Start Up No.1793: America’s new abortion surveillance landscape, Musk v Twitter redux, pig heart man died with pig virus, and more


The computers in the Apple TV+ series Severance date from the 1970s – yet have a strangely modern feel. CC-licensed photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Flavoured like no other. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How to get an abortion and keep your personal information safe • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

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Here’s a cautionary tale: in 2015, a Massachusetts pro-life group tapped a local digital ad company, Copley Advertising, to set up digital boundaries (or “geofences”) around Planned Parenthood branches and other reproductive health clinics in nearby cities. When people walked into these buildings, phone in hand (or pocket), those geofences registered that device crossing the line via mobile data like GPS or those aforementioned bluetooth broadcast signals.

Once these women were inside the fence, Copley pummeled their devices with ads for “abortion alternatives,” like adoption. Roughly 800,000 women were targeted by the campaign, and these ads kept playing for weeks after they left the clinic. And because of the way mobile ads work, every ad that played sent back a pretty sizable amount of data about these women’s devices directly back to the agency, and the pro-life group that contracted it.

Two years later, Boston Attorney General Maura Healey sued and quickly settled with the ad agency on the condition that the agency never geotarget clinics in the state with its creepy ads again. The practice remains legal for others, though, and those marketing pro-life “abortion alternatives” still make use of it.

The easiest way to avoid being one of those statistics is making your phone as unrecognizable as possible. A good first step is to reset your phone’s mobile ad ID: It’s quick and easy on both Apple and Android. That’s what most brokers use to identify your personal device. But honestly, that isn’t good enough.

Thanks to growing (albeit imperfect) privacy legislature in the States and moves from companies like Apple to tamp down tracking, adtech middlemen are getting wilier. Even if your phone has a shiny new identifier, brokers can still re-identify your device using details about your mobile browser, or other info baked into the hardware like your phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. If brokers see two different mobile ad ID’s but the same IMEI all tied to one device, then it is not hard to discern it’s the same device. Sorry.

If you want to be airtight about you anonymity, your best bet is to never use any of your regular devices anywhere nearby or inside a Planned Parenthood, or any similar clinics.

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If this were about some country in the Middle East, or South America, you’d probably tut at the lack of scruples and the religiously driven vendetta against women’s rights and medicine. But no, it’s America.
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Elon Musk plans to take Twitter public a few years after buyout • WSJ

Cara Lombardo and Eliot Brown:

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Elon Musk, who has agreed to take Twitter private in a $44bn deal, has told potential investors he could return the social-media company to public ownership after just a few years.

Mr. Musk said he plans to stage an initial public offering of Twitter in as little as three years of buying it, according to people familiar with the matter. The deal is expected to close later this year, subject to conditions including the approval of Twitter shareholders and regulators, the company has said.

Mr. Musk, the Tesla Inc. chief, has been speaking to investors such as private-equity firms, which could help lower the $21bn he plans to kick in to help pay for the deal. The rest of the money is coming from loans. One firm considering participating is Apollo Global Management Inc., The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Private-equity firms often take companies private with an eye toward fixing them up outside of the spotlight and then taking them public again within five years or so. Mr. Musk’s signal that he plans to do something similar could help assure potential investors that he would work quickly to improve Twitter’s business operations and profitability.

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As Matt Levine of Bloomberg pointed out in his daily newsletter, this is barking. Musk (and the board) are telling existing shareholders: take $54.20, it’s not going to get any better (even though it was last year; the offer price is about the same as the IPO price).

And then they’re telling would-be shareholders: get in, this thing is going places. $54.20 is just the starting line.

They can’t both be true. Musk is only human; anything he can do could be done by a sufficiently engaged management.

Another idea Musk has apparently floated is to charge governments and commercial users a “slight cost” to use the service. Run the numbers, and he’d need either to charge a lot of users, or some users a lot, to make serious inroads to revenue. (A million dollars a month to 200 governments gives you $2.4bn. Alternatively, a million users $200 per month; same revenue. Twitter’s annual revenue is about $5bn.)
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Brands should force Twitter to uphold content policies under Musk, advocacy groups say • CNN

Brian Fung:

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Some of the nation’s biggest brands including Coca-Cola, Disney and Kraft are facing calls to boycott Twitter if the company’s soon-to-be owner, billionaire Elon Musk, rolls back content moderation policies limiting hate speech and election misinformation.

In a letter sent to brands Tuesday ahead of the 2022 NewFronts digital advertising conference, more than two dozen civil society groups said marketers should secure commitments from Twitter to retain its most critical policies, including on civic integrity and hateful conduct, and threaten to withdraw funding if Twitter does not comply.

“As top advertisers on Twitter (TWTR), your brand risks association with a platform amplifying hate, extremism, health misinformation, and conspiracy theorists,” the letter said, adding: “Your ad dollars can either fund Musk’s vanity project or hold him to account.”

Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. In an investor filing Monday, Twitter told advertisers “we have no planned changes to our commitment to brand safety” but that the company “cannot speculate on changes Elon Musk may make post closing.”

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Having read the letter, I think Musk would be fairly happy to do what it asks apart from the bit about “Keep accounts including those of public figures and politicians that were removed for egregious violations of Twitter Rules… off the platform”. Unfortunately that’s item 1 of their demands.

Of the 26 organisations, I’ve heard of three of them. Musk tweeted in response: “Who funds these organisations that want to control your access to information? Let’s investigate.”

The Daily Mail makes a rather desperate attempt to claimwho funds them is “George Soros, Clinton and Obama staffers and European governments”. As subtle as a snooker ball in a sock. (“European governments”. Honestly.)
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The xenotransplant patient who died received a heart infected with a pig virus • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

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David Bennett Sr. was near death in January when he received a genetically edited pig heart in a pioneering between-species transplant [“xenotransplant”] that has been hailed as a success—and was, at first.

A few days after his heart was replaced with one from a pig, Bennett was sitting up in bed. His new heart was pumping fantastically and performing like a “rock star,” according to his transplant surgeon, Bartley Griffith of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

But about 40 days later Bennett, who was 57, took a turn for the worse. After two months he was dead. In a statement released by the university in March, a spokesperson said there was “no obvious cause identified at the time of his death” and that a full report was pending.

Now MIT Technology Review has learned that Bennett’s heart was affected by porcine cytomegalovirus, a preventable infection that is linked to devastating effects on transplants.  

The presence of the pig virus and the desperate efforts to defeat it were described by Griffith during a webinar streamed online by the American Society of Transplantation on April 20. The issue is now a subject of wide discussion among specialists, who think the infection was a potential contributor to Bennett’s death and a possible reason why the heart did not last longer.

…Joachim Denner of the Institute of Virology at the Free University of Berlin… says the solution to the problem is more accurate testing. The US team appears to have tested the pig’s snout for the virus, but often it is lurking deeper in the tissues.

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The big, big, big concern is that you do a xenotransplant, and that uncovers a virus (or, worse, retrovirus – think HIV) which turns out to be highly infectious, and dangerous. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that one would turn up in the first xenotransplant. Still concerning, though.

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Exclusive: Sonos is about to introduce its own voice assistant • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Sonos is preparing to introduce its own voice assistant service within the next few weeks, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. The voice functionality will let customers play and control music on Sonos’ whole-home audio platform.

…At launch, Sonos Voice will work with Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora, Deezer, and the company’s own Sonos Radio. Spotify and Google’s YouTube Music aren’t yet on board. In keeping with Sonos’ interest in privacy, the feature will not record user audio commands or relay them to the cloud for processing. “Hey Sonos” will be the wake word for Sonos Voice Control, and the company’s internal tests show it to be quicker than competing assistant services at core music tasks.

Sonos declined to comment for this story, citing its policy of not commenting on rumours or speculation. But through various job listings for the voice product and an as-yet-unannounced “Home Theater OS,” the company has offered a glimpse at a future where it will put a much greater emphasis on software and try to establish itself as a central hub for streaming entertainment — potentially moving beyond audio to incorporate video as well. Patrick Spence, Sonos’ chief executive officer, has hinted at those objectives in interviews. “You’re always investing ahead of the curve,” he said on the Decoder podcast. “We’re hiring people in software to go into new areas that we’re not in today. It’s easier in hindsight to understand that a company has been working on all of these great things. We just didn’t see it at that moment in time.”

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US-only to begin with. Sonos has been forced to pivot multiple times from its initial mission of “wireless music in every room”. (Or maybe it’s more like a lunge, because it remains essentially true to that mission.) Home theatre, its own “radio”, and now voice assistants.

I’ll be happy with changing the volume.
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Stories behind some of the weird stuff on ‘Severance’ • The New York Times

Gina Cherelus:

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[The company in the Apple TV+ series Severance,] Lumon’s brightly lit midcentury-style office presents an eerie contrast to the dreary outside world. And the objects within it — including the branded pens and erasers, as well as the crystal cubes laser-engraved with employees’ faces — underscore the entrapment the “severed” workers begin to feel as they learn about the company’s shadowy practices.

“We wanted to curate that world to be slightly off — not fake, slightly off,” [prop master Catherine] Miller said. Here, she explains her process for sourcing and making some of those items.

At the center of Macrodata Refinement’s spare work space is a diamond-shaped desk that cost more than $100,000 to make. Ms. Miller supplied the hardware and clutter seen on top of it.

To find a vintage computer that would fit the office’s aesthetic, she drove from her home in New Jersey to the Rhode Island Computer Museum to browse through its warehouse. She returned with 13 monitors, including a Commodore and Apple’s original Macintosh, to show the team, including Dan Erickson, the show’s creator, and Ben Stiller, an executive producer.

“Ben gravitated toward the Data General Dasher, which is lower and not as tall of a monitor and terminal and has a swivel ability,” Ms. Miller said.

Her team had to fabricate four replicas of the computer and wire the monitors so they could display images. The accompanying keyboards feature an Easter egg that Ms. Miller said has become “Reddit lore.”

“The keyboard doesn’t have an escape key on purpose because the people down there on the severed floor can’t ever escape,” she said. “It’s subconsciously creating and supporting the world that our story is living in.”

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Other details of the series – which, if you haven’t seen it, is fantastic – have an equally unsettling, reality-adjacent-but-orthogonal feel. The first season ends on a perfect cliffhanger. And how nice for Data General, alive again in the multiverse.
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Bolsonaro-supporting Brazilian Telegram channels are wild and sinister • The New York Times

Vanessa Barbara:

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“Fake news is part of our lives,” President Jair Bolsonaro said last year, while receiving a communication award from his own Ministry of Communications. (It doesn’t get more Orwellian, does it?) “The internet is a success,” he went on. “We don’t need to regulate it. Let the people feel free.”

You can see his point. After all, fake news produced a headline supposedly in The Washington Post that read, “Bolsonaro is the best Brazilian president of all times” — and claimed that a recent pro-Bolsonaro motorcade rally made the Guinness World Records. But my plunge into the country’s Telegram groups revealed something more sinister than doctored articles. Unregulated, extreme and unhinged, these groups serve to slander the president’s enemies and conduct a shadow propaganda operation. No wonder Mr. Bolsonaro is so keen to maintain a free-for-all atmosphere.

The chief target is Mr. Bolsonaro’s main opponent in October’s elections, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In medium-size pro-Bolsonaro groups, such as “The Patriots” (11,782 subscribers) and “Bolsonaro 2022 support group” (25,737 subscribers), the focus is unrelenting. Users exhaustively shared a digitally altered picture of a shirtless Mr. da Silva holding hands with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela as if they had been a homosexual couple in the 1980s. (Do I need to say it’s false?)

The claims are endless, and outlandish: Mr. da Silva is sponsored by drug traffickers; he will persecute churches; he is against middle-class Brazilians having more than one television at home. People use what they can get. An obviously satirical video — which shows an actor, in the guise of an attorney for Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party, confessing to electoral fraud — is paraded as cold hard proof. The name of the attorney, which translates as something like “I Mock Them,” should have given the game away. But in their rush to demonize, Mr. Bolsonaro’s followers aren’t exactly given to close reading.

Underlying this frenetic activity is barely disguised desperation.

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Have to say, compared to Brazil’s population, those aren’t big channels. The effect is downstream, of course: ideas slip from one to another, and they can cross to WhatsApp groups, which are also gigantic in Brazil, and in 2016 were a huge source and transmission method for disinformation. (Thanks G for the link.)_
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NFT sales are flatlining • WSJ

Paul Vigna:

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The NFT market is collapsing.

The sale of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, fell to a daily average of about 19,000 this week, a 92% decline from a peak of about 225,000 in September, according to the data website NonFungible.  

The number of active wallets in the NFT market fell 88% to about 14,000 last week from a high of 119,000 in November. NFTs are bitcoin-like digital tokens that act like a certificate of ownership that live on a blockchain.

Rising interest rates have crushed risky bets across the financial markets—and NFTs are among the most speculative. Since hitting highs in November, the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite has fallen 23% and bitcoin has fallen by 43%. The Federal Reserve is slated to raise rates this week and next month. As the central bank’s easy money policies wind down, investors have turned to more defensive stocks like consumer staples.

Many NFT owners are finding their investments are worth significantly less than when they bought them.

An NFT of the first tweet from Twitter Inc. co-founder Jack Dorsey sold in March 2021 for $2.9m to Sina Estavi, the chief executive of Malaysia-based blockchain company Bridge Oracle. 

Earlier this year, Mr. Estavi put the NFT up for auction. He didn’t receive any bids above $14,000, which he didn’t accept. Mr. Estavi said failure of the auction wasn’t a sign that the market is deteriorating, but was just a normal fluctuation that could occur in any market. The NFT market is one that is still developing, he said, and it is impossible to predict how it will look in a few years.

“I will never regret buying it because this NFT is my capital,” he said.

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Wonder what the next scam around this concept will be. What’s the next variation on “you own this copy of an infinitely reproducible image”?
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Depression and addiction are plaguing crypto traders • The Washington Post

Pranshu Verma:

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When Joanna Garzilli was in Venice, Calif., for a holiday party in 2017, the bikini-clad dancers were on stilts, the drinks were flowing and the conversation was about one thing: cryptocurrency. It seemed so sexy, she remembered thinking. Lured by the glamorous crowd, she later invested and struck it big: an $85,000 profit from a crypto coin called GRT, bringing on dreams of life at the Ritz-Carlton Residences.

But soon, her trades became reckless, she said. Garzilli staked 90% of her life savings into a coin that lost her tens of thousands of unrealized profits in days. She made risky investments into viral meme currency and constantly checked her trading apps to see how much money she’d made or lost. Her nights became sleepless, but Garzilli kept chasing the next big payday.

“Crypto is like going into Hades,” she said. “Crypto can bring out the darkest parts of ourselves if we have an addictive personality; and I have a very addictive personality.”

…Cryptocurrency has characteristics that make it more prone to addiction than sports betting, gambling and traditional financial investing, according to addiction scholars. Crypto can be traded around-the-clock, unlike most stocks. People don’t need to drive to a casino to invest in a coin. The volatility in crypto prices, especially alternative currencies like meme coins, can be quick and provide the brain quick feelings of reward. And given crypto’s decentralized nature, it can be easier to hide the financial impacts of addiction.

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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.1793: America’s new abortion surveillance landscape, Musk v Twitter redux, pig heart man died with pig virus, and more

  1. That letter is fascinating as another example of why is not a killer argument for free-speechers to ask opponents: “If you advocate for a billionaire oligarch to have huge speech power because one favors your politics, what happens when there’s a billionaire oligarch who opposes your politics?”. One reply: “Then we’ll try to get more big money on *our* side.”. The last paragraph is pretty blatant on this argument – the troops, err, ad dollars, which are under your command can either be allied with the Dark Side Of Chaos Evil, err, Elon Musk, or against him.

    Musk isn’t wrong to raise the issue of following the money. The question isn’t invalidated by lazy pundits suggesting their favorite scare targets. There’s a very obvious political campaign interest for getting a platform to ban a politician, or even being able to make the effort a campaign issue. We shouldn’t be obliged to act as if nobody involved in the astounding amounts of American political spending could imagine throwing a few bucks into these sorts of efforts.

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