Start Up No.1785: EU outlaws dark patterns and opens up algorithms, Twitter talking to Musk, why fewer roads speeds up roads, and more


Playing Pokémon Go has been linked to a drop in depression-related internet searches, a new study says. Was it the fresh air or the company? CC-licensed photo by PaintimpactPaintimpact on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not in the Sue Gray report. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Google, Meta, and others will have to explain their algorithms under new EU legislation • The Verge

James Vincent:

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The final text of the DSA [Digital Services Act] has yet to be released, but the European Parliament and European Commission have detailed a number of obligations it will contain:
• Targeted advertising based on an individuals’ religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity is banned. Minors cannot be subject to targeted advertising either
• “Dark patterns” — confusing or deceptive user interfaces designed to steer users into making certain choices — will be prohibited. The EU says that, as a rule, cancelling subscriptions should be as easy as signing up for them
• Large online platforms like Facebook will have to make the working of their recommender algorithms (e.g. used for sorting content on the News Feed or suggesting TV shows on Netflix) transparent to users. Users should also be offered a recommender system “not based on profiling.” In the case of Instagram, for example, this would mean a chronological feed (as it introduced recently)
• Hosting services and online platforms will have to explain clearly why they have removed illegal content, as well as give users the ability to appeal such takedowns. The DSA itself does not define what content is illegal, though, and leaves this up to individual countries
• The largest online platforms will have to provide key data to researchers to “provide more insight into how online risks evolve”
• Online marketplaces must keep basic information about traders on their platform to track down individuals selling illegal goods or services
• Large platforms will also have to introduce new strategies for dealing with misinformation during crises (a provision inspired by the recent invasion of Ukraine).

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The targeted advertising ban might be tricky (people have wondered how, say, hairdressers specialising in ethnic hairstyles should find clients). Policing dark patterns will be fun (who decides it’s “dark”, and who forces the change?). And the recommendation algorithm element is really putting the cat among the pigeons.

What’s more, the DSA will likely come into force more quickly than the Digital Markets Act. Popcorn time!
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Twitter reexamines Elon Musk’s bid, may be more receptive to a deal • WSJ

Cara Lombardo:

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Twitter is re-examining Elon Musk’s $43bn takeover offer after the billionaire lined up financing for the bid, in a sign the social-media company could be more receptive to a deal.

Twitter had been expected to rebuff the offer, which Mr. Musk made earlier this month without saying how he would pay for it. But after he disclosed last week that he now has $46.5bn in financing, Twitter is taking a fresh look at the offer and is more likely than before to seek to negotiate, people familiar with the matter said. The situation is fast-moving and it is still far from guaranteed Twitter will do so.

Twitter is still working on an all-important estimate of its own value, which would need to come in close to Mr. Musk’s offer, and it could also insist on sweeteners such as Mr. Musk agreeing to cover breakup protections should the deal fall apart, some of the people said.

The two sides are meeting Sunday to discuss Mr. Musk’s proposal, the people said.

Twitter is expected to weigh in on the bid when it reports first-quarter earnings Thursday, if not sooner, the people said. Twitter’s response won’t necessarily be black-and-white, and could leave the door open for inviting other bidders or negotiating with Mr. Musk on terms other than price. Mr. Musk reiterated to Twitter’s chairman Bret Taylor in recent days that he won’t budge from his offer of $54.20-a-share, the people said

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What negotiation does Twitter’s board think are feasible? Even meeting him is a sign of weakness, and he’ll recognise that. He’ll eat them alive.

The reality though is that Musk’s plan will fail on two fronts (but note proviso). First: Twitter has already tried free speech maximalism: it ends badly with out-of-control pile-ons and terrorist videos. Second: Musk’s borrowing would require about $1bn per year just to cover the debt interest, and Twitter has never generated that level of free cash flow, ever.

The proviso: it might do if Musk creates a new business model that brings in more money. I think Ben Thompson’s one might be worth a try.
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Removing roads and traffic lights speeds urban travel • Scientific American

Linda Baker:

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Conventional traffic engineering assumes that given no increase in vehicles, more roads mean less congestion. So when planners in Seoul tore down a six-lane highway a few years ago and replaced it with a five-mile-long park, many transportation professionals were surprised to learn that the city’s traffic flow had actually improved, instead of worsening. “People were freaking out,” recalls Anna Nagurney, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies computer and transportation networks. “It was like an inverse of Braess’s paradox.”

The brainchild of mathematician Dietrich Braess of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, the eponymous paradox unfolds as an abstraction: it states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency. The Seoul project inverts this dynamic: closing a highway—that is, reducing network capacity—improves the system’s effectiveness.

Although Braess’s paradox was first identified in the 1960s and is rooted in 1920s economic theory, the concept never gained traction in the automobile-oriented US. But in the 21st century, economic and environmental problems are bringing new scrutiny to the idea that limiting spaces for cars may move more people more efficiently. A key to this counterintuitive approach to traffic design lies in manipulating the inherent self-interest of all drivers.

A case in point is “The Price of Anarchy in Transportation Networks,” published last September in Physical Review Letters by Michael Gastner, a computer scientist at the Santa Fe Institute, and his colleagues. Using hypothetical and real-world road networks, they explain that drivers seeking the shortest route to a given destination eventually reach what is known as the Nash equilibrium, in which no single driver can do any better by changing his or her strategy unilaterally. The problem is that the Nash equilibrium is less efficient than the equilibrium reached when drivers act unselfishly—that is, when they coordinate their movements to benefit the entire group.

The “price of anarchy” is a measure of the inefficiency caused by selfish drivers. Analyzing a commute from Harvard Square to Boston Common, the researchers found that the price can be high: selfish drivers typically waste 30% more time than they would under “socially optimal” conditions.

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When they say “socially optimal” do they mean “on public transport”? I happened across this paradox by accident, but its implications are colossal. It even applies to semiconductor circuits: add more connections and you can reduce effective electron flow. This article is from 2009, but nothing has changed (except maybe people are less willing to listen to the experts who explain why building Yet Another Road won’t actually help).
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Pokemon Go study found it led to “decrease in depression-related internet searches” • The Gamer

Issy Van der Velde:

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Many of us remember the summer of 2016. Just about everyone was playing Pokemon Go. People would go out late at night just to catch a rare Pokemon and find others in their town right there alongside them. Some areas even reported more traffic accidents as people were so concerned with catching-’em-all they didn’t look at the roads.

A recent study by the London School of Economics looked into how the global phenomenon affected local depression trends. Since the game had a staggered launch, the study was able to compare the amount of depression-related searches in areas that had access to the game and areas that didn’t.

What it found was that there were fewer searches for depression-related terms such as ‘depression’, ‘stress’, and ‘anxiety’, suggesting “location-based mobile games may decrease the prevalence of local rates of depression.” The effect doesn’t seem to have been permanent, as the study found the effects, while significant, were short-term.

The study isn’t trying to claim going outside for a bit cures depression. “In the paper, the authors are keen to stress that their findings only relate to those suffering from non-clinical forms of mild depression and not those suffering with chronic or severe depressive disorders.”

However, the study believes the reason Pokemon Go led to fewer depression-related searches is that it, and other location-based video games, “encourage outdoor physical activity, face-to-face socialisation and exposure to nature.” All things that tend to make people happier.

The study argues that its findings highlight the mental health opportunities of video games like Pokemon Go, and that due to their relatively low cost and accessibility they may be of more interest to people who make public health laws and policies.

Again, it’s important to stress that the study is not claiming going outside for a bit can cure clinical depression. It’s found that being out in nature, socialising face-to-face, and mild exercise can help alleviate symptoms of mild depression.

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Seems sort-of obvious, but nevertheless good. Maybe AR systems will bring similar side benefits.
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AkuDreams NFT project earns $34m that its team will never be able to withdraw • web3 Is Going Great

Molly White:

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Micah Johnson, an artist and former professional baseball player, launched an astronaut-themed NFT project called AkuDreams. The auction was based around a Dutch auction, with the added twist that the lowest bid would set the final price for the NFT and all higher bids would be refunded.

The contract suffered from several flaws, however. The first allowed an exploiter to stop all refunds and withdrawals from the contract. Luckily for the team, the exploiter was well-intentioned and only intended to highlight the issue; they removed the block shortly after, leaving a message urging the team to have their contracts audited before release.

AkuDreams were not so lucky with the second issue. A bug in the code failed to account for users minting multiple NFTs in a single transaction, which made it so that the claimProjectFunds function that would allow the team to withdraw their earnings can never successfully execute. This means that the team can never withdraw the 11,539 ETH ($34m) earned from the NFT sales—it is stuck there forever.

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So it’s a sort of self-destructing safe that sets fire to the contents if ever opened. A work of staggering genius.
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Anomaly Six demonstrated its surveillance powers by spying on CIA • The Intercept

Sam Biddle and Jack Poulson:

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In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two obscure American startups met to discuss a potential surveillance partnership that would merge the ability to track the movements of billions of people via their phones with a constant stream of data purchased directly from Twitter. According to Brendon Clark of Anomaly Six — or “A6” — the combination of its cellphone location-tracking technology with the social media surveillance provided by Zignal Labs would permit the U.S. government to effortlessly spy on Russian forces as they amassed along the Ukrainian border, or similarly track Chinese nuclear submarines. To prove that the technology worked, Clark pointed A6’s powers inward, spying on the National Security Agency and CIA, using their own cellphones against them.

…According to audiovisual recordings of an A6 presentation reviewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, the firm claims that it can track roughly 3 billion devices in real time, equivalent to a fifth of the world’s population. The staggering surveillance capacity was cited during a pitch to provide A6’s phone-tracking capabilities to Zignal Labs, a social media monitoring firm that leverages its access to Twitter’s rarely granted “firehose” data stream to sift through hundreds of millions of tweets per day without restriction. With their powers combined, A6 proposed, Zignal’s corporate and governmental clients could not only surveil global social media activity, but also determine who exactly sent certain tweets, where they sent them from, who they were with, where they’d been previously, and where they went next.

…Using satellite imagery tweeted by accounts conducting increasingly popular “open-source intelligence,” or OSINT, investigations, Clark showed how A6’s GPS tracking would let Zignal clients determine not simply that the military buildup was taking place, but track the phones of Russian soldiers as they mobilized to determine exactly where they’d trained, where they were stationed, and which units they belonged to. In one case, Clark showed A6 software tracing Russian troop phones backward through time, away from the border and back to a military installation outside Yurga, and suggested that they could be traced further, all the way back to their individual homes. Previous reporting by the Wall Street Journal indicates that this phone-tracking method is already used to monitor Russian military manoeuvres and that American troops are just as vulnerable.

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The spying-on-CIA bit is pretty dramatic too, involving geofencing.
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Obama says tech companies have made democracy more vulnerable • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Eugene Scott:

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In a lengthy speech at Stanford University, located in the heart of tech-heavy Silicon Valley, the former president spoke about the ways that tech platforms have helped to divide the public, spread misinformation, and erode trust in democratic institutions, leading to the rise of autocrats such as Russian leader Vladimir Putin and unnecessary deaths from the coronavirus.

“People are dying” because of disinformation on social media services, he said. Companies, he said, are not being transparent with the public about how their algorithms — the software they use to spread content on their services — work.

“Algorithms have evolved to the point that no one on the outside of these companies can accurately predict what they’ll do … and sometimes the people who built them aren’t sure … That’s a problem,” he added.

In his speech, Obama said that when he was president, he didn’t realize “how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself,” saying he still harbors regret to this day. Disinformation refers to a coordinated campaign by political leaders, corporations, or other figures to spread harmful falsehoods and misleading narratives.

Despite keeping a relatively low public profile during his post-presidency, the former president in recent months has started to turn disinformation into a signature issue for his public life after office, embarking on a campaign to warn the public about the harm caused by falsehoods online and the social media algorithms that spread them.

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Maybe I should send him a copy of Social Warming – he might find it apropos.

(Why do some news orgs use boring headlines for the title parts of news stories, which get sucked into search engines? For this one it’s “Obama warns about disinformation at Stanford event”, which is dullsville.)
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The renewable-energy revolution will need renewable storage • The New Yorker

Matthew Hutson looks at various projects being suggested to store energy from renewable sources:

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Li-ion [lithium-ion] batteries, despite their flaws, are a known quantity. The method being developed by Energy Vault isn’t. Still, the company isn’t alone in pursuing what’s known as “gravity storage.” Gravitricity, based in Scotland, recently concluded a demonstration that involved hefting a fifty-ton block up a tower, two stories at a time; it now plans to raise and lower single, thousand-ton blocks inside disused mine shafts. Two other companies, Gravity Power, in California, and Gravity Storage GmbH, in Hamburg, aim to place a massive weight at the bottom of a shaft and then pump water underneath to lift it. To withdraw energy, they’ll let the weight push the water down into a pipe and through a turbine. RheEnergise, based in Montreal, has come up with yet another take on pumped hydro, centered on a fluid that the company invented called R-19, which is two and a half times as dense as water; its system will move the fluid between tanks at the top and bottom of an incline. The work is still at the crowdfunding stage.

Just as you can store potential energy by lifting a block in the air, you can store it thermally, by heating things up. Companies are banking heat in molten salt, volcanic rocks, and other materials. Giant batteries, based on renewable chemical processes, are also workable. In so-called flow batteries, tanks can be used to manage electrolytes, which hold a charge. In hydrogen storage, electrolysis is used to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water; the hydrogen is then cached underground, or in aboveground tanks, as gas or liquid or part of ammonia. When it’s recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell, it forms water again and releases electricity.

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I read this article with a mounting sense of despair. The ideas are so stupid. They ignore the very inconvenient and ubiquitous Second Law of Thermodynamics – systems become more disordered. “Efficiency” gets only the briefest mention amid all the fracking-adjacent, skyscraper-cranes adjacent ideas which you only have to hear to know will fail because they have too many moving parts.

Pumped hydro – move water up a hill with excess energy, let it flow down when needed – is up to 80% efficient in a full cycle. Only something using liquids will come anywhere close.
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This AI Does Not Exist

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This AI Does Not Exist generates realistic descriptions and code snippets of machine learning models given a name for one that doesn’t exist.

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Good enough to fool a human on a superficial glance, anyway.
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Google Messages bug leaves camera on, draining battery • 9to5Google

Kyle Bradshaw:

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A new bug in Google Messages leaves your camera on in the background, quickly draining your battery and heating up your device.

(Since the story first appeared, Google has begun rolling out a fix for the Messages app.)

Within the Google Messages app, there’s an easy way to quickly snap a picture and immediately attach it to a message and send it to a friend. In the view for attaching images from your gallery, there’s also a live feed from your camera to either take an immediate snapshot from that thumbnail view or you can expand it for a better view.

In recent updates of the Google Messages app, as spotted on one of our own devices as well as being reported on Reddit, a bug in the app occasionally leaves this camera feed running even when it’s not on screen — including when Messages is in the background. In our experience, this causes significant battery drain and heat, as you’d expect.

As there isn’t any visible cause for the increased usage, we had to track down the problem using Android 12’s privacy indicators for the camera and microphone. When the issue occurs, an Android 12 device will show that Google Messages is actively using your camera. The easiest way to stop the issue in the moment is to close the app from the Recents view.

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Flagship Android tablets take aim at pros • ZDNet

Ross Rubin:

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One of the biggest differentiation pro-Android tablets have versus inexpensive versions, or even the iPad, has been the ability to switch into a desktop mode. Samsung has long offered this via the DeX feature on its tablets, an extension of the interface it can present when an S-series smartphone connects to a monitor or television. Lenovo’s more recent answer is Productivity Mode, which presents a more subtle change to the user interface, e.g. keeping launcher icons intact, while still presenting a taskbar.

While either can be activated via a tap on the settings button and Productivity Mode’s transition is faster than DeX, most Windows users will find the DeX approach more familiar. That said, Lenovo offers an experimental feature that allows users of its desktop mode to extend work area across multiple monitors versus simple mirroring of the display, a feature that’s been historically limited to “desktop” OSes such as Windows macOS and Chrome OS.

The latest pro Android tablets bring a degree of polish and flexibility that is far beyond the early days of such devices–with more promising enhancements coming soon. But they continue to face stiff competition and category friction

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The key problem is that smartphones don’t run Windows. OK, iPads don’t either, but there’s better integration between the iPad and Windows apps than between Android tablets and Windows apps (isn’t there?).

The absence of Android tablets at the top end is a longstanding mystery. But it’s not the hardware.
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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

1 thought on “Start Up No.1785: EU outlaws dark patterns and opens up algorithms, Twitter talking to Musk, why fewer roads speeds up roads, and more

  1. What does it even *mean* to “make the working of their recommender algorithms … transparent”?. One of the curmudgeonly and downbeat points I occasionally make, is that even if the entire source code was revealed somehow, almost nobody would understand it. And further if by some miracle knowledgeable people did investigate and try to so some analysis, the standard pundit has great trouble with the simplest statistics, explaining will not work. Not to mention the results will depend on all the internal data itself. I’ll be surprised if this provision has any effect beyond some boilerplate that’s little more than “We make our recommendations by magic, mixing moonbeams and pixie dust. We send elves on journeys over the Great Web to harvest knowledge nuggets, a perilous quest of battling the Harassment Trolls and the Demons Of Disinformation. We then mix it with your aura and soul, to make it perfect for YOU!”.

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