Start Up No.1828: the challenge of good recommendations, G7 fails the summit test, iPhone at 15, Substack cuts staff, and more

People watching the premiere of Snow White were moved to tears by the new technique of animation. Might that be a precursor to how we’ll react to realistic AIs? CC-licensed photo by Insomnia Cured Here 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. Not a hedge fund. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Separately, there’s Social Warming, the Substack. You can sign up for (free) email so you don’t have to keep checking it for updates.

The internet is a constant recommendations machine — but needs you to make it work • The Verge

David Pierce:


when you first start using the Likewise app, it requires you to tell it about things you like. If you want movie recommendations, first you have to pick a couple of genres — comedy, drama, western — and then choose some of your favorites from a curated set of titles. You can’t access the rest of the app until you’ve picked at least 20. “The payoff is huge,” says Salim Hemdani, Likewise’s CTO. “The more you tell us, the better it’s going to be.” He says people never stop at 20 because it’s just fun to pick things you like. And in doing so, you tell Likewise’s algorithm who you actually are.

Likewise uses that information to put you into a “cluster,” which refers to a group of people with similar tastes to yours. These clusters are constantly changing based on what else you watch and rate, and they inform everything else Likewise recommends to you. “It gives us an initiation point to say, how many people are like you in the world, and how many clusters can we create?” Hemdani says. The more granular and specific those clusters are, the more accurate they can be. Knowing you like Succession is slightly useful; knowing you like Succession, novels by Michael Crichton, the podcast The Adventure Zone, and anything with Marvel in the title is vastly more useful.

The simplest and most pervasive recommendation system, on Likewise and elsewhere, is known as collaborative filtering. It works by assuming that if you like something, and someone else likes that thing and also a second thing, you’ll probably like the second thing too. That’s it! It typically involves more data and more people, but that’s the core idea: if you like Severance and other people who liked Severance are really digging The Old Man, you probably will, too.

One of Morris’ theories is that Likewise can provide better recommendations, not just by knowing users better, but simply by having more things to offer them. Netflix, HBO, and Disney will never recommend each other’s catalogs, but Likewise (along with apps like Justwatch and Reelgood) can index them all.


Also needs serendipity: reaching across for things you’d never expect to connect with, and yet which do.
unique link to this extract

View from the summit: a self-defeating G7 fails on all fronts • POLITICO

Karl Mathiesen and David Herszenhorn:


If they needed reminding about the urgency of climate change and their role in stopping it, all G7 leaders had to do was look up. 

High above the opulent Schloss Elmau, the resort in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have held earnest (and not so earnest) discussions over the past three days, Germany’s largest — soon to be last — glacier sits in a saddle at the top of the 2,962-meter Zugspitze mountain. 

The glacier is dying, losing 250 liters of water — more than a bathtub — every 30 seconds. A scientific survey last year found it would likely disappear within the next decade. In any case, scientists say, it is melting and can’t be saved.

Climate change, which is killing glaciers and reshaping the planet, has been a top priority of the G7 for years. But with the war in Ukraine, spiralling inflation, global food shortages, and spiking energy costs — the leaders of the largest industrialized democracies were once again daunted and distracted by immediate imperatives. 

As they wrapped up their talks, the world’s most powerful leaders seemed to be tinkering at the margins and failing on all fronts — powerless to stop Russia’s war or stop prices from racing out of control, unable to stop the Zugspitze glacier from melting, or to even to end the blockade of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain vitally needed to feed the developing world. 

While they boasted of uncommon and unprecedented shared purpose in tackling all of these challenges, the solutions they endorsed in some cases seemed self-defeating and contradictory, such as seeking to lower the prices of oil and gas while simultaneously restating their aims to end the use of fossil fuels. They want to end the war but not fight in it. They want to promote rules-based capitalism, while imposing price controls on energy. 

“The decisions now being made do not address the issue of the war in a timely way and exacerbate the challenges of the climate crisis,” said David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and the U.K.’s former chief scientific adviser, as the meeting closed. 


Politico not sugarcoating the topic. I’m beginning to wonder if we’re going to be in a race between climate change effects and living on a permanent war footing.
unique link to this extract

The iPhone at 15: an inside look at how Apple transformed a generation • WSJ

Joanna Stern:


On June 29, 2007, the first iPhone went on sale. On that same day, a boy named Noah Schmick was born. Over the next 15 years, the iPhone grew…and so did Noah. Through interviews with current and former Apple executives, WSJ’s Joanna Stern traces how Apple’s invention matured and changed all of us—perhaps the youngest generation most of all.


A neat idea by Stern to hang this 20-minute video on: pick someone born the same day the iPhone went on sale. Also has some key interviews with Apple executives, particularly father of the iPod, Tony Fadell, who mentions in passing that the touchscreen idea came from the Mac team. Hmm, did it now.
unique link to this extract

“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”*… • (Roughly) Daily

Lawrence Wilkinson:


The estimable Steven Johnson suggests that the creation of Disney’s masterpiece, Snow White, gives us a preview of what may be coming with AI algorithms sophisticated enough to pass for sentient beings:



You can make the argument that the single most dramatic acceleration point in the history of illusion occurred between the years of 1928 and 1937, the years between the release of Steamboat Willie [here], Disney’s breakthrough sound cartoon introducing Mickey Mouse, and the completion of his masterpiece, Snow White, the first long-form animated film in history [here— actually the first full-length animated feature produced in the U.S; the first produced anywhere in color]. It is hard to think of another stretch where the formal possibilities of an artistic medium expanded in such a dramatic fashion, in such a short amount of time.


[There follows an fascinating history of the Disney Studios technical innovations that made Snow White possible, and an account of the film’s remarkable premiere…]


In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion—the dancing mouse is whistling!—into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions.



Maybe we’ll move as fast from “ha, that’s never going to fool anyone” to “completely fooled me” in nine years too. That might be worrying, though.
unique link to this extract

Substack is laying off 14% of its staff • The New York Times

Benjamin Mullin:


[chief executive Chris] Best told employees on Wednesday that Substack had decided to cut jobs so it could fund its operations from its own revenue without raising additional financing in a difficult market, according to the person with knowledge of the discussion. He said he wanted the company to seek funding from a position of strength if it decided to raise again.
In his remarks to employees, Mr. Best said the company’s revenues were increasing. He noted that Substack still had money in the bank and was continuing to hire, albeit at a slower place, the person said. Mr. Best said the cuts would allow the company to hone its focus on product and engineering.

Months earlier, Substack scrapped a plan to raise additional funding after the market for venture investments cooled. The company had discussions about raising $75m to $100m to fuel its growth, and some of the fund-raising discussions valued the company between $750m and $1bn.

Substack, which takes a cut of its writers’ subscription fees, generated about $9m in revenue last year, The New York Times reported.


Wonder if subscriptions will start to go into reverse as people focus their spending on essentials – heating and eating.
unique link to this extract

Why flying is the worst thing you can do for the climate • Stay Grounded


Aviation is the most climate-harming mode of transport. In 2018, the contribution of air traffic to all annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions reached about 6%. In European countries, home to many frequent flyers, the share is even bigger. Still, the aviation industry wants us to believe that aviation accounts for only 2% of global emissions. But that’s not the whole picture: aviation’s climate impact isn’t limited to CO2. Due to different emissions other than just the CO2 taking place at altitude, there is a total climate impact of flights that is on average three times the effect of the emitted CO2 alone. 

Before Covid-19, the industry expected air traffic demand to double in the next 20 years. This rapid growth could mean that by 2050, aviation alone could use up about 15% of the world’s remaining carbon budget, which is the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that give us a good chance to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we take the climate crisis serious, there’s no other way than stopping the plans for growth, and starting to reduce aviation.


Unclear who’s behind this group, but the message is pretty straightforward, and fits everything we know: flying generates more global heating than its carbon emissions would suggest. (Disappointing, because I do like to fly to places. Please sponsor my bicycle ride to Australia.)
unique link to this extract

Crypto crash threatens North Korea’s stolen funds as it ramps up weapons tests • Reuters via Yahoo

Josh Smith:


The nosedive in cryptocurrency markets has wiped out millions of dollars in funds stolen by North Korean hackers, four digital investigators say, threatening a key source of funding for the sanctions-stricken country and its weapons programmes.

North Korea has poured resources into stealing cryptocurrencies in recent years, making it a potent hacking threat and leading to one of the largest cryptocurrency heists on record in March, in which almost $615 million was stolen, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The sudden plunge in crypto values, which started in May amid a broader economic slowdown, complicates Pyongyang’s ability to cash in on that and other heists, and may affect how it plans to fund its weapons programmes, two South Korean government sources said. The sources declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

…Old, unlaundered North Korean crypto holdings monitored by the New York-based blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis, which include funds stolen in 49 hacks from 2017 to 2021, have decreased in value from $170m to $65m since the beginning of the year, the company told Reuters.

One of North Korea’s cryptocurrency caches from a 2021 heist, which had been worth tens of millions of dollars, has lost 80% to 85% of its value in the last few weeks and is now worth less than $10m, said Nick Carlsen, an analyst with TRM Labs, another U.S.-based blockchain analysis firm.


Quite the unanticipated outcome. Crypto hacking seemed like – was – a great choice, but you do have to convert it into real money too.
unique link to this extract

Instagram and Facebook remove posts offering abortion pills • NPR


“DM me if you want to order abortion pills, but want them sent to my address instead of yours,” the post on Instagram read.

Instagram took it down within moments. Vice Media first reported on Monday that Meta, the parent of both Facebook and Instagram, was taking down posts about abortion pills.

On Monday, an Associated Press reporter tested how the company would respond to a similar post on Facebook, writing: “If you send me your address, I will mail you abortion pills.” The post was removed within one minute.

The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.”

Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched. A post with the same exact offer to mail “weed” was also left up and not considered a violation.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law and it is illegal to send it through the mail. Abortion pills, however, can legally be obtained through the mail after an online consultation from prescribers who have undergone certification and training.

In an email, a Meta spokesperson pointed to company policies that prohibit the sale of certain items, including guns, alcohol, drugs and pharmaceuticals. The company did not explain the apparent discrepancies in its enforcement of that policy.


Meta (FB + Instagram) is too big; it really cannot stay on top of these things. It’s like a dinosaur trying to dance.
unique link to this extract

Crypto hedge fund Three Arrows ordered by court to liquidate • WSJ

Serena Ng, Caitlin Ostroff and Vicky Ge Huang:


Three Arrows Capital suffered losses in recent weeks due to a punishing decline in the value of cryptocurrencies. Twin forces have hit the digital asset ecosystem: a broad market selloff sparked by the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases and concerns over individual crypto coins and firms. Bitcoin’s dollar value has fallen by more than a third this month.

Two executives from the global advisory firm Teneo were appointed by the British Virgin Islands to oversee the liquidation of assets and safeguard them, according to people familiar with the proceedings. The executives, senior managing directors Russell Crumpler and Christopher Farmer, joined Teneo after the company acquired financial firm KPMG’s Cayman and British Virgin Island’s restructuring business in January, according to Teneo’s website.

Creditors to whom Three Arrows owes debts will be able to file their claims online, the people said. The process for debtors to reclaim their assets is likely to be lengthy, they said, noting the liquidation order would mark the start of that process.

Former schoolmates and Wall Street traders Su Zhu and Kyle Davies started Three Arrows nearly a decade ago. It had roughly $3bn in assets under management in April, just before crypto markets cratered, Mr. Davies told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.


Seems like a sizeable domino; there’s lots of money owing in turn to other funds.
unique link to this extract

Bitcoin miners sell their holdings amid crypto winter’s chill • Reuters via Yahoo

Lisa Pauline Mattackal and Medha Singh:


Bitcoin miners have been forced to tap into their cryptocurrency stashes as a plunge in prices, rising energy costs and increased competition bite into profitability.

The number of coins miners are sending to crypto exchanges has been steadily climbing since June 7, researchers at MacroHive noted, in a sign that “miners have been increasingly liquidating their coins on exchanges.”

Several publicly listed bitcoin miners collectively sold more than 100% of their entire output in May as the value of bitcoin tumbled 45%, an analysis by Arcane Research found.

“The plummeting profitability of mining forced these miners to increase their selling rate to more than 100% of their output in May. The conditions have worsened in June, meaning they are likely selling even more,” said Arcane analyst Jaran Mellerud.

Bitcoin sales by public miners

Bitcoin miners, who run networks of computers to earn tokens by validating transactions on the blockchain, are typically staunch crypto “HODLers” and collectively own around 800,000 bitcoins, according to CoinMetrics data.


If they really get squeezed – which could happen as electricity bills for the quarter come due in the next few weeks – then you could see quite a lot of sales, pushing the price down further, prompting more sales, pushing the price down…
unique link to this extract

• 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.