Start Up No.1801: Facebook’s fear of the right wing, Christchurch’s missed chance, speeding’s real death toll, war by ratio, and more


The Alqueva reservoir is western Europe’s largest artificial lake, and the site of Europe’s largest floating solar farm: 7.5GWh annual generation. CC-licensed photo by Paulo Valdivieso 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. All different. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook killed News Feed fix for fear of conservative backlash • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron, Shoshana Wodinsky and Mack DeGeurin:

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Today, Gizmodo is publishing our third batch of the Facebook Papers—documents that, among other things, shine a light on the company’s reluctance to take action against known sources of misinformation. Employees whose work appears in the papers repeatedly attribute decisions like the shelved News Feed update to fears that the company would be portrayed as favoring certain publications that, in some cases, its own users judged more informative. In particular, accusations of liberal bias by Republican leaders weighed heavily in debates over whether to improve News Feed or correct flaws in the ways Facebook prioritized journalism and other political content. Accusations of a liberal slant controlling the company are described in two papers as playing a crucial role in decisions reached during employee-led efforts to minimize the frequency of propaganda and misinformation in people’s feeds.

An internal post dated August 2019 briefly describes the decision by Facebook to kill a News Feed update purportedly designed to prioritize “high quality” news. In this case, Facebook obtained the underlying data responsible for gauging the trustworthiness of news sources by polling users. The company came to the decision not to reduce the flow of “low quality” news to stave off charges from “some quarters” about “perceived anti-conservative bias,” according to the post.

Asked about the discrepancy between the company’s prior claims and the once-confidential testimony of its own employees, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

In the same 2019 document, Facebook employees estimated that the company had only taken action against “approximately 2% of the hate speech on the platform,” while concluding that misinformation, when noticed at all, often goes unidentified “until after it has gotten a lot of distribution.” The most “impactful abusive accounts,” it says, continue to persistently evade moderation. While employees generally have “considerable leeway” when it comes to making decisions that affect “a wide range of content,” the author writes, “policy concerns become significantly higher” when politics enter the frame.

The documents take on new relevance in the political climate of 2022. Attempts by social media companies to minimize the spread of election-related hoaxes and false news have spurred Republican leaders in several states to pursue new laws around content moderation.

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Buffalo might never have happened if online hate had been tackled after Christchurch • The Guardian

Imran Ahmed is chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate:

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In a joint statement in 2019, Meta, Twitter and Google committed to uphold the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. They stated that they would be “resolute in [their] commitment to ensure [they] are doing all [they] can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence”.

The failure of social media companies to act sufficiently on known racist content connected with terrorism is a violation of their own terms and conditions, the pledges made to an international community when the cameras were rolling, and the dignity that the victims of Buffalo were entitled to have – the right to life.

Social media and online spaces are often where people meet, seek information and become radicalised through a rabbit-hole of lies, hate and misinformation. Those with fringe beliefs will be exposed to increasingly more radical content as a result of recommendation algorithms. The failure of social media giants to effectively tackle online hate and misinformation has real-world impacts. Words can kill.

Perhaps the only thing that explains why – despite so many pledges, so many platitudes and commitments to voluntary frameworks – the social media platforms have failed to act is because of the memo that Andrew Bosworth, now chief technical officer of Meta, wrote to his fellow employees on their internal messaging board, called the Ugly Truth. In it he said: “So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack co-ordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.”

It is, quite simply, a bald statement of personal indifference to the grief of people, families and our nations.

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The Bosworth Memo (it deserves its own capital letters) dates back to June 2016, and always comes across as a distillation – it’s only 420 words – of the sociopathic mentality that can infect people who get disintermediated from those they affect.
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Speeding causes three times as many road deaths as previously thought • The Sunday Times

Nicholas Hellen:

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Under a more accurate reporting system to be adopted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), speed will be noted as a contributing cause of half of Britain’s 1,500 annual road deaths. It is currently noted as the cause of just 375.

At present, official figures record that the biggest cause of deaths on the road is a driver or rider failing to look properly. Loss of control is second, with exceeding the speed limit and driver carelessness joint third.

But the figures, known as STATS19, are based on reports from the scene of the collision, and are not updated even if an investigation finds other factors were involved. Now forces will be asked to record the results of their final assessment of the causes, typically after a forensic review has been conducted.

A Metropolitan Police review has found that speeding was cited as a factor in 17.5% of fatal crashes in 2019 based on the initial investigation, but 49.2% based on the final results. The figure for 2020 was revised up from 19.1% to 46.8%. This included motorists who broke the speed limit and those who drove too fast for the conditions.

Even greater anomalies have been discovered in the Greater Manchester police area, where the official figures for road deaths in the three years from 2016 to 2018 show that motorists were breaking the speed limit in 64% of cases rather than 15%.

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That’s quite a big difference. “Too fast for the conditions” isn’t going to be affected by a speed limiter, but the Manchester numbers suggest they could make a difference. Couldn’t they? (Thanks Fabian for the link.)

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SparkToro & Followerwonk joint Twitter analysis: 19.42% of active accounts are fake or spam • SparkToro

Rand Fishkin:

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From May 13-15, 2022, SparkToro and Followerwonk conducted a rigorous, joint analysis of 44,058 public Twitter accounts active in the last 90 days. These accounts were randomly selected, by machine, from a set of 130+ million public, active profiles. Our analysis found that 19.42%, nearly four times Twitter’s Q4 2021 estimate, fit a conservative definition of fake or spam accounts (i.e. our analysis likely undercounts). Details and methodology are provided in the full report below.

For the past three years, SparkToro has operated a free tool for Twitter profiles called Fake Followers. Over the last month, numerous media outlets and other curious parties have used the tool to analyze would-be-Twitter-buyer, Elon Musk’s, followers. On Friday, Mr. Musk tweeted that his acquisition of Twitter was “on hold” due to questions about what% of Twitter’s users are spam or fake accounts.

SparkToro is a tiny team of just three, and Fake Followers is intended for informal, free research (our actual business is audience research software). However, in light of significant public interest, we joined forces with Twitter research tool, Followerwonk (whose owner, Marc Mims, is a longtime friend) to conduct a rigorous analysis answering:

• What is a spam or fake Twitter account?
• What% of active Twitter accounts are spam or fake?
• What% of Mr. Musk’s followers are spam, fake, or inactive?
• Why should our methodology be trusted?
• We address each of these questions below.

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First one: what’s a spam/fake account?

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“Our definition (which may differ from Twitter’s own) can best be described as follows:

“Spam or Fake Twitter accounts are those that do not regularly have a human being personally composing the content of their tweets, consuming the activity on their timeline, or engaging in the Twitter ecosystem.”

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Except that would include entirely beneficial automated accounts that tweet the contents of feeds (such as, oh, @theoverspill) or, like @threadreaderapp, link to concatenated threads – such as the Twitter CEO’s today about how they calculate spam accounts.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk looks more and more like someone casting around for a reason not to buy Twitter.
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How a simple ratio came to influence military strategy • WSJ

Josh Zumbrun:

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Early in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it wasn’t just Moscow that believed its offensive could succeed quickly. In February, even U.S. officials warned Kyiv could fall in days.

Russians had numbers on their side, or more precisely a number: the 3:1 rule, the ratio by which attackers must outnumber defenders in order to prevail. It is one of several “force ratios” popular in military strategy. Russia, it seemed, could amass that advantage.

The war in Ukraine has brought renewed interest in force ratios. Other ratios in military doctrine include the numbers needed to defeat unprepared defenders, resist counterinsurgencies or counterattack flanks. Though they sound like rules of thumb for a board game like Risk, the ratios have been taught to generations of both American and Soviet and then Russian tacticians, and provide intuitive support for the idea Ukraine was extremely vulnerable.

“I would imagine that most of them are thinking in those terms, that you need something on the order of a 3:1 advantage to break through,” said John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago professor whose work focuses on security competition between great powers. “It’s clear in this case that the Russians badly miscalculated.”

…Overall, Russia’s military has quadruple the personnel and infantry vehicles, triple the artillery and tanks, and nearly 10 times the armored personnel carriers, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based think tank.

With 190,000 Russian troops concentrated to invade in February, and Ukraine’s military spread across the country, (only 30,000 troops, for example, were estimated to be in Ukraine’s east near the Donbas region) it appeared Russia had the numbers to overwhelm Ukraine.

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Looks like all the textbooks need to be rewritten to cater for drones and directed anti-tank weapons. Though possibly it just needs a section on how not rotating your tyres dilutes your force ratio.
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New study on SIDS is not what the media says it is • ParentData

Emily Oster:

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Knowing that a baby had an enzyme level of 4 [of butyrylcholinesterase, BChE] might indicate a higher risk, but definitely there are many infants with a level of 4 who survive. This is all very distant from being a perfect or close to perfect predictor of anything. 

That’s the main paper finding. What I take from this, with the paper alone, is an interesting possibility that should be explored more. The sample sizes are small, and with a new theory like this we always want to see more out-of-sample testing. It would also be important to understand whether there are other characteristics that differ across these groups that might be related to enzyme levels and could be driving this result. It certainly seems plausible that BChE (and AChE, acetylcholinesterase) levels are a predictor of SIDS risk, and it is worth more follow-up work to understand it. 

My primary frustration is with the media coverage of it and, in particular, the story with the headline I noted above, which it would seem has permeated the Facebook mom groups. There is just nothing in the paper that supports that headline or most of the article. Yes, the paper produces suggestive evidence that there might be a correlation between this enzyme level and SIDS. But to say it “pinpoints” the reason infants die from SIDS is absolutely not true. 

Perhaps more problematic is this paragraph: 

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Previously, parents were told SIDS could be prevented if they took proper precautions: laying babies on their backs, not letting them overheat and keeping all toys and blankets out of the crib were a few of the most important preventative steps. 

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Though not stated explicitly, the implication is that these steps are now no longer necessary. This is definitely false.

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There’s also a long thread by a neurophysiologist saying much the same, though in some more detail.

So it seems as though SIDS is not a solved problem at all.
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Did Terra operators bail out crypto whales? • New Money Review

Paul Amery:

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The operators of the collapsed Terra stablecoin ($UST) last week allowed selected holders of the dollar token to cash out at close to 100 cents in the dollar, using cryptocurrency exchanges Gemini and Binance as a conduit.

According to the Luna Foundation Guard, which operates a reserve pool backing $UST and its related token, $LUNA, holders of $2.7bn in face value of $UST were able to sell them for bitcoin in two transactions last week, one with an effective bitcoin/UST exchange rate of $32,334 and the other with an effective exchange rate of $35,054.

The Luna Foundation Guard revealed this information in a series of tweets released this morning.

It did not disclose the timing of the transactions. However, evidence from Elliptic, a cryptocurrency research firm, suggested that the transactions took place on May 9 and early on May 10, when the $UST price traded in secondary markets as low as 60 cents in the dollar.

…This implies that the holders of $UST who were able to sell their tokens for the bitcoin offered by the Luna Foundation Guard were able to exit their positions at close to face value ($1), rather than the deep discounts on offer in the secondary market.

…The two exchanges are now likely to come under increasing pressure to disclose which cryptocurrency market participants were able to exit their Terra stablecoin positions last Monday and Tuesday at close to par value, while retail holders of Terra and Luna have lost nearly all their money.

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This is going to get uncomfortable, I suspect. People lost a lot of money. If some got preferential treatment, this will resound across the sector.
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Miami’s mayor backed MiamiCoin. Then its price dropped 95% • Quartz

Scott Nover and Camille Squires:

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On Feb. 2, the city of Miami cashed out its cryptocurrency MiamiCoin for the first time, depositing $5.25m into city coffers. Miami mayor Francis Suarez hailed it as a “historic moment” and predicted the cryptocurrency could one day even replace municipal taxes as the government’s primary source of funding.

MiamiCoin’s creator, an organization called CityCoins, has been no less enthusiastic, portraying the coin as a financial experiment that will empower citizens with a “community-driven revenue stream” while spurring new digital city services.

Miami is not the only city with big cryptocurrency dreams. CityCoins announced a similar cryptocurrency for New York in November 2021, and plans to release a coin for Austin, Texas, soon. Other cities have launched their own crypto ventures: Forth Worth, Texas, for example, will soon be running bitcoin mining rigs in city hall.

But only Miami’s mayor has thrown his full endorsement behind a CityCoin-branded cryptocurrency so far. After promoting MiamiCoin to residents and investors since its launch in August, the city of Miami received millions of dollars through its agreement with CityCoins.

Over the last nine months, however, MiamiCoin has lost nearly all of its value, falling about 95% from its September peak to just $0.0032 as of May 13. Its rapid descent has burned investors on the way down, muting the dreams of Miami’s city leaders, and possibly raising red flags for regulators now investigating cryptocurrency transactions.

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New York got NYCCoin in November 2021, and its new mayor tweeted enthusiastically about it in January. Since then it’s fallen in value by 68%. Still time to get out.
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Europe’s largest floating solar farm is ready to come online in Portugal • Electrek

Michelle Lewis:

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The Alqueva reservoir is western Europe’s largest artificial lake, and the Alqueva Dam is on the Guadiana River, one of the longest in the Iberian Peninsula. The dam is in Alentejo, which is in southern Portugal, near the Spanish border.

The floating solar farm, the size of four soccer fields, is made up of 12,000 solar panels that will generate 7.5GWh annually and will also be paired with lithium batteries that can store 2 GWh. It will be able to power around 1,500 households. EDP, Portugal’s main utility company, built the floating solar farm.

The cool thing about floating solar farms on hydropower reservoirs is that they can be connected to existing links to the power grid. And as Reuters points out, “Excess power generated on sunny days can pump water up into the lake to be stored for use on cloudy days or at night.”

The Alqueva floating solar farm is furthering EDP’s plan to reach net zero by 2030. Renewables, including hydropower, now make up 78% of EDP’s 25.6 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity.

EDP will expand the Alqueva floating solar farm because, last month, it secured the right to build a second, 70-MW installed capacity floating farm there.

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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

Start Up No.1800: platforms struggle to remove Buffalo video, will USB-C replace Lightning?, China phone market stalls, and more


Official figures say only 7% of UK car crashes are caused by breaking the speed limit – so what does that mean for built-in electronic limiters? CC-licensed photo by Lee Haywood 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. Off again, on again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Buffalo gunman clips proliferate on social media following Twitch removal • Engadget

Igor Bonifacic:

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Following Saturday’s horrific mass shooting in Buffalo, online platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Twitter are seemingly struggling to prevent various versions of the gunman’s livestream from proliferating on their platforms. The shooter, an 18-year-old white male, attempted to broadcast the entire attack on Twitch using a GoPro Hero 7 Black. The company told Engadget it took his channel down within two minutes of the violence starting.

“Twitch has a zero-tolerance policy against violence of any kind and works swiftly to respond to all incidents,” a Twitch spokesperson said. “The user has been indefinitely suspended from our service, and we are taking all appropriate action, including monitoring for any accounts rebroadcasting this content.”

Despite Twitch’s response, that hasn’t stopped the video from proliferating online. According to New York Times reporter Ryan Mac, one link to a version of the livestream that someone used a screen recorder to preserve saw 43,000 interactions. Another Twitter user said they found a Facebook post linking to the video that had been viewed more than 1.8 million times, with an accompanying screenshot suggesting the post did not trigger Facebook’s automated safeguards. A Meta spokesperson told Mac the video violates Facebook’s Community Standards.

Responding to Mac’s Twitter thread, Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz said she found TikTok videos that share accounts and terms Twitter users can search for to view the full video. “Clear the vid is all over Twitter,” she said. We’ve reached out to the company for comment.

Preventing terrorists and violent extremists from disseminating their content online is one of the things Facebook, Twitter and a handful of other tech companies said they would do following the 2019 shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the first 24 hours after that attack, Meta said it removed 1.5 million videos, but clips of the shooting continued to circulate on the platform for more than a month after the event.

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This is the challenge that the social media sites are up against: people with motivation to spread bad stuff. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people; a handful with enough motivation can create these problems. Elon Musk really doesn’t have the first idea.
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Leading causes of car accidents UK 2022 • NimbleFins

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The #1 most common cause of car accidents in Great Britain is the driver (or motorcycle rider) failing to look properly—this factor contributes to 37.8% of car accidents. The next most common causes of car accidents is the diver or rider failing to judge another person’s path or speed (a factor in 19.7% of accidents) and the driver or rider being careless, reckless or in a hurry (18% of accidents). You’ll notice that the percentages add up to more than 100%—this is because many car accidents have more than one contributory factor.

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Following on from the discussion about speed limiters, “exceeding speed limit” is No.7, and cited in 7.4% of accidents. About a third are “driver/rider failed to look properly”. That’s a bit more difficult to legislate for.
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What kind of financial asset is bitcoin? • Noahpinion

Noah Smith has a longish treatise about what bitcoin might be – money, gold, a sort-of tech stock:

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As I see it, the useful purpose of this appeal isn’t to make bitcoin the future of money. That will not happen. Instead, the purpose of all the massive apparatus of bitcoin-related guff and mythology and gobbledegook is to onboard people into the crypto world. Once they’re onboarded, they can then take the next step of learning about cryptocurrencies that are cooler and more advanced than bitcoin. (Perhaps it’s no wonder Vitalik [Buterin] is sanguine about the maximalists; in a way, they’re part of his customer acquisition team!)

This theory of bitcoin as the “gateway drug” of the crypto-verse sort of ties all of the previous theories together. The ideas of bitcoin as the future of money and bitcoin as digital gold get people interested. Those people then get introduced to crypto applications like ICOs and DeFi and whatever web3 ends up being. And because the newbies just joining the party come in owning a bunch of bitcoin, that ends up being one of the main currencies that gets used in the new applications — which slows bitcoin’s slide into technological obsolescence.

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This would be believable, except I think other cryptocurrencies are now newbies’ introduction to crypto, because bitcoin is seen as a bit big and even risky; they know it can go down, whereas the “new” crypto will, they’re promised, only go upppppp. Which isn’t true, but it sounds good.
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India and Pakistan’s brutal heat wave poised to resurge • Yale Climate Connections

Jeff Masters:

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Because of the heat wave, India’s wheat crop is expected to be 4% lower than the 2021 harvest, breaking a string of five consecutive record harvests. Even with the heat wave, India’s wheat exports could beat last year’s shipments, helping replace the lack of wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia this year. However, some traders project that export restrictions may occur in India because of the heat wave.

While the heat index – which measures heat stress due to high temperatures combined with high humidity – is often used to quantify dangerous heat, a more precise measure of heat stress is the wet-bulb temperature, which can be measured by putting a wet cloth around the bulb of a thermometer and then blowing air across the cloth. The wet-bulb temperature increases with increasing temperature and humidity and is a measure of “mugginess.”

Since human skin temperature averages close to 35º Celsius (95°F), wet-bulb temperatures above that critical value prevent all people from dispelling internal heat, leading to fatal consequences within six hours, even for healthy people in well-ventilated conditions. The US National Weather Service defines the “Danger” threshold for wet-bulb at 24.6º Celsius (76.3°F), and “Extreme Danger” at 29.1º Celsius (84.4°F), assuming a 45% relative humidity.

However, experiments show that a wet-bulb temperature considerably lower—near 31º Celsius (88°F)—is likely fatal for young, healthy people.

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To reiterate: this is what global heating does. Since this article appeared, India has said that it will limit wheat exports. That will have big knock-on effects: wheat is used for animal feed, paper strengthening, pharmaceutical products, and others.
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China chipmaker SMIC says phone, PC demand has dropped ‘like a rock’ • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

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CEO Zhao Haijun said the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s COVID lockdowns have massively dented demand for consumer electronics and home appliances, which in turn has led to a “serious” adjustment in chip orders for those segments.

“Many smartphone, PC and home appliance companies had exposure in Russia and Ukraine, and their revenues [from those markets] are now gone. Sales in their home market [of China] have also fallen due to the COVID situation domestically,” Zhao said.

“We cannot yet see an end to the downtrends in these segments,” Zhao added. “There are at least 200 million units of smartphones that will disappear suddenly this year and the majority of them are from our domestic Chinese phone makers.”

Demand for consumer electronics “dropped like a rock, very seriously,” the executive said. “Some of our customers are holding more than five months of that type of inventory.”

However, Zhao said SMIC’s factories are still running at 100% capacity, as the company has been allocating resources to products that are still in great shortage, such as power management chips and microcontrollers used in green energy, electric vehicles and industrial applications.

Given the market turmoil, Zhao said, only chip developers with top international clients can continue to flourish. “Those who only serve the local market [in China] will absolutely see their business seriously impacted,” he said.

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Which is going to mean a lot of cheap smartphone companies going out of business.
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Musk’s question about bots is nothing new for Twitter • The Washington Post

Joseph Menn and Elizabeth Dwoskin:

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When Elon Musk tweeted Friday that his deal to buy Twitter was “on hold” as he looked into the extent of Twitter’s bot problem, he was poking an open wound at the social media company.

…Musk was referring to a Twitter regulatory filing this month that said false or spam accounts constituted fewer than 5% of its 229 million daily active users.

Yet the number is hardly new: Twitter has been giving the same estimate for nearly a decade, even if it seemed to be telling less than the whole story and was a subject of internal conflict. Twitter declined to comment for this story.

“That 5% is a very opportune and chosen metric,” said a former employee who asked for anonymity because he did not want to alienate a former employer. “They didn’t want it to be big, but also not small, because then they could get caught in a lie.”

Twitter’s history with spam goes as far back as its 2013 public offering, when it disclosed the risk of automated accounts — a problem faced by all social media companies. For years, people wanting to manipulate public opinion could buy hundreds of fake accounts in order to pump up a celebrity or a product’s standing.

…Critics have argued that Twitter has an incentive to downplay the number of fake accounts on its platform and that the bot problem is far worse than the company admits. The company also allows some automation of accounts, such as news aggregators that pass along articles about specific topics or weather reports at set times or postings of photos every hour.

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On Sunday Musk (who deletes his tweets on a 24-hour basis now) was tweeting that “there is some chance it might be over 90% of daily active users, which is the metric that matters to advertisers. Very odd that the most popular tweets of all time were only liked by ~2% of daily active users.”

I don’t think that’s odd – liking tweets isn’t a thing many people do. I do suspect Musk is looking for an excuse to back out of the deal, and “too many bots” might be his pretend break clause. (In reality he’s signed a contract to buy it, but Twitter would never be able to make it work.)
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SIDS: Scientist who lost her young son claims to have found way of spotting babies at higher risk of cot death • MSN

Paul Gallagher:

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An Australian expert whose young son died in his sleep claims to have found a way of spotting babies at high risk of cot death.

Dr Carmel Harrington and a team of scientists at the University of Sydney found babies who died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) had lower levels of an enzyme that helps humans rouse from sleep.

SIDS, commonly known as cot death, is the unexpected and unexplained death of a healthy baby while asleep. The vast majority (86%) occur before they reach six months.

The research team found that the enzyme, butyrylcholinesterase, measured in dried blood spots taken 2-3 days after birth, was significantly lower in babies who subsequently died of SIDS compared to a control group and in non-SIDS infant deaths.

Researchers behind the finding suggest the lower levels of the enzyme represent a dysfunction of the nervous system – and therefore an inherent vulnerability of the SIDS infants.

They concluded: “This finding represents the possibility for the identification of infants at risk for SIDS prior to death and opens new avenues for future research into specific interventions.”

All funding for the study, which is published in The Lancet’s eBioMedicine, was provided by a crowd funding campaign in memory of Dr Harrington’s son Damien, who died 29 years ago before his second birthday.

Three years after Damien’s death a friend’s baby daughter also died leaving Dr Harrington, a former biochemist who has two other children, to quit her job as a lawyer and return to medical research.

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I don’t think there’s ever been such a consequential piece of scientific research achieved through crowdfunding before. SIDS kills about 200 children in the UK per year, around 3,400 in the US. Identifying this enzyme is only the first (though big) clue; there’s plenty more detective work to find out if it’s a cause or an associated effect.
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Report: Apple is testing USB-C iPhone models for 2023 • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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Apple is testing iPhones that use the industry-standard USB-C port, according to a report in Bloomberg citing people with knowledge of the situation.

Since 2012, Apple’s smartphones have used the company’s proprietary Lightning connector. But more recently, the slightly larger USB-C port has come to dominate consumer electronics, including most of Apple’s other products. Consumers, reviewers, and even government regulators have called for Apple to drop Lightning in favor of USB-C in recent years.

This has led Apple to a tough spot, with three possible paths forward, each with some significant downsides.

On one hand, the company could stick with Lightning—that would mean that customers who’ve been using the iPhone for a while wouldn’t have to buy new adapters, wires, or chargers. Apple’s ecosystem of accessory-makers wouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board to release updated products for the new connection.

On the other, Apple could switch to USB-C, making the iPhone play more nicely with other gadgets, including the Mac. But that move could trigger consumer confusion and chaos among accessory-makers. It would also loosen Apple’s control over the user experience.

The third option would be to go all-wireless, but wireless connections usually don’t transmit power or data as quickly or efficiently.

According to Bloomberg’s sources, Apple is actively testing the second option — switching to USB-C — in no small part because the European Union appears to be moving forward with a law that would require companies that make “mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld video-game consoles and portable speakers” to standardise around USB-C.

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A question: what does “testing” iPhones with USB-C mean? The circuitry to handle the power would be inside – so it would look like any other iPhone except the socket would be different. These would be for next year at the earliest, and you’d expect the design to be set around now. So maybe Bloomberg means “designing” iPhones with USB-C. Ten years on, maybe Lightning is going away. Mark Gurman (who wrote the Bloomberg story) says Apple is planning on including adapters – which makes this sound entirely believable.
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The most revealing pandemic book yet • The Atlantic

Richard J. Tofel:

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[Former coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Deborah] Birx does a very good job of distilling what went wrong. She repeatedly emphasizes what she identifies as the principal fault in the Trump administration’s pandemic response: a failure to recognize the importance of asymptomatic transmission (thus the book’s title). She laments testing problems, including initial refusals to enlist the private sector, mistakes at the CDC, and later failures to ramp up diagnostics. Birx also cites the CDC’s consistent failure to develop good data about the pandemic, and places this at the center of reforms she proposes toward the book’s end.

But what sets [the book, called] Silent Invasion apart is how Birx, with the writing assistance of Gary Brozek, unhesitatingly names names (and dates and places). She does so with much more detail and nuance than we’ve had from anyone else. Birx paints a portrait of an administration in full, made up of people with a mix of talents and motivations. Where other chroniclers describe the White House as if it had just one occupant, Birx gives us the full cast. The book’s first 150 pages, on the period from January through March 2020, are especially riveting. In the early crucial weeks of the crisis, she writes, “some roaming the halls of the West Wing believed that the less we did, the less we would be held accountable for whatever was about to happen.”

Birx has her own list of bad guys. The worst is Scott Atlas, the radiologist whose epidemiology advice Trump came to take. Atlas, she writes, repeatedly responded to group emails from her by hitting “Reply All” and then removing her from the list before sending.

…Birx refuses to sum up her views of Trump personally, but she offers more than enough detail for readers, including historians, to reach their own conclusions. She describes her first meeting with Trump, on March 2, 2020, when she tried to explain to him that the virus “is not the flu.” Trump listened for a minute, briefly challenged her, then literally changed the channel on one of the TV screens he had simultaneously been watching.

«

Birx came up through the military, and offers this as the reason/excuse she didn’t stand up more publicly to Trump in particular. But Antony Fauci didn’t, and he didn’t. One has to feel they all felt they could do more good inside the tent – even if they were being left off the Reply All circuit. (What a vile act.)
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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

Start Up No.1799: why Twitter lost its celebrities, making computers much faster, Facebook plans hardware cuts, and more


In a radical experiment, plants have been grown in Moon soil (here on Earth). Does that mean we could do the same up there? CC-licensed photo by NASA on The CommonsNASA on The Commons 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. Nineteen down! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


For celebrities, Twitter is no longer the place to be. Can Elon Musk bring them back? • The Washington Post

Taylor Lorenz, Steven Zeitchik and Will Oremus:

»

Interviews with 17 people who represent, consult and tweet for celebrities show that Twitter is viewed as a high-risk, low-reward platform for many A-list entertainers. It’s a place where the discourse has become so politicized that many prefer not to engage personally at all, delegating tweeting duties to underlings or outside agents who post anodyne promotional messages. They have also been turned off by harassment or abuse.

Instead, they’ve turned to platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, which offer slicker video tools and more-robust safety features that give users more ways of blocking out unwanted interactions.

Twitter declined to comment but pointed to examples of celebrities who remain highly active on the platform. For instance, the actress Zendaya, who has nearly 21 million followers, tweets during each episode of the TV show “Euphoria,” and rapper Kendrick Lamar, with almost 12 million followers, announced his new album via tweet.

…the 2016 election further polarized Twitter as Trump-related news began to crowd out other trending topics.

Embracing the shift, Twitter began billing itself as a news app and changed its category in app stores from social networking, where it had been listed alongside rivals such as Facebook and Instagram, to news. But entertainers balked at hurling themselves into online discourse and the news cycle.

“Once Trump came into office, politics became such a huge thing,” said music executive Freddie Morris, former VP of digital at Career Artist Management, who ran celebrities’ social strategies on Twitter. Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine “went from Twitter to Instagram, like a lot of artists, and never came back.” While Levine still has a Twitter account, posts are primarily from his team and he’s not nearly as active or candid as before. He has nearly twice as many followers on Instagram as on Twitter.

«

Personally I never* follow anyone who has more than (at most) 250,000 followers, because they tend to be broadcasters; understandably because the level of responses is just bonkers if they’re the least bit interactive – and Twitter almost demands interactivity, unlike Instagram. I don’t see any obvious way for Twitter to change that.

* exception for Chrissy Teigen. Relatably human. (But: hasn’t tweeted for more than a month.)
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Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal fires two top executives, freezes hiring • The Verge

Richard Lawler:

»

Twitter is shaking up its top leadership. The first move came as consumer product leader Kayvon Beykpour announced on Twitter that current CEO Parag Agrawal “asked me to leave after letting me know that he wants to take the team in a different direction.”

Bruce Falck, the general manager of revenue and head of product for its business side, confirmed in a (now deleted) tweet that he was also fired by Agrawal.

Now Jay Sullivan, who we spoke to in March about Twitter’s plans to add 100 million daily users, will take over as both the head of product and interim head of revenue. These moves are occurring at the same time Elon Musk moves forward with his $44bn purchase of Twitter, although he hasn’t taken ownership of the company yet.

In a memo to employees obtained by The Verge, Agrawal wrote, “At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the decision was made to invest aggressively to deliver big growth in audience and revenue, and as a company we did not hit intermediate milestones that enable confidence in these goals.”

Twitter spokesperson Adrian Zamora confirmed the changes, saying in a statement to The Verge, “We can confirm that Kayvon Beykpour and Bruce Falck are leaving Twitter. Jay Sullivan is the new GM of Bluebird and interim GM of Goldbird. Effective this week, we are pausing most hiring and backfills, except for business critical roles. We are pulling back on non-labor costs to ensure we are being responsible and efficient.”

«

What madness is this, where Twitter is firing people before the takeover? Is Agrawal just taking out some sort of animus against people while he can? One of them was still on parental leave.

And speaking of that takeover..
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Twitter market cap has dropped to $9bn below Musk purchase price • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

»

As Elon Musk pursues ownership of Twitter, shares of the social media company are dropping, suggesting some concern among investors that the deal won’t reach the finish line.

Twitter has slid about 12% since reaching its high for the year in late April. As of midday on Thursday, the stock was trading at around $46, well below the $54.20 that Musk agreed to pay on April 27. The difference represents about $9bn in market value.

Though Twitter’s board approved the purchase, it could still take months for the deal to close, and there’s no guarantee that it will. Musk would have to pay a $1bn breakup fee should he choose to walk away. The Tesla CEO is worth more than $220bn.

“The market is having marginally less confidence that the deal will go through due to regulatory challenges,” Mark Mahaney, an analyst at Evercore ISI, said in an email, adding that this is his “very quick interpretation” of the stock movement.

Before Musk made his bid to buy Twitter outright, he failed to disclose a more than 9% stake in the company within the SEC’s mandatory 10-day window.

«

There must be some prediction market for how likely this deal is to go through, but I can’t find it on a quick search. Suggestions welcome.

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Fastest-ever logic gates could make computers a million times faster • New Atlas

Michael Irving:

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Logic gates are the fundamental building blocks of computers, and researchers at the University of Rochester have now developed the fastest ones ever created. By zapping graphene and gold with laser pulses, the new logic gates are a million times faster than those in existing computers, demonstrating the viability of “lightwave electronics.”

Logic gates take two inputs, compare them, and then output a signal based on the result. They can, for example, output a 1 if both incoming signals are a 1 or a 0, or if either or neither of them is a 1, among other “rules.” Billions of individual logic gates are crammed into chips to create processors, memory and other electronic components.

Logic gates don’t work instantaneously though – there’s a delay on the order of nanoseconds as they process the inputs. That’s plenty fast enough for modern computers, but there’s always room for improvement. And now the Rochester team’s new logic gates blow them out of the water, processing information in mere femtoseconds, which are a million times shorter than nanoseconds.

To reach these extreme speeds, the team made junctions consisting of a graphene wire connecting two gold electrodes. When the graphene was zapped with synchronized pairs of laser pulses, electrons in the material were excited, sending them zipping off towards one of the electrodes, generating an electrical current.

By adjusting the phase of the laser pulses, the team was able to generate a burst of one of two types of charge carriers, which would either add up or cancel each other out – the former can be considered a 1 output and the latter a 0. The end result is an ultrafast logic gate, marking the first proof of concept of an as-yet theoretical field known as lightwave electronics.

“It will probably be a very long time before this technique can be used in a computer chip, but at least we now know that lightwave electronics is practically possible,” said Tobias Boolakee, lead researcher on the study.

«

This is a bit like a speedometer on a car saying 160mph: you’re highly unlikely ever to achieve it. But it can give you a warm feeling knowing it might be possible.
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A first: scientists grow plants in soil from Moon • EurekAlert!

»

Scientists have grown plants in soil from the Moon, a first in human history and a milestone in lunar and space exploration.

In a new paper published in the journal Communications Biology, University of Florida researchers showed that plants can successfully sprout and grow in lunar soil. Their study also investigated how plants respond biologically to the Moon’s soil, also known as lunar regolith, which is radically different from soil found on Earth.

This work is a first step toward one day growing plants for food and oxygen on the Moon or during space missions. More immediately, this research comes as the Artemis Program plans to return humans to the Moon.

“Artemis will require a better understanding of how to grow plants in space,” said Rob Ferl, one of the study’s authors and a distinguished professor of horticultural sciences in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

«

I guess the astronauts could provide the fertiliser, The Martian-style? In this experiment they added some “nutrient solution”. One has to bear in mind that the plants would be under cover, and protected from the harsh vacuum. Even so it sounds like a pretty tough challenge.
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Exclusive: Facebook-owner Meta tells hardware staffers to prepare for cutbacks • Reuters

Katie Paul:

»

Facebook-owner Meta Platforms is preparing cutbacks in its Reality Labs division, a unit at the center of the company’s strategy to refocus on hardware products and the “metaverse,” a spokesperson confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday.

Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth told Reality Labs staffers during a weekly Q&A session on Tuesday to expect the changes to be announced within a week, according to a summary of his comments viewed by Reuters.

The Meta spokesperson confirmed that Bosworth told staffers the division could not afford to do some projects anymore and would have to postpone others, without specifying which projects would be affected. She said Meta was not planning layoffs as part of the changes.

The world’s biggest social media company last month told investors that it would scale back costs in 2022, following a drop in Facebook users early this year that caused the stock to plunge. read more

In an earnings call in late April, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Meta planned to “slow the pace” of some longer-term investments in areas like its business platform, artificial intelligence infrastructure and Reality Labs.

Meta lowered its expected 2022 total expenses to between $87bn and $92bn, down from its prior outlook of between $90bn and $95bn. Last week, it told employees it was reducing hiring for most mid-to-senior-level positions, as initially reported by Insider.

«

Good to know that even Facebook has some limits on the crazy money it will spend on the metaverse stuff.
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How Facebook undercut the Oversight Board • Platformer

Casey Newton:

»

In the wake of Meta’s decision to allow calls for violence against the invaders, Russia said it had engaged in “extremist” activities. That potentially put hundreds of Meta employees at risk of being jailed. And while the company has now successfully removed its employees from the country, the extremism language could mean that they will never be allowed to return to the country so long as they work at Meta. Moreover, it could mean that employees’ families in Russia could still be subject to persecution.

There is precedent for both outcomes under Russia’s extremism laws.

So what does the Oversight Board have to do with it?

Meta had asked [the Oversight Board] for a fairly broad opinion about its approach to moderation and Russia. The board has already shown a willingness to make expansive policy recommendations, even on narrower cases submitted by users. After asking for the opinion, the company’s legal and security teams became concerned that anything the board said might somehow be used against employees or their families in Russia, either now or in the future.

Technically, the Oversight Board is a distinct entity from Meta. But plenty of Westerners still refuse to recognize that distinction, and company lawyers worried that Russia wouldn’t, either.

All of this is compounded by the fact that tech platforms have gotten little to no support to date, from either the United States or the European Union, in their struggles to keep key communication services up and running in Russia and Ukraine. It’s not obvious to me what western democracies could do to reduce platforms’ fears about how Russia might treat employees and their families. But discussions with executives at several big tech companies over the past year have made it clear that they all feel like they’re out on a limb.

All that said, today’s news still represents a significant blow to the Oversight Board’s already fragile credibility — and arguably reduces its value to Facebook.

«

The Oversight Board’s authority was never huge, and it’s being eroded bit by bit.
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Some top 100,000 websites collect everything you type—before you hit submit • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

»

Researchers from KU Leuven, Radboud University, and University of Lausanne crawled and analyzed the top 100,000 websites, looking at scenarios in which a user is visiting a site while in the European Union and visiting a site from the United States. They found that 1,844 websites gathered an EU user’s email address without their consent, and a staggering 2,950 logged a US user’s email in some form. Many of the sites seemingly do not intend to conduct the data-logging but incorporate third-party marketing and analytics services that cause the behavior.

After specifically crawling sites for password leaks in May 2021, the researchers also found 52 websites in which third parties, including the Russian tech giant Yandex, were incidentally collecting password data before submission. The group disclosed their findings to these sites, and all 52 instances have since been resolved.

“If there’s a Submit button on a form, the reasonable expectation is that it does something—that it will submit your data when you click it,” says Güneş Acar, a professor and researcher in Radboud University’s digital security group and one of the leaders of the study. “We were super surprised by these results. We thought maybe we were going to find a few hundred websites where your email is collected before you submit, but this exceeded our expectations by far.”

«

Grabbing your password before you submit it? That’s pretty bad.
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Crypto industry shaken as Tether’s dollar peg snaps • Financial Times

Adam Samson, Scott Chipolina and Eva Szalay:

»

Tether aims to maintain a peg to the dollar by keeping up a store of reserves of traditional assets. There are 80bn Tether tokens in circulation, meaning it should hold $80bn in assets — a sum that compares with the biggest hedge funds in the world. But details around how those reserves are managed are scant, and not subject to audits under internationally recognised accounting standards.

Paolo Ardoino, Tether’s chief technology officer, on Thursday vowed to defend the token’s dollar peg and said the company had bought “a ton” of US government debt, which it is willing to offload in that effort. But in an interview with the Financial Times, he declined to give details about its $40bn hoard of US government bonds because he did not “want to give our secret sauce”.

“Our counterparties are not public. We are not a public company,” he said. “So we keep that information [to] ourselves, but we are working with many big institutions in the traditional financial space.” 

The coins can be lent as collateral for trading, or to generate high yields in the form of interest. They are supposed to have a fixed price and be backed by reserves at all times, allowing users to redeem them. However, critics have questioned where some stablecoins keep their reserves and whether the assets can be quickly recovered and redeemed.

Last year, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission fined Tether $41m, claiming the company made “untrue or misleading” statements about its reserves.

Ardoino also said the stablecoin issuer is working on obtaining an audit, but said the big accounting firms “are quite scared for reputational risk in touching crypto at this moment”. Tether has had $2bn in redemption requests in the past day, an unusually high number, Ardoino added.

He said the group had recently been shifting away from holdings of commercial paper, a type of short-term corporate debt typically sold by highly rated companies, to Treasury bills. Treasury bills now account for around half of the group’s $80bn in reserves, he added.

«

I don’t for a moment believe that Tether holds $80bn of assets, and nor does the CFTC. But it’s a convenient fiction for those who use the crypto markets to think that it does and so they’re not just passing Monopoly notes around when they do transactions. If they stop believing that, though…

(There’s also an in-depth writeup of what happened to UST/Luna.)
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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

Start Up No.1798: Google’s I/O detailed, how and why Terra lost its peg, China military rehearses Taiwan “unification”, and more


A Formula 1 pit stop team has skills that have turned out to be useful for intensive care teams – saving lives on the way. CC-licensed photo by United Autosports 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. Free of pegs. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Google’s biggest announcements at I/O 2022 • The Verge

Mitchell Clark has the roundup, which features another phone (preorder on July 21st! Leave that browser tab open for ten weeks!), and pre-announced another two phones, AirPods Pro copies, a Pixel Watch (though Clark says “we don’t know what kind of chip it’ll be powered by nor do we know how much it’ll cost”) to launch in the autumn – keep another browser tab open – and these:

»

Google announced that it plans to release an Android-powered tablet next year to act as a “perfect companion for Pixel with a larger form factor.” The writing for this one has been on the wall for a while. (Android 12L focused on large-screen experiences, and there have been some tablet-related hires over in Mountain View.) But it’s good to hear that Google is looking to get into tablets again. The only real hardware detail we have about Google’s upcoming device is that it’ll have a Tensor chip in it.

Right at the end of its presentation, Google showed off a pair of AR glasses that were capable of real-time translation during a conversation. There are pretty much no details on whether this will be a product people can buy, but it’s certainly interesting to see more hints of Google’s plan for joining companies like Snap and Meta in the race to put AR on your face.

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Scaled those glasses back a fair bit since the excitement of Google I/O 2012. Do you remember the promise of that concept video? Plus what happened to the restaurant-booking voice AI?


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Terra (UST) goes from DeFi darling to death spiral • Bloomberg

Emily Nicolle:

»

A month ago, the future looked bright for Terra and its main backer Do Kwon: A consortium called the Luna Foundation Guard (LFG) aimed at providing collateral for Luna — then at an all-time high value of $119 — had bought more than $1.5bn in Bitcoin to shore up UST’s peg, with its members reading like a Who’s Who of crypto.

But on Monday, all of the mechanisms that were supposed to keep UST stable weren’t. It fell to a low of 60 cents on that day, and reached a further low of around 20 cents in another crash on Wednesday, taking its market value down from $18.4bn to $5bn. Luna also fell considerably, dropping to as low as $2.35.

“Many people were caught off guard,” said Nikita Fadeev, partner and head of crypto fund Fasanara Digital, which de-risked its position in advance of the crash. “Everything broke there. It is full capitulation.”

Exactly why all of Terra’s carefully-planned mechanisms failed to do their job remains unclear, and conspiracy theories abound about shadowy actors with untold wealth to play with. But one thing’s for certain: Kwon isn’t going down without a fight. 

He’s now attempting to raise $1.5bn from new and old investors alike to provide more collateral to UST, hoping to rebuild the token’s liquidity after it virtually disappeared from order books overnight. Some suspect that $1.5bn won’t even be enough, and it could take days, if not weeks, for UST to re-peg to the dollar.

«

This has wiped out a lot of people. The theory is this: someone calculated that if the Terra/Luna pairing was disrupted, the LFG would have to sell a lot of bitcoin to stabilise it; that would drive down the price of bitcoin.

So they borrowed a billion dollars or so of bitcoin at a high price, disrupted the Terra/Luna pairing, and when LFG had to sell bitcoin and the price went down, they repaid the loan – effectively buying the bitcoin at the lower price, and kept the difference.
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China surrounds Taiwan for massive invasion ‘rehearsal’ drills • American Military News

Ryan Morgan:

»

The Chinese military deployed forces all around the island of Taiwan over the weekend in a set of large-scale military drills that one Chinese military analyst called a “rehearsal of possible real action.”

On Monday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced its Eastern Theater Command organized maritime, aerial, conventional missile and other forces around Taiwan and carried out drills around the island from Friday to Sunday. The Eastern Theater Command said the drills were intended “to test and improve the joint operations capability of multiple services and arms.”

While Taiwan governs itself as an independent nation, China considers the island a part of its territory and Chinese officials have repeatedly discussed “reunification” with the island, including by means of military force.

The Chinese state-run Global Times publication reported maritime, aerial, conventional missile and “other forces” participated in the drills around Taiwan. During the drills, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier deployed east of the island while a large number of Chinese aircraft and warships carried out drills to the island’s west.

The Ministry of National Defence for the Republic of China (the formal name of the Taiwanese government) documented several instances of Chinese military aircraft entering its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the course of the three-day exercise.

«

Not now, China. (Which perhaps is why China thinks: maybe now, China.) The Global Times says “the PLA exercise was a partial rehearsal of a possible reunification-by-force operation”. When people tell you what they’re planning…
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Democrats are sleepwalking toward climate disaster • The Atlantic

Robinson Meyer:

»

On Monday night, I saw one of the most despair-inducing performances about the hope of climate action that I’ve witnessed in years.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. Her remarks were more effective as a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently the editor in chief of National Geographic, now a dean at Arizona State University, asked the Speaker point-blank whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi all but shrugged. The House has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the Senate’s hands. If it happened to get a bill back to her, the House would pass it.

Missing was any sense that this legislation is a make-or-break moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this term, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heat waves, larger wildfires, and damaging famines across the country and around the world within the next decade and a half will be all but assured.

Pelosi did not seem to understand, really, why Congress needed to pass a climate law this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil-fuel industry for the current Congress’s inaction.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the children.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of her remarks—Congress had to act “for the children.” Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said that they had to learn to “throw a punch—for the children.” That line was how she closed.

«

The British government, with an ostensibly right-wing government, is doing a lot more on the green agenda than the US, with an ostensibly left-wing government. But labels are deceptive. Plus the US political system is sclerotic. The Democrats look likely to let power slip away over the next two years. We’ll all suffer.
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Google is beta testing its AI future with AI Test Kitchen • The Verge

James Vincent:

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[Google senior director of product management, Josh] Woodward is showing me AI Test Kitchen, an Android app that will give select users limited access to Google’s latest and greatest AI language model, LaMDA 2. The model itself is an update to the original LaMDA announced at last year’s I/O and has the same basic functionality: you talk to it, and it talks back. But Test Kitchen wraps the system in a new, accessible interface, which encourages users to give feedback about its performance.

As Woodward explains, the idea is to create an experimental space for Google’s latest AI models. “These language models are very exciting, but they’re also very incomplete,” he says. “And we want to come up with a way to gradually get something in the hands of people to both see hopefully how it’s useful but also give feedback and point out areas where it comes up short.”

The app has three modes: “Imagine It,” “Talk About It,” and “List It,” with each intended to test a different aspect of the system’s functionality. “Imagine It” asks users to name a real or imaginary place, which LaMDA will then describe (the test is whether LaMDA can match your description); “Talk About It” offers a conversational prompt (like “talk to a tennis ball about dog”) with the intention of testing whether the AI stays on topic; while “List It” asks users to name any task or topic, with the aim of seeing if LaMDA can break it down into useful bullet points (so, if you say “I want to plant a vegetable garden,” the response might include sub-topics like “What do you want to grow?” and “Water and care”).

AI Test Kitchen will be rolling out in the US in the coming months but won’t be on the Play Store for just anyone to download. Woodward says Google hasn’t fully decided how it will offer access but suggests it will be on an invitation-only basis, with the company reaching out to academics, researchers, and policymakers to see if they’re interested in trying it out.

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“List It” definitely sounds useful for task-oriented work. The other two.. I don’t quite see the point. Shouldn’t AI be good for organising information and then repeating it back to us?
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Cautionary tales from cryptoland • Harvard Business Review

Thomas Stackpole talks to Molly White, who has been documenting the madness of crowds, aka web3:

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MW: If a person’s wallet address is known and they are using a popular chain like Ethereum to transact, anyone [else] can see all transactions they’ve made.

Imagine if you went on a first date, and when you paid them back for your half of the meal, they could now see every other transaction you’d ever made — not just the public transactions on some app you used to transfer the cash but any transactions: the split checks with all of your previous dates, that monthly transfer to your therapist, the debts you’re paying off (or not), the charities to which you’re donating (or not), the amount you’re putting in a retirement account (or not). What if they could see the location of the corner store by your apartment where you so frequently go to grab a pint of ice cream at 10 PM? And this would also be visible to your ex-partners, your estranged family members, your prospective employers, or any number of outside parties interested in collecting your data and using it for any purpose they like. If you had a stalker or had left an abusive relationship or were the target of harassment, the granular details of your life are right there.

There are some blockchains that try to obfuscate these types of details for privacy purposes. But there are trade-offs here: While transparency can enable harassment, the features that make it possible to achieve privacy in a trustless system also enable financial crimes like money laundering. It is also very difficult to use those currencies (and to cash them out to traditional forms of currency). There are various techniques that people can use to try to remain anonymous, but they tend to require technical skill and quite a lot of work on the user’s end to maintain that anonymity.

TS: This point of view seems almost totally absent from the conversation. Why do you think that is?

MW: I think a lot of companies haven’t put much thought into the technology’s abuse potential. I’m surprised at how often I bring it up and the person I’m talking to admits that it’s never crossed their mind.

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Facebook’s new AI system has a ‘high propensity’ for racism and bias • Vice

Janus Rose:

»

Facebook and its parent company, Meta, recently released a new tool that can be used to quickly develop state-of-the-art AI. But according to the company’s researchers, the system has the same problem as its predecessors: It’s extremely bad at avoiding results that reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes.

The new system, called OPT-175B, is a kind of template known as a large language model, a collection of pre-trained components that are increasingly used in machine-learning tools that process human language. More recently, natural language processing systems have been used to produce some uncannily accurate results, like the ability to generate images from a short text description. But large language models have been repeatedly criticized for encoding biases into machine-learning systems, and Facebook’s model seems to be no different—or even worse—than the tools that preceded it. 

In a paper accompanying the release, Meta researchers write that the model “has a high propensity to generate toxic language and reinforce harmful stereotypes, even when provided with a relatively innocuous prompt.” This means it’s easy to get biased and harmful results even when you’re not trying. The system is also vulnerable to “adversarial prompts,” where small, trivial changes in phrasing can be used to evade the system’s safeguards and produce toxic content. 

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In the paper they explicitly acknowledge that there’s a problem, and essentially seem to believe it’s to do with the dataset. Which it is. If you train a system with “dialogue” from the internet, it’s going to come from forums (though this isn’t overt), and we all know why Godwin’s Law came about; in some cases it’s actually true.
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Netflix tells employees ads may come by the end of 2022 • The New York Times

John Koblin and Nicole Sperling:

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Netflix could introduce its lower-priced ad-supported tier by the end of the year, a more accelerated timeline than originally indicated, the company told employees in a recent note.

In the note, Netflix executives said they were aiming to introduce the ad tier in the final three months of the year, said two people who shared details of the communication on the condition of anonymity to describe internal company discussions. The note also said Netflix planned to begin cracking down on password sharing among its subscriber base around the same time, the people said.

Last month, Netflix stunned the media industry and Madison Avenue when it revealed that it would begin offering a lower-priced subscription featuring ads, after years of publicly stating that commercials would never be seen on the streaming platform.

But Netflix is facing significant business challenges. In announcing first-quarter earnings last month, Netflix said it lost 200,000 subscribers in the first three months of the year — the first time that has happened in a decade — and expected to lose two million more in the months to come. Since the subscriber announcement, Netflix’s share price has dropped sharply, wiping away roughly $70bn in the company’s market capitalization.

Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-chief executive, told investors that the company would examine the possibility of introducing an advertising-supported platform and that it would try to “figure it out over the next year or two.”

… in the note to employees, Netflix executives invoked their competitors, saying HBO and Hulu have been able to “maintain strong brands while offering an ad-supported service.”

“Every major streaming company excluding Apple has or has announced an ad-supported service,” the note said. “For good reason, people want lower-priced options.”

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As expected, the signs were clear enough – it’s approached an outside company about ad infrastructure.
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Formula 1 tech in everyday use • Trung T. Phan

Phan writes occasional fascinating threads on Twitter, and then gathers them together on a page. After pointing out how many F1 innovations have come to our roads (paddle gearshifts, push-button ignition, disc brakes, regenerative brakes, aerodynamic design) he also notes that:

»

F1 technology and best practices have also found its way into non-road car industries.

Hospitals. This is my favourite example of F1 knowledge transfer. In the mid-90s, a Children’s Hospital in the UK improved its ICU hand-off process by consulting with the Ferrari F1 pit crew team. 

The hospital recorded its surgery room operation and Ferrari suggested a new protocol. One big change was for the hospital to have the equivalent of a pit crew “lollipop man”; this is the individual that holds a sign on a long stick and only waves a driver through after making sure everyone else on the team has put the tires on. 

After changing its protocol, the hospital’s error rate dropped from 30% to 10%.

The Williams F1 pit team similarly helped a hospital in Wales improve its neonatal resuscitation process.

«

Apparently Mercedes calls F1 “the fastest R&D lab in the world”; McLaren had a division which sold its telemetry and control systems to third parties; that unit was then sold for an unknown amount – but given that revenues were $43m, probably north of $200m
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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

Start Up No.1797: Apple kills off the last iPod, Musk says Trump’s Twitter will return, Google calls for US privacy law, and more


In bitcoin, El Salvador trusts – but its citizens don’t seem enamoured of the newly legal digital currency. CC-licensed photo by Blockzeit CH 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Why Twitter’s top lawyer has come under fire from Elon Musk • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski, Will Oremus and Joseph Menn:

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Vijaya Gadde came reluctantly to the decision that cemented her reputation on the right as Twitter’s “chief censor.” For years, the company’s top lawyer had resisted calls to boot then-President Donald Trump from his favorite social media platform.

Even after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol, Gadde explained during an emotional virtual company town hall on Jan. 8 that Trump hadn’t broken enough of Twitter’s rules against glorification of violence to merit a permanent ban of his account.

Three hours later, after her team produced evidence that Trump’s latest tweets had sparked calls to violence on other sites, Gadde relented, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. She reached then-CEO Jack Dorsey in French Polynesia, and they agreed to lower the boom.

“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account,” the company announced in a blog post, “… we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

The ban on Trump, which continues to this day, is the most prominent example of the deeply polarizing decisions that have led conservatives to accuse Twitter of political censorship. As billionaire Elon Musk, a self-declared free-speech absolutist, seeks to acquire the social network, these decisions — and Gadde herself — are coming under fresh scrutiny.

Critics have derided her as Twitter’s “top censorship advocate,” a barb amplified by Musk, who tweeted a meme with a photo of Gadde that cast her as an icon of “Twitter’s left wing bias.” Musk’s legions of followers have tweeted calls for her firing, some of them racist. (Gadde, 47, is Indian American.)

Musk on Tuesday signaled he would undo the permanent ban on Trump if he completes the acquisition of Twitter, potentially undoing years of work from Gadde and her team. “I think that was a mistake,” he said at an event hosted by The Financial Times.

«

Interesting that the trigger (we now learn) was that Trump’s tweets led to incitement to violence on other sites, not specifically on the ground. He has always been slippery as hell. Musk reinstating him is going to take things backwards for a while, always assuming Musk gets the finance together. I wonder if this time around people will learn to ignore Trump. They were pretty bad at it last time.
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Why can’t we tax billionaires on their shares but they can use them to buy stuff? • Twitter

Teddy Schleifer on Twitter:

»

This from Trevor Noah on taxing billionaires is … pretty perceptive!

«

Noah presents the Daily Show, and this take on the bizarre way that Elon Musk doesn’t get taxed on the “unrealised assets” of his Tesla shares – yet can use them to help fund a purchase – is very acerbic. (Can’t embed the video here; WordPress freaks out. Apologies.)
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The urgent necessity of enacting a national privacy law • Google blog

Kent Walker is Google’s president of global affairs:

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A Pew Research poll found that 75% of people [Americans] support government regulation of consumer data.

And the absence of a comprehensive federal privacy law has left a vacuum that states are trying to fill by scrambling to pass their own, often inconsistent, laws — a trend that actually risks fragmenting consumer protections.

People are counting on all of us to address this issue — and fast. The good news is that after many years of discussion, today, there seems to be a growing consensus on this. We are starting to see interest from both parties, from many different constituencies. They are coming together on how to do this well.

President Biden in his State of the Union address highlighted the importance of privacy, and there are growing reports that Congress is making progress toward comprehensive privacy legislation. We’ve long supported that goal, and we welcome the forward movement.

When data is misused, when consumers find their trust is misplaced, it hurts not just the whole digital ecosystem, but the potential for future innovation. And let me be clear: we at Google get it, and we’ve rethought and adapted our own approaches to product development to promote privacy and security.

For example, because digital services should keep your information for only as long as you find it helpful, we introduced auto-delete controls to let you easily delete your location history, web history, and YouTube history. Try to do that with any other business that holds data about you.

We were the first platform to make it easy for people to download or transfer personal data when they want to switch to other services. And today, we keep more people safe online than anyone else in the world — because if it’s not secure, it’s not private.

«

Interesting world where Google wants the government to implement privacy laws. This was from April, before the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe (on the basis that Americans don’t have a constitutional right to privacy) was leaked.
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Most Salvadorans have already ditched their national bitcoin wallets • Rest of World

Luke Taylor:

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The launch of El Salvador’s national Bitcoin wallet, referred to as Chivo, has been a flop, with the majority of users having ditched it already, according to a paper published last month by economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study is among the first in-depth nongovernmental efforts to quantify the success of the country’s national cryptocurrency push. 

The study by the nonprofit, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, surveyed 1,800 households in cities and rural areas. Where Chivo may have had minor unexpected success is in banking the unbanked. Researchers say that those who continue using the Chivo Wallet are using it to hold and transfer dollars, El Salvador’s official currency, similar to how one uses any digital wallet or bank. Some respondents told the researchers that they use the app as a debit card for dollars, with 20% of Chivo users saying they now spend less cash.

“There is no experiment where a currency was introduced with such strong incentives and still failed,” Fernando Álvarez, an economist at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s authors, told Rest of World.

…Though around half of the Salvadorans surveyed have downloaded Chivo to date, with 40% of those downloads happening in September 2021, around 61% of those have abandoned it after withdrawing the $30 dollar sign-up incentive, the National Bureau of Economic Research found. Only 1.6% of all remittances were received in bitcoins via digital wallets in February 2022, according to El Salvador’s Central Bank.

«

And the value of bitcoin has plummeted since September 2021. Oh well. How is Bukele going to deal with this? Just ignore it?
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The music lives on • Apple

Apple, announcing that “iPod touch will be available [only] while supplies last”:

»

Since its introduction over 20 years ago, iPod has captivated users all over the world who love the ability to take their music with them on the go. Today, the experience of taking one’s music library out into the world has been integrated across Apple’s product line — from iPhone and Apple Watch to iPad and Mac — along with access to more than 90 million songs and over 30,000 playlists available via Apple Music.

“Music has always been part of our core at Apple, and bringing it to hundreds of millions of users in the way iPod did impacted more than just the music industry — it also redefined how music is discovered, listened to, and shared,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. 

“Today, the spirit of iPod lives on. We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products, from the iPhone to the Apple Watch to HomePod mini, and across Mac, iPad, and Apple TV.”

«

Let’s not mention that the iPod Touch (first introduced in September 2007, because there was this new thing called the iPhone with a touch screen…, last updated May 2019, though never got Touch ID, let along Face ID) outlived the HomePod (b Feb 2018, d Mar 2021). The concept of the OG iPod, and then the iPod Touch, was so robust; lots and lots of kids got their first start on an iPod Touch. Clearly, market demand hasn’t stayed high enough; kids are just graduating straight to phones, presumably hand-me-downs.
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June 2002: MP3 players: It’s cool to be small

Back in the day, I reviewed multiple MP3 players over a two-week period, and this was the bit about the original iPod:

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What is really impressive, though, is the speed of song-loading. Firewire runs at up to 400 Mbits/s, rather than the 12 Mbits/s of USB. That means that you can fill up an iPod in about five minutes. Even smarter is that the Firewire connection recharges the battery, which does get the advertised 10 hours of playing time. (There’s also a separate mains charger.)

Turn it on and you really begin to see why Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design, has almost achieved godhead among his peers. What design would you pick to find one of 2,000 songs on something the size of a cigarette packet? The iPod solves that with a little scroll wheel between the central button and the outer four buttons (for on/off, backward, forward, and menu). You can whirl it around with a thumb and hit just the track you want in a few moments. Simple, and brilliant. Even the headphone lead is plenty long enough to put the player in a trouser pocket – a detail sometimes overlooked by others. I’ve struggled to find a design fault. OK, here it is: the headphone jack sticks straight up. In my world, it’ll get broken sooner or later.

So is the iPod worth it? If you own a PC and adore music on the move, then its cool quotient is beyond reproach; and the capacity beats most other players (though Creative Labs says its own are larger, but didn’t have one for testing). Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, you could buy other things with that money. So ask yourself: do you want to carry your music collection around with you? If so, it’s far ahead of the pack.

«

That article reviews a Samsung MP3 player, the Yepp, which was pretty good (where did it go wrong, Samsung?); the previous week I looked at multiple less-good ones.
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Jan 2019: United Airlines takes down poster that revealed Apple is its largest corporate spender • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo, in January 2019:

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United Airlines has released a statement following the circulation of a tweet that showed Apple as its largest account, spending $150m on flights every single year.

In a statement to Kif Leswing, United Airlines said that the information was displayed as part of a (intended to be) private project that has since been discontinued.

United said it contacted the companies featured in the banner and is ‘working to address their concerns’. Translation: Apple wasn’t very happy that this information leaked out.

The banner showed that Apple spends $150m annually with United, primarily with flights between San Francisco International and Shanghai Pudong airports.

It said that Apple buys 50 business class seats every single day, presumably to transport members of Apple engineering and manufacturing to visit production facilities in China.

«

Thanks to all those who pointed to this after my failure yesterday to identify it. That $150m sounds like the drippiest drop in a big bucket for Apple ($12.5m per month, on average; think up your own “bet they spend more on X” example). And they’ve probably saved it for the past two years!
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The hi-tech DIY ‘pancreas’ that finally got my diabetes under control • Daily Mail Online

Dominic Nutt:

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The pancreas is the organ that produces insulin, and — like a growing number of people with type 1 diabetes — I’ve put together a system whereby a standard insulin pump and a blood glucose monitor ‘talk’ to each other via an algorithm downloaded on my phone.

This then administers a constantly re-calibrated insulin dose. The results have been life-changing. And now the NHS is piloting a scheme to see if more patients like me can benefit from a similar system.

…Currently, if you are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes], you will typically be given two forms of insulin: a long-acting one that you inject morning and night, plus a quick-acting insulin that you inject pretty much every time you eat carbs. You also get a blood glucose monitor. You prick your finger, squeeze out blood and put it on a strip that is read by an electronic device. This gives you the measurement for that moment but, crucially, can’t tell you whether your blood sugar level is rising or dropping.

…For ten years, I’ve had an insulin pump — a small electronic device with a thin tube which goes under the skin and releases regular insulin day and night. But while the amount of insulin it pumped out was constant, this was not matched to what I was doing or what I’d eaten, so I still had many hypos and hypers.

Then, two years ago, I paired this up to a system that constantly reads my blood sugar level via a small monitor on my arm — and, using a sophisticated algorithm on my phone, that reading controls my pump automatically, giving me the right dose of insulin.

The system was developed in 2013 by Dana Lewis, an insulin-dependent diabetic from America. She ‘hacked’ into her blood glucose monitor and fed in an algorithm to get it to make accurate calculations about her insulin dose. She could then apply these herself rather than make educated guesses, as most diabetics do. She shared this online with other diabetics, and together this community developed a system that got the algorithm to control her insulin pump directly. They called it ‘closing the loop’. They have posted this algorithm online, and anyone can download it for free. I got hold of it after a fellow diabetic told me about it.

…The NHS has just launched a closed-loop pilot scheme involving more than 800 diabetes patients, too.

«

Dominic is a friend, so this is great to hear. Encouraging how medical advances can come out of patient hacktivism through the networked world.

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Day trader army loses all the money it made in meme-stock era • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Lu Wang:

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It’s ending as fast as it began for retail day traders, whose crowd-sourced daring was the pre-eminent story of pandemic equities.

Nursing losses in 2022 that are worse than the rest of the market’s, amateur investors who jumped in when the lockdown began have now given back all of their once-prodigious gains, according to an estimate by Morgan Stanley. The calculation is based on trades placed by new entrants since the start of 2020 and uses exchange and public price-feed data to tally overall profits and losses.

A craze born of the coronavirus outbreak and nurtured by Federal Reserve largesse is being laid low by a villain of identical lineage, inflation, which global central banks are racing to combat by raising the same interest rates they cut. The result has been a lumbering bear market in speculative companies that surged when the stimulus started flowing in March 2020.

“A lot of these guys started trading right around Covid so their only investing experience was the wacked-out, Fed-fuelled market,” said Matthew Tuttle, chief executive officer at Tuttle Capital Management LLC. “That all changed with the Fed pivot in November, but they didn’t realize that because they have never seen a market that wasn’t supported by the Fed,” he said. “The results have been horrific.”

…famous names from the height of the frenzy are nursing serious losses. AMC Entertainment Inc. is down 78% since June 2021. It’s lost 49% this year. Peloton Interactive Inc. is off 90% from its record. From the start of 2020 to last November, a basket of retail stock favored by retail trades that Goldman Sachs Group Inc. tracks more than doubled. This year, that basket has plunged 32%, more than twice the S&P 500’s decline.

…With personal savings as a percentage of disposable income having fallen back to pre-Covid levels, Vanda Research analysts including Giacomo Pierantoni are doubtful that individual investors will have much more financial and emotional capital to continue buying the dip aggressively.

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Baby needs new shoes, and those dead stocks don’t fit right.
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‘That doesn’t feel like $150 worth of groceries’ • Common Sense

Samuel Gregg, with a guest post on Bari Weiss’s Substack:

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a bag of groceries isn’t included in what’s called the “core inflation” measurement. That’s because energy and food prices are subject to sudden variations caused by events like crop failures or war. Fluctuations in the price of a carton of milk are not thought to tell us much about long-term inflationary trends. 

The problem is people still have to spend their hard-earned dollars on food and gas—and there’s no reason to assume that spiking inflation doesn’t affect that.

…In 2020, to counteract the pandemic’s impact, Donald Trump pushed through Congress two enormous stimulus packages mostly funded by increases in America’s already obscene public debt. The next year, Joe Biden pursued a similar path, claiming that stimulus packages were necessary to get the economy moving again.

Overhanging all this was a Federal Reserve that, from 2009 to 2014, deployed what’s called quantitative easing (QE)—the purchase of preset amounts of government bonds and other financial assets to inject money into the economy—to boost economic activity. When the government, in March 2020, shut down the economy, Jerome Powell’s Fed returned to quantitative easing programs on a scale that dwarfed previous efforts.

The result of all this money being pumped into the economy is higher prices and a decline in our money’s purchasing power.

…If greedy corporations could “jack up” prices whenever they wanted to, then they would do it all the time, over and over. But they don’t. That’s because, well, consumers have choices, and when things get too expensive, they stop buying those things. Suggesting otherwise is silly.

«

Gregg is wrong to blame QE for inflation (wrong too in saying that “a bag of groceries” isn’t in the core inflation measurement). Pumping that sort of money (bonds) into an economy lowers prices. Supply chain hiccups and uneven demand is causing both supply- and demand-driven inflation. (Also, many American corporations are effectively monopolies, either regionally or locally, with the pricing power that implies.) Plus, inflation is bad all over, not just in the US. More myopia.

(The comments on the post are full of Trumpists, which tells you all you need to know about who reads – or at least feels strongly about – Weiss’s Substack.)
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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

Start Up No.1796: YouTubers go after PC scam callers, mugged for crypto, speed limiters redux, Apple’s China shift, and more


Among dog breeds, Great Pyreneans aren’t interested in toys – but a new DNA study says that like all other breeds, they really do like humans. CC-licensed photo by Aiko, Thomas & Juliette+IsaacAiko%2C Thomas %26 Juliette+Isaac 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. Override that! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Tech YouTubers are stepping up a war against Indian scam call centers • PC Gamer

Wes Fenlon:

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Former NASA engineer Mark Rober builds some awesome stuff on his YouTube channel, like devious squirrel mazes, but his most popular video series is the annual glitter bomb, a beautifully over-engineered fake package that douses porch pirates with a shower of glitter and fart spray. In an unexpected twist, last year’s glitter bomb video also helped police catch and arrest someone involved in a phone scam scheme, and Rober’s spent the subsequent year digging into just how these phone scam operations work. In a new video he shows off the extensive results of that effort, including hiring double agents to infiltrate several phone centers in India and hacking their security camera footage.

And of course he got off a stink bomb, too.

For Rober, this crusade started when he teamed up with another YouTuber, Jim Browning, to try to send a glitter bomb to a scammer operation. Browning’s whole channel, which has 3.7 million followers, is devoted to identifying the call centers behind tech support scams and refund scams. These scams typically target the elderly and less computer-savvy folks and usually rely on the scammers gaining remote access to your computer and then tricking them into giving up personal information like their bank account login. “Refund” scams make people believe they’ve been overcompensated with some bogus refund and trick them into sending cash in the mail to the scammers.

The people who receive those cash packages in the United States are essentially underlings in these scam operations, so after getting a glitter bomb in their hands last year, Rober set his sights on the call centers themselves. With Browning’s help, they were able to gain access to the CCTV of the infiltrated call centers, while another YouTube pair, Trilogy Media, traveled to Kolkata, India to run operations on the ground.

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Great to hear that YouTubers are going after them. When I wrote about these scammers in 2010, it wasn’t new; yet people keep falling for it. Maybe the YouTubers can hassle them away, finally.
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‘Crypto muggings’: thieves in London target digital investors by taking phones • The Guardian

Rob Davies:

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Thieves are targeting digital currency investors on the street in a wave of “crypto muggings”, police have warned, with victims reporting that thousands of pounds have been stolen after their mobile phones were seized.

Anonymised crime reports provided to the Guardian by City of London police, as part of a freedom of information request, reveal criminals are combining physical muscle with digital knowhow to part people from their cryptocurrency.

One victim reported they had been trying to order an Uber near London’s Liverpool Street station when muggers forced them to hand over their phone. While the gang eventually gave the phone back, the victim later realised that £5,000-worth of ethereum digital currency was missing from their account with the crypto investing platform Coinbase.

In another case, a man was approached by a group of people offering to sell him cocaine and agreed to go down an alley with them to do the deal. The men offered to type a number into his phone but instead accessed his cryptocurrency account, holding him against a wall and forcing him to unlock a smartphone app with facial verification. They transferred £6,000-worth of ripple, another digital currency, out of his account.

A third victim said he had been vomiting under a bridge when a mugger forced him to unlock his phone using a fingerprint, then changed his security settings and stole £28,700, including cryptocurrency.

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This will naturally lead to more cases of this happening; crooks aren’t stupid, and they can definitely read or listen to the radio. Though the value of the stolen crypto is currently plummeting due to peculiar things to do with a dollar currency peg that, like all currency pegs, isn’t holding. We’ll see how that’s playing out tomorrow.
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Heartbeat • net.wars

Wendy M Grossman:

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Part of Alito’s argument [in the draft rejecting Roe v Wade making abortion legal in the US] is that abortion is not mentioned in either the Constitution or the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, or Fourteenth Amendments Roe cited. Neither, he says, is privacy; that casual little aside is the Easter egg pointing to future human rights rollbacks.

The US has insufficient privacy law, even in the health sector. Worse, the data collected by period trackers, fitness gizmos, sleep monitoring apps, and the rest is not classed as health data to be protected under HIPAA. In 2015, employers’ access to such data through “wellness” programs began raising privacy concerns; all types of employee monitoring have expanded since the pandemic began. Finally, as Johana Bhuiyan reported at the Guardian last month, US law enforcement has easy access to the consumer data we trustingly provide to companies like Apple and Meta. And even when don’t provide it, others do: in 2016, anti-choice activists were caught snapping pictures of women entering clinics, noting license plate numbers, and surveiling their smarphones via geofencing to target those deemed to be “abortion-minded”.

“Leaving it to the states” – Alito writes of states’ rights, not of women’s rights – means any woman of child-bearing age at risk of living under a prohibitive regime dare not confide in any of these technologies.

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Certainly makes one happy to not be in the US. Given privacy isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, maybe laws offering privacy will be struck down as unconstitutional. Nothing seems impossible in the US now, except trending towards sense.
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Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) • European Transport Safety Council

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For years, speed has been recognised as one of the three main contributing factors to deaths on our roads. And for more than a decade, ETSC has been advocating the benefits of Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), a driver assistance system that a 2014 Norwegian study found to be the ‘most effective’ in saving lives.

ISA uses a speed sign-recognition video camera and/or GPS-linked speed limit data to advise drivers of the current speed limit and automatically limit the speed of the vehicle as needed. ISA systems do not automatically apply the brakes, but simply limit engine power preventing the vehicle from accelerating past the current speed limit unless overridden. Vehicles with this kind of ISA system factory fitted are already on sale – helped in part by Euro NCAP’s decision to reward extra points for vehicles that include ISA.

The technology has also been boosted by the increasing use of hardware on vehicles such as GPS, front facing cameras and manual speed limiting systems. With this hardware already used by other systems on the vehicle, ISA becomes a simple matter of adding additional software.

The European Union agreed in 2019 to make an overridable version of ISA, along with a number of other vehicle safety measures, mandatory on new models of car sold in the EU from 2022.

«

Overspill readers have been on the case, and found more examples of cars with this *overridable* warning system: Mazdas and <a href=”Skodas. Any more surprising ones? (Ferraris? Porsches?)

So we’ve established that you can override it. Will that stop the “spy in your car” stories? I’m doubtful – it still seems too good a story for silly season (when Parliament isn’t sitting).
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Is Motorola working on a rollable smartphone? • Pocket Lint

Cam Bunton:

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Motorola was among the first major manufacturers to launch a folding smartphone with a flexible display, by leveraging the nostalgia around one of its most iconic and most popular phones: the RAZR. 

The third generation RAZR is due to land soon – according to recent rumours – but it could be joined by a very different kind of phone at some point in the future. 

A recent report claims that Moto is developing a rollable smartphone, codenamed Felix. This would take a similar form to the Oppo X 2021, which features a flexible display that rolls out from within one of the edges to expand to a larger size. 

The news comes from Evan Blass – an historically reliable leaker – in an article at 91Mobiles, which claims that this phone is in the very early stages of development, but that the company doesn’t even have a working hardware prototype yet. 

That likely means a launch is some way off. In fact, the report claims it would be surprising if the phone was launched in the next 12 months. It’s likely some time away, and Motorola could scrap its plans in the meantime. 

If true, and the phone makes it to market, it could be proof that Oppo’s idea for an expanding display, rather than an folding display, has some legs.

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The idea of a smartphone you can roll up makes a lot more sense than a foldable one, to be honest. Folding induces a very tight radius (or a lot of stretching); that’s sure to cause damage over time.

A rollable, by contrast, can have a relatively large radius of curvature for the screen, and you don’t have the problem of “which screen do you use when it’s folded?” The screen’s just bigger or smaller.
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They’re all good dogs, and it has nothing to do with their breed • The New York Times

James Gorman:

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After conducting owner surveys for 18,385 dogs and sequencing the genomes of 2,155 dogs, a group of researchers reported a variety of findings in the journal Science on Thursday, including that for predicting some dog behaviours, breed is essentially useless, and for most, not very good. For instance, one of the clearest findings in the massive, multifaceted study is that breed has no discernible effect on a dog’s reactions to something it finds new or strange.

This behaviour is related to what the nonscientist might call aggression, and would seem to cast doubt on breed stereotypes of aggressive dogs, like pit bulls. One thing pit bulls did score high on was human sociability – no surprise to anyone who has seen internet videos of lap-loving pit bulls. Labrador retriever ancestry, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any significant correlation with human sociability.

This is not to say that there are no differences among breeds, or that breed can’t predict some things. If you adopt a Border collie, said Elinor Karlsson of the Broad Institute and the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, an expert in dog genomics and an author of the report, the probability that it will be easier to train and interested in toys “is going to be higher than if you adopt a Great Pyrenees.”

…The researchers found 11 specific DNA regions associated with behavior. This finding could assist in the study of human genomics, although the researchers are just scratching the surface of the relationship between both species’ genomes. A region that affected the likelihood of a dog howling, for example, is associated in humans with language development. And a region connected to enjoying being around humans is also present in human DNA, where it is associated with long-term memory.

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Having owned three Pyrenees, I can vouch: they care not one whit for toys. But, like all the rest, they are good dogs.
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Apple’s China engineers keep products flowing as Covid shuts out US staff • WSJ

Yoko Kubota:

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Before the pandemic, Apple sent hundreds of U.S. engineers each month to China to oversee the contract manufacturers that build most of its products.

Now, in a shift, the global technology giant relies more on local engineers.

Most US-based Apple engineers have been shut out of China for the past two years by rigid border controls intended to keep the Covid-19 virus at bay. New iPhone models in 2020 were delayed, but since then Apple has largely kept up with its annual product cycle thanks to focusing on localization, people familiar with the matter said.

Apple’s China-based engineers have taken on greater responsibilities to keep the cycle going, the people said. The transfer of power underscores the growing technical expertise of China’s workforce, honed over decades as Apple and other foreign companies have trained generations of engineers and technicians.

The iPhone maker has also adopted some technology, including live-streaming, that helps staff based at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., remotely follow what’s happening on China’s factory floors, the people said. Apple has used iPads to communicate and augmented-reality tools to help technical experts in Cupertino check factory issues, one of the people said.

Most Apple products are made at plants scattered across China by manufacturers such as Foxconn Technology Group and Pegatron Corp.

Key decisions and core tasks such as product design still remain centered in Cupertino, the people said. And some engineers have managed to visit China, if only a small fraction of previous numbers, one of the people said.

«

I’m sure I didn’t dream it: Apple used to have a block booking of airline seats between San Francisco and China each day, or possibly week, because it was simpler for people to just turn up and fly than to figure out who might need to go each day. Can’t find the story confirming it, though. But that’s how closely Apple wanted its US engineers working with its Chinese ones. (There’s also the oft-told story of Tim Cook, early in his time at Apple, pointing out a supply chain problem in China to someone in a meeting in the US. A few minutes later, Cook looked over at the man and said “Why are you still here?” The man headed for a plane.)
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People trust AI fake faces more than real ones, research suggests • Freethink

Victoria Masterson:

»

Fake faces created by artificial intelligence (AI) are considered more trustworthy than images of real people, a study has found.

The results highlight the need for safeguards to prevent deep fakes, which have already been used for revenge porn, fraud and propaganda, the researchers behind the report say.

The study – by Dr Sophie Nightingale from Lancaster University in the UK and Professor Hany Farid from the University of California, Berkeley, in the US – asked participants to identify a selection of 800 faces as real or fake, and to rate their trustworthiness.

After three separate experiments, the researchers found the AI-created synthetic faces were on average rated 7.7% more trustworthy than the average rating for real faces. This is “statistically significant”, they add. The three faces rated most trustworthy were fake, while the four faces rated most untrustworthy were real, according to the magazine New Scientist.

The fake faces were created using generative adversarial networks (GANs), AI programmes that learn to create realistic faces through a process of trial and error.

The study, AI-synthesized faces are indistinguishable from real faces and more trustworthy, is published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

It urges safeguards to be put into place, which could include incorporating “robust watermarks” into the image to protect the public from deep fakes.

«

I’m sure everyone who wants to fool the public with a deep fake will dutifully put a watermark on it. There’s a panel of pictures from the paper of real and “synthetic” faces. Some of the real faces you’d swear are not.
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‘Buy now, pay later’ sends TikTok generation spiraling into debt • SF Gate

Joshua Bote:

»

One video, posted in September last year by TikTok user Lillian Bradford, features her in a faux-fur coat and gold earrings. “I was fully under the impression that I only owed maybe $300 max on Afterpay,” the text reads. Then a screenshot pops up with her balance: more than $2,000. (In an interview with the Daily Mail, the influencer later said the “video was a joke” that she did not anticipate would go viral.)

This new breed of lending firm bills itself as a friendlier, more responsible way to spend than credit cards; in an interview with SFGATE, an executive from industry leader Afterpay even suggested the loans are just a way to budget better.

The marketing pitch is certainly working. In 2021, Americans spent more than $20 billion through buy now, pay later services, an ever-increasing chunk of the $870 billion-a-year online shopping pie. 

In California alone, 91% of all consumer loans issued in 2020 — defined by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation as loans for “personal, family or household purposes” such as car, utility or medical loans — were buy now, pay later loans, also known as point-of-sale loans. 

Gen Z, in particular, has fallen in love with the short-term loans, spending 925% more now through point-of-sale services than in January 2020. But coupling nearly instantaneous loans with an influencer-addled social media culture that prioritizes exorbitant spending and normalizes debt could be further jeopardizing the financial futures of young people through just four easy payments.

…While these services may be a responsible alternative to credit card debt for a good chunk of consumers, it seems increasingly likely that, without regulations, this kind of debt will burden the most financially vulnerable, just as credit cards, payday loans and layaway have in the past. In 2021, Klarna launched a “Fill up now. Pay later” program with Chevron and Texaco gas stations, which gained media attention earlier this year; a recent Ipsos poll, funded by Afterpay, found that respondents were interested in using buy now, pay later for dental work, car repairs and even rent.

«

No sign yet of people being overburdened with them. Though maybe as inflation rises it will become tighter, and as interest rates rise it will become harder to sustain such cheap loans.
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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

Start Up No.1795: Musk’s big plans for Twitter subs, the trouble with nurdles, is “cheap and plentiful” over?, unicorns crash, and more


From July, “newly launched” cars in the EU – and UK – will have inbuilt speed limiters. Other cars will follow. Did you know? And what do you think? CC-licensed photo by emdot 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. Praise be to Pinboard. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Inside Elon Musk’s big plans for Twitter • The New York Times

Mike Isaac, Lauren Hirsch and Anupreeta Das:

»

Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, has presented a pitch deck to investors in recent days outlining his grand — some might say incredible — plans for Twitter and its financial targets. The New York Times obtained the presentation. Here’s a peek into what Mr. Musk sees for the social media service in the years ahead.

• Quintuple revenue to $26.4bn by 2028
In his pitch deck, Mr. Musk claimed he would increase Twitter’s annual revenue to $26.4bn by 2028, up from $5bn last year.

• Cut Twitter’s reliance on advertising to less than 50% of revenue
Under Mr. Musk, advertising would fall to 45% of total revenue, down from around 90% in 2020. In 2028, advertising would generate $12bn in revenue and subscriptions nearly $10bn, according to the document. Other revenue would come from businesses such as data licensing.

• Produce $15m in revenue from a payments business
Twitter would bring in $15m from a payments business in 2023, according to the document, which would grow to about $1.3bn by 2028. The company’s payments business today, which includes tipping and shopping, is negligible. There has been speculation that Mr. Musk may introduce payment abilities to Twitter given that he helped popularize PayPal, the digital payments service.

«

Also in there: reach 931m users by 2028 (a strangely specific target), grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) from $24.83 now to $30.22, get 104m subscribers for “X” (unknown), fire about 900 people and then hire 3,600.

I appeared on The Bunker podcast to talk about Musk’s plans before this document came out, and my calculations were only for getting rid of ads and keeping revenue the same.

To be honest, all these targets sound doable. Getting rid of ads on Twitter would be hugely popular. Would people pay? Try them. Not just pay to post, but pay to read (some things). Musk at least sounds like someone who really wants to unlock the value imprisoned in the network. You can’t do that with branded advertising.

(Note also that Musk may have expected the presentation to leak. Good way to induce terror in the Twitter staff; he can then dial that back, or up, as needed.)
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The era of Cheap and Plenty may be ending • The New York Times

Jeanna Smialek and Ana Swanson:

»

It’s not clear yet to what extent factories are moving closer to home. A “reshoring index” published by Kearney, a management consulting firm, was negative in 2020 and 2021, indicating that the United States was importing more manufactured goods from low-cost countries.

But more firms reported moving their supply chains out of China to other countries, and American executives were more positive about bringing more manufacturing to the United States.

Duke Realty, which rents warehouse and industrial facilities in the United States, expects the change to be a source of demand in years to come, though the reworking may take a while. Customers are “now future-proofing their supply chains,” Steve Schnur, the firm’s chief operating officer, said on an earnings call last week.

“Some reshoring is occurring — let’s make no mistake about that,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the World Trade Organization, said in an interview. But the data show that most businesses are mitigating risk by building up their inventories and finding additional suppliers in low-cost countries, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said. That process could end up integrating poorer countries in Africa and other parts of the world more deeply into global value chains, she said.

In an interview at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday, Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said American consumers had enjoyed the “luxury” of low prices for imported goods for a long time, but it was “built on something that was very fragile.”

And Americans are not just consumers, she added. They are also workers who have to compete in a global marketplace for talent where globalization “has really eroded opportunities and wages for your average American.”

“I think going forward in terms of globalization 2.0 we need to have those hard conversations,” Ms. Tai said. “A more resilient, a stronger, more sustainable future is one that is going to look different and feel different.”

«

I think she’s quietly pointing to a sign saying “more expensive” as she says those words. It’s hard not to think that. In a world where supply chains are disrupted and janky, how can everything stay cheap and plentiful?
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California just shy of 100% powered by renewables for first time • Desert Sun

Janet Wilson:

»

Renewable electricity provided just shy of 100% of California’s electricity demand on Saturday, a record-breaker, officials said, much of it from large amounts of solar power now produced along Interstate 10, an hour east of the Coachella Valley. 

Environmentalists over the weekend celebrated as an official online supply tracker surged to 101%, but a power official said late Monday that they had doublechecked the data, and adjusted it slightly due to battery charging and reserves and other resource needs. 

While partygoers celebrated in the blazing sunshine at the Stagecoach music festival, energy demand statewide hit 18,672 megawatts at 2:45 p.m., “and at 2:50, we reached 99.87% of load served by all renewables, which broke the previous record … of 97.58%,” said Anna Gonzales, spokeswoman for California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, a nonprofit that oversees the state’s bulk electric power system and transmission lines.

Two thirds of the 18,000 megawatts needed was provided by solar power loaded into the energy grid — or 12,391 megawatts. The rest came from wind, geothermal and other renewable sources.

Environmentalists who’ve pushed for years for all of California’s power to come from renewables were jubilant on Saturday as they watched the tracker edge closer to 100% and past.

«

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Mandatory speed limiters on UK cars from 2022 • AutoTrader

Nimisha Jain:

»

• From 6 July 2022, all newly launched cars will legally have to be fitted with a speed limiter
• The UK is likely to adopt the new speed limiting rules, even after Brexit
• The driver will still be responsible for adhering to the speed limits

The European Commission has reached a provisional agreement that all new vehicles sold in Europe will be fitted with a speed limiter as a legal requirement from 6 July 2022. The 2019/2044 regulation also mandates all new cars that have already launched be fitted with an Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA) by 7 July 2024.

While it hasn’t been decided, the UK will likely obey the new road safety regulations despite leaving the EU as even after Brexit, the UK has retained most EU laws for new cars. Following this agreement also helps in standardising the car manufacturing process for different markets. Using speed limiters successfully would also be a step forward in developing self-driving cars in the UK.

«

This has very much flown under the radar in the UK, I’d say. Possibly because people in the UK think that, having left the EU, this won’t apply here. Apparently it will: the Vehicle Certification Agency will keep following EU regulations.

The obvious “but” that it’s only for “newly launched” cars in the first instance – ie totally new models – is then somewhat diluted by the fact that any new car will have to have it in two years.

I can imagine a gigantic tabloid fit about this. The argument will probably be that the system needs GPS to determine what the local speed limit is, so this amounts to spying. (Well, no, it doesn’t.) And that, well, what about emergencies? (You can override them. Though see today’s last item.)

Can’t wait for the summer when this floats to the top of the agenda.
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The big list of data journalism tools and resources • Media Hack

Alastair Otter:

»

Getting started with data journalism can be tricky, especially if you’re unsure of the best way to start working with your first dataset, or even where to start looking for your first dataset.

At Media Hack, we’ve been working with data and journalism for the past five years. In that time the number of tools and learning materials for data journalism has increased exponentially, to the point where there are so many options available that just getting started can be bogged down in decision making.

This list of tools and resources is based on our experience working in this area. It includes tools that we have used, that we regularly use or know to be useful to anyone looking to perfect their data journalism.
We will update this list at regular intervals, so if you know of anything that may be worth including please email us (info@mediahack.co.za). We can’t include everything but we would like to keep the list as up-to-date as possible.

«

Looks like a great set of resources – there are now podcasts and newsletters, which there sure weren’t when I was hacking around with data journalism a few years ago.
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Once richly valued, ‘unicorn’ startups are being gored and investors and funders have stopped believing • MarketWatch

Jeffrey Lee Funk and Gary N. Smith:

»

[Used-car retailer] Carvana has been bleeding cash, borrowing money to keep going. After its latest financing attempt flopped, Apollo Global Management came to the money pit and gave Carvana a very big shovel. Carvana will issue $3.3bn in bonds and preferred stock (with Apollo buying $1.6bn of that), at a 10.25% interest rate and prepayment barred for five years.

One measure of Carvana’s desperation is that while it is borrowing money at 10.25%, it will be loaning money to car buyers at a competitive 3.9% interest rate. Borrowing at 10.25% to lend at 3.9% is a financial disaster that no sensible company would do if there were any good alternatives. Moody’s has cut Caravana’s debt rating to triple-C and Carvana’s stock price has slumped from its $370.10 peak to $59.56 at Wednesday’s close.

Other loss-making startups are in similar deep holes and reaching for shovels. Losses must be financed, and most unicorns have much bigger losses than does Carvana, both current and cumulative. Carvana’s cumulative losses are now $900m, a big number, but relatively small compared to many other startups. Looking at losses through December 2021, 46 of the 140 US unicorn startups that are currently being publicly traded have more cumulative losses than Caravana, despite having much lower revenues.

The largest cumulative losses are for Uber Technologies ($23.6bn), WeWork ($14.1bn), Snap ($8.4bn), Lyft ($8.3bn), Teledoc Health ($8.1bn), Airbnb ($6.3bn), and Palantir Technologies ($5.5bn) followed by four others — Nutanix, Rivian Automotive, Robinhood Markets and Bloom Energy — with losses of more than $3bn. Another 16 have losses greater than $2bn, 39 have greater than $1bn, and 77 have greater than $500m.

«

Unicorns, but in very much the wrong direction. That borrow/loan for Carvana is like a mob vig. It’s amazing to think such losses can be sustained, but everyone acts as though Uber and Lyft and WeWork have an absolute right to exist.
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What are nurdles? The unregulated plastics ruining the environment • Vox

Neel Dhanesha:

»

The object in [Southeastern Louisiana University research associate Liz] Marchio’s hand was small, round, and yellowish-white, about the size of a lentil. It looked like an egg, as if a fish or salamander or tadpole could come wriggling out of it. Marchio handed it to me and turned to flip over a tree branch floating in the water, where dozens more lay waiting underneath. She made a sound of disgust. We had come hunting, and we had quickly found our quarry: nurdles.

A nurdle is a bead of pure plastic. It is the basic building block of almost all plastic products, like some sort of synthetic ore; their creators call them “pre-production plastic pellets” or “resins.” Every year, trillions of nurdles are produced from natural gas or oil, shipped to factories around the world, and then melted and poured into molds that churn out water bottles and sewage pipes and steering wheels and the millions of other plastic products we use every day. You are almost certainly reading this story on a device that is part nurdle.

That is the ideal journey for a nurdle, but not all of them make their way safely to the end of a production line. As Marchio and I continued to make our way upriver toward New Orleans’ French Quarter, she began collecting nurdles in ziplock bags, marking in red Sharpie the date, location, number of beads collected, and the time taken to collect them.

At one point, on the side of a levee outside the Lower Ninth Ward, she collected 113 nurdles in five minutes. This is not uncommon: An estimated 200,000 metric tons of nurdles make their way into oceans annually. The beads are extremely light, around 20 milligrams each. That means, under current conditions, approximately 10 trillion nurdles are projected to infiltrate marine ecosystems around the world each year.

Hundreds of fish species — including some eaten by humans — and at least 80 kinds of seabirds eat plastics. Researchers are concerned that animals that eat nurdles risk blocking their digestive tracts and starving to death. Just as concerning is what happens to the beads in the long term: Like most plastics, they do not biodegrade, but they do deteriorate over time, forming the second-largest source of ocean microplastics after tire dust. (A nurdle, being less than 5 millimeters around, is a microplastic from the moment of its creation, something also known as a primary microplastic.)

«

Our devices are part nurdle and over time, it seems, so are we.
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Is Clubhouse keeping up with its rivals? • eMarketer Insider Intelligence Trends, Forecasts & Statistics

Sara Lebow:

»

In 2021, social audio app Clubhouse registered a total of 6.7 million downloads in the US. About 42% of those downloads occurred during Q1 2021, when the app received extraordinary media buzz. But as established platforms created copycat features, Clubhouse’s downloads decreased. [Chart shows 1.2m, 1.2m, 1.5m in the next three quarters to end 2021.]

Despite the waves Clubhouse made, it seems the app and its clones aren’t resonating with US users. Only 2% of the country’s teens and adults used Twitter Spaces as of January 2022, while 1% each used Clubhouse and Spotify Live (formerly Spotify Greenroom), per an Edison Research and Triton Digital study. While Spotify is shuttering its Live creator fund, Amazon is marching to a different beat, introducing Amp, its own take on the format, just last month. Whether the retail giant can revive social audio is yet to be seen.

«

I’ll go with “no”. I can see that there might be some breakthrough examples, but we’re talking about phone-in radio over the internet here. Any big stars who emerge might get a chance on “real” radio – better money? – or might be able to monetise where they are, and be another little part of the galaxy of internet monetisation. (OK, a moratorium is declared on Clubhouse/Twitter Spaces/etc unless something properly dramatic happens.)
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Will social media platforms ban ads promoting abortion in red states? • The Washington Post

Cristiano Lima and Aaron Schaffer:

»

With the Supreme Court seemingly poised to overturn the constitutional right to abortion later this year, a wave of red states are expected to enact new restrictions or bans on the practice. 

It’s a trend that would force social media companies to make high-stakes and polarising decisions about whether to ban advertising that promotes or facilitates abortion. 

Currently, almost all major platforms prohibit advertisers from posting paid messages promoting or facilitating illegal products, services or activities. That includes Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest and LinkedIn. “Ads must not constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services or activities,” Facebook’s ad policies say.

Some explicitly say that digital ads must comply with the local laws where the messages appear and that companies may over-enforce in situations where the legality is unclear. 

“We expect all advertisers to comply with the local laws for any area their ads target, in addition to the standard Google Ads policies,” Google’s ad rules state. “We generally err on the side of caution in applying this policy because we don’t want to allow content of questionable legality.”

With Republican-led state legislatures likely to expand prohibitions against receiving, providing or facilitating abortions, clinics and other health-care providers offering related services may soon lose access to a powerful tool for reaching potential patients.

«

Now this creates an interesting conundrum. The laws against abortion would be state laws. But banning such adverts on the demand of the state government would, arguably, breach the federal First Amendment if they were for offerings outside the state. Might see that one go to the Supreme Court too.
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Cautionary Tales: when the autopilot switched off • Tim Harford

Harford’s podcast series has had lots of excellent episodes; this one freaked me out a bit:

»

An airline captain thought he was giving his children a harmless thrill by letting them “fly” his packed airplane – the young cockpit visitors weren’t really in control… the autopilot was doing the real flying. Until it wasn’t. Do safety features actually lull us into a false sense of security – tempting us to take greater risks than we otherwise would?

«

You can listen to the whole podcast on the page. (It’s about half an hour.) This is a creepy, scary story, in which Harford’s excellent storytelling skills amplify the concern that the preamble above sets up. I contrast him especially with some of the other people who do storytelling podcasts, who keep jumping back and forth in time, doing teasers for what’s coming because they worry people will give up. I find the latter happens with American and big media outputs. It’s bad. Either your story’s good enough, or it isn’t.
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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: Happily this edition reached you, which it might not have as Pinboard, which I use to store links, was down on Sunday for a while. If you know of a cheap (free?) bookmarking service that lets one add commentary, do let me know. Google used to have one.. which of course it shuttered.

Start Up No.1794: “kill passwords” say Apple/Google/Microsoft, Facebook’s Australia blowup, tracked by drones, and more


You can imagine Bugs Bunny without a background, but have you ever considered the Looney Tunes backgrounds without the characters? CC-licensed photo by coyote521coyote521 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple, Google, and Microsoft want to kill the password with “Passkey” standard • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

»

The first Thursday of May is apparently “World Password Day,” and to celebrate, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are launching a “joint effort” to kill the password. The major OS vendors want to “expand support for a common passwordless sign-in standard created by the FIDO Alliance and the World Wide Web Consortium.”

The standard is being called either a “multi-device FIDO credential” or just a “passkey.” Instead of a long string of characters, this new scheme would have the app or website you’re logging in to push a request to your phone for authentication. From there, you’d need to unlock the phone, authenticate with some kind of pin or biometric, and then you’re on your way. This sounds like a familiar system for anyone with phone-based two-factor authentication set up, but this is a replacement for the password rather than an additional factor.

There’s a graphic showing the user interaction.

Some push 2FA systems work over the internet, but this new FIDO scheme works over Bluetooth. As the whitepaper explains, “Bluetooth requires physical proximity, which means that we now have a phishing-resistant way to leverage the user’s phone during authentication.” Bluetooth has a terrible reputation for compatibility, and I’m not sure “security” has ever been a real concern, but the FIDO alliance notes that Bluetooth is just “to verify physical proximity” and that the actual sign-in process “does not depend on Bluetooth security properties.”

Of course, that means both devices will need Bluetooth on board, which is a given for most smartphones and laptops but could be a tough ask for older desktop PCs.

…The FIDO blog post says: “These new capabilities are expected to become available across Apple, Google, and Microsoft platforms over the course of the coming year.” Apple, which seems to have started the whole “passkey” trend, already has a system up and running in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey, but it’s not compatible with other platforms yet.

«

Promising? Yet these things always have a Zeno’s Arrow feel to them. Plus there’s always the question of how you set up an account on some password-demanding service in the first place, and so on: the ouroboros of security authentication.
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Elon Musk hates ads. Twitter needs them. That may be a problem • The New York Times

Tiffany Hsu and Kate Conger:

»

numerous advertising executives say they’re willing to move their money elsewhere, especially if Mr. Musk removes the safeguards that allowed Twitter to remove racist rants and conspiracy theories. An advertiser exodus would weaken the company, underscoring the difficulty of balancing Mr. Musk’s vision of Twitter as a haven for free speech with the business relationships that keep it going.

But Twitter’s co-founder and at least some investors who joined Mr. Musk’s bid have rejected the need for advertising and insisted that the company needs to break away from it. Twitter’s status as “a public company solely reliant on the advertising business model” added to its problems with bots, abuse and censorship, said Ben Horowitz, a general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which is investing $400m in the effort to take Twitter private.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder, agreed. “This is true. It needs cover for a while,” Mr. Dorsey said in a tweet responding to Mr. Horowitz.

Advertisers said such a shift would hurt Twitter. “At the end of the day, it’s not the brands who need to be concerned because they’ll just spend their budgets elsewhere — it’s Twitter that needs to be concerned,” said David Jones, a longtime advertising executive and the chief executive of the Brandtech Group, a marketing technology company. “If you said to me that TikTok went away, that would be a disaster. But Twitter going away? Yeah, whatever.”

…Twitter representatives have also noted that it would probably be months, if not more than a year before any serious changes would go into effect, advertising executives said.

«

I disagree with the headline. Twitter’s present revenue is about $4.8bn annually. Now, imagine that Twitter charges the world’s 200-odd governments $2m per month to tweet on the service. Tweet what you like, won’t be interfered with (hello, China). That’s $4.8bn there, for what is a tiny running cost to a government. And if they don’t pay, then their government reps can’t be on it. (He’s said it should remain free to “casual” users, but ministers etc wouldn’t be “casual”.) That would focus minds. What government would want to look so cheap? Or grade the subscription by GDP per capita.

Or find governments and big businesses – 2 million of them – who you charge $200 per month. Or 4 million who you charge $100 per month. It’s peanuts to them. And he wouldn’t need the advertising. Though he might need to keep the content moderation to keep the businesses happy.

Equally, Twitter is so, so terrible at targeting ads. It could do that so, so much better.

(Americans can’t see past adverts, can they? Such a strange myopia.)
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Twitter’s bubbles are a blight on British politics • Financial Times

Sebastian Payne:

»

For members of parliament, Twitter has become a constant focus group on what (allegedly) matters: more immediate than scavenging through postbags, far less time-consuming than knocking on doors. Finding out what colleagues, journalists and voters think has never been easier. Yet Twitter is phenomenally unrepresentative. According to the London School of Economics, Twitter has 16mn UK users and the largest demographic is 18 to 29 year olds. During the last election, the Hansard Society reckoned Twitter skewed significantly towards pro-Remain Labour party supporters.

Its immediacy, however, is one of the chief reasons politics has such a shrunken horizon. Issues come and go within hours. When a controversy or gaffe starts trending, parties are forced to react. Take the government’s rail plan published last November: nearly £100bn, the biggest investment in British railways in decades. Twitter cried betrayal because the eastern leg of High Speed 2 was paused; the rest of the announcement was lost.

Serious policy debate is futile. Shouting produces the most clicks. And the damage is clear. Twitter convinced Labour MPs they should nominate Jeremy Corbyn to contest the leadership to “widen the debate”. After last year’s Hartlepool by-election, Twitter prompted a crisis for current leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose reshuffle could be seen collapsing in real time. The vicious army of “cybernats” — extreme online Scottish secessionists — are a poor advert for the independence cause.

…In conversations with party insiders who will run the next general election campaigns, I was struck that strategists cited Twitter as the biggest impediment to their team winning. One figure close to Starmer says, “If I could just do one thing in the party, I would get every Labour MP off Twitter.”

…On the Tory side, the party has discounted Twitter for winning votes. One aide said, “It’s only useful to shape the media conversation.”

«

Very much what I found with Social Warming: politicians with the largest social media followings tended to be the most extreme, and do the least in terms of passing laws, etc (certainly in the US).
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Looney Tunes without Looney Tunes: existential, surreal, and creepy backgrounds • Design You Trust

»

Many of us enjoyed watching Looney Tunes when we were kids – they were funny, interesting, and unbelievably groovy.

But sometimes, because of the madness on the screen, we didn’t have time to see even a fifth of the important component of “Looney Tunes” – the backdrops, painstakingly and meticulously drawn by artists for each episode. And therein lies a substantial part of the fun!

The Instagram account Looney Tunes Backgrounds has compiled over 900 backdrops from the legendary cartoon, going all the way back to the ’30s, so now we can all take a thoughtful look at them. What’s interesting is that without the flickering back and forth of cartoons, these painted locations look like creepy, existential spaces, empty though colorful graveyards where someone’s childhood died.

«

They are indeed surreal and creepy. There’s a particular quality about them I can’t quite put my finger on. Partly it’s the bleakness: the only populated one (on this page) has a lone robot. It’s not as bleak as Garfield minus Garfield, but it’s definitely strange.
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Facebook deliberately caused havoc in Australia to influence new law, whistleblowers say • WSJ

Keach Hagey, Mike Cherney and Jeff Horwitz:

»

Last year when Facebook blocked news in Australia in response to potential legislation making platforms pay publishers for content, it also took down the pages of Australian hospitals, emergency services and charities. It publicly called the resulting chaos “inadvertent.”

Internally, the pre-emptive strike was hailed as a strategic masterstroke.

Facebook documents and testimony filed to U.S. and Australian authorities by whistleblowers allege that the social-media giant deliberately created an overly broad and sloppy process to take down pages—allowing swaths of the Australian government and health services to be caught in its web just as the country was launching Covid vaccinations.

The goal, according to the whistleblowers and documents, was to exert maximum negotiating leverage over the Australian Parliament, which was voting on the first law in the world that would require platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for content.

Despite saying it was targeting only news outlets, the company deployed an algorithm for deciding what pages to take down that it knew was certain to affect more than publishers, according to the documents and people familiar with the matter.

It didn’t notify affected pages in advance they would be blocked or provide a system for them to appeal once they were.

…People familiar with Facebook’s thinking said executives knew its process for classifying news for the removal of pages was so broad that it would likely hit government pages and other social services. They decided to take that route because Facebook was afraid a narrower definition might lead it to run afoul of the law, which contained a nondiscrimination clause barring platforms from carrying links to some news publishers but not others, the people said.

«

So Facebook has a just-about excuse, but knew things would be bad. A company out of control.
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Chromebook market share hits lowest point in five years • Strategy Analytics

»

Chirag Upadhyay, industry analyst said, “ChromeOS shipments suffered as education demand continued to slow down and consumer upgrades for Chromebook were at the lowest point, even compared to pre-pandemic levels. The Chromebook business is very small but remains very important for top vendors, as they are keeping good inventory before education demand kicks off in Q2 2022 in main markets. Chromebook is still making an impact in new markets albeit slowly as the public sector look to spend towards cheaper devices for education.”

Eric Smith, director, Connected Computing added, “The total notebook market was only down 7% compared to last year, demand for commercial business stayed strong for Windows 11 PCs and MacBooks powered by M1 chipset, as most enterprise and SMB clients are still choosing hybrid work options and spending extra for quality products. Dell and Apple were good examples of the growth segments of the market: premium Windows notebooks and MacBooks with the M1 chipset.”

«

Only looks at laptops, where it says Apple shipped 6.1m (which suggests total shipments of 7.6m, based on 80% of its shipments being laptops). No surprise that Chrome is in retreat: schools are going back and people have bought their children all the laptops they’ll need. Yet another of those left exposed when the pandemic tide went out. (Hello Zoom, Peloton..)
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Watch a swarm of drones autonomously track a human through a dense forest • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Scientists from China’s Zhejiang University have unveiled a drone swarm capable of navigating through a dense bamboo forest without human guidance.

The group of 10 palm-sized drones communicate with one another to stay in formation, sharing data collected by on-board depth-sensing cameras to map their surroundings. This method means that if the path in front of one drone is blocked, it can use information collected by its neighbors to plot a new route. The researchers note that this technique can also be used by the swarm to track a human walking through the same environment. If one drone loses sight of the target, others are able to pick up the trail.

In the future, write the scientists in a paper published in the journal Science Robotics, drone swarms like this could be used for disaster relief and ecological surveys.

“In natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, a swarm of drones can search, guide, and deliver emergency supplies to trapped people,” they write. “For example, in wildfires, agile multicopters can quickly collect information from a close view of the front line without the risk of human injury.”

«

Sure, you could use it in natural disasters. I feel it might instead get used for surveillance and tracking – of criminals, the accused, the suspected.

But, also, this is inevitable.
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Every Bay Area house party • Astral Codex Ten

Scott Alexander:

»

A man with a buzz-cut. His shirt had an incomprehensible symbol – his favorite band’s symbol? His company’s logo? A chaos magic sigil? and he was carrying a half-decayed slice of pizza.

“I’m Ramchandra,” he said. “I’m working for a fintech startup. Love to hear from anyone else in the business!”

“I’m Bob, good to meet you. Who do you work for?”

“You know ViraCoin?”

“No, tell me about them.”

“New crypto. You mine it by promoting about it. Once every eight minutes, a decentralized algorithm searches for tweets containing the word ‘ViraCoin’ with a positive sentiment score, weights them by number of likes, and then picks one at random to award a ViraCoin to.”

“Sounds…awful.”

“No, you don’t understand. This is just the first step. Once we make it super-big, we’ll introduce other things into the algorithm. Charities. Political causes. We’ll have millions of people competing to praise UNICEF in order to get that next million-dollar ViraCoin drop. If you think about it, all problems are caused by lack of awareness. We’re an at-scale solution to awareness. Solve that, and you solve poverty, inequality, racism…”

You wander off.

«

But that is only the second annoying guest, and there are plenty more of them (they aren’t all crypto, don’t worry.)
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How much data does iPlayer use? More than BBC says! • The Big Tech Question

Barry Collins:

»

The BBC has a support page for watching BBC iPlayer on mobile data. On that, it claims that “an hour-long TV programme will typically use 225MB of data.”

In my tests, that is a woeful underestimate.

I streamed a 30-minute episode of Here We Go over a 4G connection using the BBC iPlayer app for Android. In that short time, it used 411MB of data, which is around four times as much data as the BBC website suggested.

Therefore, be careful if you’re on a mobile data plan with a tight data cap, because you could find that watching shows on iPlayer whilst you’re out and about eats through a lot more data than you might expect.

It’s also worth noting that (on Android, at least) I couldn’t find any way of adjusting the streaming quality, so you’re pretty much stuck with whichever rate the iPlayer app decides. In my tests, the bitrate looked adaptive, which means the quality of the video is automatically altered depending on the available mobile data bandwidth. So, it is possible that some streaming sessions will use less data than I observed.

«

Forewarned is forearmed. For a lot of people, that single program would be a significant proportion of their monthly data allowance.
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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

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.

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. 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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.”

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.”

«

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:

»

[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.”

«

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:

»

“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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

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:

»

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

Start Up No.1792: the people who get stuff done for Musk, UK ditches tech regulator plans, India and Pakistan heatwave goes on, and more


In a new lawsuit, Apple is suing chip startup Rivos which it says has poached 40 of its staff – and, crucially, intellectual property from their old job. CC-licensed photo by Rob Bulmahn 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 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How Elon Musk winged it with Twitter, and everything else • The New York Times

Ryan Mac, Cade Metz and Kate Conger:

»

To a degree unseen in any other mogul, the entrepreneur acts on whim, fancy and the certainty that he is 100% right, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former employees, investors and others who have worked with him. While Mr. Musk has successfully bet on electric cars, space travel and artificial intelligence, he often wings it in the biggest moments, eschews experts and relies almost solely on his own counsel, they said.

To operate this way, Mr. Musk has constructed an insular world of about 10 confidants who mostly agree with him and carry out his bidding. They include his younger brother, Kimbal Musk; Mr. Birchall; Mr. Spiro; and various chiefs of staff. To manage his many ideas, Mr. Musk continuously creates new companies, most of which are structured so that he remains in charge. His trusted lieutenants often work across his far-flung empire of businesses.

Once Mr. Musk has identified each company’s key project — what he calls its “critical path” — he takes over to ensure that his vision is met, controlling the smallest aspects of how the technologies are built and deployed. His brilliance has spawned the world’s most valuable automaker and an innovative rocket company, and it has earned the respect — and fear — of his engineers.

Relying on his small crew and hewing to his own thinking have enabled Mr. Musk to call the shots and conduct himself with few restraints, turning him into a Howard Hughes-like figure of the modern age — even as his seat-of-the-pants methods often create bedlam.

Mr. Musk works in a way that only the “most confident leaders do,” said Tim Draper, a venture capitalist who backed Mr. Musk’s electric automaker, Tesla, and his rocket company, SpaceX. “Think J.F.K., George Washington and Ronald Reagan.”

At a 2018 conference, Mr. Musk explained that he behaved on impulse. It was a lesson he learned more than 25 years ago after founding his first start-up, Zip2, he said.

“I don’t really have a business plan,” he said. “I had a business plan way back in the Zip2 days. But these things are always wrong, so I just didn’t bother with business plans after that.”

«

It’s a long piece, but it does tell you what Musk’s advisors (and Musk himself) are like in business. “Mercurial yet determined”, if one were trying to distil it.
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Homeland Security’s “Disinformation Governance Board” is a bad title and a worse idea • The Washington Post

Eugene Robinson:

»

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas should pull the plug on the new board. Like, yesterday. And never speak of it again.

The problems begin with the worst name I’ve ever heard the federal government come up with, and that’s saying something. Disinformation Governance Board? To call the unit’s name Orwellian is an insult to George Orwell, who was a masterful prose stylist and who wrote a famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” railing against sins such as “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.”

I can see how disinformation requires monitoring. I can see how it requires fact-checking and refutation. But governance? How do you govern lies?

Beyond the issue of the name is the still-mystifying question about what the board is supposed to do. At congressional hearings this past week, Mayorkas veered from pitching it as an effort to counteract Russian-style meddling in our elections to portraying it as an effort to protect Spanish-speaking migrants from lies told by the criminals who smuggle them into the country. He failed to make clear exactly how the board was supposed to accomplish either of these tasks.

“I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” Mayorkas said Sunday on CNN.

Where he didn’t do much better.

“What it will do is gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from the cartels, and disseminate those best practices to the operators that have been executing in addressing this threat for years,” Mayorkas explained. Perhaps he’d enjoy a nice balsamic vinaigrette to go with that word salad.

He did make clear Sunday that the board is a “small working group,” that it has no “operational authority or capability” and that it will be focused on foreign threats, not domestic ones. If that’s true, why does it need to exist?

«

I get the impression that dealing with the pandemic exhausted the Biden administration, and now it’s just flailing.
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UK ministers ditch plans to empower tech regulator • Financial Times

Kate Beioley, George Parker and Jim Pickard:

»

The UK is poised to shelve plans to empower a new technology regulator, in a blow to global efforts to curb the dominance of internet companies, including Google and Facebook.

The government’s new legislative programme is not expected to include a bill to provide statutory underpinning to the digital markets unit that is based within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), said people briefed on the situation.

Without the legislation the UK tech regulator will not be able to set rules for leading internet companies and impose fines on them for breaking those rules.

The government announced plans to set up the digital markets unit in 2020 and said it would be given powers to devise codes of conduct for tech companies and fine those that did not comply up to 10% of annual turnover.

The unit was established in ‘shadow form’ last year and is operating with around 60 staff, but has no powers beyond the Competition and Market Authority’s existing capabilities.

The Queen’s Speech due on May 10, which will outline the government’s legislative programme for the coming year, is not expected to include a bill that would provide the unit with statutory powers.

«

This has been portrayed as a Story Of Woe, but a contrary view (Twitter thread) put forward by others is that the regulator was a bad idea because it would make life harder for British startups, restrict competition, and harm consumers. And that this was pointed out to the government, at which point the idea was shelved. So the CMA will keep its regulatory role.
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India and Pakistan heatwave is ‘testing the limits of human survivability’ • CNN

Rhea Mogul, Esha Mitra, Manveena Suri and Sophia Saifi:

»

Temperatures in parts of India and Pakistan have reached record levels, putting the lives of millions at risk as the effects of the climate crisis are felt across the subcontinent.

The average maximum temperature for northwest and central India in April was the highest since records began 122 years ago, reaching 35.9ºC and 37.78ºC (96.62ºF and 100ºF) respectively, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

Last month, New Delhi saw seven consecutive days over 40ºC (104ºF), three degrees above the average temperature for the month of April, according to CNN meteorologists. In some states, the heat closed schools, damaged crops and put pressure on energy supplies, as officials warned residents to remain indoors and keep hydrated.

The heatwave has also been felt by India’s neighbor Pakistan, where the cities of Jacobabad and Sibi in the country’s southeastern Sindh province recorded highs of 47ºC (116.6ºF) on Friday, according to data shared with CNN by Pakistan’s Meteorological Department (PMD). According to the PMD, this was the highest temperature recorded in any city in the Northern Hemisphere on that day.

“This is the first time in decades that Pakistan is experiencing what many call a ‘spring-less year,” Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change, Sherry Rehman said in a statement.

…experts say the climate crisis will cause more frequent and longer heatwaves, affecting more than a billion people across the two countries.

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The Mayflower Autonomous Ship

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Back in 2016, ProMare Co-Founder Brett Phaneuf attended a meeting to discuss how to recognize the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower voyage.

A submarine builder by trade and an expert in robotics and underwater systems, Phaneuf didn’t support building another replica. Instead he suggested doing something bold, courageous and new: building a Mayflower for the 21st century.

This futuristic vessel would be powered by AI and drawing on energy from the sun and would be on a global mission of discovery, designed to collect data to help safeguard the future of the ocean. The quest has since expanded to a multicultural and diverse team across 10 countries and three continents and has inspired the support of multiple companies and organizations all over the world.

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Amazing real-time dashboards; it’s currently around the same latitude as the north of Spain. Solar panels in the day, battery by night. Automatic hazard detection.
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Apple lawsuit says ‘stealth’ startup Rivos poached engineers to steal secrets • Reuters via NewsBreak

Blake Brittain:

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Technology startup Rivos Inc allegedly stole Apple’s computer-chip trade secrets after poaching its engineers, Apple said in a lawsuit filed in California federal court.

Apple’s Friday lawsuit said Mountain View, California-based Rivos has hired over 40 of its former employees in the past year to work on competing “system-on-chip” (SoC) technology, and that at least two former Apple engineers took gigabytes of confidential information with them to Rivos.

Rivos is a “stealth” startup that has largely avoided public attention since its founding last year. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Apple declined to comment on the lawsuit.

SoCs are integrated circuits that include several computer components in a single chip, including central processing units and graphic processing units.

Apple said it spent billions of dollars and more than a decade of research on its SoC designs, which have “revolutionized the personal and mobile computing worlds.”

Apple said in the lawsuit that Rivos purposely sought to hire Apple engineers with access to the tech giant’s SoC trade secrets. It named two former engineers, Bhasi Kaithamana and Ricky Wen, who allegedly took thousands of files with SoC designs and other confidential information to Rivos.

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Quite the thing, if Apple can prove it in court. Forty people in a year sounds like a lot? Except we don’t know how many people are in the chip teams at Apple. Would have to be in the hundreds, surely.
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Anchors away • Mike Industries

Mike Davidson formerly worked at Twitter where he built a 100-person design and research team:

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Callousness also happens to be one of the biggest problems with the service itself. People think that Twitter has a Nazi problem. I’m sure there are Nazis on Twitter but for the most part, straight-up Nazi-ism gets dealt with pretty resolutely. The bigger problem has always been people slithering right up to the edge of what the Terms of Service prohibit and making life hell for innocent people.

“So you’re saying I can’t incite violence against this person? Fine. I will just quote-tweet them with something disapproving and my followers will take care of the rest. What?! What did I do?! I’m just exercising my freedom of speech!”

Imagine being a researcher who tweets out a link to a study you’ve worked on for a year, only to be bombarded by thousands of hateful attacks, wishing death upon you. Imagine because of this attack, and the doxxing that might come with it, you need to not just worry about your security on Twitter, but in your own home as well. Your free speech has been effectively silenced by free bullying. To be clear, these things already happen on Twitter, and they are terrible, but the only thing keeping them from happening a lot more often is the care and consideration of the Trust & Safety team at the company.

So in short: more callousness at the company, bad. More callousness on the service, bad.

I’m not sure why we would expect a man who has shown zero ability to empathize with anyone to improve either of those situations. In fact, I think we should expect both to get much, much worse if this transaction ends up going through (which I’m not yet convinced it will).

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Meta’s Project Cambria VR headset likened to ‘a laptop for the face’ • Engadget

Kris Holt:

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Meta plans to release a new high-end virtual reality headset this year, which is codenamed Project Cambria. Some more details about the product, as well as Meta’s VR headset roadmap, have emerged in a report.

Cambria has been described internally as a “laptop for the face” or “Chromebook for the face,” according to The Information. It’s believed to have specs similar to that of a Chromebook and will use Meta’s own VR operating system, which is based on Android. It’s expected to be compatible with web-based tools and services, as well as some Quest apps. However, despite Meta pitching Cambria as a future-of-work device, it may not be able to run native desktop apps that are commonly used by many businesses.

Cambria is said to have high-resolution image quality. This could allow wearers to clearly read text, so they’d be able to send emails or code while wearing the headset. In other words, it may be viable for professional purposes.

Cambria will provide wearers with a view of their surroundings using outward-facing cameras. This feature, called full-color passthrough, will allow for mixed-reality experiences. When it announced Cambria in October 2021, Meta said the headset will include eye-tracking and facial expression recognition features. Users’ avatars in the likes of Horizon Worlds and Workrooms will reportedly mirror their expressions and where they’re looking.

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They really need a better phrase than “laptop for the face”, which sounds like a cross between The Matrix and Alien. Also, what about people who wear spectacles?
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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