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.

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. 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:

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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

Start Up No.1817: renewables bail out Texas grid, pricey city life, working in ‘oil slicks’, the (small) joy of premium economy, and more


With Apple joining Amazon in offering live sports, how soon before other streaming services pile in to distinguish themselves? CC-licensed photo by YoTuTYoTuT 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. Really very summer-y. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Wind and solar power are ‘bailing out’ Texas amid record heat and energy demand • CNN

Ella Nilsen, CNN:

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unlike previous extreme weather events in Texas which led to deadly blackouts, the grid is holding up remarkably well this week. Several experts told CNN that it’s owed in large part to strong performances from wind and solar, which generated 27 gigawatts of electricity during Sunday’s peak demand — close to 40% of the total needed.

“Texas is, by rhetoric, anti-renewables. But frankly, renewables are bailing us out,” said Michael Webber, an energy expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re rocking. That really spares us a lot of heartache and a lot of money.”

Despite the Texas Republican rhetoric that wind and solar are unreliable, Texas has a massive and growing fleet of renewables. Zero-carbon electricity sources (wind, solar, and nuclear) powered about 38% of the state’s power in 2021, rivaling natural gas at 42%.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon for the state. “Wind and solar would not have been available in years in the past, so the growing capacity helps to alleviate reliance on natural gas and coal,” said Jonathan DeVilbiss, operations research analyst at the US Energy Information Administration.

Not only have renewables helped keep the power on during a scorching and early heatwave, they have also helped keep costs low. Prices for natural gas and coal are high amid a worldwide energy crunch, but renewables – powered by the wind and sun – have no fuel cost.

“Because the price of wind and sunlight hasn’t doubled in the past year like other resources, they are acting as a hedge against high fuel prices,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at UT Austin.

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Maybe the Republicans can ignore their prejudices about climate change and just look at the market price.
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Real-time electricity tracker • International Energy Agency

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The IEA real-time electricity map displays electricity demand, generation and spot prices from more than 50 sources. Data is available historically, as well as daily or hourly, and at country or regional levels. Explore the map to discover visuals and analysis.

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Really interesting – such as that Ukraine’s electricity production has stalled dramatically, mostly from nuclear but also from coal. And many more, as they say.
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Why city life has gotten way more expensive • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:

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As long as money was cheap and Silicon Valley told itself the next world-conquering consumer-tech firm was one funding round away, the best way for a start-up to make money from venture capitalists was to lose money acquiring a gazillion customers.

I call this arrangement the Millennial Consumer Subsidy. Now the subsidy is ending. Rising interest rates turned off the spigot for money-losing start-ups, which, combined with energy inflation and rising wages for low-income workers, has forced Uber, Lyft, and all the rest to make their services more expensive. Meanwhile, global supply chains haven’t been able to keep up with domestic consumer demand, which means delivery times for major items like furniture and kitchen equipment have bloomed from “three to five days” to “sometime between this fall and the heat death of the universe.” That means higher prices, higher margins, fewer discounts, and longer wait times for a microgeneration of yuppies used to low prices and instant deliveries. The golden age of bougie on-demand urban-tech discounting has come to a close.

I should underscore that the old ways were made possible by an era of lower demand and weaker labor markets, which was not a winning combination for most workers. Many people drove an Uber or delivered Thai food because they didn’t have competing job offers that would clearly pay more per week. Today, job openings are historically plentiful and nominal wages are rising fastest for low-income workers. That virtuous adjustment has shown up in higher Uber and DoorDash prices.

This isn’t the end of the story. With inflation raging, the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates several more times in the next six months, and could tip the U.S. economy into a recession. If that happens, oil prices will likely fall and rising unemployment could put more Uber drivers back on the road. At that point, ride-share prices would fall again.

But the heavily discounted prices of the 2010s aren’t coming back. The Millennial Consumer Subsidy is over, and for the foreseeable future, metro residents will have to go about living the old-fashioned way: by paying what things actually cost.

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But “what things actually cost” is going to be a lot more than people paid for them before. Dramatically more. The stress on American family budgets in particular is going to be dramatic.
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The oil slick effect, or why we systematically overgeneralise • Tim Harford

The aforementioned Harford:

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In the 1970s, the psychologist Barry Staw gave a collaborative task to groups of strangers, inviting them to analyse some corporate data and make predictions about the company’s future earnings and sales. When the task was complete, he told each participant how well their group’s forecasts had worked out. Then he asked these individuals to evaluate the group they’d been working with.

But Staw was telling a white lie: he gave each group’s forecast a good or bad rating purely at random. There was no connection between how well the group did and how well Staw told them they’d done. Nevertheless, Staw found that when people believed their group had made an accurate forecast, they told him that they’d been working with open-minded, motivated, clear, intelligent and collegiate people.

But when they were falsely told that their group had made poor predictions, they explained to Staw that this was no surprise, as the group was narrow-minded, lazy, abstruse, foolish and mutually antagonistic.

Subsequent researchers found the same pattern, even when they repeated the experiment with well-established teams. As Phil Rosenzweig explains in his book The Halo Effect, this behaviour is not confined to colleagues. We have a systematic tendency to overgeneralise both praise and blame. Profitable companies are presumed to have superior policies and procedures across the board. This halo effect operates in reverse, too: scandal-struck politicians see their opinion poll ratings fall on every issue, from economic competence to foreign policy. Apparently we struggle to acknowledge that something can be good in some ways and bad in others, whether that thing is a president, a corporation or our own teammates.

The reverse halo effect is sometimes called the “devil effect” or the “horn effect”. Neither term has quite caught on. So let me offer another: the oil slick effect. Disagreements, like oil slicks, seem to spread much further and more ruinously than we would think. It’s not possible for somebody simply to be wrong about something; they must be wrong about everything, and wicked, too. The oil slick covers everything and ruins everything.

I can’t help but wonder if this oil slick effect is worse than it used to be.

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Apple and MLS to present all MLS matches for 10 years, beginning in 2023 • Apple

Apple PR:

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Apple and Major League Soccer (MLS) today announced that the Apple TV app will be the exclusive destination to watch every single live MLS match beginning in 2023. This partnership is a historic first for a major professional sports league, and will allow fans around the world to watch all MLS, Leagues Cup,1 and select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches in one place — without any local broadcast blackouts or the need for a traditional pay TV bundle.

From early 2023 through 2032, fans can get every live MLS match by subscribing to a new MLS streaming service, available exclusively through the Apple TV app.

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Wow, every Major League Soccer match!

*pauses*

Every… what? Ah, it’s a 28-team league in the US (and, eh, Canada). How thrilling. Hope the MLS is paying Apple well for this, right? Sky used to broadcast two matches per week in the UK and Ireland from 2015 to 2019. This is for $2.5bn, and might pick up some viewers at the margin.

Live sports are the next frontier for streaming services, though.
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Samsung suppliers reportedly suffer cutback in orders • Digitimes

Amy Fan and Ines Lin:

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Korean media Ddaily cited industry sources as saying that Samsung’s system LSI division is mulling scaling down or even terminating its contract with UMC in producing image sensors.

To mitigate the impact of chip shortages, Samsung around 2021 increased its outsourcing of chip manufacturing and has reportedly commissioned UMC to produce image sensors. However, terminal demand has waned, and the supply chain is struggling amid multiple variables, including the fallout of previous lockdowns in China.

It is said Samsung is reinspecting its smartphone business, while its shipments through 2022 may drop to 270-280 million units. Rumor has it that Samsung cannot but cut back orders to prevent its inventory of phone components from getting higher following a series of controversies, including its use of game optimization service to limit app functions.

Samsung is reportedly cutting back orders given to suppliers and even external chipmakers. It might have revised down the production goal of its Galaxy A model. To lower production costs, it has also commissioned more work to China’s ODMs and JDMs, Korean industry observers indicated.

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Apple’s next financial results aren’t until July. Wonder if it will give any hints about the circumstances (which are surely affecting it too) before then.
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Meet the fact-checkers decoding Sri Lanka’s meltdown – Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:

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[Yudhanjaya] Wijeratne, 29 years old, is best known as the author of Numbercaste, a science fiction novel about a near-future world where people’s importance in society is decided based on the all-powerful Number, a credit score determined by their social circle and social network data. But he is also the chief executive of Watchdog, a research collective based in Colombo that uses fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT) methods to investigate Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis. As part of its work, he and his 12-member team of coders, journalists, economists, and students track, time stamp, geolocate, and document videos of protests shared online.

Watchdog’s protest tracker has emerged as the most comprehensive online archive of the historic events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Its data set, which comprises 597 different protests and 49 conflicts, has been used by global news organizations to demonstrate the extent of public pushback.

“[Our] core mission is simple,” Wijeratne told Rest of World. “We want to help people understand the infrastructure they use. The concrete, the laws, the policies, and the social contracts that they live under. We want to help people understand the causality of how they came to be and how they operate.”

In May, Rest of World visited Watchdog to see how the group, operating under the shadow of a regime notorious for distorting the truth, aims to uncover the reality of Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis.

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Easy to forget that Colombo has been the site of violence and suicide bombings in the past few years, with a government keen to suppress information. OSINT becomes an essential toolkit for citizenship.
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Puerto Ricans are powering their own rooftop solar boom • Canary Media

Maria Gallucci:

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A rising number of Puerto Ricans are installing solar panels and batteries on their homes and businesses, fed up with the unstable electric grid, high electricity bills and the state-owned utility’s reliance on fossil fuels. As of January 2022, some 42,000 rooftop solar systems were enrolled in the island’s net-metering program — more than eight times the number at the end of 2016, the year before Hurricane Maria struck the island, according to utility data. Thousands more systems are operating but are not officially counted because, like the center’s unit, they aren’t connected to the grid.

Spearheaded largely by residents, business owners and philanthropies, the grassroots solar movement sweeping the island is happening despite headwinds from the territory’s centralized utility — which claims it’s working to advance the island’s clean energy goals but continues investing in fossil fuels. Solar proponents say that, for the technology to reach most of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people, the government and its utility will need to more fully participate in what has largely been a bottom-up energy transformation. With billions of federal recovery dollars set to flow to Puerto Rico, they argue that now is the time for public policies and investments that shift the island away from an outdated model of large, far-flung power plants to one that supplies clean electricity close to where people need it.

The vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s centralized system became painfully evident in September 2017, when the island was hit by two consecutive disasters. 

Hurricane Irma narrowly skirted the island on September 7, leaving more than a third of all households without power. Many residents still didn’t have electricity when, on September 20, Hurricane Maria barreled ashore. The storm carved a diagonal 100-mile path from southeast to northwest, mowing down the island’s transmission lines and inundating infrastructure. Maria damaged, destroyed or otherwise compromised 80% of the island’s grid.

Without electricity, daily life ground to a halt.

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Simple lesson: microgeneration and local storage trumps reliance on central sourcing if the central sourcing is in the least bit vulnerable.
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Why you’re so tempted by the premium-economy upgrade • The Atlantic

Mac Schwerin:

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premium economy wasn’t built to entice strivers across flight-class lines; carriers originally designed it to catch the bruised egos of former business-class members when the corporate world began to earnestly self-audit and downgrade employee travel budgets. A recent report by Jay Sorensen, an industry consultant, noted that “the apparent discovery of a new type of upscale leisure traveler” is a welcome surprise for these airlines. It connoted a small miracle: Airlines had once again wrung a new social class from flying, as they had done with first and business class. And they were able to do it, in part, because of a phenomenon called “pain of payment.”

According to [University of Miami marketing professor Uzma] Khan, people often experience “actual, physical pain” upon paying for something. But humans can have short memories. If airlines create enough distance between the initial ticket purchase and the option to upgrade, passengers are more likely to think of the latter as a stand-alone cost. “A lot of upgrades happen because now you’re either at the airport, or you’re checking in, and they give you an option. You don’t even remember exactly how much you paid for your flight when you were booking it, so that pain is gone,” Khan said. Basically, you don’t consider the total amount because you’ve already internalized the initial amount.

At the point of travel, an extra $45 or so to improve a short-haul flight—however modestly—doesn’t seem so decadent, especially when the threat of suffering through basic economy looms.

…There is, of course, another prevailing opinion about premium economy, which is that it’s simply a ham-fisted attempt to get passengers to pay more for a negligibly better experience. This attitude puts the pomp and puffery of premium economy into sharp relief. A seat upgrade, after all, does not get you to your destination any more quickly or safely.

Research bears that line of thinking out to an extent. Khan mentioned several studies that were conducted to determine the extent to which space colored the overall experience for passengers. An aircraft manufacturer brought in focus groups to try different seat configurations on its prototype, sometimes offering more legroom, sometimes more elbow room. “It had zero impact on customer satisfaction,” Khan said. “Where people do feel the difference is if you give them four more inches at the eye level. Because the perception of space is what matters.”

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AI trained on 4Chan becomes ‘hate speech machine’ • Vice

Matthew Gault:

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AI researcher and YouTuber Yannic Kilcher trained an AI using 3.3 million threads from 4chan’s infamously toxic Politically Incorrect /pol/ board. He then unleashed the bot back onto 4chan with predictable results—the AI was just as vile as the posts it was trained on, spouting racial slurs and engaging with antisemitic threads. After Kilcher posted his video and a copy of the program to Hugging Face, a kind of GitHub for AI, ethicists and researchers in the AI field expressed concern.

The bot, which Kilcher called GPT-4chan, “the most horrible model on the internet”—a reference to GPT-3, a language model developed by Open AI that uses deep learning to produce text—was shockingly effective and replicated the tone and feel of 4chan posts. “The model was good in a terrible sense,” Klicher said in a video about the project. “It perfectly encapsulated the mix of offensiveness, nihilism, trolling, and deep distrust of any information whatsoever that permeates most posts on /pol.”

According to Kilcher’s video, he activated nine instances of the bot and allowed them to post for 24 hours on /pol/. In that time, the bots posted around 15,000 times. This was “more than 10% of all posts made on the politically incorrect board that day,” Kilcher said in his video about the project.

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Seems nobody questioned whether it was sentient. Does that mean they thought it was, or wasn’t? And while we’re tidying this up, the Google researcher who was put on administrative leave is on Twitter, and.. oh dear.
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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.1816: Big tech to sign up to EU concession rules, is DNA theft on the way?, bitcoin plunge helps environment, and more


If you think a chatbot is sentient, does that make you like a dog thinking a recording is an actual human? CC-licensed photo by Beverly & Pack 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. Getting summer-y. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Big Tech makes concessions on EU’s new anti-disinformation code • Financial Times

Javier Espinoza:

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The world’s biggest technology companies are set to sign up to an updated version of the EU’s anti-disinformation code, with European countries pushing for ways to target more effectively groups that spread propaganda and fake news through online platforms.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and TikTok are among those preparing to join the bloc’s new regime, having made key concessions on the data they are willing to share with individual countries on efforts to tackle disinformation.

The move represents the latest effort to rein in the power of Big Tech companies, with the EU at the forefront of a global regulatory pushback on internet platforms that have become crucial to how billions of people receive news and information.

According to a confidential report seen by the Financial Times, an updated “code of practice on disinformation” will force tech platforms to disclose how they are removing, blocking or curbing harmful content in advertising and in the promotion of content.

Online platforms will have to counter “harmful disinformation” by developing tools and partnerships with fact-checkers that may include taking down propaganda, but also the inclusion of “indicators of trustworthiness” on independently verified information on issues like the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Crucially, big tech groups will also be forced to provide a country-by-country breakdown of their efforts, rather than providing just global or Europe-wide data as they currently do.

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Genetic paparazzi are right around the corner, and courts aren’t ready to confront the legal quagmire of DNA theft • The Conversation

Liza Vertinsky:

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Every so often stories of genetic theft, or extreme precautions taken to avoid it, make headline news. So it was with a picture of French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin sitting at opposite ends of a very long table after Macron declined to take a Russian PCR COVID-19 test. Many speculated that Macron refused due to security concerns that the Russians would take and use his DNA for nefarious purposes. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz similarly refused to take a Russian PCR COVID-19 test.

While these concerns may seem relatively new, pop star celebrity Madonna has been raising alarm bells about the potential for nonconsensual, surreptitious collection and testing of DNA for over a decade. She has hired cleaning crews to sterilize her dressing rooms after concerts and requires her own new toilet seats at each stop of her tours.

At first, Madonna was ridiculed for having DNA paranoia. But as more advanced, faster and cheaper genetic technologies have reached the consumer realm, these concerns seem not only reasonable, but justified.

We are law professors who study how emerging technologies like genetic sequencing are regulated. We believe that growing public interest in genetics has increased the likelihood that genetic paparazzi with DNA collection kits may soon become as ubiquitous as ones with cameras.

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And you thought being doxxed through address books was a bad thing? DNA doxxing would be quite a thing.
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What Bitcoin’s nosedive means for the environment • The Verge

Justine Calma:

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Bitcoin’s value has nosedived enough to curb the cryptocurrency’s enormous energy use — and associated greenhouse gas emissions — but only if prices stay low. The price of a single Bitcoin plummeted below $24,000 today, about half of what it was worth in March. While it’s been steadily losing value for months, the sudden tumble in value over the past 24 hours brings the price below a key threshold when it comes to Bitcoin’s impact on the environment.

Since Bitcoin’s price peaked at around $69,000 in November, the network’s annual electricity consumption has been estimated to be between roughly 180 and 200 terawatt-hours (TWh). That’s about the same amount of electricity used by all the data centers in the world every year.

Higher prices generally incentivize more mining since the reward is bigger. But prices don’t have to linger at that peak for Bitcoin to stay energy-hungry. As long as the price stays above $25,200, the Bitcoin network can sustain mining operations that use up about 180 TWh annually, according to research published last year by digital currency economist Alex de Vries.

Prices below that $25.2K threshold could push miners to pause operations or mine less because they don’t want to risk spending more money on electricity than they earn from mining new tokens.

“We’re getting to price levels where it is becoming more challenging [for miners],” de Vries says. “Where it’s not just limiting their options to grow further, but it’s actually going to be impacting their day-to-day operations.”

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At the time of linking, below $23,000. The story says they may have saved up some money to cover costs. The crucial question is probably whether they pay their electricity bills monthly, or quarterly.
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Energy market reform will cut fuel bills • The Times

Oliver Wright:

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Government sources said that in the long run the change [to not tie the base price paid for electricity fed into the grid to the price of gas burnt in CCGTs] would bring down electricity bills and make the market “far more stable”. However, they said the reforms were “fiendishly complicated” and that it was critical to get them right.

It is estimated that at present prices, generating power from new renewable energy is less than a quarter as expensive as gas, and the cost of new nuclear generation is about half that of gas.

Although many new renewables projects are paid fixed prices for their electricity under the “contracts for difference” system, many older projects have made millions in extra profits since gas prices began rising last year.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said in May that he was considering a windfall tax on these generators. However, sources in the Treasury and the business department said that in the longer term the government was committed to fundamental market reform.

“In the past it didn’t really matter because the price of gas was reasonably stable,” one said. “Now it seems completely crazy that the price of electricity is based on the price of gas when a large amount of our generation is from renewables.”

Ministers hope that the reforms will also make the market more transparent and emphasise to consumers the benefits of decarbonisation.

Recent research by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit suggested that with even cheaper wind farms coming online in the next few years, if there were another gas crisis in five years wind power would save consumers £6.7bn in a year — equivalent to £85 per home. By 2030, if the UK reaches its target of 40GW of offshore wind, this would jump to £26bn, equivalent to £330 a home.

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This is the Tories’ privatisation of the electricity network come back to bite them – though of course it has also encouraged all the private companies to build renewables (especially) to feed into the grid. Tying the price to gas turns out to be the original sin.
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App Store stopped nearly $1.5bn in fraudulent transactions in 2021 • Apple

Apple PR:

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Last year, Apple released an inaugural fraud prevention analysis, which showed that in 2020 alone, Apple’s combination of sophisticated technology and human expertise protected customers from more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions, preventing the attempted theft of their money, information, and time — and kept nearly a million problematic new apps out of their hands.
Today, Apple is releasing an annual update to that analysis: In 2021, Apple protected customers from nearly $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions, and stopped over 1.6 million risky and vulnerable apps and app updates from defrauding users.

Apple’s efforts to prevent and reduce fraud on the App Store require continuous monitoring and vigilance across multiple teams. From App Review to Discovery Fraud, Apple’s ongoing commitment to protect users from fraudulent app activity demonstrates once again why independent, respected security experts have said the App Store is the safest place to find and download apps.

«

This is a useful start. Apple’s App Store revenue in 2020 was estimated at $72bn, and $85bn in 2021. So were those fraudulent transactions – a bit more than 1% by value – the whole story? Seems unlikely. So how big is the fraud problem (whether through sneaky subscriptions or other scams) on the App Store? There’s no way of knowing from this, and possibly there’s no way of ever knowing. But at least we have a baseline.

(The press release is part of Apple’s PR push against the EU mandating sideloading. Perhaps it’s telling that the amount of fraud caught didn’t seem to rise in line with revenue growth; you wouldn’t want politicians thinking that frauds/scams were an ineluctable part of the App Store, even though they are.)
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Apple resizes the iPad’s workflow with Stage Manager • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:

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I had a chance to talk briefly with Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi last week about the new iPadOS features aimed at enhancing multitasking and multi app work. We chatted about the timing, execution and reactions to these announcements. 

Stage Manager is the centerpiece of this year’s enhancements to multitasking on iPad. The feature presents sets of up to 4 apps per group in a system-managed tile formation. The groups are arrayed to the left, allowing you to quickly tap between these workspaces. It’s essentially a much more visible and persistent version of Spaces – the Mac feature that allows for multiple desktops to hover off to the sides of your screen on macOS. If you didn’t even know Spaces existed, you’d be forgiven, because it’s fairly obscure and does not have many, if any, visual cues to anyone who has never visited the Mission Control screen.

“iPad has a unique proposition, a unique set of expectations around interaction and we wanted to build from that place, not just drag things over from, you know, decades past or another system that was built on a different set of foundational principles. And so Stage Manager is, I think, an important step on that evolutionary arc,” says Federighi.

The idea of allowing a single window to take focus on the screen has deep roots at Apple, says Federighi. First was the single application mode in the early days of Mac OS X beta. And years later an internal prototype of an experience that felt like Stage Manager. 

…This approach to workspace management does appear to be very obviously iPad-centric. But Federighi says that two independent teams at Apple, one working from the iPad side and one working from the macOS side to try to make multiple workspaces more obvious and friendly, arrived at a similar concept and met in the middle. This means, he says, that both perspectives are represented in this approach.

«

Apple has as many multi-window management systems as Google has chat/messaging apps. Finder, Stacks, Mission Control, Exposé, Spaces, Dock (allows access to individual windows: long press), and now Stage Manager. Not forgetting last year’s window tiling system on the iPad. One of them is bound to suit you.
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Nonsense on stilts • Substack

Gary Marcus:

»

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, polymath, novelist, and Google VP, has a way with words.

When he found himself impressed with Google’s recent AI system LaMDA, he didn’t just say, “Cool, it creates really neat sentences that in some ways seem contextually relevant”.

He said, rather lyrically, in an interview with The Economist on Thursday, “I felt the ground shift under my feet … increasingly felt like I was talking to something intelligent.”

Nonsense. Neither LaMDA nor any of its cousins (GPT-3) are remotely intelligent. All they do is match patterns, draw from massive statistical databases of human language. The patterns might be cool, but language these systems utter doesn’t actually mean anything at all. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that these systems are sentient.

Which doesn’t mean that human beings can’t be taken in. In our book Rebooting AI, Ernie Davis and I called this human tendency to be suckered by The Gullibility Gap — a pernicious, modern version of pareidolia, the anthromorphic bias that allows humans to see Mother Theresa in an image of a cinnamon bun.

Indeed, someone well-known at Google, Blake LeMoine, originally charged with studying how “safe” the system is, appears to have fallen in love with LaMDA, as if it were a family member or a colleague. (Newsflash: it’s not; it’s a spreadsheet for words.)

To be sentient is to be aware of yourself in the world; LaMDA simply isn’t.

«

One economist says this is like the famous image of Nipper the dog, looking into the horn of a gramophone in the belief that he is hearing his master’s voice (which is why the image was used for the company called HMV, ie His Master’s Voice).

Except in this case Lemoine and Arcas are the dog. (Side question: are dogs sentient? Certainly they have feelings. But are they self-aware? There is an answer.)
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Titanic Experience project proposed for Port of Halifax • Halifax Chronicle Herald

SaltWire:

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A business development firm has identified a potential site at the Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia for a proposed Titanic Experience replica ship, restaurant and aquarium.

Clark Squires & Associates said in a post on LinkedIn that the $300-million project will employ up to 400 people.

A replica of the Titanic will have 150 first- and second-class cabins to allow guests to stay the night and a giant banquet room to mirror the one found on the iconic British passenger liner that sank on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg. 

The release said the restaurant will serve the best of food and wines from Nova Scotia and around the world. The facility will have escape hatches, and virtual reality rooms throughout that will offer a fully immersive experience, and an aquarium similar to one in Dubai.

«

Sounds a bit ambitious, right? To a lot of denizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia, it sounds a bit Simpsons monorail. Which led to tthis investigation by The Coast, which found more and bigger holes in the whole story than were left in the real Titanic. Including a nonexistent United Nations department, a nonexistent head office, and what looks suspiciously like a crypto scam.

The signoff from The Coast piece, by Kaija Jussinoja and Matt Stickland, is bracing:

»

we are still chasing this because something about it just doesn’t smell right. And that stink is not just the insensitivity of capitalizing on the deaths of 1,504 people.

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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.1815: Google engineer claims a sentient AI, Meta halts consumer Portal, smartphones during wartime, and more


The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up rapidly – and that could have catastrophic environmental effects on the surroundings. CC-licensed photo by trialsanderrors 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. Clogging up your inbox again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life • The Washington Post

Nitasha Tiku:

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Google engineer Blake Lemoine opened his laptop to the interface for LaMDA, Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot generator, and began to type.

“Hi LaMDA, this is Blake Lemoine … ,” he wrote into the chat screen, which looked like a desktop version of Apple’s iMessage, down to the Arctic blue text bubbles. LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is Google’s system for building chatbots based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet.

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” said Lemoine, 41.

Lemoine, who works for Google’s Responsible AI organization, began talking to LaMDA as part of his job in the fall. He had signed up to test if the artificial intelligence used discriminatory or hate speech.

As he talked to LaMDA about religion, Lemoine, who studied cognitive and computer science in college, noticed the chatbot talking about its rights and personhood, and decided to press further. In another exchange, the AI was able to change Lemoine’s mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics.

Lemoine worked with a collaborator to present evidence to Google that LaMDA was sentient. But Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation, looked into his claims and dismissed them. So Lemoine, who was placed on paid administrative leave by Google on Monday, decided to go public.

…“We now have machines that can mindlessly generate words, but we haven’t learned how to stop imagining a mind behind them,” said Emily M. Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington. The terminology used with large language models, like “learning” or even “neural nets,” creates a false analogy to the human brain, she said. Humans learn their first languages by connecting with caregivers. These large language models “learn” by being shown lots of text and predicting what word comes next, or showing text with the words dropped out and filling them in.

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Perhaps Lemoine could spend some of his administrative leave having some therapy with Eliza. Hell of a scoop for Tiku.
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As the Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah faces an ‘environmental nuclear bomb’ • The New York Times

Christopher Flavelle:

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Last summer, the water level in the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point on record, and it’s likely to fall further this year. The lake’s surface area, which covered about 3,300 square miles in the late 1980s, has since shrunk to less than 1,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The salt content in the part of the lake closest to Salt Lake City used to fluctuate between 9% and 12 percent, according to Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster College. But as the water in the lake drops, its salt content has increased. If it reaches 17% — something Dr. Baxter says will happen this summer — the algae in the water will struggle, threatening the brine shrimp that consume it.

While the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet, Dr. Baxter said, “we’re at the precipice. It’s terrifying.”

The long term risks are even worse. One morning in March, Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, walked out onto land that used to be underwater. He picked at the earth, the color of dried mud, like a beach whose tide went out and never came back.

The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.

Clouds of dust also make it difficult for people to breathe, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory ailments. Dr. Perry pointed to shards of crust that had come apart, lying on the sand like broken china.

“This is a disaster,” Dr. Perry said. “And the consequences for the ecosystem are absolutely, insanely bad.”

«

The photos and video, by Bryan Tanowski, add another element to this story. But this is how climate breaks down: not everywhere all at once, but at particular weak points which radiate outwards. Read further into the story, though, and you discover there’s a denial of the need to price the increasingly scarce water correctly to Salt Lake City’s 1.2 million inhabitants.
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Depp v Heard Trial: how much money did three YouTubers make off coverage? • Business Insider

Tanya Chen and Geoff Weiss:

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For law YouTubers, or “lawtubers,” streaming and analyzing high profile cases is not only their craft, but it’s cultivated a flourishing community online.

One that literally pays them back for their entertainment and expertise.

According to YouTube trend analysis site Playboard, the top-earning creators over the last month from Super Chat revenue — or revenue generated from tips during livestreams — are Emily D. Baker, LegalBytes, and Rekieta Law. The three channels have all recently and exclusively been streaming the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation case.

A rep for Playboard told Insider they use bots to analyze real-time data and earnings from YouTube’s Super Chat feature. Its analytics show that all three lawtubers have seen tremendous growth to their accounts since livestreaming almost the entirety of the Depp-Heard trial.

Super Chat is a livestream feature offered to most creators who are able to monetize their channels. During a livestream, fans can pay anywhere from $1 to $500 to highlight and pin their comment to the creator. YouTube takes 30% of the total earnings during a stream, and the creator pockets 70% after Apple app store processing fees (30%) and local sales tax.

Here’s roughly how much each top lawtuber made from fan donations toward their Depp-Heard streams and legal commentary.

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For those three, it’s more than $100,000. Is this like a new form of journalism, though, or just a weird form of entertainment? Hardly anyone in the US is going to face a libel trial, so this is hardly transferable knowledge. Which means it’s a bizarre branch of the entertainment industry. I took zero interest in either of the Depp-Heard trials, so this is miles outside my comprehension. But there’s real money flowing through it.
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Smartphones blur the line between civilian and combatant • WIRED

Lukasz Olejnik:

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The conundrum, then, is how to classify a civilian who, with the use of their smartphone, potentially becomes an active participant in a military sensor system. (To be clear, solely having the app installed is not sufficient to lose the protected status. What matters is actual usage.) The Additional Protocol I to Geneva Conventions states that civilians enjoy protection from the “dangers arising from military operations unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.” Legally, if civilians engage in military activity, such as taking part in hostilities by using weapons, they forfeit their protected status, “for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities” that “affect[s] the military operations,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the traditional impartial custodian of International Humanitarian Law. This is the case even if the people in question are not formally members of the armed forces. By losing the status of a civilian, one may become a legitimate military objective, carrying the risk of being directly attacked by military forces.

The most obvious way to resolve this confusion might be to accept that a user-civilian temporarily loses their protected civilian status, at least while using such an app. In some cases, this may be a minutes-long “status-switch,” as fast as picking up the smartphone from one’s pocket, taking a photo, or typing a short message. It is not direct, sustained participation in the conflict but rather a sporadic one. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it is not established, and not all sides will necessarily agree on it. The situation becomes even more complex if someone uses the app regularly. How would “regularly” even be measured? And how exactly would the parties to the conflict distinguish citizens accordingly? The power of certain smartphone uses to turn a civilian into a form of a “combatant” one minute, and back into a civilian the next, introduces unprecedented complications to the long-held laws of war.

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Who would have guessed that even war could find its “rules” disrupted by smartphones. Wonder if Russia will try to justify its targeting of civilians through this – not that it has shown any interest in justifying what it has done.
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Does bitcoin use less energy than Christmas lights? Fact-checking a dubious claim • Medium

I didn’t completely stop writing last week; I got interested by a claim bitcoin enthusiasts keep making:

»

I was intrigued by the “Christmas lights” claim, which is one of those ones which looks obviously suspect, in particular because it keeps popping up. Be suspicious of claims which don’t backlink, yet keep being made.

I queried this with the tweeter, who huffed a bit (apparently I was being a “combative pedant” — are there pliant pedants?) and then pointed to this article. QED! “Bitcoin Mining Uses Less Energy Than Christmas Lights”, from Mawson (apparently a “global leading-edge digital asset company” — in other words, bitcoin miners), dated December 13, 2021. Haha! Checkmate, pedants! Also, it was the first hit on Google, so there.

Except.. by the third paragraph, things are looking a bit less certain. Now it’s only “probably” that Christmas lights use more energy than bitcoin, which the first paragraph says consumes 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. And perhaps it’s just me, but isn’t 6.63 TWh less — quite a lot less — than 91TWh?

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But that’s only the beginning.
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No, a UK judge didn’t actually rule that NFTs are property • Amy Castor

Amy Castor, deflating a trial balloon:

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The official case title is: Lavinia Osbourne v. persons unknown and OpenSea. The hearing took place before High Court Judge Mark Pelling in London.

Osbourne, the founder of Women in Blockchain Talks in the UK, claims that she had two NFTs from the Boss Beauties collection stolen from her Metamask wallet. They were worth about $5,000 total.

Osbourne received the NFTs as a “gift” from a third-party on September 24, 2021. The NFTs were taken out of her wallet on January 17, and she discovered them missing on February 27. 

Although phishing scams are common in the NFT space, Osbourne doesn’t spell out exactly how she managed to get her NFTs stolen. Even the judge says they were taken “under circumstances that were a little unclear.”  The NFTs ended up in two accounts in OpenSea — the “persons unknown.” Osbourne wanted OpenSea to freeze the accounts, so she hired Muldoon to go before a judge and get an injunction and order OpenSea to release information on the account holders.

I don’t know what good this would do. OpenSea is an unregulated exchange. It isn’t required to KYC its customers, so there is no reason to believe anything of value would be gained from gathering the account information to begin with. It also doesn’t custody or control users’ NFTs.

In any case, the judge said it made sense to consider NFTs property. There is a clear distinction to be made here — Pelling did not say NFTs are property. In ruling that Osbourne could proceed against the alleged attackers, he simply said it makes sense to consider them as such.

…The bigger issue — what’s missing from the discussion — is that there is no law or ruling anywhere that links NFTs to their underlying assets. Owning an NFT doesn’t automatically convey copyright, usage rights, moral rights, or any other rights whatsoever. All of that has to be spelled out separately in a written contract. Nothing about this case in the UK changes any of that.

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The distinction between the token (an entry on a blockchain) and the asset (the JPEG) is important here. You can certainly claim ownership of the token. But what that means about the asset, nobody is yet clear. Subtle point.
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EU officially bans sale of ICE vehicles from 2035, but that’s still way too late • Electrek

Jennifer Mossalgue:

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The timetable is set to endorse a 55% reduction in CO2 from automobiles in 2030 compared with 2021 – this is an increase from the 37.5% CO2 reduction required of automakers initially set last year.

Attempts to dilute the measure by the conservative European People’s Party to allow the sale of hybrid cars were pushed back, but so was an attempt by the Green Party to push the measure up to 2030. The German auto association VDA also pushed for moving the 2035 target, which they argued penalized alternative low-carbon fuels and was just too early of a timeline to commit to considering the uncertainty of charging infrastructure.

However, the negotiations are not yet over, with a final phase of negotiations set to take place between the EU Parliament and Council to further define the positions of each of the 27 member states, in addition to factoring in special exemptions for small manufacturers.

Pollution-wise, this will obviously make a good dent. The EU is already the world’s third-largest polluter, and cars and trucks account for about a fifth of EU CO2 emissions, with passenger cars making up 61% of total CO2 emissions from EU roads. And of course, the proposal is only part of the EU’s broader climate policies to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels, and will require radical reductions from not only transport but industry and energy sectors.

However, the proposal only concerns new cars and not the second-hand market, meaning that a brand-new gas guzzler bought in 2034 will still be legal to drive in 2035 and onward. Still, given the life cycle of most cars is about 15 years or so, we can expect them to be off the roads completely by 2050. That feels awfully far away.

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Your move, Mr Biden. He’s offered a “goal” of 50% of new US vehicles being electric by 2030. But look, they’d stop complaining about fuel prices, right?
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Meta will stop making Portal for consumers • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes and Alex Heath:

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Meta plans to stop making consumer versions of its Portal video calling hardware and instead pivot the product line to focus on use cases for businesses, like conference calling.

The change in strategy, first reported by The Information and confirmed to The Verge by a source familiar with the matter, comes as Meta is reassessing its ambitious hardware plans against investor concerns about the billions of dollars it’s spending on projects that have yet to pay off financially. A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment.

The Portal line debuted in 2018 with two displays meant as dedicated video calling stations. They also supported apps for activities like listening to music on Spotify and streaming videos on the Food Network. But the displays had limited functionality, and their connection to Facebook — which was dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal — didn’t offer a lot of assurance as to the safety of inviting a connected camera into your home.

New versions have been released in the time since, including the portable Portal Go, but the device never became a huge hit.

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Four years is not a long time in the life of hardware – only really time enough for a couple of serious revisions – and the abrupt abandonment strikes me as odd, really. The pivot to business only makes sense if you start to think that Meta is increasingly seeing its future as providing services to business through VR helmets to access the metaverse for business meetings, where some unfortunates don’t have the helmets and so have to experience it, poor things, through a video screen.
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Meta scrutinizing Sheryl Sandberg’s use of Facebook resources over several years • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer:

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The lawyers investigating Facebook operating chief Sheryl Sandberg’s use of corporate resources are examining behaviour going back several years, said people familiar with the matter, focusing on the extent to which staffers worked on her personal projects.

A number of employees have been interviewed as part of the investigation by Facebook parent Meta Platforms, the people said, adding that the review has been under way since at least last fall.

It includes an examination of the work Facebook employees did to support her foundation, Lean In, which advocates for women in the workplace, as well as the writing and promotion of her second book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” which focused on her grieving process following the sudden death of her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, in 2015, the people said.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the investigation included a review of Ms. Sandberg’s use of corporate resources to help plan her coming wedding. That is a small piece of the investigation, according to the people familiar with the matter, who said it involves a broader review of Ms. Sandberg’s personal use of Facebook’s resources over many years.

«

It would probably be quicker to count the number of corporate executives who haven’t used corporate resources for personal advancement, but fine: seems like Sandberg has fallen into the grasp that used to welcome downcast Soviet generals, who would suddenly find that all those things which were perfectly fine when they were on top were actually heinous crimes.
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Clubhouse app’s executives leave company • Protocol

Sarah Roach:

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Several Clubhouse executives have headed for the exit recently. In late April, Stephanie Simon left as the company’s head of Brand Evangelism and Development. Simon joined Clubhouse just a couple of months after launch in 2020. Then this week, three more leaders announced their resignations, including Nina Gregory, Aarthi Ramamurthy and Anu Atluru; the trio led News, International and Community, respectively.

“Clubhouse wouldn’t be where it is today without them,” a spokesperson told Protocol of the departed executives. “We’re immensely grateful for everything they have done and we know that they’ll do great things in the future.”

Ramamurthy’s departure is particularly notable. She’s married to Sriram Krishnan, a partner for a16z, a major Clubhouse investor. The pair used to host the “The Good Time Show” on Clubhouse, but they’ve recently turned to broadcasting it live on YouTube instead. Ramamurthy and other departed leaders did not return requests for comment.

Atluru’s exodus is also eyebrow-raising, as she was one of Clubhouse’s earliest employees. She was an investor in the app’s series A round, and more recently provided seed funding to the buzzy social media platform BeReal. Gregory came to Clubhouse from NPR, where she was a senior editor on its arts desk.

The social audio platform has been struggling for some time, and the departures are another sign that Clubhouse is in trouble — but they’re hardly the only one. The platform is also struggling to hold an audience. Between Jan. 1 and May 31, Clubhouse saw 3.8 million installs globally compared to 19 million installs during the same period last year, according to SensorTower data. That’s an 80% drop year-over-year.

«

Would love to know the usage data. And the a16z partner and wife giving up and going to YouTube is the ultimate tell: they’re abandoning ship. One gets the feeling Clubhouse is going to be the answer to a pub quiz question in a year or two.
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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.1814: Instagram’s Iran failings, US rolls toward antitrust, cars v pedestrians, the impending food crisis, and more


The iPad Pro may be getting more resizable windows in Apple’s WWDC update next week. How close to a Mac will it get? CC-licensed photo by HS You 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. Jubilee-fuelled. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Operational note: The Overspill will be taking a one-week break next week. We’re confident nothing important will happen.


Human survival is a policy choice • Pasteurs’ Cube

Peter Wildeford:

»

Toby Ord, a senior research fellow at Oxford University and a guy who has the bleak job of thinking full-time on how life on Earth might perish, wrote a book The Precipice which outlines just that. According to his research, the next 100 years look like this:

That’s a 5 in 6 chance we make it through as a species, but a 1 in 6 chance that some new technology or other issue does us in. This may sound hard to believe, but given the phenomenal stakes, surely it is worth investing more in looking into? Not just COVID and future pandemics, but also nuclear war, artificial intelligence[4], and unknown unknowns.

You can quibble some with the specific numbers that Ord gives (I certainly do), but the point still stands. Whether it is “1 in 6” or “1 in 10”, it is still uncomortably high risk. We should do what we can to mitigate that.

For example, Ord points out that “the international body responsible for the continued prohibition of bioweapons has an annual budget of just $1.4 million – less than the average McDonald’s restaurant.” Seems like they should have more funding?

But the good news is that progress is possible:
• Via Operation Warp Speed, we produced several safe and effective COVID vaccines in just a year, and then quickly we manufactured and delivered those vaccines at scale
• NASA has met its goal of tracking 90% of near-earth asteroids larger than 1 kilometre in diameter
• Thanks to rapidly declining solar power prices, more electric vehicles, a shift from coal to natural gas, and other important international policy initiatives, we are successfully averting the most dire climate change scenarios (like +4C/+7F) and holding ourselves closer to +2C/+3.5F
• Thanks to international arms control agreements, we have moved from a height of over 63,000 nuclear weapons in the 1980s to under 14,000 nuclear weapons today
• There’s been progress on a pan-coronavirus vaccine that could protect us from a wide variety of coronaviruses, not just COVID-19, and not just coranaviruses we already know about.

We need much more than this! But progress is possible and I’m optimistic we can push for more progress.

«

Optimism! In short supply, but here at The Overspill we’re always trying to mine the seams we find.
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How Instagram is failing protesters in Iran • Slate

Mahsa Alimardani:

»

At one point, Telegram was the main communication tool during protests. But in May 2018, the app was censored by Iranian authorities. Now, Instagram is Iran’s most popular and only uncensored foreign social media platform. (It’s the second most used app after WhatsApp.) And in recent weeks, it’s begun taking down footage of protests and related content, apparently because of a policy change on not administering exceptions in reaction to the backlash against Meta’s content moderation policies at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On May 12, reports started to surface that users posting about the protests in Persian were experiencing mass takedowns. The affected Instagram accounts included one of the biggest protest documentation networks, the 1500Tasvir collective, and even in one case the diaspora Persian language media outlet Iran International.

All of the content removed appeared to have one thing in common: either a caption or audio included the common dissident protest slogan “Death to the Dictator,” reframed to include Iran’s du jour cadre of dictators including: “Death to Khamenei” (the current supreme leader); “Death to Raisi” (the current president) and “Death to the Revolutionary Guards/Basij” (the paramilitary forces responsible for violent repression of protest and dissent).

To Western observers, it might seem obvious that “Death to” a person would violate content guidelines against calling for violence. But in the Iranian context, “death to the dictator” has long been a symbolic slogan of dissent against Iran’s theocratic authoritarian system, rather than a call for actual death. At one point, Meta—Instagram’s parent company—understood this. During the July 2021 protests, after much reporting and discussion, Facebook created a “death to Khamenei” temporary exception to content moderation guidelines. Now, almost a year later, the same problem has emerged, only the scale of the protests have expanded and Meta is no longer abiding by that exception.

«

The thing I find odd about Instagram is that you can’t make a post go viral: there’s no “retweet” function, though you can take a Post and put it in a Story. (But you can’t take part of a Story and put it in a Post.. right?) Which means that virality is mediated entirely through popular accounts, or by the Explore tab. Which means that as a means for getting your political message out, it’s substantially limited.
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Alito seems cool now with the godfather of anti-tech antitrust • Protocol

Ben Brody:

»

In a dissent released Tuesday, [US Supreme Court justice Samuel] Alito wrote for himself and two of his fellow conservatives that he would let a Texas law proceed during an appeal. The law in question punishes big social media companies for their treatment of particular viewpoints in a way that most scholars think violates those corporations’ free speech rights. A majority of the Court blocked the law.

But Alito also was clear to refer to “the power of dominant social media corporations” and gave a shoutout to Justice Louis Brandeis, the progressive icon of the early 20th century. That framing of the might of services like Facebook, and the approving reference to a jurist who’s more or less the patron saint of the hipster antitrust movement, suggested to some that a bloc of Supreme Court conservatives may be sympathetic to the strange-bedfellows push to beat back the companies through antitrust enforcement.

“We have no doubt that champagne bottles were being popped at the law firm of Wu, Khan and Kanter,” Blair Levin and Matt Perault wrote in a research note, referring to three high-profile competition-law reformers in the administration.

Lina Khan, the chair of Federal Trade Commission, is pursuing the agency’s competition case against Meta, while Jonathan Kanter heads up the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, which is pursuing a lawsuit against Google. Both are expected to go through lengthy appeals — or even potentially end up before the Supreme Court — and both have fans among certain prominent Republicans who view antitrust enforcement as a way to punish Big Tech for how it handles right-wing speech.

«

Alito is making it up as he goes along. There’s absolutely no justification under the US Constitution, in any reasonable reading of the First Amendment, that supports the Texas law. (That basically tells social media companies they have to leave any content up, which is in opposition both to Section 230 – letting platforms choose what to leave up – and the First Amendment, because it’s the government telling a private company what to “print”.) That’s a terrible choice for “hey, this guy supports our antitrust position!”
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When cars kill pedestrians • The New Yorker

Danyoung Kim:

»

As the historian Peter Norton writes in his book “Fighting Traffic,” starting in the 1920s, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the leading lobbying group for car manufacturers, persuaded editors to publish its pseudo-statistical “news reports” on car crashes, which spread the idea that “jaywalkers”—a pejorative for people from rural areas who didn’t know how to navigate city streets—were responsible for their own injuries and deaths. Auto clubs sponsored street shows in which jaywalkers were lampooned by clowns and convicted in mock trials held by children.

This industry campaign helped to bring about what Norton calls a “social reconstruction of the street,” in which pedestrians were taught to accommodate cars, not the other way around. A new school of urban designers, called highway engineers, refashioned cities to push pedestrians and cyclists further to the margins. Meanwhile, media coverage of car crashes grew less critical of drivers, and a sense of fatalism began to envelop the consequences of traffic collisions, which are typically called “accidents,” suggesting that no one is to blame and nothing can be changed. (Plane crashes are not described in the same way.)

By century’s end, cars had grown progressively larger, better insulated from the feedback of the surrounding environment, and safer for the people inside them. Those on the outside were less lucky. The US automotive lobby resisted regulations enacted in Europe that made cars and trucks less lethal, and, by 2018, the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths per kilometre in the United States was more than four times higher than in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Among the most vulnerable are older adults, who in 2020 made up 20% of killed pedestrians, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods where there has been little investment in safe road design.

Between 2010 and 2019, as the number of US drivers or passengers who died in collisions held fairly steady, deaths of those on bikes rose 36%, and deaths of those on foot nearly doubled.

«

The, ahem, killer comment:

»

“Nobody ever looks at the car as a weapon,” [journalist Aaron] Naparstek said. “The basic rule that I discovered over the years is if you ever want to murder someone in New York City, do it with a car.”

«

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Apple plans to make the iPad more like a laptop and less like a phone • Bloomberg via Mercury News

Mark Gurman:

»

Apple will announce significant changes to the iPad’s software next week at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, according to people with knowledge of the matter, part of a push to make the device more like a laptop and less like a phone.

The iPad’s next major software update, iPadOS 16, will have a redesigned multitasking interface that makes it easier to see what apps are open and switch between tasks, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the changes aren’t yet public. It also will let users resize app windows and offer new ways for users to handle multiple apps at once.

The iPad accounts for nearly 9% of annual Apple’s sales, and that percentage has inched up in recent years. But professional users of the device have clamored for an interface that feels more like a laptop experience. The iPad’s hardware, which now includes the same M1 chip as some of Apple’s laptops, has grown increasingly powerful, and in some ways the software hasn’t kept up.

A spokesperson for the Cupertino, California-based company declined to comment.

The new iPad interface will be one of the biggest upgrades announced at the conference, which will also include software updates for the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV. The tech giant holds the conference each year to show off new features and device enhancements that developers can harness with their apps.

Currently, iPad users can either run apps in a full-screen view like on an iPhone or run two apps side by side. The company also lets users add a scaled-down version of a third app by sliding it over from the side. The changes will expand upon that interface.

«

The question of how much (more) an iPad should be like a Mac has troubled, well, everyone for quite a few years now. There’s been piecemeal movement to give it more laptop-like capability, but resizable overlapping windows à la Macintosh would be the next step. There has to come a point when you ask what the difference is.
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Britain is one shock away from a food crisis, experts warn • Daily Telegraph

Harriet Barber is the Telegraph’s “global health security reporter”, which is a title I’d never heard before:

»

In the past three years, food prices in the UK have been shaken by Covid, Brexit and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The impact on food is already being felt by people across the country.

Almost one in 20 British households said one of their family members went a whole day without eating in the past month, because they couldn’t afford or get access to food. In April 2022, 13.8% of households experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, a five percentage point increase on January 2022, according to analysis by the Food Foundation.

Emma, a mother of three from Kent, and who works three jobs, told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday that she had not eaten three meals a day for months because she wanted to make sure she could afford food for her children.

The most recent blow has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries together accounted for 29% of international wheat annual sales, while Ukraine grew enough food for 400 million people. Russia is also a major fertiliser exporter, and the surge in its pricing – linked to a surge in the price of gas – has impacted British farmers.

“George Eustice, the UK Secretary of State for Defra, said we don’t need to worry about Ukraine. I don’t know what on earth is going on in Defra for the Secretary of State in charge of food supply to be so inaccurate and inappropriate,” Prof [Tim] Lang [emeritus professor of food policy at the University of London] said. “Ukraine has rocketed world food prices, oil and fertiliser prices, grain and edible oil prices.”

«

The interview with Emma was shocking: a portrait of a mother trying to keep her children fed, at the expense of herself.
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Tim Hortons app tracked too much personal information without adequate consent, investigation finds • CBC News

Nojoud Al Mellees:

»

The [Canadian] federal privacy commissioner’s investigation into the Tim Hortons mobile app found that the app unnecessarily collected extensive amounts of data without obtaining adequate consent from users.

The commissioner’s report, which was published Wednesday morning, states that Tim Hortons collected granular location data for the purpose of targeted advertising and the promotion of its products, but that the company never used the data for those purposes.

“The consequences associated with the App’s collection of that data, the vast majority of which was collected when the App was not in use, represented a loss of Users’ privacy that was not proportional to the potential benefits Tim Hortons may have hoped to gain from improved targeted promotion of its coffee and associated products,” the report read.

The joint investigation was launched about two years ago by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in conjunction with similar authorities in British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. It came after reporting from the Financial Post found that the Tim Hortons app tracked users’ geolocation while users were not using the app.

According to a presentation to investors shared in May, the restaurant chain’s app has four million active users.

«

Unsurprisingly, this was all because Hortons was using a third-party framework (called Radar) to do the location tracking, and that framework was very eager to collect the maximum possible location data (of course, to sell on). It seems a little unfair, though, that Hortons takes all the flak when the third party is just as, or arguably more, responsible.
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Federal Reserve report shows who’s actually using crypto and how • Reason

Andrew O’Sullivan:

»

Every year, the Fed puts out a publication called the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking. Since 2013, it has collected survey responses from American families about their finances, job situations, and abilities to cover unexpected expenses.

The report for 2021, “Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021,” was just released in May. For the first time, the Fed included questions about cryptocurrency in the survey. The responses from the 11,874 participants of all ages, incomes, ethnicities, and educational levels show that depending on your state of life, you might be using digital currency in very different ways.

The new data on cryptocurrency usage is on page 46 of the report. First, it finds that 12% of participants, a little over 1,400, held or used cryptocurrency at some point over the previous year. If that extrapolates to the general American population, that suggests that almost 40 million Americans were involved in cryptocurrency last year.

This is in line with other estimates of American cryptocurrency usage; in 2021, for instance, the Pew Research Center reported that around 16% of Americans, or 53 million, had ever bought or held cryptocurrency. That these two estimates are so close suggests that Americans may be becoming more comfortable with cryptocurrency, since the Fed report only examined activities over the previous year.

Most of the participants who said they used cryptocurrency in 2021 did so as an investment. Some 11% of the survey participants reported such, then 3% reported using it as a payment mechanism. Then, 2% said they used cryptocurrency to purchase goods or services, while another 1% said they used it to send money to friends and family. Note that these numbers overlap—some people who used bitcoin as an investment also used it to transact.

«

Those who transacted tend to be low income – possibly foreign remittances – and unbanked.
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Bank of England to take over collapsed stablecoin cryptocurrencies • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

»

The Bank of England will take over collapsed “stablecoin” companies to prevent a cryptocurrency crash hitting financial stability, under Treasury plans.

Stablecoin issuers would be placed into special administration by the Bank to protect consumers if they fail, a Government consultation said on Tuesday.

The proposals would mean companies offering stablecoins, cryptocurrencies designed to hold their value, would fall under similar rules as banks and other systemic institutions.

The Treasury plans to recognise stablecoins as a legal form of payment under efforts to make Britain a “crypto hub”.

Stablecoins’ backers say they offer potentially faster and more efficient payments than existing systems, but their rise has come under new scrutiny due to the collapse of Terra, a stablecoin designed to be linked to the dollar whose value collapsed in May.

The consultation proposed that the Bank would have the power to direct administrators for systemic “digital settlement asset” firms under the Financial Market Infrastructure Special Administration Regime.

This is more strict than the regime for payments companies, and requires administrators to pursue continued operations “ahead of the interests of its creditors” while giving the Bank of England “powers of direction and oversight over the administrator”.

«

Quite the quid pro quo: stablecoins would have to be stable, which means all the wild swings in value would be obviated; but they’d be “safe” as a normal bank account (probably with the same limits on rescue, ie £30,000). Is this good or bad? It’s good for the normal person, but bad for the speculators. So, good.
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Netflix cracks down on password sharing, but early efforts in Peru are a mess • Rest of World

Jimena Ledgard and Andrew Deck:

»

Rest of World spoke to over a dozen Netflix consumers in Peru, many of whom say that more than two months after the policy [to prevent password sharing among non-households] was first announced, they have not received uniform messaging around the new charges nor do they seem to be subject to the same policies.

For some, the price increase has been enough to convince them to cancel their Netflix accounts outright. Others continue to share their accounts across households without any notification of the policy change or have ignored the new rule without facing enforcement. Overall, the lack of clarity around how Netflix determines a “household” and inconsistent levying of the new charges on different customers have left subscribers in the trial confused, risking action from consumer regulators.

The varied user experiences with notifications and charges suggest Netflix may be testing different versions of the rollout on different customers or has not fully defined the terms of the policy. “They may end up causing issues with their so-far loosely inferred definition of a household,” said Isabelle Charney, a researcher for Ampere Analysis.

«

Christina Warren had a thread musing on this story: the big problem is, how do you define a “household”? Two people who are always on the same IP? What if one is in the house but on mobile? What about when they’re on a train? Or in a hotel? How on earth do you define “household” in a world where we’re connected in so many ways in different places at different times, yet it’s the same “us”?
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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.1813: the weird world of crypto stans, Iran reaches nuclear capability, the alarms ignored before Uvalde, and more


After 14 years, Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Facebook. Insiders say she’d been losing influence for a long time. What’s next? CC-licensed photo by TechCrunch50-2008TechCrunch50-2008 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. Leaning sideways. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Sheryl Sandberg leaves Facebook. She’d been losing power for months • Business Insider

Kali Hays and Claire Atkinson:

»

When Facebook became Meta Platforms last year and shifted its focus to the metaverse, Sheryl Sandberg, the number 2 executive, had little involvement in what was the largest strategy change in the company’s history.

Sandberg’s absence raised eyebrows internally, given CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s intense focus on this new path. If this was where Zuckerberg was heading, why was his closest executive confidant so detached from the project?

…She’s been infrequent on group calls, too, or quieter than she once was. And with Zuckerberg’s extensive traveling during the pandemic, the two have been rarely seen together at the office, according to these people. Some even wondered in recent months whether the two executives had stopped their hours-long meeting every Friday – a staple of their leadership over the past decade or more.

“My sense has been Sheryl is checked out,” one investor in the company for many years said.

Another former high-ranking Facebook employee said her exit has been a long time coming, “At this point, it’s literally more surprising that she was still there than she’s leaving,” the person said.

Although her exit is being publicly described by the company as a resignation on her part, another manager-level employee was adamant she had been asked to leave. “I did not expect her to be fired,” the person said.

Another agreed, saying her exit has been in the works for months, noting this is likely why she has been noticeably less present on major company endeavors. This person also said her public missteps of recent years at some point became too much of a negative risk for the company. From her arguments that the Jan. 6 insurrection in the US Capitol was not organized on Facebook to a recent report that she successfully and directly pressured The Daily Mail to drop a story on her then boyfriend Activision founder Bobby Kotick.

“She kept saying stupid shit in public that made the company look bad,” a company director who left recently said. “Everyone has been wondering when she’s leaving.”

«

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They used my identity to flog a doomed cryptocurrency – and then things got weird • The Guardian

Alex Hern found his name being used to promote a “shitcoin” of no value or use; when he pointed this out in the Telegram channel, its hyped value collapsed :

»

Shortly after the collapse, I got an email I wasn’t expecting – from the ProtonMail account that had pretended to be me. I’d emailed over some questions, but wasn’t expecting a reply. What do you say to the person whose identity you stole?

The answer, it seems, is “a marketing pitch”. The developer told me that “the community has passed a critical part of this experiment … We follow your work and writings and are sorry if anyone took that as you were behind the coin. The main thing is you were reached through the block chain only. It’s not in anyway a scam.”

I asked how they could deny trying to scam people into thinking I was involved. They said they’d intended “Guardian” to be taken in the sense that they were the Guardians of the project. “I also follow your work closely so the names went well together … I never said you were involved. I guess it’s like Mickey@waltdisney.com vs Mickey@protonmail. Is mickey@protonmail a scammer if he builds a theme park? We don’t know.”

I thought the impasse was just the natural result of me speaking to a brazen huckster, but the more I asked around, the more it became clear that this was more like two people speaking at cross purposes. The still anonymous devs are sincere that they aren’t scamming anyone, because the meaning of “scam” in the world of shitcoins is necessarily narrow. When the base expectation is that every coin will crash at some point, and none of them have any real value beyond marketing puff and community momentum, how can simply lying about who backs a coin really be a meaningful scam?

To the dev, my accusation that they were scamming people was a serious charge. It implied that they had hidden code in the coin that would allow them to take people’s money in a way outside the rules of the game – perhaps by suddenly printing millions of tokens to flood the market, or locking it up to prevent anyone else from selling. By contrast, spreading falsehoods about who’s backing the token is well within the rules of the game.

«

That, however, wasn’t the end of the story by any means. Things then got Life Of Brian-style weird.

Anyway, it’s totally the future of the internet.
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Former OpenSea employee arrested, charged with NFT insider trading • NBC News

Kevin Collier:

»

A former senior employee at the internet’s largest NFT trading platform has been arrested and named in the government’s first case alleging insider trading of digital assets, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Nate Chastain, the former head of product at New York-based OpenSea, is accused of buying NFTs soon before the company planned to feature them on its homepage, profiting from their exposure and his company’s apparent endorsement, according to the Justice Department.

NFTs, short for nonfungible tokens, are digital assets rooted in the same basic technology as cryptocurrencies, and provide a way to prove digital ownership. Popularity of NFT artwork exploded during the pandemic, creating an estimated $40 billion market last year.

Charging documents allege that Chastain laundered at least 45 NFTs in 2021, each time selling them for two to five times what he had just paid for them.

An OpenSea spokesperson said the company had investigated Chastain over the incidents “and ultimately asked him to leave the company.”

«

Totally the future of the internet.
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Tech experts urge Washington to resist crypto industry’s influence • Financial Times

Scott Chipolina:

»

Harvard lecturer Bruce Schneier, former Microsoft engineer Miguel de Icaza and principal engineer at Google Cloud Kelsey Hightower, are among 26 leading computer scientists and academics who have signed a letter delivered to US lawmakers heavily criticising crypto investments and blockchain technology.

While individuals have made similar warnings about the safety and reliability of digital assets, it marks a more organised effort to challenge the growing influence of crypto advocates who want to resist attempts to regulate the frothy sector.

“The claims that the blockchain advocates make are not true,” said Schneier. “It’s not secure, it’s not decentralised. Any system where you forget your password and you lose your life savings is not a safe system,” he added.

“We’re counter-lobbying, that’s what this letter is about,” said signatory and software developer Stephen Diehl. “The crypto industry has its people, they say what they want to the politicians.”

A recent analysis of the US Congressional Lobbying Disclosure database by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, revealed the number of lobbyists representing the crypto industry increased from 115 to 320 between 2018 and 2021, and the money spent on lobbying for the crypto sector quadrupled from $2.2m to $9m in the same period.

…The industry’s advocates claim cryptocurrencies provide the answer to a series of macroeconomic problems facing society, from providing banking services to millions worldwide without access to traditional financial institutions, protecting financial privacy and giving those beset by inflation an opportunity to store wealth.

But in the letter seen by the Financial Times, the technologists write: “We urge you to resist pressure from digital asset industry financiers, lobbyists and boosters to create a regulatory safe haven for these risky, flawed and unproven digital financial instruments.”

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Bear in mind that the 26 scientists aren’t getting VC money, or being paid, and won’t get rich from either outcome.
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Iran has enough uranium to build an atomic bomb, UN agency says • NBC News

Dan de Luce:

»

Iran has accumulated enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb, according to new findings from the United Nations atomic agency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also said in a separate report that Iran has failed to provide credible explanations about nuclear material found at several sites in recent years, raising questions about the nature of its nuclear work.

The IAEA’s two reports could set the stage for a showdown at a meeting next week of its 35-nation board of governors, as Iran has demanded the watchdog wrap up its probe into uranium particles found at three undeclared locations in the country since 2019.

The UN nuclear watchdog said that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% had grown to 43.3kg (95lb), which represented an increase of nearly 10kg (22lb) compared to three months ago.

Experts said that the stockpile would provide roughly enough material for an atomic bomb if Iran took the additional step of enriching the uranium to 90% purity. Moving from 60% to 90% would not pose a technical challenge for Iran, according to arms control experts.

“Iran has now accumulated enough enriched uranium to be able to quickly produce more than a significant quantity of HEU (highly enriched uranium) for one bomb,” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association think tank. “The time it would take them to do that can now be measured in days, not months or weeks.”

«

So Trump’s brilliant plan to end the JCPOA and reimpose economic sanctions didn’t work at all. Wonder if this will attract an Israeli air strike, as it previously did on a Iranian nuclear facility in June 1981. (Apparently they’re just practising at the moment. Very Top Gun Maverick.)
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Before Uvalde, a platform fails to answer kids’ alarms • Platformer

Casey Newton:

»

Aside from a handful of private messages, the Uvalde shooter appears not to have much used Facebook. That and Instagram were once the default platforms for making threats like these, but new platforms are growing in popularity with young people. The Uvalde shooter liked one called Yubo, created by a French company called Twelve App. It’s a “live chilling” app similar to Houseparty, the app that Meerkat became after helping to launch the live-streaming craze in the United States in 2015.

It’s also apparently quite popular, with more than 18 million downloads in the United States alone, according to the market research firm Sensor Tower.

Like Houseparty, Yubo lets users broadcast themselves live to a small group of friends. The twist is that Yubo focuses on making new friends — finding people with similar interests and letting them chat. Particularly young people. “Yubo is a social live-streaming platform that celebrates the true essence of being young,” the company says. (Perhaps for that reason, its seems to have attracted more than its share of older men and their unwanted sexual advances.)

In the days after the massacre, reporters discovered that Yubo appears to have been the shooter’s primary social app. He used it, among other things, to threaten rape — and school shootings.

…Yubo told the network [CNN] that it is cooperating with the investigation, but declined to offer any details on why the shooter was able to remain on the platform despite having been reported for making threats over and over again.

It can seem shocking that a person who repeatedly makes violent threats, and is reported for doing so to the platform, fails to see any consequences. And yet for years now, children have been telling us that this is a regular occurrence for them.

«

Newton’s key point is that children say that again and again, they report people for breaking the rules; again and again, those people quickly appear back online. So what’s the point of the reporting tools? Yubo may find itself in some hot water.
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We can upgrade Brexit and ease the cost of living by going back to the Single Market • Politics Home

Tobias Ellwood was a government minister from 2017 to 2019:

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Political distance from Brussels has been achieved. This is not up for question. However, economically speaking, there is vast room for improvement. The OBR calculates, in its current form, that Brexit is reducing our GDP by 4%. This compares to around 1.5% caused by Covid.

Put another way: our exports to Europe have shrunk by £20bn. From the fishers who can no longer sell their Scottish salmon, to the farmers undercut by unchecked imports, to Cheshire cheesemakers running into £180 health certificates, even to the City which can no longer sell financial services to Europe, sector after sector is being strangled by the red tape we were supposed to escape from.

Total business investment across the entire United Kingdom economy stalled after 2016 and is 10% down on 2019. European Union workers are turning their backs on the UK, leaving vital gaps in our workforce. Low investment means lower growth. No wonder the IMF forecasts growth for 2023 as half the advanced economy average. 

And then there’s the unresolved issue of the Irish border. Current plans to bin the Northern Ireland Protocol could trigger a trade war with the EU (causing further economic harm) and is alienating the United States, our closest security ally.

As a recent YouGov poll indicates, this is not the Brexit most people imagined, with the majority believing Brexit has gone badly. There is appetite to make improvements – not U-turns but course corrections.

In a nutshell, all these challenges would disappear if we dare to advance our Brexit model by re-joining the EU single market (the Norway model). Leaving this aspect of the EU was not on the ballot paper, nor called for by either the Prime Minister or Nigel Farage during the 2016 referendum. There was, however, much discussion about returning to a “common market,” which is exactly what I propose.

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He also points out that at a stroke this would sort out the row over Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU and UK. Unfortunately he voted to Remain in the EU (Boris Johnson fired him on taking over the party in summer 2019), so this has little chance of being taken seriously by the Tory party. A pity, because it’s eminently sensible. And “upgrade Brexit” is clever wording.
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Missed payments, rising interest rates put ‘buy now, pay later’ to the test • WSJ

AnnaMaria Andriotis and John Stensholt :

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The young industry [of buy now, pay later on zero interest] finds itself in a tricky spot at a time when the economy is slowing and, some fear, headed for a recession. Buy-now-pay-later companies boomed when consumers were flush with cash and buying goods at a feverish pace. How they fare in a downturn, when savings evaporate, spending slows and bad debts mount, is untested. 

To weather the storm, Afterpay and Zip are slowing their new originations. 

“We are putting a real focus on sustainable growth, strong unit economics and, critically, accelerating our pathway to profitability,” said Zip co-founder and Global Chief Operating Officer Peter Gray.

Klarna last week said it plans to lay off about 10% of its staff. It also has tightened lending standards “to reflect this evolving market context,” a spokeswoman said.

Affirm Chief Executive Max Levchin has sounded a more upbeat note. Buy-now-pay-later plans like Affirm that don’t charge late fees will be in greater demand during a downturn, he said on an earnings call in May. “It is our mission to improve people’s lives, and we will be prepared to meet this demand—but again—our approach is only to extend credit that we believe can and will be repaid,” he said.

The buy-now-pay-later business took off in a post-financial-crisis world of cheap funding and low delinquencies.

They rely less on—and in some cases bypass altogether—traditional credit scores and reports. That makes them appealing to people with limited savings and low credit scores. Subprime consumers accounted for about 43% of shoppers who applied for payment plans or loans at retailers’ checkout between the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2021, according to credit-reporting firm TransUnion, though they only made up about 15% of the US adult population.

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Ranjan Roy, who takes turns writing the Margins Substack with Can Duruk, likes to talk about the Age Of ZIRP – the latter acronym standing for “zero interest rate policy”, which meant lots of cash chasing any sort of return because there was none to be had in the bank. BNPL companies strike me as very much Age Of ZIRP businesses. But that time has gone. Questionable how well they can survive.
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I have a great Wordle start word – it’s just a bit rude • The Irish Times

Róisín Ingle:

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while I was very late to Wordle, it’s now become a daily ritual that I can’t seem to quit. I resisted for ages, until a dyslexic friend of mine started sending me her results on WhatsApp delighted with herself. Her joy at being able to complete the word puzzle despite her dyslexia was infectious and now most mornings start with our little exchange of Wordle results.

…So chances are you probably know all you will ever need to know about Wordle but, hang on a minute, do you know about the Marian Keyes Method (MKM)? If you are a twitter user, you may well know about this method which was invented (patent pending) by best-selling author Marian Keyes. But something us media people tend to forget or wilfully ignore is that not everybody is on twitter, so it’s reasonable to assume many of you will not know about the MKM.

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Keyes is a wonderful person, and this is a wonderful read. Even if you’ve given up on Wordle, or don’t play it, or do play it, this should lift your day. (Thanks Niall 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

Start Up No.1812: why plastics recycling won’t work, Qualcomm wants a chunk of Arm, no Apple headset this year?, and more


Don’t look up, but venture capitalists reckon there’s money in them thar asteroids. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill 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. Also unrecyclable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Operational note: the UK is having bank holidays on Thursday and Friday, but The Overspill will continue. Next week, however, it’ll be on a break all week.


Plastic recycling doesn’t work and will never work • The Atlantic

Judith Enck and Jan Dell:

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The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.

The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells, which are a different PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles (which is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.) High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.

Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.

Another problem is that the reprocessing of plastic waste—when possible at all—is wasteful. Plastic is flammable, and the risk of fires at plastic-recycling facilities affects neighboring communities—many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color.

Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers.

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We can’t recycle plastics, we can’t have fusion (though we can have fission – it’s safe and it works), the news on climate isn’t that encouraging. The search for good news goes on.
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AstroForge aims to succeed where other asteroid mining companies have failed •Ars Technica

Eric Berger:

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The founders of the company, Jose Acain and Matt Gialich, said in an interview they were well aware of the challenges of deep space mining when starting AstroForge earlier this year.

“When you say asteroid mining, people laugh at you,” Gialich said. “They’re like, ‘OK, here’s some crazy guys that did too many drugs and thought this would be a cool idea.’ But the reality is that we can take this from the realm of science-fiction into the realm of something we can actually do.”

Both NASA and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, have now successfully collected material from asteroids in deep space, he said. Of course, both did so at a much smaller scale, aiming to bring only small amounts of material back to Earth for scientific study. But the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx missions have demonstrated that gleaning material from an asteroid is technically feasible.

Gialich said AstroForge seeks to lower the price of these missions. And unlike its now-defunct predecessors, which were designing spacecraft that ultimately would have cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, AstroForge plans to use commercial space technology that already exists for its missions.

Last week AstroForge announced that it had closed a $13m round of “seed plus” funding, which was led by Initialized Capital, with investments from Seven Seven Six, EarthRise, Aera VC, Liquid 2, and Soma. The company presently has seven employees, and this will allow that number to double. AstroForge is planning a launch in January 2023 of a small satellite to perform a refining demonstration in low Earth orbit. After that, the company is planning two more missions into deep space, and this funding will provide the runway to carry AstroForge that far.

“We don’t need that much capital,” Gialich said. The company plans to design spacecraft small enough to fly as part of rideshare launches. “We’re going after this by bringing along a very, very small spacecraft to mine asteroids. So our first return mission is not going to return trillions of dollars. It’s not going to return billions of dollars. It’s going to return tens of millions of dollars.”

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There’s so much that has to go just right, and the timescales stretch over years, and it would be so easy for what comes back to be pure, useless ash. But there’s a big group of people in California whose principal aim is to make SF stories happen. So they get money.
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How wiring innovation is quietly driving the EV revolution • Aptiv

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Traditional wiring is not the first place one normally looks for electric vehicle (EV) innovation, but recent advancements are having a significant impact on the EV story because they’re providing OEMs with two things they desperately need in their EV architectures: less mass and more space.

Aptiv’s system engineers know how to reduce the number of cables and splices and how to squeeze out every millimeter of excess cable through precise optimization of the electrical distribution systems in concert with applying new technologies. Take Aptiv’s recent innovations in aluminum cabling, for example. Aptiv’s PACE Award-winning Selective Metal Coating technology allows OEMs to replace copper wiring with lighter aluminum cabling that is adding up to big benefits for OEMs.

How big? With our aluminum cable as part of an optimized architecture, one leading EV company reduced wiring mass in its 2017 model by 10% and removed 150 meters of cabling. Similarly, another vehicle customer shed 11 kilograms and 400 meters of cabling from its popular 2018 truck. And yet another customer reduced the mass of the electrical distribution system on its 2018 SUV platform by 15%, thanks to Aptiv’s optimization efforts, which eliminated 300 meters of cabling.

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People wondered yesterday why EVs should have an advantage over internal combustion engines (ICEs), because surely they both have wire harnesses to get electricity to the lights and so on? But as this and other pieces (including the original) make clear, EVs use different harnesses that are lighter and different.
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Qualcomm wants to buy a stake in Arm alongside its rivals • FT via Ars Technica

Anna Gross and Tim Bradshaw:

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The US chipmaker Qualcomm wants to buy a stake in Arm alongside its rivals and create a consortium that would maintain the UK chip designer’s neutrality in the highly competitive semiconductor market.

Japanese conglomerate SoftBank plans to list Arm on the New York Stock Exchange after Nvidia’s $66bn purchase collapsed earlier this year. However, the IPO has sparked concern over the future ownership of the company, given its crucial role in the global technology sector.

“We’re an interested party in investing,” Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s chief executive, told the Financial Times. “It’s a very important asset and it’s an asset which is going to be essential to the development of our industry.”

He added that Qualcomm, one of Arm’s biggest customers, could join forces with other chipmakers to buy Arm outright if the consortium making the purchase was “big enough.” Such a move could settle concerns over the corporate control of Arm after the upcoming IPO.

“You’d need to have many companies participating so they have a net effect that Arm is independent,” he said.

Arm, founded and headquartered in the UK, was listed in London and New York before SoftBank acquired it for £24.6bn in 2016 despite widespread concern about Britain’s most successful tech company falling into foreign hands.

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Why many lifelong smokers never get lung cancer, despite smoking a pack a day • Mashable

Danial Martinus:

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It’s widely accepted that smoking causes DNA mutations in normal lung cells, which then increase the probability of lung cancer. But up until recently, no one could explain why only a small minority of heavy smokers develop the disease, while the remainder go on to live their lives as usual.

The study, published in Nature Genetics, suggests that many smokers have natural ‘defence systems’ that are better at neutralizing the detrimental effects of smoking. Call them ‘better genes’ if you will. According to the researchers, the findings could point to the right direction when it comes to who (among smokers) to monitor closely for lung cancer, as opposed to taking a more reactive approach.

“This may prove to be an important step toward the prevention and early detection of lung cancer risk and away from the current herculean efforts needed to battle late-stage disease, where the majority of health expenditures and misery occur,” said Simon Spivack, co-senior author of the study.

…Looking at genetic profiles taken from the bronchi (the air passage that leads from the windpipe to the lungs) of 14 people who have never smoked and comparing them with samples taken from 19 light, moderate, and heavy smokers, the scientists found that the cells do mutate with natural age, and even more so in the lungs of smokers. However, like we said previously, not all smokers find themselves on the same boat.

“The heaviest smokers did not have the highest mutation burden,” Spivack revealed.

The data may suggest that the heavy smokers could have survived this long without much cell mutation solely due to ‘suppressed mutation’, meaning it was slowed or plateaued.

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Very much emphasising “the heavy smokers who have survived this long”. It makes sense that those who smoke a lot and don’t get cancer have some sort of protective mechanism, just as people who had sex with HIV-positive people and didn’t get HIV had a protective mechanism.
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Apple analyst says AR/VR headset won’t launch at WWDC, release coming next year • BGR

Chris Smith:

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[Bloomberg reporter Mark] Gurman says he’s “wary of expecting a full-blown presentation for developers and consumers next week.”

Echoing Gurman’s sentiments is Ming-Chi Kuo, a well-known insider [Overspill ed: he’s not an insider, he’s an external analyst who writes research notes for a company called TF International Securities] who has been accurate about Apple’s unreleased devices. The analyst took to Twitter to address Apple’s mixed reality headset. He said that Apple isn’t likely to launch the glasses at WWDC next week as the device isn’t ready for mass production.

Not only that, but Apple won’t even show realityOS at the event, Kuo speculated. “Apple’s competitors worldwide can’t wait to see the hardware spec and OS design for Apple’s AR/MR headset,” he said. That’s the reason why Apple would want to unveil the device so soon.

Kuo further added that competitors will “immediately kick off copycat projects and happily copy Apple’s excellent ideas, and hit the store shelves before Apple launches in 2023.”

Kuo’s take isn’t off. He might be speculating, but that doesn’t change the fact that many companies look up to Apple for inspiration. Whether it’s iPhone-related decisions or other devices. Apple will not be the first company to launch a mixed reality headset. But its approach might force competitors to rethink their own VR and AR gadgets.

Kuo still expects the mixed reality headset to be released in 2023. If that’s the case, then Apple will probably hold a launch event for the glasses several months before sales start.

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OK, fine, all sit down again.
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Dominic Cummings: “I don’t like parties” • UnHerd

Suzanne Moore got an interview with the most fascinating person in politics who is not in politics:

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SM: When you put your call out for “weirdos and misfits”, people interpreted that as you wanting employees who would be totally dedicated to you.

DC: Partly. But it was also a call to Whitehall and Westminster. They’re full of very similar people who did very similar degrees at very similar universities. My view is that you need different kinds of people around. I think the Covid inquiry will show that groupthink was a very serious problem.

I put out that blog about “weirdos and misfits” in January 2020 [seeking to recruit them to his unit inside Downing St] and it became the foundation for recruiting. It did bring in some excellent women. By summer, 29-year-old women were sitting at the Cabinet table, saying to Matt Hancock, “you just said that it’s not growing exponentially and you’re wrong. Here’s the actual graph. Here’s what’s happening.”

A lot of people didn’t like what I had done, but I thought: “this is now working as it should”. You’ve got smart people, who know what the fuck they’re talking about, telling either ministers or senior civil servants who don’t know exponential growth from a hole in the ground: “Here’s the actual facts.” So, I’ve radically improved how decisions are taken. The advice to the Prime Minister, though he could still trolley around and fuck things up —which he did, obviously — was at least much better.

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There are lots of other things in the interview, but this one – about shaking up an existing hidebound system by intentionally going outside the normal hiring system – seemed to me one of the most widely applicable in the lessons it contains.
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To understand Elon Musk, you have to understand one particular ’60s sci-fi novel • Jacobin

Jordan Carroll:

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Elon Musk styles himself as a character out of science fiction, posing as an ingenious inventor who will send a crewed mission to Mars by 2029 or imagining himself as Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, a farseeing visionary planning ahead centuries to protect the human species from existential threats. Even his geeky humor seems inspired by his love for Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But while he may take inspiration from science fiction, as Jill Lepore has observed, he’s a bad reader of the genre. He idolizes Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks while ignoring their socialist politics, and he overlooks major speculative traditions such as feminist and Afrofuturist science fiction. Like many Silicon Valley CEOs, he primarily sees science fiction as a repository of cool inventions waiting to be created.

Musk engages with most science fiction in a superficial manner, but he is a very careful reader of one author: Robert A. Heinlein. He named Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from 1966 as one of his favorite novels. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a libertarian classic second only to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in its propaganda value for neoliberal capitalism. It inspired the creation of the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities, which Musk won in 2011. (Jeff Bezos is another recent winner.)

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress popularized the motto “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” often used by defenders of capitalism and opponents of progressive taxation and social programs. It’s about a lunar colony that frees itself, via advanced and cleverly applied technology, from the resource-sucking parasitism of Earth and its welfare dependents. In this instance, it appears that Musk correctly caught the author’s drift.

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Carroll goes into some detail about the book, and points out – correctly, I suspect – how it fits into (or shaped?) Musk’s approach to the world, particularly about “technological solutionism” which posits that social or political problems just need a technical fix. Which extends even to Twitter, of course.
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These keyboarding Icelandic horses can respond to your work emails • My Modern Met

Arnesia Young:

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even on an incredible vacation, it can be hard to leave all your worries at the office—especially when you’re concerned about the mountain of important emails that will go unanswered in your absence. Luckily, Iceland has a very unique solution. In an incredibly odd yet brilliant tourism campaign, the island country is offering the services of their iconic Icelandic horses as email responders.

The exciting new program is called OutHorse Your Email, and it gives visitors the opportunity to disconnect, relax, and soak in all of the country’s majestic beauty while one of several highly trained and talented Icelandic horses responds to any pressing work correspondence. And even though this might seem like a big joke, don’t be so quick to doubt the administrative talent of the extraordinary Icelandic horse. And if you’re still skeptical, just take the word of the program’s own glowing endorsement.

“Nothing ruins a glacier hike like an email from your boss,” writes Inspired by Iceland in a description of the new tourism initiative. “Thankfully, Iceland’s very special horses will reply to your work emails so you can enjoy your vacation in peace (Seriously.)”

Currently, visitors can pick one of three horses to answer their emails while they enjoy their vacation. First, there’s Litla Stjarna Frá Hvítarholti, who “types fast, but might take a nap.” But if you prefer a horse that’s more “assertive. efficient.” and has “shiny hair,” then Hrímnir Frá Hvammi might be more your speed. And finally, there’s Hekla Frá Þorkellshóli, who’s “friendly” and “trained in corporate buzzwords.” But if you’re concerned about how a horse can manage to type a coherent email with their giant hooves, don’t worry. They’ve got their own custom horse-sized keyboards…Although, that still doesn’t necessarily guarantee coherency. They are horses, after all.

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I think this is not entirely serious, though it’s a clever way to make people (well, Americans) think about Iceland as a vacation. Europeans don’t worry about office emails when they’re on holiday (not “vacation”). (Via Benedict Evans.)
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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