Start Up No.1712: today’s Wordle is ‘clone’, the 25-year road to pig-human transplants, how the iPlayer won, QR phishing, and more


With the spread of the ‘Western’ diet has come a growth in the incidence of autoimmune diseases in countries where they weren’t known. Genes seem to be the issue. CC-licensed photo by MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Still not quite crypto-free. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


There are scores of Wordle clones on iOS because of course there are • Protocol

Nick Statt:

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Wordle is the newest viral game taking over your Twitter feed and group chats, and with popularity comes cloning. If you search “Wordle” on the App Store right now, you’ll find nearly a dozen copycat versions of the game, many of which shamelessly use the game’s name in the app title with little to no alteration.

Most of the games look identical to the version created in private and for free by software engineer Josh Wardle, who maintains the game but has not asked for any monetary compensation for doing so. But as is the case with anything organic and popular on the internet, there are always those interested in profiting off it in one way or another. That’s especially true in the world of mobile gaming where so-called cloning is a rampant practice with little to no recourse for creators.

Usually, cloned apps are made by relatively anonymous developers whose skill lies in quickly turning new and popular ideas in game design into quick, functional apps. In some cases, developers will rework existing apps and change the name, too. But slap some ads on there or attach a small price like $1.99 and they stand to make some money.

However, in this case, a developer by the name of Zachary Shakked created a Wordle clone as a self-described fan of the game, and then released it on iOS with a $30-per-year pro version that allows you to keep playing and also modify the number of letters in the word you’re guessing. It’s one of the more popular of the Wordle clones on the iPhone right now. Shakked has since put his Twitter profile to private after users found older tweets in which he criticized those who shamelessly copy other’s ideas.

Cloning is not exactly what you would call honest app development work, and it’s an endemic issue in mobile gaming that’s not quite solvable given the industry-wide truce around abuse of copyright law and trademarks. Games wouldn’t be very fun if you had to pay a licensing fee or risk a lawsuit every time you wanted to borrow a good idea, so most developers just treat copying and cloning as the cost of doing business.

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Intriguingly, the Google Play store has two, and they’re older than Wardle’s version. (At least, as of late Tuesday.)
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Pig heart transplanted to human for the first time • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

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The patient who received the heart had end-stage heart disease and was too sick to qualify for the standard transplant list. Three days after the procedure, the patient was still alive.

The idea of using non-human organs as replacements for damaged human ones—called xenotransplantation—has a long history, inspired by the fact that there are more people on organ waiting lists than there are donors. And in recent years, our ability to do targeted gene editing has motivated researchers to start genetically modifying pigs in order to make them better donors. But the recent surgery wasn’t part of a clinical trial, so it shouldn’t be viewed as an indication that this approach is ready for widespread safety and efficacy testing.

Instead, the surgery was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration under its “compassionate use” access program, which allows patients facing life-threatening illnesses to receive investigational treatments that haven’t gone through rigorous clinical testing yet.

The heart used for this transplant did come from a genetically modified line that was specifically engineered to reduce the chance of rejection by the human immune system. There are a number of lines that have been engineered with this in mind (there’s a review of some of the competing ideas on what to modify). This line was developed by a company called Revivicor (now part of United Therapeutics), but the company doesn’t provide any details on its website of the precise changes made. Searching for Revivicor on ClinicalTrials.gov returns only a single hit that involves a completely different pig line.

So it’s difficult to know exactly what genes were modified in these pigs. The University of Maryland’s press release indicates that there were three pig genes knocked out to lower its immune profile and avoid rejection, and a fourth knocked out to block “excessive growth” of the porcine cells. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the pigs to enhance the human immune system’s tolerance of the foreign cells.

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This has been ages in the making. Nature, October 1995: “Pig-to-human heart transplant slated to begin in 1996.” The key issue is the rejection by the human body of proteins on the surface of the pig cells: in essence it looks to the body like an invading virus.

By 2015 Novartis had bought Imutran, one of the pioneers in the xenotransplantation field, and was experimenting with primates. And now we reach humans, via a different company.
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After identity theft, Salvadorans now report funds disappearing from Chivo wallets • Coindesk

Andrés Engler:

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In the last few weeks, dozens of Salvadorans have reported on social media that money has disappeared from their Chivo wallets, the digital application developed by the Salvadoran government for the use of bitcoin throughout the country.

The reports come after hundreds of Salvadorans complained in October that hackers had illegally activated wallets associated with the nine-digit numbers on their identity cards – known as DUI for its acronym in Spanish – to claim the $30 bitcoin incentive dangled by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele.

Luis Guardado, a Salvadoran who has lived in the United States for 30 years, was one of those who experienced the loss of funds. On Dec. 2, he sent $190 from Coinbase to his Chivo wallet for an upcoming visit to his home country, he told CoinDesk.

Noticing that the amount was slow to arrive, Guardado decided to trace the hash of the transaction. He discovered that the amount had been sent from his Coinbase wallet to a temporary address provided by Chivo from which it sends money to final recipients, but within the hour it had been removed from there. And the money never arrived in his wallet.

Guardado is no newbie to the crypto world, having started investing four years ago in coins such as bitcoin and ether.

“The glitch is not from Coinbase. I have the blockchain record, which says the money was released,” Guardado said.

Guardado called Chivo’s customer service center and received a case number. Chivo’s official Twitter account also contacted Guardado, but as of Dec. 16, it had stopped answering his messages, according to screenshots Guardado provided to CoinDesk.

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There’s very little reporting about what’s going on on El Salvador. Hard to tell if this is big or limited.
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China’s digital currency comes to Tencent’s WeChat in expansion push • CNBC

Arjun Kharpal:

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Tencent-owned WeChat, China’s largest messaging app and one of the country’s biggest payment services, will begin supporting the country’s sovereign digital currency.

China has been working on the digital yuan since 2014 and is yet to roll it out nationwide. But the move by WeChat, which has over 1 billion users, to support the digital currency could provide it with a huge boost if people begin to pay with it.

WeChat may not be that well know to users outside of China, but inside the world’s second-largest economy it is ubiquitous. It is often dubbed a “super app” because many services are wrapped into it. People can use messaging functions and make payments via WeChat Pay, but also hail taxis and order food.

WeChat Pay allows users to show merchants a barcode on their phone to pay for items in store. It can also be used for purchases online. WeChat Pay has over 800 million monthly active users.

To date, the People’s Bank of China, which issues the digital yuan or e-CNY, has done limited trials in certain cities via lotteries where the central bank has handed out small amounts of the currency to some citizens.

But there are now signs that the PBOC is looking to expand usage of the digital yuan, despite no concrete date for a nationwide rollout. This week, the PBOC launched an e-CNY app for users in certain regions and cities in China. That will enable anyone in those areas to download and sign up to use the digital currency. Previously, users could get the app on an invite-only basis.

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Hmm. An earlier article by CNBC explaining the digital yuan says “payments would be anonymous to some degree, but data analysis tools could help the central bank catch illegal activities.”

“To some degree” is doing a lot of work there.
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Global spread of autoimmune disease blamed on western diet • The Guardian

Robin McKie:

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Internationally, it is now estimated that cases of autoimmune diseases are rising by between 3% and 9% a year. Most scientists believe environmental factors play a key role in this rise.

“Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades,” said Lee, who was previously based at Cambridge University. “So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”

This idea was backed by Vinuesa, who was previously based at the Australian National University. She pointed to changes in diet that were occurring as more and more countries adopted western-style diets and people bought more fast food.

“Fast-food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fibre, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of micro-organisms that we have in our gut and which play a key role in controlling various bodily functions,” Vinuesa said. “These changes in our microbiomes are then triggering autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered.”

Both scientists stressed that individual susceptibilities were involved in contracting such illnesses, ailments that also include celiac disease as well as lupus, which triggers inflammation and swelling and can cause damage to various organs, including the heart.

“If you don’t have a certain genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily get an autoimmune disease, no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” said Vinuesa. “There is not a lot we can do to halt the global spread of fast-food franchises…”

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So the western diet triggers autoimmune diseases but, oh well, don’t bother anyone unnecessarily.
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Tom Loosemore and BBC iPlayer • Big Bets

Alice Newton Rex talks to Tom, who was the BBC’s Head of Strategic Innovation:

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In the case of iPlayer, Tom describes the idea of putting TV online as the “obvious next move” – not a stroke of genius from any particular individual. He thinks the really original idea actually happened in 2001, when the BBC put radio online with Radio Player, which allowed you to catch up on seven days of radio. After that, putting telly online was somewhat inevitable, it was just about how and when to do it.

…There’s a skill to protecting and nurturing projects within organisations that might otherwise kill them. For example, he tells me an early internal version of iPlayer was called the BBC Archive Testbed: “we picked a boring name so the lawyers wouldn’t get too nervous”. The early prototypes were built in 2004-5, but it wasn’t until 2006 that iPlayer got escape velocity. He describes the early product itself as terrible, but says it didn’t matter because there was so much momentum by that point. A second version, which turned it into a proper service, was subsequently built and then launched to the public.

So how do you decide whether a big bet is working? We agree it’s the hardest part: you can accidentally stop something promising in its tracks by walking away from an idea too early, or you can mistakenly keep grinding away at an idea long after you should’ve moved on. “The bigger the organisation, the more likely you are to leave it too late,” Tom says ruefully (he has worked in government, after all). “But the worst option of all is when you continually pivot on an idea.” I’m interested in this – pivoting seems like a good idea in some circumstances, or at least superior to sticking with something that you’ve proved won’t work. He clarifies: you can acknowledge you’ve found an important strategic area, but it might have to be addressed by a different product. But he’s seen many teams fail when they kept trying things that were too close to their original idea.

As a rule of thumb, Tom likes to have something in front of users within 3 months, get enough users on it to know whether it has momentum within 6 months, and then by a year he needs to see clear signals of success. In his role as Head of Strategic Innovation, he built a lot of new products – not just iPlayer – and most of them never went anywhere.

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This is a fascinating series. Unlike Cortana, iPlayer became a huge hit; in many ways the future of the corporation.
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US police warn of parking meters with phishing QR codes • Bitdefender

Graham Cluley:

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In a hurry to park your car? Don’t want to fumble around in your pocket to find cash for the parking meter, and don’t have the correct payment app installed on your phone?

Well, think carefully before rushing to scan the payment QR code stuck on the side of the meter – it may well be an attempt by fraudsters to phish your financial information.

Police are warning that they have discovered bogus QR codes stuck onto public parking meters across Austin, Texas – a city where parking meters don’t display QR codes, and only accept payment via coins, cards or a smartphone app.

So what happens if visitors to the city, or those in a rush who are not suspicious, simply scan the bogus QR code without thinking?

The QR codes found by Austin police department directed unsuspecting users to a fraudulent website which would ask for payment details with the false promise that their parking session would be paid for.

The City of Austin checked its parking meters after being notified of a similar QR code scam by officials in San Antonio. They had discovered over 100 parking meters similarly stickered in late December.

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QR codes really have had quite the year, haven’t they.
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AP to launch NFT marketplace built by Xooa • Associated Press

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The Associated Press will launch a non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace built by blockchain technology provider Xooa, where collectors can purchase the news agency’s award-winning contemporary and historic photojournalism.


This image of a home covered in ash from a volcano erupting on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain, on Nov. 1, 2021, will be available as an NFT on AP’s NFT marketplace. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The marketplace and first NFTs are set to debut on Monday, Jan. 31.

The initial collection will feature photography by current and former AP photojournalists and a selection of digitally enhanced depictions of their work. Pulitzer Prize-winning AP images will be included.

“For 175 years AP’s journalists have recorded the world’s biggest stories, including through gripping and poignant images that continue to resonate today,” said Dwayne Desaulniers, AP director of blockchain and data licensing. “With Xooa’s technology, we are proud to offer these tokenized pieces to a fast-growing global audience of photography NFT collectors.”

Each NFT will include a rich set of original metadata offering collectors awareness of the time, date, location, equipment and technical settings used for the shot.

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You mean.. the EXIF data? The stuff that’s embedded in any digital photo these days? This announcement has gone down like the proverbial cup of cold sick with photographers and anyone who has a working brain.
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Google exec says Apple is ‘holding back’ customers who text • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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On Saturday, Android boss Hiroshi Lockheimer accused Apple of “using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products,” after a Wall Street Journal report revealed how US teens have turned Apple’s iMessage into a social status symbol that locks Android users out.

Now, Lockheimer is taking a slightly less abrasive stance: the Google executive said Monday that “we’re not asking Apple to make iMessage available on Android. We’re asking Apple to support the industry standard for modern messaging (RCS) in iMessage, just as they support the older SMS / MMS standards.”

“By not incorporating RCS, Apple is holding back the industry and holding back the user experience for not only Android users but also their own customers,” adds Lockheimer, later in the Twitter thread.

That’s still a big accusation, but one that pulls the conversation back into familiar territory: will Apple accept Google’s olive branch to make iMessage more compatible with Android, or will it continue to use lock-in to sell more iPhones?

On the lock-in front, there’s little question about Apple’s motivation. Thanks to the Epic v. Apple trial, the world has now seen confidential emails between Apple executives that show the company is intentionally withholding iMessage in favor of lock-in.

…What’s less clear is whether RCS, the next-gen replacement for SMS that’s championed by Google and incorporates popular features common to iMessage, has any convincing reason for Apple to sign on. That’s likely why Google is creating a little peer pressure of its own.

The Verge has asked Apple if it intends to support RCS literally years with no comment, so we’re not holding our breath.

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As I observed about Lockheimer’s first tweet, nobody could accuse Google of locking anyone into a single messaging service. Supporting RCS is surely feasible. The question is whether the encryption of RCS (which is a plus) is sufficient incentive for Apple to support it.
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WIRED’s ‘On Background’ policy • WIRED

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Many powerful companies make a practice of obfuscating or dodging accountability when speaking to media outlets, by providing information that they refuse to attribute to anyone in particular, sometimes not even to the company itself. For that reason, WIRED is joining the Verge, Quartz, and others in making its editorial standards clearer.

Anyone talking to WIRED reporters in any official capacity does so on the record by default. This means that what you say or write can be quoted and attributed to you by name, not just as “a company spokesperson.” We typically allow anonymity only to sources who could face retaliation or be endangered by the information they provide, and when we do so we explain our reasons to readers. As Julia Angwin, editor in chief of the Markup, has noted, “Corporate spokespeople who are paid to provide information simply don’t meet the criteria for being granted anonymity.”

Sometimes we may agree to have a conversation on background, meaning we can use the information you provide, but will not identify you by name. Conversations are on background only when we agree to it. If you send us a statement “on background” without prior agreement, we may still treat it as on the record.

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I continue to disagree with American journalists about the practice of naming spokespeople, who have no choice about the lines they’re obliged to say (if they want to stay in their job). But it certainly makes sense that if the spokespeople are talking to you, it should be taken as coming from the company. However, my experience was always that the companies would preface the discussion by saying “this is on background”. I guess the Wired (and others) response will be “no, it isn’t”. We’ll have to see whether this makes the slightest difference to what gets reported.
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It’s nearly time for the paperback of Social Warming, my latest book. There will be a new foreword (or maybe postscript) to bring it bang up to date. So if you’ve only got the hardback, you might need to buy it again.


How Signal is playing with fire • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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There’s nothing sinister about putting payments into a messaging app, and Signal is not alone in adding crypto payments to messaging: the company formerly known as Facebook has undertaken a multiyear effort to create a new currency and integrate it with WhatsApp and Messenger. What sets Signal’s effort apart is the combination of end-to-end encryption in messaging and a cryptocurrency with privacy features designed to make any transactions anonymous.

Last year, current and former Signal employees told me they were worried about what that combination would bring to the app. Anonymous transactions would likely attract criminals, they told me, and that in turn would attract regulatory scrutiny. Given that end-to-end encryption already faces legal challenges around the globe, they said, Signal’s addition of anonymous payments was a needless provocation. And it could give more ammunition to lawmakers who want to end encryption as we know it.

To make my own feelings clear: I’m in favor of end-to-end encryption, because in a world of ubiquitous surveillance and rising authoritarianism, I think it’s important that truly private communication systems are widely available. But I also support anti-money-laundering and Know Your Customer (KYC) laws, which are useful in combating terrorists, murder-for-hire plotters, and other harms. If messaging apps are going to add crypto payments, it seems to me they at least ought to do so in a way that is consistent with those laws.

Other supporters of end-to-end encryption have privately lobbied Signal to be more cautious about its payment plans, I’m told. But Signal, which is funded by a nonprofit organization and relies on donations, has forged ahead anyway.

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Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission, but better not to be regulated out of existence either.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1712: today’s Wordle is ‘clone’, the 25-year road to pig-human transplants, how the iPlayer won, QR phishing, and more

  1. *This image of a home covered in ash from a volcano erupting on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain, on Nov. 1, 2021, will be available as an NFT on AP’s NFT marketplace*

    I right clicked the image and clicked “save”. It is now available to me. I don’t understand why it needs to be available as an NFT, or why I’d pay for it.

    What Am I missing?

    • Well, Tom, you don’t know the moment it was taken, the exposure, the shutter speed, or the camera it was taken with. Wouldn’t you want to pay $$$$$ so that you could be the only person in the world apart from all the other people who can look at EXIF info to know that?

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