Start Up No.1835: huge leak shows Uber’s lobbying op, Twitter shapes up to Musk’s pullout, how bad UI causes scams, and more

A misguided attempt to turn Sri Lanka’s agriculture over to organic methods was a major contributor to last week’s riots which displaced the president. CC-licensed photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd 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. Getting warmer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

There’s also the Social Warming Substack: weekly posts on the topic. Most recently about the torture of recording an audiobook. Sign up!

Uber broke laws, duped police and secretly lobbied governments, leak reveals • The Guardian

Harry Davies, Simon Goodley, Felicity Lawrence, Paul Lewis and Lisa O’Carroll:


A leaked trove of confidential files has revealed the inside story of how the tech giant Uber flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.

The unprecedented leak to the Guardian of more than 124,000 documents – known as the Uber files – lays bare the ethically questionable practices that fuelled the company’s transformation into one of Silicon Valley’s most famous exports.

The leak spans a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to force the cab-hailing service into cities around the world, even if that meant breaching laws and taxi regulations.

During the fierce global backlash, the data shows how Uber tried to shore up support by discreetly courting prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs and media barons.

Leaked messages suggest Uber executives were at the same time under no illusions about the company’s law-breaking, with one executive joking they had become “pirates” and another conceding: “We’re just fucking illegal.”

The cache of files, which span 2013 to 2017, includes more than 83,000 emails, iMessages and WhatsApp messages, including often frank and unvarnished communications between Kalanick and his top team of executives.


It’s a colossal piece of work. If you ever had any doubts about Uber, well, that’s the end of those.
unique link to this extract

Sri Lanka’s organic farming experiment went catastrophically wrong • Foreign Policy

Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah of the Breakthrough Institute:


Faced with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Sri Lanka called off an ill-conceived national experiment in organic agriculture this winter [2021-2022]. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised in his 2019 election campaign to transition the country’s farmers to organic agriculture over a period of 10 years. Last April, Rajapaksa’s government made good on that promise, imposing a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and ordering the country’s two million farmers to go organic.

The result was brutal and swift. Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20% in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450m worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50%. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.

By November 2021, with tea production falling, the government partially lifted its fertilizer ban on key export crops, including tea, rubber, and coconut. Faced with angry protests, soaring inflation, and the collapse of Sri Lanka’s currency, the government finally suspended the policy for several key crops—including tea, rubber, and coconut—last month, although it continues for some others.


This was one of the dominoes that led to Sri Lanka’s foreign currency crisis (the other being a collapse in its tourist trade, following a number of terrorist bombings), which meant it couldn’t buy fuel, which meant people on the streets and, over the weekend, the invasion of the president’s office, who seems to have fled the country. Also written up by Michael Shellenberger, who doesn’t hold back in his condemnation of the people who pushed the scheme.
unique link to this extract

Bad UI is causing people to get scammed • Ashlan’s blog

“Ashlan” shows how you can think you’re selling a computer to someone, but bad UI lets you get scammed:


The usual scam I’ve encountered involves Zelle (I’ll blog about this in another article) but this one in particular involves Venmo. After a few back and forwards, he agrees to send the full amount with a shipping fee via Venmo if I send it next day USPS.

He sends the “payment” and asks me to check my email. I receive as an email from “Venmo.” This is where bad UI design is causing people to get scammed. The email appears to be legit with the Venmo colors and wording. If you aren’t tech savvy, you will only see it coming from “Venmo.” You have to click and expand it to show the email address is Gmail by default hides the sender email address (but conveniently shows the recipient email address??). I’m sure many people mostly use their phones to email and don’t know how to expand to display the full email address.

If I was an unsuspecting victim and followed through with the email, I may have sent my laptop to this person thinking Venmo will fund my account once I produced a tracking number. Once I realized my account isn’t funded, I would probably contact Venmo who will tell me that they never sent any email to me. Then I would become another statistic.

This Gmail “feature” is one example of what I consider bad UI (either via discovery problems or plain bad UI). When the iPhone first came out, it was very user friendly and non-techies in my friend had no problem using it. As iOS added more and more “features”, all these came more hidden or had to find.


It’s certainly the case that people can get scammed more easily by emails that don’t actually show the sender address. And he picks up some subtle points about how you can tell it’s a scam, which is in the initial language that is used.
unique link to this extract

My rural Kentucky county is awash in guns. Where does that leave me? • The Washington Post

Teri Carter:


I live in rural Kentucky, in a county with a population of 23,000 people, and I have been told half a dozen times lately that I should be carrying a gun when I jog at the local park. What kind of gun? I wonder, as I lie there in the soft, predawn dark. What size gun? How often would I need to practice to remember how to use it? Where, in my spandex running clothes, would I carry a gun? I tripped on a tree root back in December and fell flat on my face. Would the gun go off if I fell? What if I shot myself? What if I shot someone else? Could I shoot someone?

I think about guns because guns are what I talked about most for the last several months as I ran in our local Republican primary for county magistrate. Not gas prices. Not the “stolen” election. Not caravans at the southern border. Not abortion. Not the mundane, budget-related duties of the seat I was running for. I talked about guns.

I am a Democrat who ran for local office as a Republican because in Anderson County, Kentucky, right down the road from the state capitol, Democrats no longer have a prayer of winning a partisan election, even if it is to serve in a nonpartisan job. This is die-hard Trump country now. Donald Trump won the county in both 2016 and 2020 with more than 70% of the vote. I figured that running on the Republican ticket, talking neighbor to neighbor with Republicans in a sensible manner about issues like guns would give me a fair shot.

I was wrong. I not only lost, I lost spectacularly. No matter how I tried, I could not convince voters that I was not going to show up at their door one day with a checklist, authorized by either our Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, or Democratic president, Joe Biden, and seize their guns. And when I was honest in telling them I believe AR-15-style guns are weapons of war and should be banned altogether? Voters laughed.
The term “gun culture” gets tossed around. But what does it mean to live in a place rooted in Trumpian (angry, unabashed, aggrieved, armed-to-the-teeth) 2022 gun culture?


In short, it’s weird, but you should read it. (Thanks G for the link.)
unique link to this extract

The dangerous populist science of Yuval Noah Harari • Current Affairs

Darshana Narayanan is an evolutionary biologist :


Harari’s speculations are consistently based on a poor understanding of science. His predictions of our biological future, for instance, are based on a gene-centric view of evolution—a way of thinking that has (unfortunately) dominated public discourse due to public figures like him. Such reductionism advances a simplistic view of reality, and worse yet, veers dangerously into eugenics territory.

In the final chapter of Sapiens, Harari writes:


“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice. (The mouse genome contains about 2.5 billion nucleobases, the sapiens genome about 2.9 billion bases, meaning that the latter is only 14% larger.) … If genetic engineering can create genius mice, why not genius humans? If it can create monogamous voles, why not humans hard-wired to remain faithful to their partners?”


It would be convenient indeed if genetic engineering were a magic wand—quick flicks of which could turn philanderers into faithful partners, and everyone into Einstein. This is sadly not the case.


I haven’t read Sapiens, but this (long piece) is a pretty comprehensive demolition. That little extract is very off-key if you know anything about how genetics functions, and the complex dance of nature and nurture in gene activation.
unique link to this extract

Michael Lewis: ‘The thing that really works for Trump is: the system’s rigged’ • Financial Times

Henry Mance has a wide-ranging lunch with the marvellous Michael Lewis, in which these two parts stood out to me:


Lewis studied art history at Princeton. Can he see any value in NFTs, which some see as akin to fine art? “I don’t trust myself on this subject. I can see myself saying something really stupid that five years later I regret. But the answer’s no.”

His eldest child wants him to write about climate change, but Lewis is searching for the right character: “Someone who has made billions of dollars already, operating largely in secret, who is making bets that have paid off because of this catastrophe . . . I did a casting search, and I don’t think that person exists.” Does that frustrate him? “That I can’t write about the most important thing going on? Not too much. A little bit.”

He is now 61. Does he not worry that his best days are behind him? “No, no, I think they’re ahead of me, actually. I think I’m getting better.” In this confidence, I glimpse the charlatan 25-year-old bond salesman that Lewis once was. Yet I leave breakfast feeling that, if I were a renegade investor cynically making billions from climate catastrophe, I would tell him everything.


I, too, would like to write about climate change, and I find I’m stymied in similar fashion: where do you begin? Where do you stop? Writing about a hyperobject is extraordinarily difficult.
unique link to this extract

Police sweep Google searches to find suspects; now the tactic is facing its first legal challenge • NBC News

Jon Schuppe:


A teen charged with setting a fire that killed five members of a Senegalese immigrant family in Denver, Colorado, has become the first person to challenge police use of Google search histories to find someone who might have committed a crime, according to his lawyers.

…In documents filed Thursday in Denver District Court, lawyers for the 17-year-old argue that the police violated the Constitution when they got a judge to order Google to check its vast database of internet searches for users who typed in the address of a home before it was set ablaze on Aug. 5, 2020. Three adults and two children died in the fire.

That search of Google’s records helped point investigators to the teen and two friends, who were eventually charged in the deadly fire, according to police records. All were juveniles at the time of their arrests. Two of them, including the 17-year-old, are being tried as adults; they both pleaded not guilty. The defendant in juvenile court has not yet entered a plea.

The 17-year-old’s lawyers say the search, and all evidence that came from it, should be thrown out because it amounted to a blind expedition through billions of Google users’ queries based on a hunch that the killer typed the address into a search bar. That, the lawyers argued, violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.


Tricky: the point of principle – against unreasonable searches – is what protects you from overreach. Equally, a family is dead.
unique link to this extract

Twitter faces ‘worst case scenario’ as Elon Musk terminates purchase • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski, Naomi Nix and Joseph Menn:


Elon Musk’s attempt to terminate his Twitter acquisition will likely force the social network into a protracted legal battle and send its stock price diving — thrusting a new level of chaos upon the firm after months of public disputes have battered its reputation and employee morale.

In short? “This was worst case scenario for Twitter, and now it’s happened,” said Dan Ives, the managing director and senior equity research analyst covering the tech sector at Wedbush Securities.

Ives warned that Musk’s bid to walk away may make the company appear to be “damaged goods” in the eyes of other investors or potential acquirers. Twitter shares were down nearly 6% in after hours trading on Friday. Wedbush Securities projects the stock could sink to between $25 and $30 when the market reopens Monday, down more than 30% from where it closed Friday afternoon before Musk’s filing.

In a Friday evening news release, Twitter’s board threatened to “pursue legal action” to enforce the terms of the $44bn deal Musk struck in April to buy the social network and take it private. He is required to go through with the purchase, barring a major change to the business, which legal experts say is difficult to prove.

Twitter’s board said that it was confident the company would prevail in court, but analysts warn — and employees fear — that Musk’s letter sets the stage for a turbulent period, which could carry new financial risks for the company and its workers.


Matt Levine at Bloomberg hasn’t believed that Musk is serious pretty much from the start, and his analysis on Saturday was to some extent a victory lap. He doesn’t think Musk has much hope in court. I’d expect Musk will end up paying somewhere between $1bn and $5bn to make the hassle stop. A nice payday for Twitter, if it can now steady the ship.
unique link to this extract

How Conti ransomware group crippled Costa Rica — then fell apart • Financial Times

Christine Murray and Mehul Srivastava:


Usually, hackers manage to gain access to single systems but Costa Rica’s case highlights the risk posed by weak cyber security to a nation’s entire IT infrastructure. In Costa Rica, Conti had spent weeks, if not months, of tunnelling around in its government systems, leaping from one ministry to the other.

Conti offered to return the data: at a price of up to $20mn. But Costa Rica’s government refused to pay the ransom. Instead, newly installed President Rodrigo Chaves declared a national emergency, launched a hunt for alleged “traitors” and leaned on tech savvier allies such as the US and Spain to come to its aid.

“We are at war, and that is not an exaggeration,” Chaves said in the days after his inauguration in mid-May, blaming the prior administration for hiding the true extent of the disruption, which he compared to terrorism.

The stand-off left parts of Costa Rica’s digital infrastructure crippled for months, paralysing online tax collection, disrupting public healthcare and the pay of some public sector workers.

In the meantime, Costa Rica’s shadowy tormentors were themselves a spent force, victims of geopolitical rivalries in the hacking world that had been inflamed by the war in Ukraine. After declaring its support for the Russian invasion on Feb 24, the group was betrayed by one of its insiders, purportedly a Ukrainian hacker-for-hire, who leaked their toolkits, internal chats and other secrets online in retaliation.


Still an ongoing problem; its novelty might have worn off but it’s as troublesome as ever, if not more so.
unique link to this extract

• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

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