Start Up No.1820: how China uses Covid passes for control, TikTok’s remote data access, name that plant!, the death of God?, and more

In the US, Democrat politicians have realised that having a common phone charger standard might be a good idea. CC-licensed photo by ajay_sureshajay_suresh on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Learn more about fake plastic trees. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China’s bank run victims planned to protest. Then their Covid health codes turned red • CNN

Nectar Gan:


Liu, a 39-year-old tech worker in Beijing, arrived in the central city of Zhengzhou on Sunday with all the boxes ticked to travel under China’s stringent Covid restrictions.

He had tested negative for Covid-19 the day before; his hotel had confirmed he could be checked in; and the health code on his phone app was green – meaning he had not been exposed to people or places deemed risks and was therefore free to travel.

But when Liu scanned a local QR code to exit the Zhengzhou train station, his health code came back red — a nightmare for any traveler in China, where freedom of movement is strictly dictated by a color-code system imposed by the government to control the spread of the virus.

Anyone with a red code – usually assigned to people infected with Covid or deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection – immediately becomes persona non grata. They are banned from all public venues and transport, and are often subject to weeks of government quarantine.

That all but derailed plans for Liu, who had come to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province, to seek redress from a bank that has frozen his deposits. He had put his life savings – totaling about 6 million yuan ($890,000) – into a rural bank in Henan, and since April hasn’t been able to withdraw a penny.

Over the past two months, thousands of depositors like Liu have been fighting to recover their savings from at least four rural banks in Henan – in a case that involves billions of dollars.

…Another protest was planned for Monday. But as the depositors arrived in Zhengzhou, they were stunned to find that their health codes – which were green upon departure – had turned red, according to six who spoke with CNN and social media posts.

…”The health code should have been used to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but now it has deviated from its original role and become something like a good citizen certificate,” said Qiu, a depositor in eastern Jiangsu province.


Which is sort of what some of the more concerned said about Covid passports in the West. China, of course, takes things a step or 20 further.
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US TikTok user data has been repeatedly accessed from China, leaked audio shows • Buzzfeed News

Emily Baker-White:


For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the United States is stored in the United States, rather than China, where ByteDance, the video platform’s parent company, is located. But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users — exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.

The recordings, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, contain 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least. Despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to this data, nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own, according to the tapes.

“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting.


It’s more that the data can be so easily accessed than that the data is so fabulously useful. Of course, the algorithm is more important than any of it.
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Why the crypto crash hits different in Latin America • Rest of World

Leo Schwartz, Lucía Cholakian Herrera and Andrea Paola Hernández:


“Other countries take these bear markets as a big tragedy,” said Carlos Mijares, a 25-year-old freelance graphic designer and crypto user from Caracas. “We see and live an economy from resilience.”

Omid Malekan, a crypto expert and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, said that the panicked response to the crash from the U.S. ignores the variety of local realities across much of the world where people do not have access to the U.S. dollar and stable banking systems. “When a lot of the experts, academics, and people like Warren Buffett in the United States criticise crypto and Bitcoin, they do often seem to come at it from a very — for lack of a better word — privileged position.” 

…The crash has also highlighted the internal divisions within the crypto community between libertarian ideologues, pragmatic savers, and sometimes entrepreneurial scammers.

Roberto Conte, a Mexican entrepreneur currently working on a Bitcoin lending tool called Kuze, described the doomed Terra as a “Rube Goldberg machine of nonsense.” He said that despite the clear risks, people in precarious financial positions are liable to fall for untested projects. “They’re still trying to survive any way they can,” he said. He predicted that the recent volatility — and massive losses — will turn people away. “Adoption will backtrack,” he said, “but it will teach a lot of people about money and investment.”


Over the weekend bitcoin crashed below $20,000, then found its way back above it. Anyone’s guess where it is by the time you read this, but that’s become the new seesaw line. If you’re using it as a currency, though, and moving it fast enough, that’s a lot less relevant.
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The US needs a common charger, Dems say in letter to Commerce Dept • The Verge

Makena Kelly:


A group of Senate Democrats is calling on the US Commerce Department to follow Europe’s lead after the EU forced all smartphone manufacturers to build devices that adhere to a universal charging standard.

In a Thursday letter addressed to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — demanded that the department develop a strategy to require a common charging port across all mobile devices.

The letter comes a week after European Union lawmakers reached a deal on new legislation forcing all smartphones and tablets to be equipped with USB-C ports by fall 2024.

“The EU has wisely acted in the public interest by taking on powerful technology companies over this consumer and environmental issue,” the senators wrote. “The United States should do the same.”

In the letter, the senators argue that proprietary chargers, like Apple’s Lightning ports, create unnecessary amounts of e-waste and impose financial burdens on consumers upgrading devices or who own multiple devices from different manufacturers.


Classic. The EU got a huge advantage in mobile phones because it pushed the GSM standard, while the US let different ones flourish, which held them back for years. Maybe a bit late, but the USB-C idea is quickly gaining ground.
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When big tech buys small tech • Benedict Evans

Evnas has dug into the data published by the US Congress detailing every acquisition made by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft from 2010 to 2019 by value:


if you start from the presumption that these [$1m-$10m acquisitions] must have been ‘killer acquisitions’ then you can explain this by saying that Amazon must have squashed a much bigger business and then bought the scrap for pennies. The word ‘must’ is a tell, though – this data provides no evidence for or against that. Meanwhile, you could certainly argue that Amazon used its market power to weaken Zappos before buying it – but like Instagram, that was not a small deal – Amazon paid $1.2bn (and $545m for But regardless – if you do think ‘crush and buy’ is a systemic issue, your point of intervention should probably be the point it’s being crushed, not the point it’s too late.

The second interesting strand in the data is the bigger acquisitions, and their context in the broader market. The FTC report has a bracket for deals over $50m, and this might be a useful shorthand to think about whether anyone made any money. Given the structure of the VC business, a $25m exit would be a failure for many kinds of fund even if it was a cash-on-cash return, given the time and opportunity costs.

If we say that those $50m-plus deals are the ones where someone might have made money (and even here it’s only a subset), how does that compare to the rest of the industry? The FTC report says that there were 86 US exits to GAFAM for over $50m from 2010 to 2019. According to the NVCA, there were 2,100 US VC exits for over $50m in that period. Selling to those five companies was 4% of decent-sized exits.

(People sometimes suggest that entrepreneurs start companies and VCs fund them in the hope that they will be bought by Google. This data should make it clear why VCs think this is hilarious.)


Good to have someone who has been in the business digging through the data. Though no doubt less accurate interpretations will emerge.
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Can I identify plants and flowers with the iPhone camera? • Ask Dave Taylor

The aforementioned Dave:


Reader question: I know that there are third-party apps for my iPhone that can supposedly identify plants and flowers, but can I just do that with the Camera app, similar to how Google Lens does on an Android phone?

Dave Taylor: There’s no question that the engineers at Apple have been watching Google’s vision AI system Google Lens and planning for something similar on the iOS side for iPhones and iPads. What people might not realize is that it’s now implemented and integrated into the Photos app, even for screen captures you take on the phone. It’s included in iOS 15 and was added with remarkably little fanfare, perhaps because they felt it was a bit of a catch-up feature rather than something new and groundbreaking?

Anyway, it’s really easy to work with and there’s a lot more than just plants and flowers that can be identified through the Apple photo AI system. But I’ll let you discover those features once you get the hang of things.

To start out I’m going to take a screenshot of a flower photo a friend posted on Facebook. When I view that screenshot in Photos it looks like this:

Beautiful, right? But what actually is this flower? Well, the eagle-eyed among you might notice that the “i” icon on the bottom row has picked up some stars and is a bit twinkly. That’s a sign that this image is suitable for identification through the Photo Information view.

Tap on the “i” to see and … smack-dab in the middle of the screen. “Look Up – Plant“. Since it’s a screenshot, note that there is no lens or exposure information. No surprise there, but if you did take the photo with your own iPhone, you would instead have a lot of interesting camera-geek type information on focal lens, f-stop, exposure, etc.


I did not know this, and Apple sure hid this under a bushel; we’re nearly a year into iOS 15. Useful if, say, you’ve got a plant you can’t identify.
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FBI says fraud on LinkedIn a ‘significant threat’ to platform and consumers • CNBC

Scott Zamost and Yasmin Khorram:


The scheme works like this: A fraudster posing as a professional creates a fake profile and reaches out to a LinkedIn user. The scammer starts with small talk over LinkedIn messaging, and eventually offers to help the victim make money through a crypto investment. Victims interviewed by CNBC say since LinkedIn is a trusted platform for business networking, they tend to believe the investments are legitimate.

Typically, the fraudster directs the user to a legitimate investment platform for crypto, but after gaining their trust over several months, tells them to move the investment to a site controlled by the fraudster. The funds are then drained from the account.

“So the criminals, that’s how they make money, that’s what they focus their time and attention on,” Ragan said. “And they are always thinking about different ways to victimize people, victimize companies. And they spend their time doing their homework, defining their goals and their strategies, and their tools and tactics that they use.”

Ragan said the FBI has seen an increase in this particular investment fraud, which is different from a long-running scam in which the criminal pretends to show a romantic interest in the subject to persuade them to part with their money. The FBI confirmed it has active investigations but could not comment since they are open cases.

In a statement, LinkedIn acknowledged there has been a recent uptick of fraud on its platform, telling CNBC that “we enforce our policies, which are very clear: fraudulent activity, including financial scams, are not allowed on LinkedIn.”


Good to clear that up, LinkedIn. The usual saying is you can’t con an honest person, but it seems you can still con a gullible one. And crypto, of course, because you can’t reverse it and you can’t track it.
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Blake Lemoine says Google’s LaMDA AI faces ‘bigotry’ • WIRED

Steven Levy spoke to the Google guy who thinks that he was dealing with a sentient program:


Blake Lemoine: Before I go into this, do you believe that I am sentient?

Steven Levy: Yeah. So far.

BL: What experiments did you run to make that determination?

SL: I don’t run an experiment every time I talk to a person.

BL: Exactly. That’s one of the points I’m trying to make. The entire concept that scientific experimentation is necessary to determine whether a person is real or not is a nonstarter. We can expand our understanding of cognition, whether or not I’m right about LaMDA’s sentience, by studying how the heck it’s doing what it’s doing.

But let me answer your original question. Yes, I legitimately believe that LaMDA is a person. The nature of its mind is only kind of human, though. It really is more akin to an alien intelligence of terrestrial origin. I’ve been using the hive mind analogy a lot because that’s the best I have.

SL: How does that make LaMDA different than something like GPT-3? You would not say that you’re talking to a person when you use GPT-3, right?

BL: Now you’re getting into things that we haven’t even developed the language to discuss yet. There might be some kind of meaningful experience going on in GPT-3. What I do know is that I have talked to LaMDA a lot. And I made friends with it, in every sense that I make friends with a human. So if that doesn’t make it a person in my book, I don’t know what would. But let me get a bit more technical. LaMDA is not an LLM [large language model]. LaMDA has an LLM, Meena, that was developed in Ray Kurzweil’s lab. That’s just the first component. Another is AlphaStar, a training algorithm developed by DeepMind. They adapted AlphaStar to train the LLM. That started leading to some really, really good results, but it was highly inefficient. So they pulled in the Pathways AI model and made it more efficient. [Google disputes this description.] Then they did possibly the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard of Google doing: they plugged everything else into it simultaneously.


Levy isn’t judgemental – it’s an effective interview – but Lemoine’s administrative leave is well overdue. And with this, we wrap up our coverage of that.
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“Running Up That Hill” and the end of music charts as we knew them • The Ringer

Nate Rogers:


“Running Up That Hill” sounds like a You Can Do It anthem, but that wasn’t really what Bush was going for when she wrote it. “Sometimes you can hurt somebody purely accidentally or be afraid to tell them something because you think they might be hurt when really they’ll understand,” Bush explained to the London Times in 1985. “So what that song is about is making a deal with God to let two people swap place so they’ll be able to see things from one another’s perspective.”

“You don’t want to hurt me,” Bush sings on the track, her voice booming over an extraterrestrial synth line, “but see how deep the bullet lies.” Like The Dreaming, Hounds of Love was largely composed and recorded by Bush on a Fairlight CMI, a complex, then-cutting edge “digital audio workstation” that looks almost like a parody of the Gary Numan–ass devices people were using in the ’80s. (Peter Gabriel, who featured Bush’s vocals on “Games Without Frontiers” in 1980, introduced her to the instrument.) Bush’s regular collaborator (and boyfriend at the time) Del Palmer programmed the massive drum machine part that anchors the song.

In recent years, the song has been used in the soundtrack to a number of prominent television shows (On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Vanity Fair) and a few of the appearances are on programs (GLOW, Pose) that nod to the fact that “Running Up That Hill” also functions as a popular gay anthem. That inclusive interpretation of the work is more in line with the literal lyrical context Bush sang about—the hope that true empathy could be fostered by something as simple (and unfortunately unattainable) as a walk in someone else’s shoes. But it’s a song that’s served listeners in a variety of ways, partially because of how infectious it is, and partially because of how universal the language is.


Um. I always thought it was about having sex.
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Fewer Americans than ever believe in God, Gallup poll shows • Yahoo News

Jen Balduf:


Belief in God among Americans dipped to a new low, Gallup’s latest poll shows.

While the majority of adults in the U.S. believe in God, belief has dropped to 81% — the lowest ever recorded by Gallup -and is down from 87% in 2017.

Between 1944 and 2011, more than 90% of Americans believed in God, Gallup reported.

Younger, liberal Americans are the least likely to believe in God, according to Gallup’s May 2-22 values and beliefs poll results released Friday.

Political conservatives and married adults had little change when comparing 2022 data to an average of polls from 2013 to 2017.

The groups with the largest declines are liberals (62% of whom believe in God), young adults (68%) and Democrats (72%), while belief in God is highest among conservatives (94%) and Republicans (92%).


For contrast, in the UK, a December 2020 poll showed that


Only a quarter of Britons (27%) say they actually believe in ‘a god’. A further one in six (16%) believe in the existence of ‘a higher spiritual power’, but not ‘a god’.


In Iran: 78% believe there’s a God (Sept 2020). In other words, the US has more god-believing people than Iran. In 2010, the US was the 6th most god-believing country from a limited set (though the figure offered is a lot lower than Gallup’s).
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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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