Start Up No.1767: social media v teens, another huge web3 hack, FinFisher bankrupt?, the origin of “Skip Intro”, Russia’s army flop, and more

The latest game where AI has become a contender is contract bridge – though not yet the bidding process. CC-licensed photo by Roger W on Flickr.

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

Social media might be bad for teens’ mental health at certain age windows • The Verge

Nicole Wetsman:


[University of Cambridge psychologist Amy] Orben and her team first looked at a survey of over 72,000 people 10 to 80 years old in the United Kingdom. They were surveyed up to seven times each between 2011 and 2018 and asked a series of questions that included their life satisfaction and the amount of time they estimated they spent on social media each day.

Narrowing in on adolescents, the team found that for people in the 16- to 21-year-old age range, both very low and very high social media use were both linked with lower life satisfaction. In 10- to 15-year-olds, there wasn’t much difference in life satisfaction between kids reporting low and high social media use. But in that group, girls with high social media use had lower life satisfaction than boys.

The team also examined data from a survey given to over 17,000 10- to 21-year-olds, identifying separate windows for boys and girls in their early teens where higher social media use was linked with lower life satisfaction a year later — 14 to 15 for boys and 11 to 13 for girls. The relationship showed up for both sexes at age 19. The windows seem to map on to the start of puberty for both boys and girls (girls tend to hit puberty earlier) and a major social transition — many young adults in the UK leave home at around 19.

Other types of research could help figure out the reasons for those windows, Orben says: studies looking at things like sensitivity to social rejection or impulse control, compared with these sorts of data sets, could help understand why kids at certain ages might have worse experiences after using social media.

Orben cautioned that there are limitations to the study — it can’t show that social media use caused changes in life satisfaction, just that there’s a relationship. It also relies on people reporting how much they use social media, which could be inaccurate. That’s a challenge for most social media research. Companies like Meta don’t give researchers access to internal data that could give scientists a more objective look at social media use — things like how long people use the platforms or who they’re interacting with.

Future research could help identify the groups of adolescents and teenagers who might have the most negative impacts from social media.


This is precisely what I found when I researched the topic for Social Warming, in a chapter about the effects of social media on children which had to be cut for reasons of length.
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Artificial intelligence beats eight world champions at bridge • The Guardian

Laura Spinney:


French startup NukkAI announced the news of its AI’s victory on Friday, at the end of a two-day tournament in Paris.

The NukkAI challenge required the human champions to play 800 consecutive deals divided into 80 sets of 10. It did not involve the initial bidding component of the game during which players arrive at a contract that they must then meet by playing their cards.

Each champion played their own and their “dummy” partner’s cards against a pair of opponents. These opponents were the best robot champions in the world to date – robots that have won many robot competitions but that are universally acknowledged to be nowhere near as good as expert human players.

The AI – called NooK – played the same role as the human champion, with the same cards and the same opponents. The score was the difference between those of the human and the AI, averaged over each set. NooK won 67, or 83%, of the 80 sets.

Jean-Baptiste Fantun, co-founder of NukkAI, said he had been confident the machine – which the company has been developing for five years – would triumph in thousands of deals, but with only 800 it was touch-and-go.

Announcing the results, the mathematician Cédric Villani, winner of the Fields medal in 2010, called NukkAI “a superb French success story”.

AI researcher Véronique Ventos, NukkAI’s other co-founder, calls NooK a “new generation AI” because it explains its decisions as it goes along. “In bridge, you can’t play if you don’t explain,” she says.


Not doing the bidding seems like a big element to miss out, and is really where at least half the human subtlety of contract bridge comes in. (Tell me whether bidding is more or less than half, contract bridge fans.)

An accompanying piece: how Deep Blue paved the way for modern AI.
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Axie Infinity’s Ronin network suffers $625m exploit •

Andrew thurman:


An attacker “used hacked private keys in order to forge fake withdrawals” from the Ronin bridge across two transactions, as seen on Etherscan.

While the Ronin sidechain has nine validators requiring five signatures for withdrawals and is meant to protect against these types of attacks, the blog post notes that “the attacker found a backdoor through our gas-free RPC node, which they abused to get the signature for the Axie DAO validator.”

The blog post pegged the losses at 173,600 ether and 25.5m in USDC, currently worth in excess of $625m.

Back in August 2021, a hacker made off with $611m in an exploit of cross-chain decentralized finance (DeFi) protocol Poly Network. The vast majority of the funds were returned.

The Ronin attacker’s Ethereum address is a fresh address that transferred ETH in from the Binance exchange one week ago. Etherscan records show that the attack took place last Wednesday.


Most of that’s gobbledygook, isn’t it. A backdoor through our gas-free RPC node? The problem for the thieves is always how you spend it, because the offramps from crypto are well-policed.
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FinFisher claims insolvency amid German government investigation • Gizmodo

Lucas Ropek:


FinFisher is no more. Long accused of helping authoritarian governments to spy on political dissidents and activists, the creepy surveillance company has abruptly shut down amidst an ongoing investigation into its business dealings.

On Monday, Bloomberg reported that the Munich-based spyware firm had shuttered its offices after quietly filing for insolvency this past February.

The company, which is known for its powerful and invasive malware “FinSpy,” has been under investigation by the German government since 2019 over allegations that it illegally sold spyware to the government of Turkey without acquiring the requisite export license. The spyware, which was allegedly used to monitor the phones of political activists in the country, is known for its ability to pilfer data and listen-in on mobile users.

The company’s implosion last month will likely affect German officials’ probe. At the time of the announced insolvency, authorities had been in the process of pursuing authorization to seize assets allegedly “obtained from an illegal act.” Though the investigation is ongoing, the asset seizure will no longer be possible, since the company no longer exists.


Wonder if the software will resurface at a newly created company in a week or two.
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Verizon blames ‘bad actors’ for the spam text you got from your own number • The Verge

Chris Welch:


Yesterday, I wrote about receiving a spam text that bizarrely looked as though it came from my own phone number. But what initially seemed like a random, spoofed spam message is increasingly starting to look like a focused effort targeting Verizon Wireless, one of the largest telecoms in the United States. Today, the carrier confirmed it’s aware of the situation and is investigating the matter with the help of US law enforcement.

“Verizon is aware that bad actors are sending spam text messages to some customers which appear to come from the customers’ own number,” Verizon spokesperson Rich Young told The Verge by email. “Our team is actively working to block these messages, and we have engaged with US law enforcement to identify and stop the source of this fraudulent activity. Verizon continues to work on behalf of the customer to prevent spam texts and related activity.”

In the hours since we published our original story, many more Verizon customers have reported receiving that same exact text about a free gift with a link at the end. In my case, the link forwarded me to Channel One Russia, a Russian state media network.

At the moment, however, Verizon says “we have no indication that this fraudulent activity is originating in Russia.” The deluge of texts comes as many US companies remain on high alert for potential retaliatory cybersecurity attacks from Russia over the severe US sanctions that resulted from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Other major US carriers have not received the same mass wave of spam texts that are spoofed with customers’ own numbers, leading to some speculation of an internal breach at Verizon or a more sophisticated attack than run-of-the-mill spam. But according to Young, Verizon’s network hasn’t been compromised. “We believe this activity is being generated from external bad actors with no direct tie to our company,” he said.


If it’s external, and Verizon’s systems haven’t been compromised, why are only Verizon numbers being hit?
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Looking back on the origin of ‘Skip Intro’ five years later • About Netflix

Cameron Johnson is director of product innovation:


some designers and I were discussing how to help members get the most out of their Netflix experience. Sometimes you want to find a particular moment you love — that awesome action scene or the big reveal of that can’t-believe-it twist —  or rewatch a favorite joke.

An idea was floated to add skip forward and skip backward buttons in 10-second increments. The reason to offer a skip back 10 seconds was obvious: maybe you got distracted and missed a particular moment. 

But why skip forward 10 seconds?

Well, you might want to skip the opening credits. But no one could come up with any other compelling reasons. 

At the same time, I was watching Game of Thrones, which has a famously long (and beautiful) opening credits sequence. I found the show so compelling that I wanted to skip the credits and jump right into the story, and I found it frustrating to try to manually jump forward to the just the right place. Sometimes I would jump too far, and sometimes I would jump too short. I wondered whether other people felt the same.

We did research and found that in about 15% of the time members were manually advancing the series within the first five minutes. This gave us confidence that a lot of people wanted to skip the intro.

Rather than build a general purpose solution that might help a little with several different needs, like a skip forward 10 seconds button, we designed a single purpose solution that did only one thing really well. 


Gets used 136 million times a day, he says, saving people a cumulative 195 years daily. (195 years is ~102m minutes, so about 80 seconds on average per intro sequence. Or 40 seconds if it’s watched by two people.) Redolent of the days of Flash websites, which definitely had “Skip intro”.
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Communication breakdown: how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bogged down • Radio Free Europe

Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov:


[independent military analyst specialising in telecoms, Stanimir] Dobrev also says that [Russian] forward detachments in the early days of the war appeared to have outrun their communications support.

“The Russian battalion tactical groups immediately went a much greater distance from the border, [and] at the same time, we didn’t see equipment that could provide secure communication with the command post along with them,” he said.

He says repeater cars and new communication towers need to be installed along the way, and their set-up and use require experienced operators. “Indirectly, this indicates that the Russian offensive groups didn’t expect to stay on the road for a long time,” Dobrev said.

He and other observers also note that clear signs have emerged of interception of communication between Russian special services and other troops that should otherwise be on encrypted channels.

Christo Grozev, of the open-source sleuthing group Bellingcat, cited a “super expensive cryptophone system” introduced by Russia in 2021 seemingly being intercepted because it requires a 3G or 4G cellular network to operate.

“The cellular networks are still controlled by Ukraine, which means that for the Ukrainian military they remain a relatively secure means of communication from eavesdropping,” Dobrev said.

Not so for Russians using those same networks, or, obviously, Ukrainian fixed lines.


It’s a pretty long, in-depth assessment of how badly the Russian telecoms system has failed its military. Which it has done in many ways.
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Ukraine will not be like Korea; dogged resistance will turn it into Putin’s ‘bleeding ulcer’ • The Conversation

Frank Ledwidge is senior lecturer in military capabilities and strategy at the University of Portsmouth:


Nato has applied the lessons of Iraq to develop new thinking on setting up effective resistance forces against Russian forces. For some time Ukrainian, US and other intelligence agencies will have been identifying and supplying the territorial defence leaders behind Russian lines, and they have been effective in disrupting Russian supply lines and logistics.

Should Ukraine be split as Putin plans, this will not be a frozen conflict, as Korea is. Nor will it resemble Abkhazia or Chechnya, uneasy though they both remain, under the control of a Russian puppet Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya and military occupation in the breakaway Georgian region. Even Afghanistan in the 1980s will pale in comparison.

From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon.

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail.


The key question is what happens in the Donbas and Crimea. Would those really be regained by Ukraine?
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Motorola emerges as US’ #3 smartphone OEM in 2021 for first time • Counterpoint Research

Varun Mishra:


Motorola emerged as the third-largest smartphone brand in the US in 2021, according to Counterpoint Research’s Market Pulse Service. In 2008, when feature phones were dominant, Motorola was the largest handset (smartphones and feature phones combined) OEM in the US. However, within the smartphone segment, this is the first time ever that Motorola has entered the top three in the US market for a full year.

Motorola’s sales more than doubled in 2021, growing 131% YoY. While Apple and Samsung dominate the premium price bands, Motorola rose through the ranks to become the #2 smartphone player in the $400 and below price segment in the US.


Sounds amazing (especially since Motorola has gone through a near-death experience over the years, being sold by Google to Lenovo, which faffed around with it for ages). But then you look at the graph, and it shows that Motorola’s share was 10%. Apple had 58%, and Samsung 22%. Motorola only got there because LG gave up, after years of losing money in the business.
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We study virus evolution. Here’s where we think the coronavirus is going • The New York Times

Sarah Cobey, Jesse Bloom, Tyler Starr and Nathaniel Lash:


It’s impossible to say whether future variants will have more big Omicron-like jumps or more typical stepwise changes, but we are confident SARS-CoV-2 will continue to evolve to escape immunity.

While transmissibility of viruses does plateau at a certain point, other human viruses that escape immunity keep doing so. The influenza vaccine has been updated annually for decades to chase viral evolution, and some influenza viruses show no sign of slowing down. Immune escape is an endless evolutionary arms race, because the immune system can always make new antibodies and the virus has a vast set of mutations to explore in response. For instance, Omicron has just a tiny fraction of the many mutations that have been observed in SARS-CoV-2 or related bat viruses, which are in turn just a small fraction of what lab experiments suggest the virus could potentially explore.

Taking all this together, we expect SARS-CoV-2 will continue to cause new epidemics, but they will increasingly be driven by the ability to skirt the immune system. In this sense, the future may look something like the seasonal flu, where new variants cause waves of cases each year. If this happens, which we expect it will, vaccines may need to be updated regularly similar to the flu vaccines unless we develop broader variant-proof vaccines.


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• 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?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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