Start Up No.1714: MS blamed on glandular fever virus, why NFTs are bad (astrobiologically), are App Store scams on demand?, and more


Even if you’re playing chess anonymously, an AI can probably pick you out by your style (given enough of your back catalogue). Surprised? CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Complete: one. 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?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


The worrisome rise of NFTs • Nautilus

Caleb Scharf is an astrobiologist:

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NFTs are (for now) almost comically bereft of anything most of us would associate with social or cultural value. Down the line there may be value in attaching permanent ownership or provenance to digital works of art. But at the moment it’s Pudgy Penguins for the masses, or a pixel-heavy version of Nyan Cat going for an eye-watering $1.2 million for cynical investors. With an explosive growth of equally speculative and bewildering offerings appearing every day.

This represents a tangible planetary burden. Prompting the people behind the blockchains to try to improve their environmental image. The company Ethereum (that supports cryptocurrency as well as NFTs) has indicated it aims to cut energy use by more than 99% by changing its core methodology. That change will make it possible for aspiring currency “miners” to participate without so much hardware and electricity consumption.

That sounds great but understanding the nature of these changes is not easy, since the whole idea of blockchains is rooted in astonishingly arcane concepts like “proof of work” or “proof of stake” manifested in computer hardware and algorithms. It’s also far from clear that other companies will follow suit, or that the most energy-intensive pieces can ever be fully removed from the scheme without risking the innate reliability that makes the blockchain so appealing in the first place.

The much bigger question, though, has less to do with these emergent upstarts in our informational world and more to do with humanity’s overall trajectory. Any species that endlessly grows, and continually invents energy-hungry processes, may not be destined for a happy ending. At best, such a species will go through boom-and-bust cycles, with big corrective failures. At worst, a species like this simply won’t make it through to the future. NFTs and cryptocurrencies by themselves may not be the cause of a future collapse, but they are symptoms of what ails us. And like all symptoms, they can offer clues to a cure, because the root of the problem may be much deeper—in the fabric of digital information itself.

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Also: “NFTs, an overblown speculative bubble inflated by pop culture and crypto mania“. If only articles criticising NFTs could make them go away.
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Team GB athletes offered temporary phones over China spying fears • The Guardian

Sean Ingle:

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The British Olympic Association will offer temporary phones to Team GB athletes and staff at next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing after fears they could be spied on by the Chinese government.

While the British delegation will not be banned from taking their own mobile devices, they have been warned against doing so by the BOA because it fears the authorities could install spyware to extract private information or track future activity.

A BOA spokesperson said: “We’ve given athletes and staff practical advice so that they can make their own choice as to whether they take their personal devices to the Games, or not. Where they do not want to take their own equipment, we have provisioned temporary devices for them to use.”

The Dutch Olympic Committee*Dutch Sports Federation (NOC*NSF) has gone a step further by telling its athletes not to bring their personal mobile phones or laptops because it anticipates China may carry out surveillance on electronic devices during the Games.

The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant said the NOC*NSF would give athletes and support staff phones and laptops which will be destroyed when they return home.

NOC*NSF spokesperson Geert Slot declined to discuss specific cases but said cybersecurity was part of the risk assessment. “The importance of cybersecurity has grown over the years,” he said. “But China has completely closed off its internet, which makes it a specific case.”

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Don’t remember this in 2008.
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Epstein-Barr virus found to trigger multiple sclerosis • Scientific American

Lydia Denworth:

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A connection between the human herpesvirus Epstein-Barr and multiple sclerosis (MS) has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary cause of mononucleosis and is so common that 95% of adults carry it. Unlike Epstein-Barr, MS, a devastating demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, is relatively rare. It affects 2.8 million people worldwide. But people who contract infectious mononucleosis are at slightly increased risk of developing MS. In the disease, inflammation damages the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells, ultimately disrupting signals to and from the brain and causing a variety of symptoms, from numbness and pain to paralysis.

To prove that infection with Epstein-Barr causes MS, however, a research study would have to show that people would not develop the disease if they were not first infected with the virus. A randomized trial to test such a hypothesis by purposely infecting thousands of people would of course be unethical.

Instead researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School turned to what they call “an experiment of nature.” They used two decades of blood samples from more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the US military (the samples were taken for routine HIV testing). About 5% of those individuals (several hundred thousand people) were negative for Epstein-Barr when they started military service, and 955 eventually developed MS.

…The results, published on September 13 in Science, show that the risk of multiple sclerosis increased 32-fold after infection with Epstein-Barr but not after infection with other viruses. “These findings cannot be explained by any known risk factor for MS and suggest EBV as the leading cause of MS,” the researchers wrote.

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A stronger connection than smoking 25 cigarettes per day v lung cancer. So is the next step some sort of vaccination against EBV?
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Lords Committee pours cold water on UK CBDC • FinExtra

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A Committee of peers in the House of Lords has concluded that there is no convincing case for the creation of a central bank digital currency in the UK.

The Economic Affairs Committee found that while a CBDC may provide some advantages, it could present significant challenges for financial stability and the protection of privacy.

The Bank of England and HM Treasury have been actively pursuing the case for a CBDC, dubbed Britcoin, due to the declining use of cash and the threats to monetary sovereignty posed by private digital currencies.

The upper chamber of the House of Commons commenced its inquiry into the issue in November, taking evidence from the Bank of England and senior banking officials.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Committe Chair, comments: “We took evidence from a variety of witnesses and none of them were able to give us a compelling reason for why the UK needed a central bank digital currency. The concept seems to present a lot of risk for very little reward. We concluded that the idea was a solution in search of a problem.”

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Amen on that one.
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Alleged Apple App Store scammer AmpMe lowers prices and says it’ll investigate its ‘consultants’ • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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AmpMe isn’t a brand-new app that popped up just to scam unsuspecting users out of their money. [In] 2015… we first covered the idea: an app that can sync up a room full of smartphones into a single gigantic speaker with no fees in sight. But as App Store scam hunter Kosta Eleftheriou points out, the app looks seriously shady more than six years later — if you downloaded it yesterday, it would immediately try to sell you on a $9.99 a week automatic recurring subscription. That’s $520 a year, an incredible sum if you pull it out as a party trick and then forget to cancel.

AppFigures estimates the app has raked in $13m since 2018.

As we discussed last April, it’s ridiculously easy to find scams on Apple’s App Store — just follow the money and look at the reviews. If you see an app that charges ridiculous subscription fees, yet still has loads of five-star ratings, something might be off. And if those reviews look absolutely fake, and the app’s barely functional, you’ve probably spotted a scam.

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So Hollister emailed AmpMe, which replied in part:

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To claim that our users are commonly paying $520 per year does not reflect reality. For example, in 2021, the average user that subscribed and took advantage of our free trial paid a total average of $17. If you take only paying users, the average yearly subscription revenue is about $75. Internally, this has reinforced our belief that AmpMe’s pricing is transparent with clear and easy opt-out procedures.

Regarding the reviews, we hear the feedback loud and clear. Through the years, like most startups, we’ve hired outside consultants to help us with marketing and app store optimization. More oversight is needed and that’s what we are currently working on.

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“Outside consultants” is an interesting phrase. It sounds as though there are companies out there ranging around spotting “undermonetised” opportunities on the App Store and perhaps taking a cut when they turn them into moneyspinners through a combination of subscriptions and fake reviews.
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January 6 panel targets social media companies with subpoenas after ‘inadequate responses’ to voluntary request • CNNPolitics

Annie Grayer, Ryan Nobles and Zachary Cohen:

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The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 riot has issued four subpoenas to giant social media conglomerates after the panel said the companies provided “inadequate responses” to its initial request for documents and information over the summer.

The subpoenas were sent to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Alphabet, the parent company to Google and YouTube, Twitter and Reddit.

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps – if any – social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence,” Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson who chairs the committee said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that after months of engagement, we still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions,” he continued.

The committee writes to Alphabet that it believes the company has “significant undisclosed information that is critical to its investigation” about how it moderated its content and how those policies impacted what was on the platform on January 6.

Although Thompson in his letter acknowledges that the committee and Alphabet have had “subsequent engagements” since the panel’s initial reach out in August, he writes that Alphabet “has not demonstrated a commitment to voluntarily and expeditiously” produce the documents being requested.

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Didn’t expect it to be YouTube that got told off. But Thompson is annoyed at the lack of detail from YouTube.
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AI unmasks anonymous chess players, posing privacy risks • Science

Matthew Hutson:

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Chess-playing software, such as Deep Blue and AlphaZero, has long been superhuman. But Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto and principal investigator of the new project, says the chess engines play almost an “alien style” that isn’t very instructive for those seeking to learn or improve their skills. They’d do better to tailor their advice to individual players. But first, they’d need to capture a player’s unique form.

To design and train their AI, the researchers tapped an ample resource: more than 50 million human games played on the Lichess website. They collected games by players who had played at least 1000 times and sampled sequences of up to 32 moves from those games. They coded each move and fed them into a neural network that represented each game as a point in multidimensional space, so that each player’s games formed a cluster of points. The network was trained to maximize the density of each player’s cluster and the distance between those of different players. That required the system to recognize what was distinctive about each player’s style.

The researchers tested the system by seeing how well it distinguished one player from another. They gave the system 100 games from each of about 3000 known players, and 100 fresh games from a mystery player. To make the task harder, they hid the first 15 moves of each game. The system looked for the best match and identified the mystery player 86% of the time, the researchers reported last month at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS). “We didn’t quite believe the results,” says Reid McIlroy-Young, a student in Anderson’s lab and the paper’s primary author. A non-AI method was only 28% accurate.

…The researchers are aware of the privacy risks posed by the system, which could be used to unmask anonymous chess players online. With tweaks, McIlroy-Young says, it could do the same for poker. And in theory, they say, given the right data sets, such systems could identify people based on the quirks of their driving or the timing and location of their cellphone use.

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You can already be identified from your gait, so this is just adding to the dimensions by which you can be deanonymised. Shades of Philip K Dick’s ‘The Unreconstructed M’.

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How Twitter rolled over to get unblocked in Nigeria • Rest of World

Abubakar Idris and Peter Guest:

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Twitter’s negotiated return to Nigeria, which was announced this week, has been in the works for months and was finalized before Jack Dorsey’s departure as the company’s CEO, a senior source in the Nigerian government told Rest of World. 

The senior official, who asked not to be named, said that Twitter had agreed to all of the government’s demands in November 2021. The agreement had been sent to the president for approval in December 2021, but took until January 13 to work its way through the bureaucracy. Dorsey resigned as Twitter CEO on November 29. 

Nigeria ended its seven-month ban on Twitter after the social media company agreed to a list of demands from the government. Twitter will open an office in the capital Abuja, register as a broadcaster, pay taxes, and commit to being sensitive to national security and cohesion, according to documents seen by Rest of World. 

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Paying taxes?! Those things that go to the government?
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The ethics of a second chance: pig heart transplant recipient stabbed a man seven times years ago – The Washington Post

Lizzie Johnson and William Wan:

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Leslie Shumaker Downey was at home babysitting her two grandchildren Monday when a message pinged on her cellphone.

Her daughter had sent a link to a news article about a 57-year-old man with terminal heart disease. Three days earlier at the University of Maryland Medical Center, he had received a genetically modified pig heart. The first-of-its-kind transplant was historic, saving the man’s life and offering the possibility of saving others.

What a great breakthrough for science, Downey thought, reading the headline. Then her phone pinged again.

“Mommmmmmm,” Downey’s daughter wrote. She told her to look at the man’s name.

Downey froze. The man being heralded as a medical pioneer, David Bennett Sr., was the same man who had been convicted in 1988 of stabbing her younger brother seven times, leaving him paralyzed. Edward Shumaker had spent the next 19 years using a wheelchair, before he had a stroke in 2005 and died two years later — one week before his 41st birthday.

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If one were into writing sermons, this would be a terrific opener.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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