Start Up No.1708: US Army builds vaccine against variants, WordPress’s democracy push, NSO’s Ugandan hubris, and more


When the AI system GPT-3 was asked to write a paper about robots not replacing humans for law work, it cited one of the first shows to mention the internet. We don’t know why. CC-licensed photo by Ben Sutherland on Flickr.

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


Charity time!
It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch the wonderful Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.


US Army creates single vaccine against all COVID and SARS variants, researchers say • Defense One

Tara Copp:

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Within weeks, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to announce that they have developed a vaccine that is effective against COVID-19 and all its variants, even Omicron, as well as from previous SARS-origin viruses that have killed millions of people worldwide. 

The achievement is the result of almost two years of work on the virus. The Army lab received its first DNA sequencing of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020. Very early on, Walter Reed’s infectious diseases branch decided to focus on making a vaccine that would work against not just the existing strain but all of its potential variants as well.

Walter Reed’s Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine, or SpFN, completed animal trials earlier this year with positive results. Phase 1 of human trials, which tested the vaccine against Omicron and the other variants, wrapped up this month, again with positive results that are undergoing final review, Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of Walter Reed’s infectious diseases branch, said in an exclusive interview with Defense One. 

Unlike existing vaccines, Walter Reed’s SpFN uses a soccer ball-shaped protein with 24 faces for its vaccine, which allows scientists to attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces of the protein.

“It’s very exciting to get to this point for our entire team and I think for the entire Army as well,” Modjarrad said. 

The vaccine’s human trials took longer than expected, he said, because the lab needed to test the vaccine on subjects who had neither been vaccinated nor previously infected with COVID.

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First, the lab would have received RNA sequencing, not DNA sequencing. And the idea of a vaccine for *all potential variants* is a bit overplayed. They seem to have a (non-mRNA) vaccine that can be adapted. But the mRNA vaccines can be adapted too. Still: this is definitely a good thing.
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Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet? • Protocol

David Pierce:

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In every way that matters, Automattic is a reflection of Mullenweg (you could say he puts the “Matt” in Automattic). He started building web software because he wanted a place to store and share his photos; he’s a blogger to the core, and loves anything that aids in the free expression of ideas on the internet. He loves jazz, which is why WordPress releases are named for jazz musicians. He loves to read and write and work from anywhere, so he turned Automattic into a company that supports bloggers and promotes remote work. He buys companies that make products he likes, and companies that have missions he believes in. Most of all, he believes that open-source software is the future of everything. And he’s betting on it every way he can.

Eighteen years after he first started working on WordPress, Automattic is more powerful than ever. It’s a $7.5bn company, one of the biggest private companies in the industry. And yet its founding idea — that software should be available to everyone and editable by anyone, that communities can build great things together, that walled gardens always eventually fall — seems more tenuous than ever. There’s another 17-year-old company named Facebook that flies in the face of everything Mullenweg believes in, and is threatening to own the future of the internet.

Most people will tell you it feels like the future of tech hangs in the balance. But the way Mullenweg sees it, open is still going to win. It’s not a matter of if, only when. And all he’s trying to do is help make it happen a little faster.

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Mullenweg is all for the decentralised web, and when you look at how many sites use WordPress (even if it’s often hidden) you realise that his vision is a bit like that of Linux.
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What was the first TV show to reference the internet? • The Atlantic

Adrienne LaFrance:

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Even as dial-up Internet connections went mainstream, television representations of the web lagged. Computers appeared on television mostly as props, boxy monitors sitting dark on desks. The arrival of Internet represented a huge cultural shift, but it was barely a plot point in the 1990s—with some exceptions.

The X-Files had to have been among the first shows to use the web in a storyline, in “2Shy,” which originally aired in November 1995. The episode features a mutant serial killer who sweet-talks self-conscious women online, convinces them to meet in-person, then pulverizes their flesh for sustenance. (Moral of the story: Chat with strangers online and an alien will turn your body into goo.)

A year later, in 1996, an episode of Friends treats an online romance between one of the show’s male leads and a mystery woman as amusing and bizarre. “Well, we haven’t actually met,” Chandler says of his new love interest. “We stayed up all night talking on the Internet.” The audience laughs. Monica shouts “Geek!” More laughter.

Then, later in the episode, there’s this exchange between Chandler and Phoebe, as Chandler chats online:

Phoebe: How’s your date with your cyber-chick going? [Gestures at laptop] Ooh, hey. What is all that?

Chandler: Oh, it’s a website. It’s the, uh, Guggenheim Museum. See, she likes art, and I like funny words.

Phoebe: What does she mean by “HH”?

Chandler: [Sheepishly] It means we’re holding hands.

“You know,” Phoebe concludes, “I think it’s so great that you are totally into this person, yet for all you know she could be like 90 years old, or have two heads, or it could be a guy… It could be, like, a big, giant guy.”

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Friends really is deeply embedded in the web, as the next link shows.
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Will machines replace us? Machine-authored texts and the future of scholarship • Law, Technology and Humans

Benjamin Alarie, Arthur Cockfield and GPT-3, writing in a legal journal:

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We present here the first machine-generated law review article. Our self-interest motivates us to believe that knowledge workers who write complex articles drawing upon years of research and effort are safe from AI developments. However, how reasonable is it to persist in this belief given recent advances in AI research? With that topic in mind, we caused GPT-3, a state-of-the-art AI, to generate a paper that explains “why humans will always be better lawyers, drivers, CEOs, presidents, and law professors than artificial intelligence and robots can ever hope to be.” The resulting paper, with no edits apart from giving it a title and bolding the headings generated by GPT-3, is reproduced below. It is imperfect in a humorous way. Ironically, it is publishable “as-is” only because it is machine-generated. Nevertheless, the resulting paper is good enough to give us some pause for thought. Although GPT-3 is not up to the task of replacing law review authors currently, we are far less confident that GPT-5 or GPT-100 might not be up to the task in future.

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In their comments ahead of the article, the humans note that

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the article is not suitable as a law journal article. It lacks citations to supporting sources and exhibits odd assumptionsin some parts (as with its discussion of [the TV series] Friends). GPT-3 also demonstrates gender bias when it indicates, “For instance, most people instinctively know that a woman who is crying during an argument isn’t necessarily telling the truth.”

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To be honest, it reads more like something written by someone not quite sober. They know the words, but not the order for them. See for yourself.
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The secret Uganda deal that has brought NSO to the brink of collapse • FT via Ars Technica

Mehul Srivastava:

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In February 2019, an Israeli woman sat across from the son of Uganda’s president and made an audacious pitch—would he want to secretly hack any phone in the world?

Lt. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in charge of his father’s security and a long-whispered successor to Yoweri Museveni, was keen, said two people familiar with the sales pitch.

After all, the woman, who had ties to Israeli intelligence, was pitching him Pegasus, a piece of spyware so powerful that Middle East dictators and autocratic regimes had been paying tens of millions for it for years.

But for NSO, the Israeli company that created Pegasus, this dalliance into East Africa would prove to be the moment it crossed a red line, infuriating US diplomats and triggering a chain of events that would see it blacklisted by the commerce department, pursued by Apple, and driven to the verge of defaulting on its loans, according to interviews with US and Israeli officials, industry insiders, and NSO employees.

A few months after the initial approach, NSO’s chief executive, Shalev Hulio, landed in Uganda to seal the deal, according to two people familiar with NSO’s East Africa business. Hulio, who flew the world with the permission of the Israeli government to sell Pegasus, liked to demonstrate in real time how it could hack a brand-new, boxed iPhone.

…The blacklisting, which came in November, means that NSO cannot buy any equipment, service, or intellectual property from US-based companies without approval, crippling a company whose terminals ran on servers from Dell and Intel, routers from Cisco, and whose desktop computers run on Windows operating systems, according to a spec sheet from a sale to Ghana, in West Africa.

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Notice “industry insiders” in there – I suspect that’s Apple spilling the beans, on a very background basis, because Apple really hates NSO because of what NSO has done to the iPhone’s reputation for security.

And it’s also an amazing story of hubris: the Ugandan government hacked US diplomats there. Bad move.
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Risk of hospital stay 40% lower with Omicron than Delta, UK data suggests • The Guardian

Ian Sample and Heather Stewart:

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The Omicron variant of coronavirus appears to be milder, with a 15%-20% reduced chance of a hospital visit and at least a 40% lower risk of being admitted overnight, the first UK data of its kind has showed.

But as daily Covid cases topped 100,000 for the first time on Wednesday, experts warned that high transmissibility means the NHS is still at risk of being overwhelmed.

In what was described by scientists as a “qualified good news story”, two studies on Wednesday pointed to a lower risk of hospitalisation with Omicron.

An Imperial College outbreak modelling team led by Prof Neil Ferguson analysed hospitalisations and vaccine records among all PCR-confirmed Covid cases in England between 1 and 14 December. The dataset included 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.

Their report found that the risk of any attendance at hospital was 15% to 20% lower with Omicron versus Delta, and 40%-45% lower when the visit resulted in admission for at least one night. For the small percentage of people who had neither been previously infected with Covid nor vaccinated, the risk of hospitalisation was about 11% lower for Omicron versus Delta.

Ferguson said that while it was “good news”, the assessment did not substantially change Sage modelling pointing to 3,000 daily hospitalisations in England at the peak of the wave next month without restrictions beyond the plan B measures currently in place.

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Americans widely distrust Facebook, TikTok and Instagram with their data, poll finds • The Washington Post

Heather Kelly and Emily Guskin:

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Most Americans say they are skeptical that several Internet giants will responsibly handle their personal information and data about their online activity. And an overwhelming majority say they think tech companies don’t provide people with enough control over how their activities are tracked and used. The survey was conducted in November among a random sample of 1,122 adults nationwide.

According to the survey, 72% of Internet users trust Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to responsibly handle their personal information and data on their Internet activity. About 6 in 10 distrust TikTok and Instagram, while slight majorities distrust WhatsApp and YouTube. Google, Apple and Microsoft receive mixed marks for trust, while Amazon is slightly positive with 53% trusting the company at least “a good amount.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Only 10% say Facebook has a positive impact on society, while 56% say it has a negative impact and 33% say its impact is neither positive nor negative. Even among those who use Facebook daily, more than three times as many say the social network has a negative rather than a positive impact.

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Not surprising that people trust Amazon; what is there not to trust – ok, apart from all the fake reviews and multiple fake brands? At least Amazon delivers tangible stuff, or video content. Whereas Facebook’s deliverables are a lot harder to specify.

Though I bet those people saying they think Facebook is a net negative haven’t deleted their accounts. (The survey makes interesting reading, mostly to spot the leading questions on topics such as whether devices listen to you.)
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If you’re looking for books, I’d always recommend Social Warming, my latest book, about the effects social networks are having on society. Here’s a mini-review on Twitter.


The Spectator Covid Tracker • The Spectator

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The Spectator data tracker. Updated daily

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This is interesting, and has been going for a while. This link is to the Sage (UK scientific committee advising government on emergencies) scenarios – note, not predictions – for what would happen under various circumstances, v what happened in reality.

Of course the scenarios don’t match the reality (they’re way worse) because you model bad things in scenarios, where people ignore you, so you know how prepared you might have to be. Like you’re going on a long journey, and you need to know what you’ll do if you can’t refuel at your first planned stop. Not what happens if everything goes wonderfully.

It’s all using public data, so it’s perfectly legitimate. Showing the gap doesn’t show a failure of scenarios, though. It shows the success of vaccination.
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New Log4J flaw caps year of relentless cybersecurity crises • WSJ

David Uberti and Dustin Volz:

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cyberattacks on major technology providers and the interconnected world of software and hardware that power the global economy continued at a relentless pace in 2021, according to US officials and security experts. Instead of one company being victimized at a time like in a traditional data breach, thousands were often exposed simultaneously. Businesses, hospitals and schools also worked to defend themselves against an onslaught of ransomware attacks, which increasingly reap $10m or more in extortion payments.

The annus horribilis culminated this month with discovery of a flaw in an obscure but widely used internet code known as Log4j, which one senior Biden administration official said was the worst she had seen in her career. The latest vulnerability comes as U.S. officials warn corporate leaders of a potential surge of cyberattacks while businesses slow their operations during the holiday season.

The string of incidents highlights how decades of digital transformation have linked business and government computer systems in opaque and sometimes surprising ways that will create new vulnerabilities. Major disruptions are certain to continue, cybersecurity officials said.

“Network defenders are exhausted,” said Joe Slowik, threat-intelligence lead at the security firm Gigamon. New attention and investment in cybersecurity hasn’t improved the status quo, he said. “Money is flowing into the field, but largely on technical solutions while the core need—more capable people—remains hard to address.”

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Do we ever expect this to improve – to reach a state where we say “no, really, things actually got better in online security”? I can’t think there’s ever been a year where that happened. In some fields, perhaps, but overall no – and the discovery that NSO creates a computer from a bug in a compression algorithm suggests that our capabilities at exploiting flaws will only grow.
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Amazon, Meta scrap CES plans in Las Vegas after Covid surge • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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Amazon, Meta Platforms, Pinterest, Twitter and several news outlets have cancelled plans to attend the annual CES technology conference in Las Vegas, a response to surging Covid-19 cases around the world.

The show, put on by the Consumer Technology Association, is still scheduled to get underway in early January. But efforts to return to normal after an online-only event this year have been hindered by the raging omicron variant.

“Due to the spike in Covid cases across the country in the past week, we’ve decided to cancel our in-person presence at CES next month,” Twitter said in a statement. “We’ll continue to actively monitor the situation into the new year and find other opportunities to connect with our clients and partners.”

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, echoed those remarks. “Out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees, we won’t be attending CES in-person due to the evolving public health concerns related to Covid-19,” Meta said. The company is exploring how it can participate virtually.

Amazon and its smart-home subsidiary Ring did likewise. The retail and technology giant said that “due to the quickly shifting situation and uncertainty around the Omicron variant, we will no longer have an on-site presence at CES.”

T-Mobile US, a CES sponsor, said Tuesday it will “significantly limit” its in-person presence at the show. And chief executive officer Mike Sievert will no longer be giving a keynote speech at the event, either in-person or online. 

“The vast majority of our team will not be traveling to Las Vegas,” the wireless carrier said. The company “looks forward to an in-person CES 2023, which we hope includes an on-stage keynote in front of a live audience.”

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CES is also, though, a place for Shenzhen companies to find buyers for their goods. Both buyers and sellers will surely be expecting a busy 2022. So while the top-line companies might not be there, there will be plenty of folk from the trenches of electronics.
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What are FFP2 masks, mandatory in some European countries? • The Economist

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FFP stands for “filtering face piece”. It is a European standard for mask efficiency, ranging from one, the lowest grade, to three, the highest. FFP2 masks filter at least 94% of all aerosols, including airborne viruses such as covid-19. America’s N95 and China’s KN95 masks provide similar levels of protection. These disposable masks have several layers of different fabrics, including a polypropylene filter, made by “melt-blowing” polymer to create miniscule, irregular fibre patterns that can trap the smallest airborne particles. A study published in December by the Max Planck Institute, a German research organisation, found well-fitting FFP2 masks reduced the risk of infection with covid-19 to 0.1%. Cloth or medical masks, on the other hand, merely disrupt the airflow of the speaker and trap the largest aerosol particles in their woven material. Their efficacy varies wildly depending on the design and fabric used: tight-fitting, multi-layered masks made from dense materials are much more effective than single-layer linen masks. One study in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found surgical masks were three times more effective at preventing inhalation of aerosols than homemade cloth ones. Another study, in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal, compared different cloth masks and found that their efficacy at containing viral particles ranged from 26% to 79%.

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I wonder at this “reduced to 0.1%” – compared to what? (This is the paper.) FFP2 masks are now very cheap in Europe, though when wearing them you do look as though you’ve come to put foam insulation in the cavity walls.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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