Start Up No.1826: the data-lax period tracker, China’s surveillance future, urban dwellers lose gut bacteria, better against Tether, and more

It’s been 40 years since the film Blade Runner came out, and its messages still resonate – now more than ever. CC-licensed photo by big-ashbbig-ashb on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. What do you mean, you’ve never heard the Arctic Monkeys? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

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The #1 period tracker on the App Store will hand over data without a warrant [update: says it won’t] • Motherboard

Samantha Cole:


Stardust, an astrology-focused menstrual tracking app that launched on the App Store last year, is one of Apple’s top three most-downloaded free apps right now. From sometime around Sunday evening until Monday mid-morning, it was in the number one spot. It’s also one of very few apps that has put in writing that it will voluntarily—without even being legally required to—comply with law enforcement if it’s asked to share user data.

After the fall of Roe on Friday, ending the Constitutional right to an abortion and making abortion illegal in more than a dozen states, many people used Twitter to urge others to delete their period tracking apps for privacy and security reasons. A widely-shared concern is that law enforcement can use personal data created in apps against people who’ve sought or gotten abortions illegally.

Despite this, more people are downloading Stardust—which combines astrology with menstrual cycle tracking— right now than some of the most-downloaded apps in history. As of Monday morning, on the iOS App Store, Stardust was ranking above hugely popular apps including TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. It was ranking above BeReal and NGL, two apps that have recently gone viral with teens.


For obvious reasons, I’ve never used iOS’s built-in Health app to track periods, but as John Gruber points out, the advantage it has is that the data remains on the phone, or is encrypted in iCloud – it’s not accessible by Apple.

Until now, the question of whether an app leaks data has been mostly theoretical. Who cares, right? Now it has become a matter that might put some users in jail. After the story appeared, Stardust changed its privacy policy to leave out a phrase about cooperating with law enforcement “whether or not legally required”. But that’s still data being handed over if required, rather than being unable to hand the data over.
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How China is policing the future • The New York Times

Paul Mozur, Muyi Xiao and John Liu:


The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.

Now, even their future is under surveillance.

The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.

They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.

It takes extensive evasive maneuvers to avoid the digital tripwires. In the past, Zhang Yuqiao, a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, could simply stay off the main highways to dodge the authorities and make his way to Beijing to fight for compensation over the torture of his parents during the Cultural Revolution. Now, he turns off his phones, pays in cash and buys multiple train tickets to false destinations.


It truly is out of any number of dystopian SF novels. And yet, it’s real life, right now. Including this echo of a scene from 1984:


The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.

One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.


“You can turn it off!” said Winston, amazed.
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‘Blade Runner’ at 40: why it’s still the greatest sci-fi film of all-time • Esquire

Tom Ward:


In terms of performances, there’s an argument that Harrison Ford always plays Harrison Ford, but here he loses the swagger of Han Solo and the self assuredness of Indy to become a world-beaten man (replicant?) who’d really rather be at home drinking whiskey from beautiful futuristic tumblers. As replicant and love interest Rachael, Sean Young is given little to do, but still manages to make the character live and breathe.

But as any Blade Runner fan knows, it’s Rutger Hauer’s replicant anti-hero Roy Batty who steals the show. Not only does Batty show how cool bleached hair, a grey t-shirt and a leather trench-coat can look, he’s a synthetic being of dualities. One moment he’s menacingly pushing nails through his ailing robot hands, the next he’s cradling a dove whilst delivering a heartfelt monologue on the fleeting nature of existence. As the replicant who has seen things us people wouldn’t believe, Batty delivers one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history in his ‘Tears in rain’ soliloquy. Hauer himself took a hands-on approach to the speech, amending and cutting back screenwriter David People’s original words. Reportedly, after the first take some crew members were moved to tears themselves.

Visually and sonically assured, intelligent and moody, there is much to be admired in Blade Runner. But why has its legacy endured to such a degree? Perhaps in its gloomy portrayal of environmental catastrophe, social divide and oppressive authority we recognise our own world. Or perhaps it’s because, despite all of its foreboding, Blade Runner offers a chance of hope. Hope of a love between two people not meant to love. Hope of freedom, however impossible.


Which is an appropriate message just now. Another reason why it’s an eternally great film.
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Modern city dwellers have lost about half their gut microbes • Science

Elizabeth Pennisi:


Andrew Moeller, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, was one of the first to show that gut bacteria and humans have built these relationships over a very long time. Six years ago, he and colleagues reported the work showing human gut microbes are very similar to those in other primates, suggesting their intestinal presence predates the evolution of humans.

But his follow-up studies, and work by others, also indicate the human gut microbiome has, in a general sense, become less diverse than the gut microbes in our current primate cousins. One study found 85 microbial genera, such as Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium, in the guts of wild apes, but just 55 in people in US cities. Splitting the difference, people in less developed parts of the world have between 60 and 65 of those bacterial groups, an observation that ties the decrease in microbial diversity to urbanization.

Changes in diet as humans moved on from their hunter-gatherer past and then into cities, antibiotic use, more life stresses, and better hygiene are all possible contributors to the loss of human gut microbes, says Reshmi Upreti, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, Bothell. Several prominent researchers have argued that this lower diversity could contribute to increases in asthma and other inflammatory diseases.


We really don’t understand much about the biome. But this is an interesting finding. And that’s quite a rapid change if it’s linked only to urbanisation.
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More hedge funds are betting against Tether as crypto melts down • WSJ

Vicky Ge Huang:


Short sellers have been ramping up their bets against Tether, the world’s largest stablecoin, amid a broad market selloff that has called into doubt the financial health of some crypto companies.

In the past month, more traditional hedge funds have executed trades to short Tether through Genesis Global Trading, one of the largest crypto brokerages for professional investors. These trades are worth “hundreds of millions” of dollars in notional value, said Leon Marshall, Genesis’s head of institutional sales. He declined to be more specific.

“There has been a real spike in the interest from traditional hedge funds who are taking a look at Tether and looking to short it,” Mr. Marshall said in an interview.

…Genesis, which doesn’t take a view on Tether, said the short trades are almost exclusively put on by traditional hedge funds in the US and Europe, while crypto firms—especially those based in Asia—have been happy to facilitate the other side of the transactions.

A number of investors have been betting against tether for at least 12 months. But more hedge funds got interested in shorting Tether after the collapse in May of another stablecoin, TerraUSD, according to Genesis.

…Some short sellers say they believe that most of Tether’s commercial-paper holdings [corporate bonds] are backed by debt-ridden Chinese property developers, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. Tether said in a blog post this month that “these rumors are completely false.” The company added that it has been reducing its portfolio of commercial paper.


Well, somebody’s going to make some good money out of this. The big question is when the short options will get called in.

Possibly related:


The crypto broker Voyager Digital issued a notice of default Monday to the hedge fund Three Arrows Capital for failing to make the required payments on a loan worth more than $665m, the latest sign of financial turmoil that has rocked the world of cryptocurrencies as the value of tokens across the market has plummeted.

Voyager said it intends to recover the funds, which was loaned as 15,250 bitcoin and $350m in the stablecoin USDC, a digital token whose value is pegged to the dollar.


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The other big lessons that the US Army should learn from Ukraine • War on the Rocks

David Barno and Nora Bensahel are visiting professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:


Since February 24, Russian forces in Ukraine have become bright butterflies pinned to the world’s display board. The explosion of open-source intelligence — the vast array of social-media posts, smartphone photos, commercial drone videos, and cheap commercial satellite imagery — has revealed the precise locations of Russian military forces in ways that are unprecedented in the annals of warfare. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are using cell-phone videos, social media, and a wide range of private networks to report on Russian movements. Anyone with a smartphone or a laptop can now follow real-time information about Ukrainian attacks on Russian troop movements.

A transparent battlefield poses immense challenges for the U.S. Army. For decades, the Army has been organized around massive, hard-to-conceal military formations that include tanks as well as infantry combat and fighting vehicles. These formations closely resemble the types of units the Russians are employing in Ukraine. Moreover, advanced sensors can increasingly penetrate the cover of darkness, which would strip away a major battlefield advantage that the United States has enjoyed for decades. And this problem will only intensify in the future, as the rapidly expanding use of artificial intelligence to track and target subtle patterns of military movements promises even more deadly detectability.

Furthermore, the intricate web of U.S. reinforcements and logistics extending from the United States and nearby friendly bases is also becoming dangerously transparent. Army units rely heavily on complex logistics that flow through overseas staging bases and are delivered by long transport convoys, often involving unsecured commercial supply chains. These vast networks will all become visible to America’s most capable adversaries — and if they can be seen, they can be targeted. In fact, a determined adversary might find that it is both easier and more effective to render U.S. Army units inoperable by destroying these vital logistics pipelines instead of targeting fighting units directly.

The future transparency of this expansive web of support should be nothing short of terrifying to U.S. military planners.


It’s actually a big advantage for the US that it can participate in the latest war without actually having to fight in it. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Air travel is a disaster right now: here’s why • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson spoke to Scott Keyes, who writes the Cheap Flights newsletter:


Thompson: The industry is so woefully understaffed that whenever there’s a storm, or a pilot who calls in sick, there’s no redundancy or resiliency in the system, and you get these cascading cancellations. But wasn’t it obvious 18 months ago that we’d have vaccines? Wasn’t it obvious six months ago that Americans wanted to get out of the house? Why is all this mayhem happening now?

Keyes: There’s a labour-supply issue, not just for airlines but also the TSA. If you live in Milwaukee and you’re looking for an entry-level job, you could become a transportation security officer for $19.41 an hour, or you could go on Amazon’s website and see that there’s a job in the area for $19.50. Would you rather help load and unload bags outside in the dead of winter in Milwaukee, or work in a climate-controlled environment in a warehouse for Amazon? That’s the trade-off a lot of folks are making. Labour shortages cause delays and cancellations. In normal times, airlines might have a reserve crew of pilots or flight attendants that they can call in. But now there is not the reserve in place to bridge the gap. The result is a huge swath of delays and cancellations.

Thompson: Laurie Garrow, a professor at Georgia Tech, directed me to FlightAware, a website that tracks airline-industry statistics. On any given day, it seems normal to have a cancellation rate of about 1 percent—or one cancellation for every 100 scheduled flights. Last Thursday, JetBlue canceled 14% of its flights. Last Thursday and Friday, American canceled 10% of its flights. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Delta canceled 8% of its flights. Meanwhile, Frontier and Spirit canceled just 1% of their flights in that time. Why are the major carriers having these major problems right now?

Keyes: Today’s airline that gloats about not having cancellations is tomorrow’s airline that’s experiencing a meltdown.


A friend of mine works as aircrew, and points out that another factor in hiring someone to work airside (ie past the security barriers) is all the enhanced security checks before they can even be considered for a job. Sure, Amazon will do checks too, but probably don’t have to consider the chance their employee might try to bring down a plane.
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Company behind Trump’s Truth Social deal hit with federal grand jury subpoenas • Raw Story

Brad Reed:


As flagged by New York Times business reporter Matthew Goldstein, Digital World Acquisition said in a recent 8-K filing that earlier this month it “became aware that a federal grand jury sitting in the Southern District of New York has issued subpoenas to each member of Digital World’s board of directors.”

The filing went on to state that the subpoenas are seeking “requests relating to Digital World’s S-1 filings, communications with or about multiple individuals, and information regarding Rocket One Capital,” a Miami-based hedge fund.

The filing warns that these grand jury subpoenas “could materially delay, materially impede, or prevent the consummation” of the merger that’s needed to fund Truth Social.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the Truth Social deal, with a particular focus on whether illegal negotiations occurred prior to Digital World Acquisition went public.


Oh no what if they don’t get the funding for it? They’ll probably have to send out a mailshot saying the lyin’ SEC is preventing them getting going and soliciting money, and consequently rake in millions, some of which will be siphoned off for legal fees. (Thanks Wendy G for the link.)
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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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