Start Up No.1900: Musk’s employee chat, toddler or startup CEO?, microbiome v space, Copilot AI lawsuit, Meta kills smartwatch, and more


The story of FTX’s collapse – and Sam Bankman-Fried’s knowledge of it – will be told by “Big Short” author Michael Lewis. Can’t wait. CC-licensed photo by Bybit on Flickr.

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On Friday, there’ll be another post due at the Social Warming Substack at about 0845 UK time.


A selection of 9 links for you. Well, rested. Another 20 weeks of this and we hit 2,000. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Everything Elon Musk told Twitter employees in his first company meeting • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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During a nearly one-hour Q&A session, which The Verge obtained a recording of — you can read a full transcript below — Musk was blunt about Twitter’s financial state, his ambition to turn Twitter into an app for payments, his love for “gizmos,” and that he now expects employees to work with a “maniacal sense of urgency.”

Musk: do we have compelling shortform video as opposed to exactly what Vine was? It’s not “let’s copy Vine from whichever year with ancient code.” It’s really just, how do we have compelling shortform video, just compelling content in general? I was actually flipping through the Twitter video where, once you go into kind of a full-screen video mode, you can just start flipping through videos. It’s actually not bad. I was like, “Okay, well, it’s pretty good.” I think building on that makes a ton of sense.

I told a whole bunch of people this morning that I was on it for like maybe 15 minutes, and I could have easily been on it for half an hour. The videos that it showed me were interesting. It was some good videos. And when I told a roomful of people that this morning, they didn’t know it existed. So I think if we try to surface it and make it more obvious that it exists, that would be a good move.

[Inaudible exchange with an employee.]

You know, I’ve got no problem with battle, obviously [laughs]. Yeah, just email it to me. I’m pretty responsive on email. Every now and again, it’s a crisis, and if I didn’t respond within 24 hours, email me again. It rarely takes me longer than 24 hours to respond. Usually it’s within hours. And I’m also for like, “Hey, let’s have some fun and let’s have some adventure here.” Let’s just try some crazy stuff. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll stop it. And if it does work, we’ll amplify it. But I think that’s really fun and exciting.

Just try weird stuff. It’s nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we’re too cautious, then how do we make revolutionary improvements? Revolutions are not done with caution. So we want to try things, ideally things that don’t break the whole system, but I think as long as we’re agile and we react quickly to improve things and correct mistakes, I think it’ll be fine.

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The whole thing is worth reading, because it makes clear how Musk is just thrashing here. He has no pathway, no coherent idea of where he’s trying to get to. He’s fired half the employees, many of the content moderators, driven away advertisers, annoyed politicians, damaged brands.. what’s left to do? Musk is rapidly discovering that Twitter isn’t rocket science; it’s much harder than that, because at least rockets rigorously obey the laws of physics. Humans find ways around any laws or rules you put in front of them. The relentless trolling Musk has suffered is the perfect comeuppance: the guy who thought he was the best discovering he’s a rank amateur.
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Hollywood FTX frenzy as Michael Lewis reveals he spent six months with founder • The Ankler

Richard Rushfield:

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With the stunning collapse of crypto exchange FTX still rippling through the financial markets, the entertainment industry sprang into action over the weekend with a far more pressing concern: Who’s going to nab the rights to this story?

We now know at least one part of how this plays out. The town was abuzz Saturday after an email spread that revealed that Michael Lewis — the most talented and successful non-fiction writer working today — had embedded with FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried for the past six months and was making the collapsing cryptocurrency exchange the centerpiece of his next book. The Ankler obtained the email from CAA agent Matthew Snyder, originally sent to potential buyers on Friday (CAA did not immediately return a request for comment). The email reveals that not a word of the book has been written yet but, well, things just can’t wait.

…In August, Lewis hinted about his new book in an interview with Financial News.

“I really don’t want to reveal exactly what I’m writing about,” he said “But I found a character through whom I can write about — it weirdly links up Flash Boys, The Big Short and Liar’s Poker.

“I guess it is possible it will be framed as a crypto book, but it won’t be a crypto book. It’ll be about this really unusual character. You’ll learn all about crypto and you’ll learn about what screwed up market structure in the United States and so on.”

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Lewis has an incredible knack for being in just the right place. And this will be the tale to end them all. Well, perhaps to end all crypto. (Bitcoin is bumping around $16,000, following hefty selloffs in the past few days, down from its 52-week high of $66,000.)
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Are you a parent of a toddler or an assistant to a male CEO of a tech startup? • McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Justine Cotter nails it:

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1. A disproportionate amount of your time is spent cleaning up messes and bringing him snacks.

2. He summons you by screaming your name at the top of his lungs.

3. He won’t stop talking about how he’s going to build a rocket ship and blast off into outer space.

4. He uses a lot of words that sound entirely made up.

5. When you tell him you need a day off, he laughs in your face.

6. He refuses to wear shoes.

7. He routinely overestimates his abilities.

8. He offers unsolicited deep insights about subjects he knows nothing about.

9. When he says something that doesn’t make sense, you smile, nod, and tell him he’s a genius.

10. He never pays taxes.

11. He has a room filled with toys that he refers to as his “office.”

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The mysteries of the astronaut microbiome • Undark

Doug Johnson:

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Astronauts face numerous known health problems in space, including a loss in bone density, muscle atrophy, and psychological issues. And on Earth, researchers are increasingly discovering how the various bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside and outside of people — the human microbiome — affect physical and mental health.

Space, of course, is an entirely different environment from Earth, with high radiation levels and microgravity. Although the science is far from certain, these vast differences may cause unexpected changes in the microbiome of astronauts. In turn, this could result in a range of health problems, which may be more pronounced on long-haul stints in space, like traveling to another planet.

Still, the implications of a disrupted microbiome are poorly understood, even on Earth, said David Pearce, a bioscience researcher at Northumbria University and author of a 2022 paper exploring how a trip to Mars might affect microbes in the gut — which makes the range of related illnesses and diseases in space difficult to predict. And direct research is limited because only around 600 people have ever been to space. Those who have taken the trip don’t typically stay long, as the average length of a trip to the International Space Station is about six months. And some researchers aren’t yet convinced there’s enough evidence suggesting the human microbiome will change much in space at all.

All the same, many researchers, including Pearce, are trying to figure out whether or not astronauts will enter a state in which their microbiome changes in adverse ways, called dysbiosis. “Because they’re going to be away for a long time, will that dysbiosis become a significant problem,” he said, “or lead to them having health impacts that impair their ability to function?”

…As for studies conducted in space, there are a few. One 2019 study, for instance, compared the microbiomes of astronaut Scott Kelly and his twin brother, Mark, after the former went to the ISS for nearly a year starting in 2015. The study posited that Scott Kelly’s microbiome did indeed change in space. For him, this included a reduction in bacteria called Bacteroidetes, the dysregulation of which has been linked to neurological, immune system, and metabolic issues, as well as increase in Firmicutes, a type of bacteria that can help break down certain starches and fibers.

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Might be relevant if you were, say, planning a two-year trip to Mars.

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WhatsApp Business India revenue set to cross $1bn by next year; experts see ‘WeChat moment’ • Money Control India

Vikas Sn and Priyanka Iyer:

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India is the biggest market for the Meta-owned messaging app with over 400 million users in the country. The app, which makes money by enabling businesses and brands to engage with their customers, is set to hit revenue of $1bn in India by next year, people familiar with the matter told Moneycontrol. WhatsApp declined to comment on these numbers.

That said, the rising user complaints of promotional messages from brands on WhatsApp without robust controls to tackle them, could also potentially dampen this growth.

WhatsApp launched its first revenue-generating enterprise product called WhatsApp Business API in 2018. However, industry experts say business messaging has become strategically important for the company over the past 12-18 months due to which it has built several capabilities and features to the platform.

On October 26, during the company’s earnings conference call, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg mentioned business messaging as a “major monetisation opportunity” and one of the three primary areas where they will focus their investment in 2023.

A major chunk of the revenues is currently coming from “click to message”/ “click to WhatsApp” ads wherein businesses can enable consumers to directly send a message from an ad they see on platforms like Facebook or Instagram or provide a call to action to send a WhatsApp message and interact with them.

During the call, Zuckerberg said that Click-to-WhatsApp ads have crossed a $1.5bn run rate, growing more than 80% year over year.

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So not exactly money generated inside WhatsApp. Even so, by becoming the conduit for these messages, Meta gets metadata (ha) that could be useful.
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The lawsuit against Microsoft, GitHub and OpenAI that could change the rules of AI copyright • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Microsoft, its subsidiary GitHub, and its business partner OpenAI have been targeted in a proposed class action lawsuit alleging that the companies’ creation of AI-powered coding assistant GitHub Copilot relies on “software piracy on an unprecedented scale.” The case is only in its earliest stages but could have a huge effect on the broader world of AI, where companies are making fortunes training software on copyright-protected data.

Copilot, which was unveiled by Microsoft-owned GitHub in June 2021, is trained on public repositories of code scraped from the web, many of which are published with licenses that require anyone reusing the code to credit its creators. Copilot has been found to regurgitate long sections of licensed code without providing credit — prompting this lawsuit that accuses the companies of violating copyright law on a massive scale.

“We are chal leng ing the legal ity of GitHub Copi lot,” said programmer and lawyer Matthew Butterick, who filed the lawsuit with the help of the San Francisco-based Joseph Saveri Law Firm, in a press statement. “This is the first step in what will be a long jour ney. As far as we know, this is the first class-action case in the US chal leng ing the train ing and out put of AI sys tems. It will not be the last. AI sys tems are not exempt from the law. Those who cre ate and oper ate these sys tems must remain account able.”

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The credit point is a narrow one, which will probably work. But that’ll just mean that Copilot will get a rejig in which it credits a ton of sources, but operates in exactly the same way.
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Egypt’s COP27 summit app is a cyber weapon, experts warn • POLITICO

Mark Scott and Vincent Manancourt:

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Policymakers from Germany, France and Canada were among those who had downloaded the app by November 8, according to two separate Western security officials briefed on discussions within these delegations at the U.N. climate summit.

Other Western governments have advised officials not to download the app, said another official from a European government. All of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss international government deliberations.

The potential vulnerability from the Android app, which has been downloaded thousands of times and provides a gateway for participants at COP27, was confirmed separately by four cybersecurity experts who reviewed the digital application for POLITICO.

The app is being promoted as a tool to help attendees navigate the event. But it risks giving the Egyptian government permission to read users’ emails and messages. Even messages shared via encrypted services like WhatsApp are vulnerable, according to POLITICO’s technical review of the application, and two of the outside experts.

The app also provides Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which created it, with other so-called backdoor privileges, or the ability to scan people’s devices.

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Another four days of this. Plenty of time for more policymakers to download it and give their secrets away. Though I’d guess that it’s people from LDCs – less developed countries – who would have Android phones. At a guess, an iPhone wouldn’t give up so much.
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Stretch iPhone to its limit: a 2gib model that can draw everything, in your pocket • LiuLiu

Liu Liu:

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Every year, we have a new iPhone that claims to be faster and better in every way. And yes, these new computer vision models and new image sensors can exercise the phone as hard as they can. However, you could already take good pictures on an iPhone 10 years ago. These are incremental improvements.

These incremental asks only deserve incremental improvements. Once in a few years, there are programs where even on the best of our computing devices they can be barely usable. But these new programs with newly enabled scenarios are so great that people are willing to suffer through.

Last time this happened was the deep neural networks, and the time before that, was the 3D graphics. I believe this is the third time. In fact, I am so convinced that I built an app to prove the point.

In the past three weeks, I built an app that can summon images by casting a few spells, and then editing it to the way you liked. It took a minute to summon the picture on the latest and greatest iPhone 14 Pro, uses about 2GiB [gibibytes] in-app memory, and requires you to download about 2GiB data to get started. Even though the app itself is rock solid, given these requirements, I would probably call it barely usable.

Even if it took a minute to paint one image, now my Camera Roll is filled with drawings from this app. It is an addictive endeavor. More than that, I am getting better at it. If the face is cropped, now I know how to use the inpainting model to fill it in. If the inpainting model doesn’t do its job, you can always use a paint brush to paint it over and do an image-to-image generation again focused in that area.

Now the cat is out of the box, let’s talk about how.

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This is Stable Diffusion, as an app (called Draw Things) on the iPhone. If you want it. Consider that there are now tons of Stable Diffusion apps on the Apple App Store; how long before something like this comes by default with the phone?
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Meta is killing Portal and both its unreleased smartwatches • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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Meta is pulling the plug on its Portal video calling smart displays and its two remaining unreleased smartwatch projects, my colleague Alex Heath can confirm, as the company cuts 11,000 jobs including many in tech divisions. Reuters reported earlier today that the company planned to kill off both Portal and smartwatches, citing Meta execs who spoke at a town hall meeting; we heard the same thing from other sources, so we can independently corroborate the news.

Meta had already quietly decided to stop producing Portal devices for consumers in June, and had shelved the smartwatch that was furthest in development — codename “Milan,” which was reportedly set to arrive in spring 2023 for around $349 and feature two built-in cameras for video calls. The Verge was the first to report on then-Facebook’s plans for that smartwatch a year earlier in June 2021.

But now, Meta is killing off its plans to sell Portal video calling hardware to businesses, too, and the other two smartwatches that were in early-stage and middle-stage development are also being shelved, according to our sources.

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Smartwatches? Why would Facebook/Meta want smartwatches? It’s a difficult enough business if you’re capable at software (see: Google) but even then you need a hardware partner (see: Fitbit). Canning this sounds like a dose of sanity.
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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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