Start Up No.1726: NYT buys Wordle, counting the unboosted US Covid casualties, search for old books and lost internet, and more

In game news, Sony missed out on buying Wordle and ended up with Bungie, makers of Destiny 2, for a few billion dollars. CC-licensed photo by Stefans02Stefans02 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 10 links for you. Five letters into seven figures? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem isn’t going away • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


Daniel Ek, Spotify’s chief executive, published the requisite blog post on Sunday, defending the company’s commitment to free expression and saying that “it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor.” And while Spotify declined to take action against Mr. Rogan, it committed to putting advisory warnings on podcast episodes about Covid-19, and directing listeners to a hub filled with authoritative health information.

Despite its surface similarities, Mr. Rogan’s Spotify standoff is different from most other clashes between creators and tech platforms in a few key ways.

For one, Spotify isn’t merely one of many apps that distribute Mr. Rogan’s podcast. The streaming service paid more than $100m for exclusive rights to “The Joe Rogan Experience” in 2020, making him the headline act for its growing podcast division. Critics say that deal, along with the aggressive way Spotify has promoted Mr. Rogan’s show inside its app, gives the company more responsibility for his show than others it carries.

Another difference is who wields the leverage in this conflict. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are ad-supported businesses; if advertisers disagree with moderation decisions, they can threaten to inflict financial damage by pulling their campaigns. (Whether these boycotts actually accomplish anything is another question.)

Spotify, by contrast, makes most of its money from subscriptions, so it’s unlikely to suffer financially from its handling of Mr. Rogan unless there’s a wave of account cancellations. And given how few Netflix subscribers appear to have canceled their subscriptions during last year’s dust-up with Mr. Chappelle, Spotify can probably breathe easy on this front for now.


Still not quite finished: question becomes which star will decide to threaten next, or whether Rogan will clean up his act. Spotify’s position as a publisher that picked Rogan for an exclusive, not a neutral “platform” on which the content appears (as with Apple’s Podcasts, which is just a search engine), makes all the difference here.
unique link to this extract

WhatsApp wants Americans to know your SMS texts aren’t safe • Fast Company

Jeff Beer:


It’s not normal for your mail to arrive with the envelopes already open. Nor is it reasonable to expect that Amazon or FedEx box to land on your doorstep unsealed and agape. So why don’t Americans feel any different about the 5.5 billion unencrypted SMS text messages they send every single day? This analogy is the central point of the messaging platform WhatsApp’s first-ever U.S. brand campaign.

WhatsApp has about 2 billion daily users across 180 countries, and they send more than 100 billion messages daily. But WhatsApp is far more popular and widely used in countries, such as India, which reportedly has more WhatsApp users than the United States has residents.

There are a number of reasons why WhatsApp is more widely used globally than locally. In particular, it gained widespread adoption when international carriers were charging high fees for text messages, and WhatsApp was free. Meanwhile, in the United States, wireless carriers in the smartphone era started to offer free SMS messaging as an inducement to sign up, creating less incentive to adopt WhatsApp when there were already free SMS, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger, to name three alternatives. Americans also have traditionally exhibited a lack of concern, or even awareness, around privacy issues, favoring convenience and free services (which, of course, has generally been a boon to Facebook and other platforms).


As analogies go, it’s pretty weak, and nobody worries about their email not being encrypted either. A better option would be to point out that WhatsApp offers group texting that probably works better than SMS. Except that Signal offers the same, isn’t associated with Facebook, and has better tapbacks.

OK, maybe they should stick with the analogy to post. (IME you can’t get Americans to move to WhatsApp. That dog won’t hunt.)
unique link to this extract

This company says it’s developing a system that can recognize your face from just your DNA • MIT Technology Review

Tate Ryan-Mosley:


Corsight AI, a facial recognition subsidiary of the Israeli AI company Cortica, purports to be devising a solution for that sort of situation by using DNA to create a model of a face that can then be run through a facial recognition system. It is a task that experts in the field regard as scientifically untenable. 

Corsight unveiled its “DNA to Face” product in a presentation by chief executive officer Robert Watts and executive vice president Ofer Ronen intended to court financiers at the Imperial Capital Investors Conference in New York City on December 15. It was part of the company’s overall product road map, which also included movement and voice recognition.


It’s complete and utter bollocks. You cannot predict phenotype (what it looks like) from genotype (the DNA), apart from saying they’ll be human, male or female, perhaps eye and hair colour. Beyond that, nothing, and it’s crazy that MIT TR ran this. The idea seems to come up every few years or so, though. This was a debunking of the last one, where the summary concludes that it “finally does not really identify anyone”.
unique link to this extract

‘Pandemic of the unboosted’: low US Covid jab uptake piles pressure on hospitals • Financial Times

Oliver Barnes, John Burn-Murdoch and Jamie Smyth:


Almost half of the US Covid-19 hospitalisations this winter could have been averted if the country had matched the vaccination coverage of leading European countries, according to a Financial Times analysis of the Omicron variant’s impact on either side of the Atlantic.

The data show large pockets of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people in the US have placed more pressure on hospitals during the Omicron wave than in European nations with higher immunisation rates. The analysis supports the findings of scientists and accounts of frontline medics who say lower vaccination levels are perpetuating the pandemic in the US.

The number of Covid patients in US hospitals on January 19 would have peaked at 91,000 instead of 161,000 if the US had the same rates of vaccine coverage in each age-group as Denmark, 100,000 if the US had matched the UK, and 109,000 if the US uptake rates looked like Portugal’s, the analysis showed.

Across the seven months since July, spanning the Delta and Omicron waves, US daily patient numbers would have averaged 39,000 — rather than the 80,000 recorded — had its vaccination coverage tracked that of Portugal.

The new data underline the logic behind US President Joe Biden’s often fraught efforts to convince vaccine holdouts to get jabbed. This drive took a further hit last week as his administration was forced to withdraw its vaccination and testing mandate for large businesses following a Supreme Court ruling.


It feels like the vaccination programs in developed countries that have pushed them have hit a wall. The UK government has abandoned its requirement for frontline (ie patient-contact) staff to be vaccinated because tens of thousands simply refuse to, and would therefore have had to be fired, creating a colossal and abrupt staff shortage.

Perhaps it could have worked by partitioning (on age, time of service, type of work) so that it wouldn’t all happen at once.
unique link to this extract

Sony acquires Bungie, studio behind Destiny 2, in $3.6bn deal • Polygon

Michael McWhertor:


Sony is buying Bungie, the developer of Destiny 2 and the studio that originally created Halo, in a deal worth $3.6bn, Sony Interactive Entertainment announced Monday.

Bungie will remain a multiplatform studio — Destiny 2 is available on PlayStation, PC, and Xbox platforms — with the option to self-publish its games. The studio “will remain independent and multi-platform, will enjoy creative freedom, and their track record in developing massively successful franchises in the sci-fi shooter genre will be highly complementary to SIE’s own IP portfolio,” SIE president Jim Ryan explained in a statement.

“We will continue to independently publish and creatively develop our games,” Pete Parsons, CEO and chairman of Bungie, added in a statement. “We will continue to drive one, unified Bungie community. Our games will continue to be where our community is, wherever they choose to play.​”

Bungie addressed concerns from the Destiny 2 player base in an FAQ about the new deal, promising that nothing will change about the game’s availability on existing platforms. In a graphic outlining Bungie and PlayStation’s “shared vision,” Bungie said:

• “Destiny 2 will stay on all current platforms and expand to new platforms”
• “Bungie maintains full creative control and publishing independence of the Destiny universe”
• “Same game, everywhere — Every player should have an amazing Destiny experience, no matter where you choose to play”


Following Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision for a rather more substantial $68.7bn. That’s quite some consolidation. Sony Game & Network Services, the gaming arm of Sony, already has annual revenues of around $20bn. It’s becoming a two-horse race, and Nintendo (in revenue terms) on a donkey.
unique link to this extract

Wordle is joining the New York Times Games • The New York Times Company


“If you’re like me, you probably wake up every morning thinking about Wordle, and savoring those precious moments of discovery, surprise and accomplishment. The game has done what so few games have done: It has captured our collective imagination, and brought us all a little closer together. We could not be more thrilled to become the new home and proud stewards of this magical game, and are honored to help bring Josh Wardle’s cherished creation to more solvers in the months ahead,” said Jonathan Knight, general manager for The New York Times Games. “As part of our portfolio of games, Wordle will have an exciting future with the help of a team of talented engineers, designers, editors and more, furthering the user experience.”

[Wordle inventor Josh] Wardle added, “If you’ve followed along with the story of Wordle, you’ll know that New York Times Games play a big part in its origins, and so this step feels very natural to me. I’ve long admired The Times’s approach to the quality of their games and the respect with which they treat their players. Their values are aligned with mine on these matters and I’m thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward.”

At the time it moves to The New York Times, Wordle will be free to play for new and existing players, and no changes will be made to its gameplay.

Wordle was acquired for an undisclosed price in the low-seven figures.


So, a million or few. Probably about a dollar per user. In a few months. Wonder how that compares to the Bungie acquisition in per-user pricing.

Notice also the clever wording: “At the time it moves to the NYT, World will be free to play…” Which certainly doesn’t rule out putting a paywall around it at some point. Though Wardle did say there are enough five-letter words in the game as set up to go for a few years, and that’s effectively open source, so expect plenty of clones in no time at all.
unique link to this extract

Automated image recognition: how using ‘free’ photos on the internet can lead to lawsuits and fines • Computer Weekly/Süddeutsche Zeitung

Chad O’Carroll, Sophie Lamotte and Bill Goodwin:


Copyright trolling – the enforcement of copyright claims for money through threat and litigation – is nothing new. But Marco Verch has developed the activity in sophisticated ways.

In the US, Verch works with a controversial lawyer, Richard Liebowitz, dubbed a “copyright troll” by a US judge for filing more than 1,120 copyright suits.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of Verch in the US threaten alleged infringers with damages of up to a statutory maximum of $150,000 each.

Many photographers use image search technology, which makes it relatively straightforward to crawl the web to find copies of images that are being used without permission, to legitimately enforce their rights. Automation tools allow these searches to be conducted at a mass scale not previously possible.

But Verch has taken this further by producing huge numbers of images that are protected with licensing conditions. Using his own software and third-party enforcement services, he identifies individuals and organisations that have broken his licensing rules, often unwittingly, leaving them open to be targeted for fines and potentially legal enforcement.

His activities are completely legal, but have resulted in people – some of whom can barely afford to pay – receiving demands for hundreds of euros after making genuine mistakes.


I happened to use a Verch photo the other day. I think I linked it correctly, but after being alerted (thanks Ryan S) I removed it. This sort of trolling is so antiquated. And annoying.
unique link to this extract

Marginalia Search


This is an independent DIY search engine that focuses on non-commercial content, and attempts to show you sites you perhaps weren’t aware of in favour of the sort of sites you probably already knew existed.

The software for this search engine is all custom-built, and all crawling and indexing is done in-house.

This search engine isn’t particularly well equipped to answering queries posed like questions, instead try to imagine some text that might appear in the website you are looking for, and search for that.

A concrete example: How do I cook steak? will probably not be helpful. Steak Recipe will give better results (just Steak is pretty good too).


A lot more explanation on the “About” page, which asks:


Ever feel like the Internet has gotten a bit… I don’t know, samey? There’s funny images scrolling by and you blow some air through your nose and keep scrolling and then someone has done something upsetting and you write an angry comment and then you scroll some more.

Remember when used to explore the Internet, when you used to discover cool little websites made by people and it wasn’t just a bunch of low effort content mill listicles and blog spam?

I want to show you that that Internet you used to go exploring is still very much there.


No idea who’s behind it, but an interesting question.
unique link to this extract

A search engine that finds you weird old books • Debugger

Clive Thompson:


Last fall, I wrote about the concept of “rewilding your attention” — why it’s good to step away from the algorithmic feeds of big social media and find stranger stuff in nooks of the Internet.

I followed it up with a post about “9 Ways to Rewild Your Attention” — various strategies I’d developed to hunt down unexpected material.

One of those strategies? “Reading super-old books online.”

As I noted, I often find it fun to poke around in books from the 1800s and 1700s, using Google Books or…

Any book published in the U.S. before 1925 is in the public domain, so you can do amazingly fun book-browsing online. I’ll go to or Google Books and pump in a search phrase, then see what comes up. (In Google Books, sort the results by date — pick a range that ends in 1924 — and by “full view,” and you’ll get public-domain books that are free to read entirely.)

I cannot recommend this more highly. The amount of fascinating stuff you can encounter in old books and magazines is delightful.

I still do this! Old books are socially and culturally fascinating; they give you a glimpse into how much society has changed, and also what’s remained the same. The writing styles can be delightfully archaic, but also sometimes amazingly fresh. Nonfiction writers from 1780 can be colloquial and funny as hell.


So he built a search engine to find old books: you put in a topic, and off it goes. Could be useful for anyone writing a historical novel, I’d have thought.
unique link to this extract

We all need to stop only seeing the dark side of crypto • WIRED

Boaz Sobrado:


amid the noise, the enthusiasm, and the hype, we might be losing the most important story: the way cryptocurrency is changing lives in the developing world.

Take for example, Cuba, a country where internet penetration went from less than 40% in 2015 to an estimated 70% to 80% today. Like most people, Cubans want to buy things and sell things online—but, unlike most people, they cannot buy anything online using a debit or credit card. Due to US sanctions, ordinary Cubans find themselves cut off from the global financial system: They cannot start a Spotify subscription, buy a domain name, or pay for a website-hosting service using a card. This means that if Cubans wish to partake in online commerce, particularly with another country, they have to use cryptocurrencies. And where there’s a need, there’s a way.

Cubans have found solutions such as Bitrefill, a site that sells gift cards from Spotify and other companies for cryptocurrency. Data from Bitrefill for June 2021 shows that four times as many people buy Cuban digital products (such as Cubacel phone top-ups) using cryptocurrencies as buy similar US products, on a population-adjusted basis.

Crypto has deeply penetrated the country to the extent that Cuba’s Communist Party, a conservative Marxist institution not known for its technological savviness, has instructed the Central Bank of Cuba to regulate the use of cryptocurrencies and to study how they can be used to help the government avoid US sanctions. Paradoxically, officials in the US State Department are rumored to be looking into how cryptocurrencies can be used to set up remittance networks that bypass the hefty taxes extracted by the Cuban government.


Honourable mentions too for Venezuela and sub-Saharan Africa, though I’m still unsure that anyone has reliable data about El Salvador. Sobrado might not be an entirely unbiased source on this; he is “is a data analyst, fintech entrepreneur and founder of Cuba-based tourism website”. But I’m always willing to hear life-improving uses of cryptocurrency, like this.
unique link to this extract

• 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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.