Start Up No.1912: Apple’s unsociable China AirDrop, Twitter’s child safety problem, AWS v the blockchain, woke mind virus!, and more

A negative prompt
Including a “negative prompt” in your Stable Diffusion spell can make a huge difference to the outcome, users have found.

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There’s another post coming this week at the Social Warming Substack on Friday at about 0845 UK time. Free signup.


A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple turned off a private communication tool in China just before major protests broke out • Reclaim The Net

Will Henney:

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Earlier this month, Apple restricted the use of AirDrop in China. The file-sharing tool for iOS was used by protesters to communicate freely without the risk of censorship, because the tool uses direct connections between devices, creating a local network that cannot be monitored by government internet regulators.

Initially, people could choose to receive AirDrops from everyone nearby. However, a recent iOS update has made that impossible. The update made a change to AirDrop’s usage that only applies in mainland China, while the rest of the world can still use it to communicate as before.

Users in China can only receive from everyone nearby for only ten minutes, putting restrictions on how it’s used.

AirDrop has been used by protesters in Hong Kong to communicate with other protesters and bystanders, as well as send messages to tourists from mainland China. On the mainland, protesters have used AirDrop to spread protest literature.

According to Bloomberg, Apple will roll out the “Everyone for 10 minutes” feature globally next year. But it is not clear why the feature was first suddenly rolled out in China, especially during a time of such upheaval and the biggest protests China has seen in over 30 years.

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Hang on – it’s going to roll this out globally? That sounds like the system has been abused (which it has, to send unsolicited dick pics) and that it’s trying to save people from their mistakes. Certainly the rollout in China looks heavy-handed. But you aren’t prevented from connecting to everyone; just from doing it for extended periods. Ten minutes is plenty for an image to go around. I’d imagine (though there’s no detail) that if you turn AirDrop off and then on again, the “Everyone” choice is available again.
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Musk faces fines if Twitter’s gutted child safety team becomes overwhelmed • Ars Technica

Ashley Belanger:

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Three people familiar with Twitter’s current staffing told Bloomberg that when 2022 started, Twitter had 20 team members responsible for reviewing and escalating reports of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM). Today, after layoffs and resignations, there are fewer than 10 specialists forming what Bloomberg described as “an overwhelmed skeleton crew.” It seems that despite Musk continually tweeting that blocking CSAM is Twitter’s top priority and even going so far as inviting users to tweet CSAM directly at him, Musk may already be losing his battle to keep the material off Twitter.

“Musk didn’t create an environment where the team wanted to stay,” sources told Bloomberg.

The staff that Musk lost, according to Bloomberg, included child safety experts and former law enforcement officers in the US, Ireland, and Singapore. Sources said that this team was already working longer hours—before Musk asked employees to commit to more hours—just trying to keep up with the constant flow of user reports and legal requests.

These people removed the CSAM, assisted in law enforcement investigations, and—relying on human reasoning instead of artificial intelligence—identified accounts grooming minors or promoting attraction to minors as healthy.

Although Twitter recently removed some known hashtags used to spread CSAM, the move was not a complete or permanent solution because hashtags change, and so does the coded language that abusers use to skirt automated content removal. Because the removal of these hashtags happened after Musk’s takeover, it’s easy to credit him with the decision and see it as his commitment to blocking CSAM. However, sources told Bloomberg that the decision to remove the hashtags happened before Musk came on board.

According to Wired, there’s only one child safety team member left to handle all the reports coming from the Asia-Pacific region.

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If the problem gets too big, Apple will also block updates and may even pull the app from the App Store. And that would be a legitimate reason to do so.
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Stable Diffusion 2.0 and the importance of negative prompts for good results • Max Woolf’s Blog

Max Woolf:

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Within 24 hours after release, users on Reddit and Twitter noted that the new model [Stable Diffusion 2.0] performed worse than Stability Diffusion 1.5 with the same exact input prompts and settings. Some users also noticed that putting in the names of real artists such as the infamous Greg Rutkowski had zero effect on the output.

Some point to the fact that the new model was trained on fewer NSFW images as the culprit for these changes, but in my opinion the culprit here is the switch to OpenCLIP. A new text encoder means some of the assumptions and prompt hacks for earlier versions of Stable Diffusion may no longer work. On the other hand, it may enable new prompt hacks. The CEO of StabilityAI Emad Mostaque mentioned that negative prompts should work better due to the way the model was trained. It’s still theory though; practice and experimentation is always better.

I hadn’t played with negative prompts in Stable Diffusion before, although it is rumored that it’s part of the secret sauce behind some of the more well known commercial Stable Diffusion services. But after lots of experimenting with negative prompts in SD 2.0, it’s clear that negative prompts are the key to getting good results from the model reliably, and most surprisingly, negative prompts can be far superior than traditional prompt additions.

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Surprising, but you can’t argue with the outcomes. The techniques for casting spells are improving all the time.
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My entire family caught that virus you heard about on Twitter • Jog Blog

Jason O. Gilbert:

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Welp, it finally happened: My entire family caught the Woke Mind Virus — probably over Thanksgiving.

Family is doing fine but the toddler keeps referring to bedtime as “Colonialist.” We gave him 30 minutes of timeout during which we are making him read Ann Coulter’s memoir. Hate to see my little guy like this!

My wife is miserable. All she wants to do is watch the trailer for the new Little Mermaid.

She didn’t even have the energy to stay up for Tucker Carlson — and it was a really good one! He shouted about how immigrants are statistically uglier and his guest was a California dad who wasn’t allowed to bring a gun to his daughter’s Spelling Bee.

Anyway, don’t worry about me. I’m only a little Woke for now. I don’t think pronouns are a big deal, but I still have enough anger to attend school board meetings where I demand they fire teachers who mention the Civil Rights Act.

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Man, that Woke Mind Virus is the worst.
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I always knew guzzling two litres of water a day was over the top. Now science is on my side • The Guardian

Emma Beddington:

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Finally – finally! – the scientific breakthrough I’ve been waiting for. Not the incredible recent progress on Alzheimer’s or the huge strides towards eliminating HIV, though, sure, that stuff is good, I suppose. It’s the paper suggesting public health guidelines to drink two litres of water a day are probably over the top. “The current recommendation is not supported scientifically at all,” according to my new hero, Yosuke Yamada of Japan’s National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, one of the study’s authors.

Having grown up before Big Hydration got its unpleasantly moist claws into the world, I don’t get on with water, never have. Days go by without me feeling compelled to drink any: I find my thirst is adequately quenched by imagining how unpleasant it would be to drink a cold, flavourless glass of nothing.

My optician told me I had the driest eyeballs she had ever seen. I imagine them like little bundles of tumbleweed
I can’t, in good conscience, claim it’s never done me any harm. A nutritionist recently told me that fatigue, brain fog and headaches – all regular events – are usually signs of dehydration; I always assumed they were just facets of my delightful personality. My optician told me I had the driest eyeballs she had ever seen, a fact I have been relating with misplaced pride ever since: I imagine them like little bundles of tumbleweed, rolling dustily around my sockets (no wonder they itch).

On some weird level, I like the thought that things could be better if I drank. Water is my “in case of emergency, break glass” last resort. Fully hydrated, I might spring into exuberant life like those desiccated desert frogs that survive years without moisture do when it rains. It’s nice to pretend that’s an option.

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Totally with her on this. The sight of people who’ve done nothing much in the day lifting carafes to their mouths as though they’d just crossed the desert puzzles me. Also, Emma is a wonderful writer (and person).
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Autonomous trucking software upstart Embark has quietly gone from $5B+ to basically worthless • Crunchbase

Joanna Glasner:

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Out of all the beaten-down public companies in the autonomous driving space, Embark Technology stands out as a conspicuously terrible stock market performer.

The San Francisco-headquartered company, which develops autonomous driving technology for the trucking industry, has presided over a roughly 98% share price decline since going public a year ago. In the process, it’s wiped out close to $5 billion in market capitalization.

Today, Embark and a few others that carried out SPAC mergers are in that weird category of companies trading below the value of cash reserves. In Embark’s case, the company’s recent market capitalization of $110m is actually quite a bit lower than the $191m cash it had at the end of Q3. In other words, investors seem to think it’s worth less than nothing.

…Embark is one of a number of startups focused on trucking automation that have either hit major roadblocks or ceased operations entirely. We’ll explore these in more detail in a follow-up piece.

A short list of some of the names includes TuSimple (also trading below cash), Starsky Robotics (now defunct), and Peloton Technology (shuttered last year).

It’s a tough space, and, as we observed a few weeks ago, the whole autonomous driving technology arena overall has been taking a beating on public markets. A couple weeks later, Ford Motor-backed Argo AI disclosed it is shutting down as well.

As for Embark, not everyone has turned bearish on the company’s course. Misha Rindisbacher, Embark’s head of communications, attributed the company’s stock market declines to investor sentiment about the broader industry rather than company-specific performance issues.

“Our fundamentals are unchanged, and I would chalk it up to a larger sectorwide downturn,” he said, noting that the autonomous vehicle space and lidar space are both in the doldrums, and that investors are “probably less comfortable with the space and pre-revenue companies than they were a year ago.”

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You could say that the brakes are on for the sector and that it’s definitely not on track. If it has to wait for another boom cycle to come good, that could take quite a while.
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Amazon Web Services and blockchain • ongoing

Tim Bray:

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This week saw the cancellation of the Australian Stock Exchange’s long-running effort to build a blockchain-based trading system. Which, oddly, has me thinking of 2016, when AWS decided not to make a strategic investment in blockchain, with my input a contributing factor. It felt like a good story while it was happening.

Since I left AWS in 2020, I’ve been super-careful not to share things from behind the scenes. I can’t actually remember the details of the nondisclosure agreement, but I have strong feelings about the ethics. This story, though, doesn’t reflect poorly on anyone and I’m pretty sure nothing in it is material to any business plans at AWS or elsewhere.

Andy meeting · At some point in mid-2016 I got hauled into a conversation with [then-AWS chief] Andy Jassy. I can’t remember if it was video or f2f, can’t remember how many of his staff were there. There were four of us present who were senior techs, not Jassy staff.

Andy is an outstanding communicator and was eloquent on this occasion. You have to understand that one of the most important parts of his job was listening to the CIOs and CTOs of huge enterprises explain their problems and concerns.

He said something like this: “All these leaders are asking me what our blockchain strategy is. They tell me that everyone’s saying it’s the future, the platform that’s going to obsolete everything else. I need to have a good answer for them. I’ll be honest, when they explain why it’s wonderful I just don’t get it. You guys got to go figure it out for us.”

Well, OK then. I can’t remember whether it was right there in the room or by email after a short caucus, we got back to Andy along the lines of “We mostly think it’s mostly bullshit and probably not strategic for AWS, but we’ll look harder.”

Before I move along, Dear Reader: There was a dead give-away in Andy’s presentation of the problem. I’ll get back to it later but do you see it?

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Fun story. Recommended. (Bray later left AWS on ethical grounds.)
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Wordle gets more intentional • Axios

Felix Salmon:

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Wordle has an editor now — every day’s solution has been programmed by Tracy Bennett, who curates the word list. The result has not made everybody HAPPY (which was Sunday’s answer).

Bennett picked themed solutions for the long Thanksgiving weekend. Wednesday’s answer was DRIVE; Thursday’s was FEAST; and Sunday’s was HAPPY.

Before this month, Wordle solutions were randomly selected from a preset word list.

Occasionally, that would cause problems, as when FETUS showed up as a solution during a major national debate over abortion.

By programming the solutions, the NYT can avoid such controversy — and, at least in principle, can delight users by timing answers in a felicitous manner.

In the wake of Wednesday’s themed answer, many puzzlers — including Axios’ Kate Marino and Felix Salmon — got FEAST on their first guess.

“It felt cheap,” says Kate, who felt cheated by the lack of problem-solving.

…In an informal Twitter poll, about 85% of respondents said the themed answers were “too cute by half”.

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Agree. Classic NYT to make such a bit of whimsy into something serious and considered.
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How UK architecture has made homes vulnerable to extreme heat and cold • Washington Post

Philip Kennicott, Simon Ducroquet, Frank Hulley-Jones and Aaron Steckelberg:

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The Liverpool home of Hazel Tilley, a retired hospital social worker, is a two-floor house on Cairns Street, built in the second half of the 19th century to serve the city’s working class. Homes like this one — two rooms downstairs, two (and sometimes three) bedrooms upstairs, with a side hall and a kitchen to the rear — are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom.

Built with solid walls, they lack the cavity space that makes it easier to insulate new construction. Their existing heating systems are often decades old, and inefficient. And adding new systems — wires, pipes, heating and cooling elements — can be complicated.

In the age of climate change, they also present a policy challenge: They will never be as efficient as a well-designed modern house but demolishing and replacing them would only pump more carbon into the atmosphere. The challenge is to learn how to operate them for maximum thermal efficiency.
Unlike some of her neighbors, who have removed walls and opened the living space, Tilley kept her house in its original configuration. “I like it,” she says. “It was easier to heat small rooms.”

In a typical terrace house, the hall may be chilly but the small parlors have coal fireplaces. When the doors to these small rooms are closed, they can be heated to a relative degree of comfort. With a few tweaks, Tilley’s house performed well during the heat wave, too, she says. “Closing curtains at the front, but not the back, and opening the back windows — it was fairly easy to keep cool,” she says.

Owners of these homes often don’t have the resources to improve them. And when they do, they may be more interested in adapting them to modern lifestyles. And thermal retrofits can have unforeseen consequences: tweaking a house toward greater warmth in the winter may make it more uncomfortable in the summer. And vice versa: More open plans can improve ventilation in the summer while making spaces harder to heat during colder months.

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Wonderful graphics showing the interior design and heat efficiency of different sorts of houses. Britain does have a challenge: if the outside temperature can go from 40ºC to -10ºC, how do you make your home efficient? (Thanks G 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

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