Start Up No.1834: Musk’s Twitter deal near collapse, MI5 and FBI warn on China, asymptomatic monkeypox?, and more

The innocent-looking trolley tram has given rise to a whole range of mindbending ethics problems. What if it’s a choice between killing five lobsters… or one cat? CC-licensed photo by Alex W on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Freely given. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

There’s another Social Warming Substack post going live today at 0845 BST. Today: what it’s like recording an audiobook that some idio–that you wrote.

Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter is in peril • The Washington Post

Faiz Siddiqui and Gerrit De Vynck:


Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter is in serious jeopardy, three people familiar with the matter say, as Musk’s camp concluded that Twitter’s figures on spam accounts are not verifiable.

Musk’s team has stopped engaging in certain discussions around funding for the $44bn deal, including with a party named as a likely backer, one of the people said. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.

Talks with investors have cooled in recent weeks as Musk’s camp has raised doubts about the recent data “fire hose” — a trove of data sold to corporate customers — they received from Twitter. Musk’s team’s doubts about the spam figures signal they believe they do not have enough information to evaluate Twitter’s prospects as a business, the people said.

Now that Musk’s team has concluded Twitter’s figures on spam accounts are not verifiable, one of the people said, it is expected to take potentially drastic action.

The person said it was likely a change in direction from Musk’s team would come soon, though they did not say exactly what they thought that change would be.

If Musk pulls out of the deal, it will potentially trigger a massive legal battle.


I think the first sentence should say “Musk’s camp concluded that Tesla’s shares have fallen too far to fund the deal easily.” Also, perhaps a period of reflection has given him time to realise that running a social network isn’t a bed of roses, and that it would probably be better left to people who’ve been doing it for years. The spam account stuff is pure chaff; when he signed the agreement in April he skipped the due diligence that he’s now pretending to do.

Anyhow, it looks like this deal is now too expensive and too troublesome and time-consuming for him. Expect it to collapse, and Twitter to gradually demand the $1bn default payment, and Musk to tweet things like “Eat my shorts!”
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China: MI5 and FBI heads warn of ‘immense’ threat • BBC News

Gordon Corera:


The heads of UK and US security services have made an unprecedented joint appearance to warn of the threat from China.

FBI director Christopher Wray said China was the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security” and had interfered in politics, including recent elections.

MI5 head Ken McCallum said his service had more than doubled its work against Chinese activity in the last three years and would be doubling it again.

MI5 is now running seven times as many investigations related to activities of the Chinese Communist Party compared to 2018, he added.

The FBI’s Wray warned that if China was to forcibly take Taiwan it would “represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”.

…McCallum also said the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party was “game-changing”, while Wray called it “immense” and “breath-taking”.

Wray warned the audience – which included chief executives of businesses and senior figures from universities – that the Chinese government was “set on stealing your technology” using a range of tools.

He said it posed “an even more serious threat to western businesses than even many sophisticated businesspeople realised”. He cited cases in which people linked to Chinese companies out in rural America had been digging up genetically modified seeds which would have cost them billions of dollars and nearly a decade to develop themselves.


Not sure GM seeds is the best example in the universe; couldn’t they just order that from the seed supplier?
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Things fall apart • The Debatable Land

Alex Massie, with what I thought was the best take on the events of Thursday:


among the first things Johnson did as prime minister was recast the Tory party in his image. One Nation sceptics were not so much eased out as brutally jettisoned. It was Boris’s way or no way at all. You could build a better cabinet from those Johnson effectively expelled – Clarke, Grieve, Hammond, Stewart et al – than from those he kept. Like many superficially strong moves this one actually revealed an essential weakness – and a smallness – at the core of Johnson’s government. It was a purge and these are rarely conducted without malice. No amount of smiling or joshing or buffoonery may disguise that.

Johnson didn’t throw it all away because he didn’t have it in the first place.

What was the point?

This is a gloomy question but Johnson’s government did not end with a melancholy sense of squandered promise. It was, typically, all style and no substance. No surprise, really, since this has been Johnson’s operational default his entire career. The heavy lifting has been done by other people. At The Spectator, for instance, almost all the work of actually editing the magazine was done by Johnson’s long-suffering deputy, Stuart Reid. Johnson was a figurehead editor and while a weekly magazine may cope with that, running the country needs just a little more commitment.

(As a columnist, meanwhile, it would be ungenerous to deny that Johnson had talent in a show-boating sense but his copy, colourful as it might be and entertaining to some, nonetheless had a curiously weightless quality to it. Yes, fine, but what’s the real point of it? And for all that folk liked to use the term “Wodehousian” in connection with Boris the journalist, there was one vital difference: Wodehouse would throw out a joke if it interrupted or got in the way of the plot. Johnson, by contrast, could never resist the gag, even at the cost of undermining all else. The gag, in fact, was the point. I do not mean this unkindly: newspapers are by their nature ephemeral, but it is wise to at least be aware of their limitations. One other small, but revealing, note: Johnson was notorious for filing his copy late, no matter how much this might inconvenience other, rather less well-paid, people. Just Boris being Boris, of course, but other people had to cope with or clear up the mess.)


Lazy and late. Incredible it took so long to catch up with him.
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Boris Johnson steps down as PM with tech legacy in tatters • The Register

Lindsay Clark:


Surprising no one who witnessed the politician back cable cars as a revolution in river crossing or a garden bridge as an innovation in inner-city expansion, the outgoing Prime Minister leaves behind a set of science and technology projects which are either yet to be completed or completely off the wall.

Dangling plans include his ambition to accelerate the arrival of productive nuclear fusion – a technical breakthrough which always promises to be 20 years off.

In 2019, Johnson praised the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxford, only for others to reveal the organization benefited from large chunks of funding from the European Union, the powerful political and economic bloc Johnson so passionately persuaded the UK to leave.

Fission is also a favorite. Johnson has been vocal in backing small modular reactors, a technology from jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. A study has claimed some miniaturized fission units produce as much as 35 times more waste to generate the same amount of power as a regular plant.

The UK is also in the throes of an attempt to mimic the US’s success with DARPA – the defence-led science unit which played a role in the development of the internet.

As of last year, Aria – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – hadn’t even begun to happen despite five years passing since the UK decided to leave the EU. Now reports suggest the launch of the agency will be delayed until at least the end of this year.

Meanwhile, UK scientists are being cut off from European funding, post-Brexit.


Promises, empty promises.
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Meta plans to call new virtual reality headset the ‘Quest Pro’ • BNN Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


Meta Platforms’s upcoming high-end headset for virtual and augmented reality (VR, AR) will be called the Meta Quest Pro, according to code findings inside the company’s iPhone app for setting up headsets. 

Meta has been touting its new device since last year, using the codename Project Cambria. The company is likely to introduce the official name later this year along with details about the headset’s availability. It will cost more than $1,000, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because the details aren’t yet public.

The device is a major priority for Meta, which has recently scaled back other hardware projects such as a smartwatch, and will be a prime competitor to Apple’s upcoming mixed-reality headset when it goes on sale next year. 

The new Meta headset will have far better graphics processing and power compared with the regular Meta Quest headset. It will also include external high-resolution cameras to simulate AR in color, eye tracking, more storage, new controllers and high-resolution displays for virtual reality.

A Meta spokeswoman declined to comment. Meta typically announces new headsets and related features in October. 

The code string indicating the name of the product, which was found by developer Steve Moser and shared with Bloomberg News, references the pairing of the device to a controller. The code reads: “Pair Meta Quest Pro right controller.”


That price really is quite wild. Who has a thousand dollars (or pounds) to spare and wants to tie themselves to Facebook? Unless it really is a corporate metaverse play. Which is possible, but still seems very early.
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Absurd Trolley Problems

Neal Agarwal:


Oh no! A trolley is heading towards 5 people. You can pull the lever to divert it to the other track, killing 1 person instead. What do you do?


You start off with two options (this one), but the problems get weirder and weirder. I stopped at


Oh no! A trolley is heading towards 5 lobsters. You can pull the lever to divert it to the other track, running over a cat instead. What do you do?


because I don’t know what the exchange rate between lobsters and cats is. (Thanks Gregory for the link.)
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The danger of licence plate readers in post-Roe America • WIRED

Thor Benson:


Since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, America’s extensive surveillance state could soon be turned against those seeking abortions or providing abortion care.

Currently, nine states have almost entirely banned abortion, and more are expected to follow suit. Many Republican lawmakers in these states are discussing the possibility of preventing people from traveling across state lines to obtain an abortion. If such plans are enacted and withstand legal scrutiny, one of the key technologies that could be deployed to track people trying to cross state lines is automated licence plate readers (ALPRs). They’re employed heavily by police forces across the US, but they’re also used by private actors.

ALPRs are cameras that are mounted on street poles, overpasses, and elsewhere that can identify and capture licence plate numbers on passing cars for the purpose of issuing speeding tickets and tolls, locating stolen cars, and more. State and local police maintain databases of captured licence plates and frequently use those databases in criminal investigations.

The police have access to not only licence plate data collected by their own ALPRs but also data gathered by private companies. Firms like Flock Safety and Motorola Solutions have their own networks of ALPRs that are mounted to the vehicles of private companies and organizations they work with, such as car repossession outfits. Flock, for instance, claims it’s collecting licence plate data in roughly 1,500 cities and can capture data from over a billion vehicles every month.

“They have fleets of cars that have ALPRs on them that just suck up data. They sell that to various clients, including repo firms and government agencies. They also sell them to police departments,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s a giant, nationwide mass surveillance system. That obviously has serious implications should interstate travel become part of forced-birth enforcement.”


“Forced-birth enforcement” is quite a phrase; its Gilead-style echoes are surely intentional, but, equally, not wrong. Perhaps you do need something as pivotal as Roe v Wade being overturned to expose how extensive the US surveillance state is, and how little protection its citizens have from it.
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Asymptomatic monkeypox virus infections among male sexual health clinic attendees in Belgium • medRxiv


Monkeypox is transmitted by close contact with symptomatic cases, and those infected are assumed to be uniformly symptomatic. Evidence of subclinical monkeypox infection is limited to a few immunological studies which found evidence of immunity against orthopoxviruses in asymptomatic individuals who were exposed to monkeypox cases. We aimed to assess whether asymptomatic infections occurred among individuals who underwent sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening in a large Belgian STI clinic around the start of the 2022 monkeypox epidemic in Belgium.

…In stored samples from 224 men, we identified three cases with a positive anorectal monkeypox PCR. All three men denied having had any symptoms in the weeks before and after the sample was taken. None of them reported exposure to a diagnosed monkeypox case, nor did any of their contacts develop clinical monkeypox. Follow-up samples were taken 21 to 37 days after the initial sample, by which time the monkeypox-specific PCR was negative, likely as a consequence of spontaneous clearance of the infection.


Asymptomatic monkeypox? This is concerning. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Twitter, challenging orders to remove content, sues India’s government • The New York Times

Karan Deep Singh and Kate Conger:


Twitter said on Tuesday that it had sued the Indian government, escalating the social media company’s fight in the country as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks more control over critical online posts.

Twitter’s suit, filed in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, challenges a recent order from the Indian government for the company to remove content and block dozens of accounts. Twitter complied with the order, which had a Monday deadline, but then sought judicial relief. A date has not been set for a judge to review Twitter’s suit.

The suit is the first legal challenge that the company has issued to push back against laws passed in 2021 that extended the Indian government’s censorship powers. The rules gave the government oversight of Twitter and other social media companies, allowing the authorities to demand that posts or accounts critical of them be hidden from Indian users. Executives at the companies can face criminal penalties if they do not comply with the demands.

The laws have been met with an outcry from Twitter and other social media platforms, which view India as an essential part of their plans for long-term growth. The companies have argued that India’s rules allow the government to broadly censor its critics, and that they erode security measures like encryption. But Indian officials have said the law is necessary to combat online misinformation.

Twitter is not seeking to overturn the laws, but it argues in its suit that the government interpreted those laws too broadly, said a person with knowledge of the filing who was not authorized to speak publicly.


India’s government really has been pushing censorship, out of sight of much of the rest of the world. In its way, it’s like China, but we assume that because it’s a democracy that it must be beneficent. Not so, with Modi.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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