Start Up No.1818: US anti-abortion clinics get Facebook data, the TikTok terror, has China heard aliens?, crypto culture, and more

Some of the “American sweets” shops in London’s Oxford St are being investigated for selling counterfeit goods. No, not the sweets. CC-licensed photo by netpalantirnetpalantir on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Self-declared sentient. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook and anti-abortion clinics are collecting highly sensitive info on would-be patients • Reveal

Grace Oldham and Dhruv Mehrotra:


A joint investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Markup found that the world’s largest social media platform is already collecting data about people who visit the websites of hundreds of crisis pregnancy centres, which are quasi-health clinics, mostly run by religiously aligned organizations whose mission is to persuade people to choose an option other than abortion.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, prohibits websites and apps that use Facebook’s advertising technology from sending Facebook “sexual and reproductive health” data. After investigations by The Wall Street Journal in 2019 and New York state regulators in 2021, the social media giant created a machine-learning system to help detect sensitive health data and blocked data that contained any of 70,000 health-related terms.

But Reveal and The Markup have found Facebook’s code on the websites of hundreds of anti-abortion clinics. Using Blacklight, a Markup tool that detects cookies, keyloggers and other types of user-tracking technology on websites, Reveal analyzed the sites of nearly 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers – with data provided by the University of Georgia – and found that at least 294 shared visitor information with Facebook. In many cases, the information was extremely sensitive – for example, whether a person was considering abortion or looking to get a pregnancy test or emergency contraceptives. 

In a statement to Reveal and The Markup, Facebook spokesperson Dale Hogan said: “It is against our policies for websites and apps to send sensitive information about people through our Business Tools,” which includes its advertising technology. “Our system is designed to filter out potentially sensitive data it detects, and we work to educate advertisers on how to properly set up our Business Tools.” Facebook declined to answer detailed questions about its filtering systems and policies on data from crisis pregnancy centers. It’s unknown whether the filters caught any of the data, but our investigation showed a significant amount made its way to Facebook.


Well, OK, this is bad. But: would people who are seeking abortions go to those sites? Unless they’re deceptively described? This element of the story seems confusing.
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Facebook plans ‘discovery engine’ feed change to compete with TikTok • The Verge

Alex Heath:


Simply bringing Reels, the company’s short-form video feature, from Instagram into Facebook wasn’t going to cut it. Executives were closely tracking TikTok’s moves and had grown worried that they weren’t doing enough to compete. In conversations with CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, they decided that Facebook needed to rethink the [News] feed entirely.

In an internal memo from late April obtained by The Verge, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, Tom Alison, spelled out the plan: rather than prioritize posts from accounts people follow, Facebook’s main feed will, like TikTok, start heavily recommending posts regardless of where they come from. And years after Messenger and Facebook split up as separate apps, the two will be brought back together, mimicking TikTok’s messaging functionality.

Combined with an increasing emphasis on Reels, the planned changes show how forcibly Meta is responding to the rise of TikTok, which has quickly become a legitimate challenger to its dominance in social media. While Instagram has already morphed to look more like TikTok with its focus on Reels, executives hope that a similar treatment to Facebook will reverse the app’s stagnant growth and potentially lure back young people.

The moment is similar to when Facebook copied Snapchat as it was growing quickly, but this time, the stakes are arguably higher. Investors are doubting Meta’s ability to navigate challenges to its ads business. And with its stock price already battered, the company needs to show that it can grow if Zuckerberg wants to keep funding his metaverse vision.

Alison put it bluntly to employees in a comment underneath his April memo I saw: “The risk for us is that we dismiss this as being not valuable to people as a form of social communication and connection and we fail to evolve.”


Facebook’s terror is always that something else will come along and properly supplant it. With TikTok, that terror has been realised. Perhaps we’ve already passed peak Facebook; we just missed it at the time.
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Inside Kraken’s culture war stoked by its CEO • The New York Times

Ryan Mac and David Yaffe-Bellany:


Jesse Powell, a founder and the chief executive of Kraken, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, recently asked his employees, “If you can identify as a sex, can you identify as a race or ethnicity?”

He also questioned their use of preferred pronouns and led a discussion about “who can refer to another person as the N word.”

And he told workers that questions about women’s intelligence and risk appetite compared with men’s were “not as settled as one might have initially thought.”

In the process, Mr. Powell, a 41-year-old Bitcoin pioneer, ignited a culture war among his more than 3,000 workers, according to interviews with five Kraken employees, as well as internal documents, videos and chat logs reviewed by The New York Times. Some workers have openly challenged the chief executive for what they see as his “hurtful” comments. Others have accused him of fostering a hateful workplace and damaging their mental health. Dozens are considering quitting, said the employees, who did not want to speak publicly for fear of retaliation.

Corporate culture wars have abounded during the coronavirus pandemic as remote work, inequity and diversity have become central issues at workplaces. At Meta, which owns Facebook, restive employees have agitated over racial justice. At Netflix, employees protested the company’s support for the comedian Dave Chappelle after he aired a special that was criticized as transphobic.

But rarely has such angst been actively stoked by the top boss. And even in the male-dominated cryptocurrency industry, which is known for a libertarian philosophy that promotes freewheeling speech, Mr. Powell has taken that ethos to an extreme.


Kraken is the US’s second-largest exchange, so one might suspect there’s a certain amount of “hey, free publicity!” in this. Powell has found a way to do that and reduce headcount by being toxic. Not much of a long-term strategy, though.
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Celsius bid to rival Wall St with crypto lending scuppered by risky bets • Financial Times

Kadhim Shubber, Joshua Oliver and Scott Chipolina:


The group, which was founded in 2017, rode the most recent crypto bull run to become one of the most prominent companies offering eye-popping yields of as much as 18% to customers who deposited their digital assets. Similar to how a bank counts deposits as liabilities, Celsius customers are unsecured lenders, though in the lightly regulated crypto world they have no government-backed insurance for their funds.

Celsius deployed those deposits in loans to major crypto market makers and hedge funds, as well as into so-called decentralised finance projects. Several players in the market had a policy of not extending credit to Celsius even as they borrowed from it, according to people familiar with the matter.

As crypto prices tumbled this year, Celsius has been hit with withdrawals, totalling $2.5bn pulled from the platform since March. In May, the company had just $12bn in assets, half of where it started the year. It subsequently stopped disclosing total assets under management; however, CDPQ told the FT that Celsius endured a “strong volume of withdrawals” from customers in recent weeks. Celsius did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.


The article details some of the “complex, risky trades” that Celsius used to (perhaps?) meet its promise of 18% – EIGHTEEN% – yield on investment, in a world where interest rates were near zero. They are absurdly complex, essentially jumping off a cliff on the promise someone will catch you in an aeroplane.
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China’s Sky Eye telescope may have detected signals from alien civilisations • TBS News


China said the Sky Eye telescope possibly picked up signs of life beyond Earth, according to a report by the state-backed Science and Technology Daily.

The report and all posts about the discovery was later deleted.

Sky Eye – the world’s largest radio telescope – detected narrow-band electromagnetic signals. These signals differ from previous ones captured and the team is further investigating them, the report said, citing Zhang Tonjie, chief scientist of an extraterrestrial civilisation search team co-founded by Beijing Normal University, the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Berkeley.

“The suspicious signals could, however, also be some kind of radio interference and requires further investigation,” Zhang added.

…In September 2020, Sky Eye, which is located in China’s southwestern Guizhou province and has a diameter of 500 meters, officially launched a search for extraterrestrial life. The team detected two sets of suspicious signals in 2020 while processing data collected in 2019, and found another suspicious signal in 2022 from observation data of exoplanet targets, Zhang said, according to the report.

“China’s Sky Eye is extremely sensitive in the low-frequency radio band and plays a critical role in the search for alien civilizations,” Zhang said.


This is either the beginning of how the world ends (read The Three Body Problem trilogy), or nothing at all.
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Oxford Street: tax investigation into US-themed sweet shops • BBC News


Thirty US-themed sweet shops on London’s Oxford Street are being investigated for allegedly failing to pay £7.9m in business rates.

Westminster City Council said it had seized about £474,000 of counterfeit and illegal goods from American candy and souvenir stores in the past six months, including unsafe vapes.

Councillor Adam Hug said they were “a threat to the status” of Oxford Street. The council said they were “far from regular and legitimate businesses”. A spokesperson added “very few” of the shops were “serving sufficient customers to be commercially viable.

“Instead, we believe that these properties are used to avoid business rate bills and possibly commit other offences.”

Westminster City Council trading standards said complaints included out of date food, counterfeit “Wonka” bars and sex novelty sweets.

Officials also discovered nearly 4,500 disposable vapes, allegedly containing excessive levels of nicotine or not conforming to UK standards.


Those shops have always intrigued me, because I can’t believe anyone would want to eat such horrible sweets. This – suggesting they’re some sort of front for more malicious activity – suddenly explains it.
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Musk’s $44bn Twitter deal is an M&A arbitrage dream — or nightmare • Financial Times

George Steer:


Musk is simply so unpredictable that most of the M&A arbitrageurs FT Alphaville talked to are staying well away. It seems that the money to be made on successfully betting on the deal collapsing or going through is simply not enough to compensate for comical uncertainty stirred up by Tesla’s technoking.

Take Musk’s belated insistence on finding out how many of Twitter’s user’s are bots. Whether or not the social media company’s subsequent pledge to share the “fire hose” of user data will placate the errant billionaire remains unclear. Musk could close his $44bn deal tomorrow. Or he could take Twitter to court.

M&A arbs typically chase low-risk, market-neutral strategies, and spend time trawling through antitrust issues, legal fine print, political opposition or rival bids. Elon’s id is unfamiliar territory.

Gambling on Musk’s Twitter deal is a bit like “picking up five dollar bills in front of a steamroller with a Ferrari on the back”, said one arbitrage specialist. Compare that with a relatively “safe” deal like Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision, they added: “I’d take that 10,000 times before I put money on Twitter and Elon.”

Twitter’s shares stand to roughly halve in value if the deal collapses but could double if it goes through, said Tancredi Cordero, chief executive at Kuros Associates. “A two-to-one risk reward profile isn’t bad, but it’s not great.”


Yes, the Great Musk Acquisition is still, perhaps, in train. He’s meeting the staff today, Thursday. That should be entertaining.
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The brain has a ‘low-power mode’ that blunts our senses • Quanta Magazine

Allison Whitten:


Neurons can only send a spike once their internal voltage reaches a critical threshold, which they achieve by pumping positively charged sodium ions into the cell. But after the spike, neurons then have to pump all of the sodium ions back out — a task that neuroscientists discovered in 2001 to be one of the most energy-demanding processes in the brain.

The authors studied this costly process for evidence of energy-saving tricks, and it turned out to be the right place to look. Neurons in food-deprived mice decreased the electrical currents moving through their membranes — and the number of sodium ions entering — so they didn’t have to spend as much energy pumping sodium ions back out after the spike. Letting in less sodium might be expected to result in fewer spikes, but somehow the food-deprived mice maintained a similar rate of spikes in their visual cortical neurons as well-fed mice. So the researchers went looking for the compensatory processes keeping up the spike rate.

They found two changes, both of which made it easier for a neuron to generate spikes. First the neurons increased their input resistance, which decreased the currents at their synapses. They also raised their resting membrane potential so it was already close to the threshold needed to send a spike.

“It looks like brains go to great lengths to maintain firing rates,” said Anton Arkhipov, a computational neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “And that is telling us something fundamental about how important maintaining these firing rates are.” After all, the brains might just as easily have saved energy by firing fewer spikes.

But keeping the spike rate the same means sacrificing something else: The visual cortical neurons in the mice couldn’t be as selective about the line orientations that made them fire, so their responses became less precise.


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She tracked her boyfriend using an AirTag — then killed him, police say • The Washington Post

Lindsay Bever:


Authorities said [Gaylyn] Morris told investigators that she and [Andre] Smith lived together. She suspected that he had been cheating on her with another woman because he had not been coming home at night, according to authorities.

On June 2, she said she confronted him, telling him to pack up and leave, according to the affidavit obtained by the [Indianapolis] Star.

Morris initially denied tracking him, then eventually admitted that she had placed an AirTag in his back seat, authorities said. The woman with Smith, who was identified by the initials “T.N.” in court records, told investigators that Smith had mentioned to her that he believed there was a GPS device on his car because Morris kept sending him text messages, saying she knew his whereabouts.

After showing up at Tilly’s Pub & Grill, Morris spotted Smith and went into the bar, a witness told police. Another witness claimed to police that once Morris was inside, she pointed at the woman with Smith and said she was going to “beat her.” Witnesses said Morris then grabbed an empty beer bottle by the neck and took a swing at the woman, but Smith caught it and the three got into an argument, according to court records.

During the commotion, the group was asked to leave the bar, witnesses told police. Morris returned to her car a short time later, the affidavit said.

A witness told police that when he saw Morris driving her car toward Smith and the other woman, he stepped in front of the car to help them get away. But Morris sped around him and drove into Smith, the witness told police.


And Smith died. Ticklish one for Apple PR.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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