Start Up No.1614: what crypto really enables, China hushed lab leak talk, how VPNs spy on you, the challenge of climate politics, and more


Virtual reality doesn’t photograph well, and doesn’t sell well. So why are we still talking about the ‘rich white kid’ of technology? CC-licensed photo by Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas%2C University of Texas at Austin on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Still hot. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The way the Senate melted down over crypto is very revealing • The New York Times

Ezra Klein:

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Think about it this way: The internet we have allows for the easy transfer of information. We costlessly swap copies of news articles, music files, video games, pornography, GIFs, tweets and much more. The internet is, famously, good at making information nearly free. But for precisely that reason, it is terrible at making information expensive, which it sometimes needs to be. What the internet is missing, in particular, are ways to verify identity, ownership and authenticity — the exact things that make it possible for creators to get paid for their work (for more on this, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s article “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble”).

That’s one reason the riches of the web haven’t been more widely shared: You get rich selling access to the internet or by building companies that add convenience and features to the internet. So Facebook got rich by building a proprietary infrastructure for identity, and Spotify created a service in which artists could eke out payment from works that were otherwise just being pirated. The actual creators who make the internet worth visiting are forced to accept the exploitative, ever-changing terms of digital middlemen.

This is the problem that the technology behind crypto solves, at least in theory: If the original internet let you easily copy information, the next internet will let you easily trade ownership of digital goods. Crypto lets you make digital goods scarce, which increases their value; it lets you prove ownership, which allows you to buy and sell them; and it makes digital identities verifiable, as that’s merely information you own.

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Which strengthens my theory that crypto (generally) is seen by Gen Z as the way of getting in on the ground floor of “property” that older generations “don’t get”. Two benefits immediately flow: just like property, its value seems to keep going up (look at bitcoin!); and it creates the tribal effect of the in-group/out-group.
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In new documentary, WHO scientist says Chinese officials pressured investigation to drop lab-leak hypothesis • Washington Post

Adam Taylor, Emily Rauhala and Martin Selsoe Sorensen:

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A discussion of whether to include the lab-leak theory at all lasted until 48 hours before the conclusion of the mission, Ben Embarek told the Danish reporters. In the end, Ben Embarek’s Chinese counterpart eventually agreed to discuss the lab-leak theory in the report “on the condition we didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis.”

Asked in the documentary whether the report’s “extremely unlikely” wording about the lab-leak theory was a Chinese requirement, Ben Embarek said “it was the category we chose to put it in at the end, yes.” But he added that this meant it was not impossible, just not likely.

Ben Embarek said one similar scenario, in which a lab employee inadvertently could have brought the virus to Wuhan after collecting samples in the field, could be considered both a lab-leak theory and a hypothesis of direct infection from a bat, which was described as “likely” in the report.

“A lab employee infected in the field while collecting samples in a bat cave — such a scenario belongs both as a lab-leak hypothesis and as our first hypothesis of direct infection from bat to human. We’ve seen that hypothesis as a likely hypothesis,” Ben Embarek said.

In further comments during the interview that were not included in the documentary but were incorporated in an account by the Danish channel TV2 on its website, Ben Embarek suggested that there could have been “human error” but that the Chinese political system does not allow authorities to acknowledge that.

“It probably means there’s a human error behind such an event, and they’re not very happy to admit that,” Ben Embarek was quoted as saying. “The whole system focuses a lot on being infallible, and everything must be perfect,” he added. “Somebody could also wish to hide something. Who knows?”

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Who knows indeed, though there’s no doubt China would want to be as controlling as possible. Though the idea that a worker getting infected by collecting samples in a cave would count as a “lab leak” suggests a bit of mission creep on that hypothesis.
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Virtual reality is the rich white kid of technology • WIRED

David Karpf:

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The technology [of VR and AR] is always about to turn a corner, about to be more than just a gaming device, about to revolutionize fields like architecture, defense, and medicine. The future of work, entertainment, travel, and society is always on the verge of a huge virtual upgrade. VR is a bit like a rich white kid with famous parents: it never stops failing upward, forever graded on a generous curve, always judged based on its “potential” rather than its results.

One reason that VR has been offered such an endless string of second chances (VR’s proverbial lineage, if you will) is that it has played an outsized role in the popular science fiction that our collective image of the future is built around. William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 book Neuromancer. The term later became synonymous with the World Wide Web, but Gibson’s initial rendering was of a virtual realm that “console cowboys” could enter and exit. Gibson and his cyberpunk peers heavily shaped the culture of 1980s tech—before the dotcom boom, before the tech bros.

When Lanier unveiled his bulky head-mounted display and dataglove in 1987, he was inviting tech hobbyists to be the first inhabitants of the virtual future they had glimpsed in cyberpunk novels. Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash and Ernest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One later were massive science fiction hits whose stories unfolded in a future where VR is a fixture.

When Zuckerberg says that he has been “thinking about some of this stuff since [he] was in middle school and just starting to code,” it isn’t hard to guess what books he was reading at the time. For the Gen X and Millennial tech entrepreneurs who dominate Silicon Valley today, the science fiction stories of their youth have always treated VR as an ambient part of the future technological landscape.

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I’ve been hearing about (and writing about) VR since 1995, and it hasn’t become any more generally convincing in all that time. Always a niche game thing, never a “grandma wants to try it out” thing.
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You found the link! It’s Social Warming, my latest book.


How private is my VPN? • The Markup

Alfred Ng:

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while VPNs say they do not log people’s activity—meaning their browsing, who they call, which TV shows they watch—that does not mean they’re not siphoning data from their users and even their prospective customers. 

To get a sense of exactly what sorts of information VPNs are grabbing, The Markup examined the privacy policies of 14 popular VPN companies. We also ran their websites through Blacklight, our tool for detecting third-party trackers. And we searched through our Citizen Browser data for VPN Facebook advertisements to see not only how VPNs are marketing themselves on Facebook but also how they’re making use of that platform’s personal-data-driven advertising machine.

Overall, we found a fair bit of hypocrisy: While the VPNs’ homepages and blog posts highlight their privacy benefits, some of their privacy policies tell a different story.

Surfshark’s homepage, for instance, boasts that it can “protect your privacy with the fastest VPN,” while its privacy policy notes that the company collects user devices’ advertising identifiers for marketing purposes.

“We do collect aggregated data for marketing purposes as it is crucial in making business decisions for customer acquisition and competing in an extremely competitive VPN industry,” Dom Dimas, a spokesperson for the company said.

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Of the 14 they tested, 10 included trackers. Some of those trackers are feeding back directly to Facebook and Google. But don’t worry, it means the bad guys can’t magically hack into your emails in the café!
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Facebook plans ads revamp in response to privacy concerns • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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“We definitely see that [ads] personalization will evolve very meaningfully over the course of the next five years,” said Mudd, Facebook’s VP of product marketing for ads, in an exclusive interview with The Verge. “And that investing well ahead of that will benefit all of our customers and enable us to help shape that future state of the ads ecosystem.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Facebook to get this right. Apple recently introduced a prompt to iPhones that makes developers ask for permission to track users across other apps for targeting ads. Facebook has said the prompt will likely hurt its revenue growth. Google is planning something similar for Android phones. The European Union is considering a ban on microtargeted ads as part of a sweeping legislative proposal called the Digital Services Act, and the Biden administration recently signaled interest in policing the “surveillance of users” by “dominant Internet platforms.”

Facebook’s new rhetoric about making advertising more privacy-conscious is also, in a sense, admitting defeat. Last year, it mounted a loud PR campaign in objection to Apple’s ad tracking prompt, arguing that Apple was acting anti-competitively and harming small businesses that relied on ads to reach customers. But the campaign ultimately fell flat, and now Facebook is working on some of the same privacy-conscious approaches to data collection that Apple uses.

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A welcome little bit of analysis thrown in at the end there. So Apple and Facebook and Google are all introducing systems that will process specific elements of your content on your device.
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‘Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge • The Guardian

Oliver Milman:

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Oregon was supposed to be a tranquil haven for Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, who moved to the state in 2017 after witnessing his home in Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, menaced by typhoons made increasingly powerful by the warming ocean and atmosphere.

But when the heatwave struck, Johnson, his partner and their dog had to flee their Corvallis apartment, which does not have air conditioning, to stay on the Oregon coast in an attempt to cool down. The surging heat, which followed wildfires that raged nearby last year, has forced Johnson to revise his previous assumptions.

“I always thought this was a comfortable place, that it could even be a host state for climate migrants,” said Johnson, a biologist. “But there has been this big wake-up that things are moving faster than anticipated. It was shocking how hot it got, and how long it took to cool down.”

“In just a few days you’ve seen this big change in how people are thinking about adapting,” he said. “It has changed my view of Oregon. It’s hammered home to me that climate change is inescapable – no matter where you are or when you go there, you have to think about it. Nowhere is safe, nowhere is truly a refuge.”

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Hot air • The Critic Magazine

Christopher Snowdon:

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The government says decarbonising the UK will cost one trillion pounds, but then it also said HS2 would cost £36bn. Since HS2’s budget is now three times higher, the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s estimate of Net Zero costing more than three trillion pounds may be more realistic. And this is in addition to our contribution to $100bn of “climate finance” the rich world has promised to give developing countries every year.

It will not be long before 25 million households are told to rip out their gas boilers and pay £20,000 for a less efficient electric heat pump and insulation. The government will soon stop asking people to eat less meat and take fewer flights and find ways of forcing them. Will the public put up with it?

In France, months of violent protests by the gilets jaunes were caused by the government putting 6p on a litre of diesel. Macron swiftly froze the carbon tax, froze gas and electricity prices and postponed tougher vehicle emission rules. In Britain, the fuel tax protests of September 2000 were the only time Labour lost its lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls between 1993 and 2005. Gordon Brown responded by cutting and freezing petrol duty. The Conservatives learned the lesson and by 2018 George Osborne was boasting of freezing fuel duty for the sixth year in a row because, he said, the Conservatives were “the party for working people”.

This is reality of ‘climate action’ in a democracy. It’s all fun and games until the public gets involved.

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Can’t argue with any of that inasmuch as he’s right: we are terrible at taking actions today for the long term. (Oh, except you? How’s your pension looking?) But, equally, it’s not going to be hard to persuade people not to take flights to countries suffering droughts, 50ºC heatwaves, floods or tidal submergence. The question is always what the carrot looks like. Nature’s stick is rather ugly.
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Helping actor Val Kilmer reclaim his voice • Sonantic

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Last year, we were contacted with an exciting question: Could Sonantic build a custom AI voice model for acclaimed actor Val Kilmer? 

Kilmer, whose Hollywood career has spanned nearly four decades, has starred in scores of films, including blockbusters such as Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, Batman Forever, and Heat. But after undergoing a tracheotomy in 2014 as part of his treatment for throat cancer, Kilmer no longer has a voice that would be easily recognisable to fans. 

The actor has been reflecting on his career recently for the production of his autobiographical documentary, Val. But despite this recent focus on the past, Kilmer never stops moving forward. He and his team knew that building a custom voice model would help him explore new ways to communicate, connect, and create in the future.

From the beginning, our aim was to make a voice model that Val would be proud of. We were eager to give him his voice back, providing a new tool for whatever creative projects are ahead.

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You can hear the result on YouTube. (It’s also embedded in the linked post.) See, deepfakes can have good uses too.
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Mass mask-wearing notably reduces COVID-19 transmission • medRxiv

A big team from the University of Bristol and elsewhere:

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Mask-wearing has been a controversial measure to control the COVID-19 pandemic. While masks are known to substantially reduce disease transmission in healthcare settings, studies in community settings report inconsistent results.

Investigating the inconsistency within epidemiological studies, we find that a commonly used proxy, government mask mandates, does not correlate with large increases in mask-wearing in our window of analysis. We thus analyse the effect of mask-wearing on transmission instead, drawing on several datasets covering 92 regions on 6 continents, including the largest survey of individual-level wearing behaviour (n=20 million). Using a hierarchical Bayesian model, we estimate the effect of both mask-wearing and mask-mandates on transmission by linking wearing levels (or mandates) to reported cases in each region, adjusting for mobility and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

We assess the robustness of our results in 123 experiments spanning 22 sensitivity analyses. Across these analyses, we find that an entire population wearing masks in public leads to a median reduction in the reproduction number R of 25.8%, with 95% of the medians between 22.2% and 30.9%. In our window of analysis, the median reduction in R associated with the wearing level observed in each region was 20.4% [2.0%, 23.3%]. We do not find evidence that mandating mask-wearing reduces transmission. Our results suggest that mask-wearing is strongly affected by factors other than mandates.

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Not yet peer-reviewed, note. But certainly the idea that mask mandates mean people will wear masks, particularly in the US, isn’t that reliable.
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Future Tense: I will defend Microsoft Word to the death • Slate

Torie Bosch:

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I am deeply committed to Microsoft Word. I see the ascendence of Google Docs—which has been around in various forms since 2006 but has become an unstoppable force over the past several years—as a personal affront. Word is clunky and expensive and all those things, but it’s also wonderful in a lot of ways: The track changes function is superb (even if it takes a little getting used to), it’s customizable, and, frankly, it’s familiar. I know its quirks and its features, I can troubleshoot it, and the mere act of staring at a Word document tells my brain: OK, time to get to work.

I’m not saying Google Docs is completely useless, just mostly so. There are some good use cases—in particular, planning documents. I use it for grocery lists, packing lists, to track expenses. But when it comes to the thing I most need a word processor for—editing articles for Slate—Google Docs utterly fails. It’s the little things: If I delete a bunch of text, then start writing over top of it, Google Docs marks the new words as deleted text. Why? Why would I type in text only for Google Docs to delete it? It often adds a hyperlink to the space before a word, which is hideous. The way it puts all of the changes in bubbles on the side, instead of in-line, takes up far too much space and means that you rarely see the change and the changed text on the same latitude of the page. It’s hard to rapidly accept a bunch of changes—I get stuck doing them one. At. A. Time. Like. A. Sucker.

And, worst of all: the collaboration that allows multiple people to work in a document at once, the very feature most championed by Google Docs partisans. Once a writer sends a Google Doc to me and I start editing, by default, Google lets them know. Then I see their initial pop up in the upper right-hand corner of the document, and I know they are watching me. I can’t edit in front of an audience! I need to move things around, to try different phrases out. But sometimes writers actually start responding to my edits in real time. What the hell! Leave me alone! One person in a document at a time! I want clear iterations, not various versions that bleed into one another.

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Totally agree (though for me, the app that says “quit email and your Twitter app and knuckle down” is the ever-excellent Scrivener, available for macOS, Windows and iOS.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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