood’s reliance on memes and doge, NFTs or money laundering?, and more


In 2019, China suffered a dramatic pork shortage due to swine fever. A new preprint suggests that helped lead to Covid. CC-licensed photo by Robert Hest on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. As long as the pig’s happy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• 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?

Order Social Warming, my new book, and find answers – and more.


Instagram is ‘no longer a photo-sharing app,’ says its head • Engadget

Igor Bonifacic:

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Instagram doesn’t see itself as a platform where people go to share photos anymore. That’s the main takeaway from a series of recent comments made by the head of the company, Adam Mosseri. “We’re no longer a photo-sharing app or a square photo-sharing app,” Mosseri said in a video he posted to his social media accounts this week. According to Mosseri, the main reason for that is that people come to Instagram “to be entertained,” and it’s not the only app that offers that in what is a crowded marketplace.

“Let’s be honest, there’s some really serious competition right now,” Mosseri said. “TikTok is huge, YouTube is even bigger and there are a lot of other upstarts as well.” To stay competitive, Mosseri said Instagram has to embrace that aspect of itself, “and that means change.” One way the app will change is with Instagram handing out more recommendations. Mosseri referenced a test the company kicked off last week that’s seen it intersperse “Suggested Posts” in users’ feeds. He also said Instagram plans to embrace video more broadly, focusing on full-screen and immersive content.

In short, what Mosseri is describing is Instagram becoming more like TikTok. And that’s something we’ve already seen the company try to do with features like Reels.

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TikTok, meanwhile, is getting into YouTube-but-maybe-better territory by offering videos of up to three minutes for anyone. I wonder if that will work as well – a big part of the attraction around TikTok now is the brevity of videos. Longer videos might give the algorithm more to chew on. Or it might dissipate what made it great.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep using Instagram to share photos. Retro, I know.
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Notes on NFTs, the high-art trade, and money laundering • Amy Castor

Amy wrote a piece for Artnet about “how NFTs create new opportunities for bad guys to move money without attribution”, and these are some of her notes:

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• Disclaimer: I know of no conviction yet so I can’t name anyone, but if you look through a pile of NFT transactions, you’ll see stuff that looks very odd and worthy of investigation.

• A lot of NFTs are bought and sold for crazy amounts of money — generally in the form of crypto — and often, we have no idea who the buyers or the sellers are. It’s not clear whether the platforms facilitating these trades know either.

• Earlier this year, two CryptoPunk NFTs sold separately for $7.5 million each in crypto — Punk #7804 and Punk #3100. In both cases, the buyers were known only by their crypto wallet addresses.

• In February, an NFT of Nyan Cat, a cat cartoon with a Pop-tart body, sold for $600,000 — in crypto. Again, the buyer was only known by their wallet address. Those are just a few examples. There are many, many others.

• The most practical way to launder money with NFTs would be via what is called “trade-based money laundering” — deals that appear legit on the face but are meant to hide the flow of ill-gotten gains. All you need are two parties to make that happen.

• Let’s say, I need to receive $3 million worth of dirty crypto. I mint an NFT, establish its value by wash-trading (selling back and forth to myself a few times) and then sell it to my colleague. I then cash out at a banked exchange. If anyone asks where the money came from, I simply tell them, “I sold an NFT!”

• Because regulations haven’t caught up with NFTs, some of the NFT marketplaces are relaxed in their anti-money-laundering and know-your-customer (AML/KYC) practices.

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The suspicion that NFTs are becoming a convenient way to launder money is growing stronger and stronger.
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Google is moving away from APKs on the Play Store • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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Google has announced a big change for developers who want to list their apps on Google Play that could have an impact on the Android app ecosystem. Right now, the standard format for app publishing is the APK, but starting in August, Google will require that new Play apps are published instead using the Android App Bundle.

On a Google page about Android App Bundle, the company touts many potential improvements with the new format, such as smaller app downloads for users. But the format has a catch: Android App Bundles are a format that only Google Play uses, which could complicate app redistribution.

The timing of Google’s announcement also comes just days after Microsoft announced Windows 11, which has the ability to let you sideload Android apps as APKs. Google’s switch to App Bundles may mean that there will be fewer apps available to run on Microsoft’s new operating system, though you’ll also be able to get Android apps on Windows 11 from the Amazon Appstore.

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Note that it says *new* apps, so this doesn’t completely pull the rug from under Microsoft’s plans. Now wait for the other shoe to drop, where upgrades to apps have to be bundles too. (Google says there’s [presently] “no change” here.)

But: the bundle format has been around since May 2018, and Google says there are a million apps using them – including “the majority of the top 1,000 apps on Google Play”. Might want to check that rug, Microsoft.
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Robinhood IPO filing shows power of the meme-stock boom • WSJ

Peter Rudegeair and Corrie Driebusch:

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Robinhood, which plans to list on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol HOOD, generated $522m of revenue in the first quarter, mostly from trading activity, more than quadruple its level from the first quarter of 2020. More than $4 out of every $5 Robinhood earned in first-quarter revenue stemmed from payments it received from high-speed trading firms to which it routed customers’ stock, option and cryptocurrency trades, a controversial practice known as payment for order flow.

The number of funded accounts at Robinhood swelled to 18 million at the end of March, more than double their number from a year earlier, as everyday investors signed up in droves to participate in rallies in meme stocks such as GameStop Corp. and cryptocurrencies like dogecoin.

Despite the increase in users and trading-based revenue, Robinhood reported a first-quarter loss of $1.4bn.

The first-quarter loss was largely due to a $1.5bn one-time charge, related to an emergency fundraising in late January at the height of the GameStop rally. The clearinghouse that processes and settles Robinhood’s trades asked the company to put up billions of dollars in extra collateral to cover potential losses on volatile trades, prompting Robinhood to restrict trading in certain highflying stocks until it could complete a sale of convertible notes.

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Over at MarketWatch, they point out (which weirdly the WSJ doesn’t) that Robinhood says Dogecoin trading is a “risk factor” for it; cryptocurrency trading made 17% of its revenue in Q1 of this year.
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How one pandemic led to another: Asfv, the disruption contributing to Sars-Cov-2 emergence in Wuhan[v1] • Preprints

Xia, Hughes, Robertson and Jiang in a non-peer-reviewed preprint:

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Abstract: The spillover of a virus from one host species to another requires both molecular and ecological risk factors to align. While extensive research both before and after the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 implicates horseshoe bat as the significant reservoir genus for the new coronavirus, it remains unclear why it emerged at this time.

One massive disruption to human-animal contact in 2019 is linked to the on-going African swine fever virus (ASFV) pandemic. This began in Georgia in 2007 and was introduced to China in 2018. Pork is the major meat source in the Chinese diet. Severe fluctuations in the pork market prior to December 2019, may have increased the transmission of zoonotic pathogens, including severe acute respiratory syndrome–related coronaviruses, from wildlife to humans, wildlife to livestock and non-local animals to local animals. The major production and consumption regions for pork are geographically separated in China.

The dramatic shortage of pork following restrictions of pig movement and culling resulted in price increases, leading to alternative sources of meat and unusual animal and meat movements nationwide often involving wildlife and thus greatly increased opportunities for human-Sarbecovirus contacts. Pork prices were particularly high in southern provinces (Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Hubei), where wildlife is farmed on different scales and more frequently consumed. Shandong experienced the biggest losses in pork production (~1.7 million metric tons), which is also the largest mink farming province.

Hence, human exposure to SARS-CoV-2 from wildlife or infected animals are more likely to have taken place in 2019, when China was experiencing the worst effects of the ASFV pandemic.

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Remember this from April 2019 (“Chinese hog farms `panic’ as swine virus continues roiling herds“) and then November 2019 (“‘Not enough pork in the world’ to deal with China’s demand for meat“)? If you’re a determined Overspill reader (or its compiler) then of course. I had wondered if the pork shortage might be fingered as a problem. (Hughes is at the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, as is Robertson. Xia and Jiang seem to be based in China.
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Could editing the genomes of bats prevent future pandemics? • Stat News

Erika Check Hayden:

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[Yaniv] Erlich and his co-author, immunologist Daniel Douek at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, now propose an additional measure: creating a gene drive to render wild horseshoe bats immune to the types of coronavirus infections that are thought to have triggered the SARS, MERS, and Covid-19 pandemics. They shared the proposal Wednesday on the Github publishing and code-sharing platform.

Though there is heated debate about whether the Covid-19 virus originated in a lab, most scientists say the virus is most likely to have originated in wild animals. There is strong evidence, for instance, that horseshoe bats carry the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak.

A gene drive is a technique for turbocharging evolution and spreading new traits throughout a species faster than they would spread through natural selection. It involves using a gene editing technology such as CRISPR to modify an organism’s genome so that it passes a new trait to its offspring and throughout the species.

The idea of making a gene drive in bats faces such enormous scientific, technical, social, and economic obstacles that scientists interviewed by STAT called it “folly,” “far-fetched,” and “concerning.” Among other objections, they worried about unintended consequences with so radically tampering with nature.

“We have other ways of preventing future Covid-19 outbreaks,” argued Natalie Kofler, a trained molecular biologist and bioethicist and founder of Editing Nature, a group focused on inclusive decision-making about genetic technologies.

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Among other problems, there are more than a hundred species of horseshoe bats alone, so this is one of those wonderful “first boil the ocean” propositions.
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How much water do you actually need a day?: Transcript | Podcasts • TED

Dr Jen Gunter:

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Look, I get this is a real record-scratch freeze frame moment for a lot of people – but we don’t just get the water we need from plain water. And if you have one of those days where you just drink coffee all morning, and you don’t feel great – maybe you’re a little headachy or a little jittery – it’s not because you’re dehydrated. Maybe you had a little too much coffee, or you had it on an empty stomach.

If you like drinking six glasses, eight glasses of water a day, and your doctor hasn’t advised against it, that’s probably fine! What I’m saying is that there’s nothing medical about this number. We get to make choices about what we put in our body, and this is one of those choices. If you think about it, just using common sense and putting the medicine aside… Does it seem realistic that we evolved needing to consume that much clean water every single day? In the span of human history, access to clean, plentiful drinking water is a relatively recent phenomenon.

And even today in many parts of the world, accessing clean drinking water isn’t as easy as walking into your kitchen and filling up a glass. It seems unlikely that our ancestors carried giant water bottles around with them at all times.

And yet the 8 glasses of water a day myth spread and spread and spread. But why is this myth so sticky? It turns out there’s a mix of factors, including a little bit of intrigue and one particular culprit that deserves a lot of the blame: the beverage industry.

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I was prompted to look this up by a friend on Twitter who was wondering why Kids These Days keep wandering around clutching water bottles. It’s because the soft drinks (which includes the bottled water) industry pushed the idea that people Aren’t Drinking Enough.
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The Xbox gift card fraud: inside a $10 million bitcoin virtual currency cheat • Bloomberg

Austin Carr:

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Volodymyr Kvashuk received the $15 code a few weeks before Christmas, in 2017, among a batch of 20 others worth $300 altogether. But the engineer, who went by Vova for short and was in his mid-20s, hadn’t paid for the Xbox gift cards himself, nor were they some early holiday present from relatives. Kvashuk had recently begun a full-time job at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., testing the company’s e-commerce infrastructure.

His team’s focus was to simulate purchases on Microsoft’s online store, looking for glitches in the payments system. This meant making lots of pretend purchases in the store. If Kvashuk added a Dell PC to his shopping cart, he’d use a faux credit card Microsoft had provided, complete the transaction, and document any errors. The system knew the purchase was fake and wouldn’t deliver the device to his doorstep. At least that was what was supposed to happen.

Then Kvashuk found a bug that would change his life, a flaw so stupidly obvious that he couldn’t bring himself to report it to his managers. He noticed that whenever he tested purchases of gift cards, the Microsoft Store dispensed real 5×5 codes. It dawned on him: He could generate virtually unlimited codes, all for free [because while Microsoft’s system wouldn’t send physical goods, it would send virtual ones]. A former senior engineer on Kvashuk’s team—who, like other sources in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being publicly associated with the wrongdoing that followed—says this was the Halo-age equivalent of a frontier bank leaving its vault unlocked. “Sooner or later, someone’s going to try to get away with taking $20,” the ex-Microsoft employee says. “When they don’t get caught, they figure, ‘All I need is six guys to empty out the safe one night when no other employees are around.’ ”

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This rings a bell – in my (second) book Cyber Wars, I tell the story of how many years earlier another Microsoft tester, Andrew Plato, discovered that he could access all the credit cards in the Microsoft store using a specifically formed SQL query. The engineers told him “Nobody would think to do that.” Of course, they did: and so SQL injection became a thing. This is much the same: nobody would think to do that. Until someone does.
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All the right words on climate have already been said • Nieman Lab

Sarah Miller (who wrote the article about Florida included yesterday) got a call from an editor in the modern day:

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we got around to the “I’d still love to hear any ideas from you” portion of the conversation. I said some really stupid stuff about masks, and “California,” nearly putting myself to sleep, and I’m sure her too. The only reason I was talking about masks and “California” was because I didn’t want to tell her that the only thing I thought about all day, every day, was how hot it was. I didn’t want to admit it to her or to myself.

“The story of yours I really loved,” she said, and I felt a pit form in my stomach, knowing what was coming, “was the one that you wrote about Miami. About the real estate market and the flooding. I love that story.” [Appeared in yesterday’s Overspill.]

“Thank you,” I said. The pit in my stomach swelled.

“I mean, it would be great to get you to write something about climate change.” She said some more nice things about my writing. “I mean, fire season is coming up.”

I don’t want to be nasty about this phone call. I feel bad writing about it because the editor will be seen as a villain, as shallow, as representing Media while I represent Integrity. That is not how it is.

But hearing her say that fire season was “coming up” — A) when fire season was already here, and had been for weeks, and B) in a tone of voice that was not quite “news peg!” but not exactly not “news peg!” — did not feel good to me.

Also, I wrote that Miami story more than two years ago. It seems almost hilarious to me now, but I actually wrote a story that was like “LOL Miami, they’re selling real estate in a town threatened by sea level rise” without realizing that I lived in and owned a home in a place that was equally climate-challenged. I knew this intellectually, but it hadn’t seeped in.

That Miami story was funny. I couldn’t write a funny story about climate change now to save my life. But the Miami story is everyone’s favorite. Everyone wants something like it, and it makes me feel sad for so many reasons, mostly because when I wrote it I was a much happier person and I miss her, she was a lot of fun, even if she was an idiot.

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As she points out: do we really have to keep saying this?
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How Rumsfeld deserves to be remembered • The Atlantic

George Packer calls Donald Rumsfeld “the worst defence secretary America has ever had”, and stamps the earth very solidly down:

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Rumsfeld was working in his office on the morning that a hijacked jet flew into the Pentagon. During the first minutes of terror, he displayed bravery and leadership. But within a few hours, he was already entertaining catastrophic ideas, according to notes taken by an aide: “best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” And later: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” These fragments convey the whole of Rumsfeld: his decisiveness, his aggression, his faith in hard power, his contempt for procedure. In the end, it didn’t matter what the intelligence said. September 11 was a test of American will and a chance to show it.

Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the attacks and never stopped. He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he’d long advocated. He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn’t need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn’t operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he’d ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.

He believed in regime change but not in nation building, and he thought that a few tens of thousands of troops would be enough to win in Iraq. He thought that the quick overthrow of Saddam’s regime meant mission accomplished. He responded to the looting of Baghdad by saying “Freedom’s untidy,” as if the chaos was just a giddy display of democracy—as if it would not devastate Iraq and become America’s problem, too.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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