Start Up No.1875: the floppy disk survivor, how top-flight chess became poker, Ethereum’s big saving, Sim Nimby stops building, and more

Diffusion Bee picture generated in the style of Greg Rutkowski
The artist Greg Rutkowski’s style has been the inspiration (or source material) for many AI illustration systems, and he’s not pleased about it. Picture: generated by Diffusion Bee.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Artificially intelligent. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


We spoke with the last person standing in the floppy disk business • Eye on Design

Niek Hilkmann and Thomas Walskaar tracked down Tom Persky, the “last man standing”, for their new book “Floppy Disk Fever: The Curious Afterlives of a Flexible Medium”:

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NH + TW: You mentioned the number of companies still providing floppy disks has substantially decreased. Are there still any companies left that produce them?

TP: I would say my last buy from a manufacturer was about ten or twelve years ago. Back then I made the decision to buy a large quantity, a couple of million disks, and we’ve basically been living off of that inventory ever since. From time to time, we get very lucky. About two years ago a guy called me up and said: “My grandfather has all this floppy junk in the garage and I want it out. Will you take it?” Of course I wanted to take it off his hands. So, we went back and forth and negotiated a fair price. Without going into specifics, he ended up with two things that he wanted: an empty garage and a sum of money. I ended up with around 50,000 floppy disks and that’s a good deal. Sometimes I also get a company that’s cleaning out a warehouse and they find pallets of floppy disks. They figure out through my site that I still buy them and contact me. There’s a constant flow. I expect to be in this business for at least another four years.

…NH + TW: Who are your main customers at the moment?

TP: The customers that are the easiest to provide for are the hobbyists – people who want to buy ten, 20, or maybe 50 floppy disks. However, my biggest customers — and the place where most of the money comes from — are the industrial users. These are people who use floppy disks as a way to get information in and out of a machine. Imagine it’s 1990, and you’re building a big industrial machine of one kind or another. You design it to last 50 years and you’d want to use the best technology available. At the time this was a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Take the airline industry for example. Probably half of the air fleet in the world today is more than 20 years old and still uses floppy disks in some of the avionics. That’s a huge consumer. There’s also medical equipment, which requires floppy disks to get the information in and out of medical devices. The biggest customer of all is probably the embroidery business though. Thousands and thousands of machines that use floppy disks were made for this, and they still use these. There are even some industrial companies that still use Sony Mavica cameras to take photographs. The vast majority of what I sell is for these industrial uses, but there is a significant hobbyist element to it as well.

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See if you can guess if he uses them himself. The whole thing is fascinating.
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Chess is just poker now • The Atlantic

Matteo Wong on why No.1 chess player Magnus Carlsen stormed out of a tournament after a surprise loss, darkly hinting about cheating by computer:

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To understand just how superior machines have become, consider chess’s “Elo” rating system, which compares players’ relative strength and was devised by a Hungarian American physicist. The highest-ever human rating, achieved by Carlsen twice over the past decade, was 2882. DeepBlue’s Elo rating was 2853. A chess engine called Rybka was the first to reach 3000 points, in 2007; and today’s most powerful program, Stockfish, currently has more than 3500 Elo points by conservative estimates. That means Stockfish has about a 98% probability of beating Carlsen in a match and, per one estimate, a 2% chance of drawing. (An outright victory for Carlsen would be almost impossible.)

Where chess engines once evaluated human strategies, the new, upgraded versions—which are freely available online, including Stockfish—now generate surprising ideas and define the ideal way to play the game, to the point that human performance is measured in terms of “centipawn” (hundredths of a pawn) loss relative to what a computer would play. While training, a player might ask the software to suggest a set of moves to fit a given situation, and then decide to use the computer’s sixth-ranked option, rather than the first, in the hopes of confusing a human competitor who trained with similar algorithms. Or they might choose a move tailored to the weaknesses of a particular opponent. Many chess experts have adopted the new engines’ more aggressive style, and the algorithms have popularized numerous tactics that human players had previously underestimated.

The advent of neural-net engines thrills many chess players and coaches, including [director-general of the International Chess Federation, Emil] Sutovsky and Sadler. Carlsen said he was “inspired” the first time he saw AlphaZero play. Engines have made it easier for amateurs to improve, while unlocking new dimensions of the game for experts. In this view, chess engines have not eliminated creativity but instead redefined what it means to be creative.

Yet if computers set the gold standard of play, and top players can only try to mimic them, then it’s not clear what, exactly, humans are creating. “Due to the predominance of engine use today,” the grandmaster So explained, “we are being encouraged to halt all creative thought and play like mechanical bots. It’s so boring. So beneath us.” And if elite players stand no chance against machines, instead settling for outsmarting their human opponents by playing subtle, unexpected, or suboptimal moves that weaponize “human frailty,” then modern-era chess looks more and more like a game of psychological warfare: not so much a spelling bee as a round of poker.

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This article from PokerTube, which sees it from a poker perspective (where machines have wrought as much trouble), is worth reading too.
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Ethereum just completed The Merge: here’s how much energy it’s saving • The Verge

Justine Calma:

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Alex de Vries, a researcher who runs the website Digiconomist that tracks Bitcoin and Ethereum energy use, similarly estimates that Ethereum’s electricity demand has fallen “99.98%, which comes down to possibly as much as a country like Austria requires.” Before The Merge, the Ethereum Foundation had estimated that the software update would reduce energy use by 99.95%.  

The enormous pollution reduction comes from a change in how Ethereum users earn new tokens. (For more details, check out our in-depth explainer on how that happened.) With The Merge, Ethereum is getting rid of a mechanism called proof of work that uses vast amounts of computing power to validate blocks of new transactions. Proof of work required crypto miners to solve computational puzzles, an extremely energy-intensive process, in order to validate new blocks on the chain and earn new tokens in return.

Now, Ethereum uses a new mechanism called proof of stake that gets rid of puzzles and mining. Instead, validators need to stake some of their tokens for a chance to validate new blocks of transactions and be rewarded with tokens in return.

You still need computers to store data and verify transactions. And validators will probably still run their hardware around the clock. But their hardware won’t be nearly as energy-hungry as crypto miners’ data farms. The small discrepancies in estimates for energy consumption post-Merge have to do with how many validators there are, what kind of equipment they’re using, and whether it runs on clean or dirty energy. 

The successful launch of The Merge places greater pressure on other cryptocurrencies still using proof of work. The elephant in the room is Bitcoin, which is currently estimated to gobble up more electricity per year as the country of Kazakhstan.

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Of course it’s written in holy scripture that you can’t change bitcoin from proof-of-work, but the success of Ethereum in switching suggests it can – and maybe should – be done.
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AI-generated photos of historical figures by Hidreley Diao • THEINSPIRATION.COM

Diao produces pictures of “what these historical figures would look like”, based, he says, on Photoshop plus some AI (unspecified). The pictures here originally appeared on his Instagram account. They’re very impressive, both for their realism and the shock value: they look so like people you’ve seen around on the street, on TV, in photos. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Nefertiti are most impressive; Napoleon and Mona Lisa, surprisingly, not.
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Google Deepmind researcher co-authors paper saying AI will eliminate humanity • Vice

Edward Ongweso Jr:

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The paper, published last month in the peer-reviewed AI Magazine, is a fascinating one that tries to think through how artificial intelligence could pose an existential risk to humanity by looking at how reward systems might be artificially constructed.

To give you some of the background: The most successful AI models today are known as GANs, or Generative Adversarial Networks. They have a two-part structure where one part of the program is trying to generate a picture (or sentence) from input data, and a second part is grading its performance. What the new paper proposes is that at some point in the future, an advanced AI overseeing some important function could be incentivized to come up with cheating strategies to get its reward in ways that harm humanity. 

“Under the conditions we have identified, our conclusion is much stronger than that of any previous publication—an existential catastrophe is not just possible, but likely,” Michael Cohen [who does Artificial Generalised Intelligence safety research] said on Twitter in a thread about the paper. 

“In a world with infinite resources, I would be extremely uncertain about what would happen. In a world with finite resources, there’s unavoidable competition for these resources,” Cohen told Motherboard in an interview. “And if you’re in a competition with something capable of outfoxing you at every turn, then you shouldn’t expect to win. And the other key part is that it would have an insatiable appetite for more energy to keep driving the probability closer and closer.”

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Very much the paperclips scenario.
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This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it • MIT Technology Review

Melissa Heikkilä:

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type in “Wizard with sword and a glowing orb of magic fire fights a fierce dragon Greg Rutkowski,” and the system will produce something that looks not a million miles away from works in Rutkowksi’s style.

But these open-source programs are built by scraping images from the internet, often without permission and proper attribution to artists. As a result, they are raising tricky questions about ethics and copyright. And artists like Rutkowski have had enough.

According to the website Lexica, which tracks over 10 million images and prompts generated by Stable Diffusion, Rutkowski’s name has been used as a prompt around 93,000 times. Some of the world’s most famous artists, such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Leonardo da Vinci, brought up around 2,000 prompts each or less. Rutkowski’s name also features as a prompt thousands of times in the Discord of another text-to-image generator, Midjourney. 

Rutkowski was initially surprised but thought it might be a good way to reach new audiences. Then he tried searching for his name to see if a piece he had worked on had been published. The online search brought back work that had his name attached to it but wasn’t his. 

“It’s been just a month. What about in a year? I probably won’t be able to find my work out there because [the internet] will be flooded with AI art,” Rutkowski says. “That’s concerning.” 

Stability.AI, the company that built Stable Diffusion, trained the model on the LAION-5B data set, which was compiled by the German nonprofit LAION. LAION put the data set together and narrowed it down by filtering out watermarked images and those that were not aesthetic, such as images of logos, says Andy Baio, a technologist and writer who downloaded and analyzed some of Stable Diffusion’s data. Baio analyzed 12 million of the 600 million images used to train the model and found that a large chunk of them come from third-party websites such as Pinterest and art shopping sites such as Fine Art America. 

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Twitter sued by Dutch town Bodegraven-Reeuwijk over paedophilia rumour • BBC News

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A Dutch town has taken Twitter to court over the spread of a conspiracy theory claiming it was once home to a ring of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.

False reports that Bodegraven-Reeuwijk was the site of the abuse and murder of multiple children in the 1980s were first circulated by three men in 2020. The main instigator, who grew up in the town near The Hague, said he had witnessed the crimes as a child.

Local authorities want to see all posts relating to the alleged events removed.

The claims have prompted dozens of people to travel to the town’s Vrederust cemetery to leave flowers and tributes at the graves of seemingly random dead children. Twitter’s lawyer, Jens van den Brink, declined to comment ahead of a hearing at The Hague District Court on Friday.

Last year, the same court ordered the three original men to remove all tweets about the town, but the claims continue to circulate. The town’s lawyer, Cees van de Sanden, said Twitter had not responded to a request in July that it find and remove all posts related to the claims.

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Can’t help thinking that the headline on the article isn’t actually helping their cause. And that all the headlines on this article probably won’t help either, given all the people who skim-read search results (ie pretty much everyone).
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Good luck playing Sim Nimby, the game where you can’t build anything • Vice

Aaron Gordon:

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The power fantasy that made Sim City such a popular game is that it allows anyone to plan and build cities pretty much however they want. There are some constraints, like resources and funds, but the game doesn’t realistically present the problems cities face in real life when they want to build and improve: NIMBYism. 

Sim Nimby, a new web browser game, has many resemblances to interacting with an actual NIMBY, or Not In My Backyard anti-development activists. It’s not so much a game as an exercise in futility, in which no matter what you do, it will be met with the same nonsensical responses. There is no winning and losing, only prolonging.

The creators of the game, Owen Weeks and Steve Nass, both 33-year-old advertising copywriters in Brooklyn, didn’t intend for the experience of playing Sim Nimby to be so similar to the experience of talking to them. As Nass explained to Motherboard, the urge to create the game was more out of restless creativity than activism.

“We were like, ‘What can we make? Oh, Sim City, that was fun.’ And since we’re both anti-NIMBY already, that was pretty quick,” Nass said. 

The game itself is a static image of a 90s-style, Sim City-like management sim. If you click on anything, an alert message pops up: “ERROR. CAN’T BUILD IN NIMBYVILLE”, followed by a quote from, presumably, a local NIMBY. Weeks and Nass came up with 54 different anti-development slogans. Some are exaggerated NIMBY talking points for effect and humor—”The only thing urban I want to see in my neighborhood is Keith Urban”; “Apartment buildings cause crime. Where do you think the people who killed Batman’s parents lived?”—while others—”This is a NICE neighborhood”, “Public transport would transport the public here”— could well be said at a community meeting anywhere in the U.S. any day of the week. Nass’s personal favorites are “Housing? Surely there must be other ways to deal with the unhoused,” “Sorry, but I’ve devoted my life to the most pressing issue of our time: anti-bike activism” and “Keep our local fiefdom weird.”

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In the UK it would also include “sorry, but that’s on the Green Belt” and “we don’t like the noise from the wind farm/reflection from the solar farm”.
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5th Circuit upholds [totally insane] Texas social media law • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski:

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The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Friday upheld a controversial Texas social media law that bars companies from removing posts based on a person’s political ideology, overturning a lower court’s decision to block the law and likely setting up a Supreme Court showdown over the future of online speech.

The ruling could have wide-ranging effects on the future of tech regulation, giving fresh ammunition to conservative politicians who have alleged that major tech companies are silencing their political speech.

But the decision diverges from precedent and recent rulings from the 11th Circuit and lower courts, and tech industry groups are likely to appeal.

Friday’s opinion was written by Judge Andrew Stephen Oldham, who was nominated to the 5th Circuit by President Donald Trump. He was joined by Judge Edith Jones, a Reagan appointee. Judge Leslie H. Southwick, a George W. Bush appointee, concurred in part and dissented in part.

In the opinion, Oldham wrote that while the First Amendment guarantees every person’s right to free speech, it doesn’t guarantee corporations the right to “muzzle speech.” The Texas law, he wrote, “does not chill speech; if anything, it chills censorship.”

The ruling criticized the tech industry’s arguments against the law, saying that under the companies’ logic, “email providers, mobile phone companies, and banks could cancel the accounts of anyone who sends an email, makes a phone call, or spends money in support of a disfavoured political party, candidate, or business.”

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“Diverges from precedent and recent rulings” is the WaPo writer’s way of saying “is totally bonkers”. It ignores the law as it exists in the CDA’s Section 230 (not overturned) and the First Amendment, which (among others) says the government can’t force companies or people to say things, or not say things. Oldham’s reading of the First Amendment is completely wrong. Just as a reminder, the first part says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. The “press” is a corporation. Trump’s legacy continues to stain American discourse.

This decision makes life impossible for social media companies. At least, in Texas. Maybe they’ll just geoblock there.
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‘Gifs are cringe’: how Giphy’s multimillion-dollar business fell out of fashion • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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It is rare for a multimillion-dollar company to explicitly state that its business is dying because it is simply too uncool to live.

But that is the bold strategy that the Gif search engine Giphy has adopted with the UK’s competition regulator, which is trying to block a $400m (£352m) takeover attempt by Facebook’s owner, Meta.

In a filing with the Competition and Markets Authority, Giphy argued that there was simply no company other than Meta that would buy it.

Its valuation is down by $200m from its peak in 2016 and, more importantly, its core offering shows signs of going out of fashion. “There are indications of an overall decline in gif use,” the company said in its filing, “due to a general waning of user and content partner interest in gifs.

“They have fallen out of fashion as a content form, with younger users in particular describing gifs as ‘for boomers’ and ‘cringe’.”

To underline the point, Giphy’s filing included links to several articles and tweets [suggesting Gifs are cringe, maaaan].

The generational divide is real, says the internet culture writer Ryan Broderick. “Gifs feel extremely dated. They were never easy to make and didn’t work particularly well on mobile.

“So now they are basically the cringe reaction image your millennial boss uses in Slack. Rather than what they used to be, which was a decentralised image type for communicating on blogs and message boards. It’s actually kind of sad how choked out the gif was by large corporations, copyright laws, and mobile browsers.”

The animated gif is also comfortably millennial: invented in 1989, it pre-dates not only smartphones and social media but even the world wide web.

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For anyone, anyone at all, who missed the reference in the second paragraph

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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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