Start Up No.1925: the MPs who make a mint, Google launches medical LLM, Mastodon growth stops, not Mars!, and more

Surveillance capitalism dying from lack of data
Facebook’s business model is under serious threat in Europe following a GDPR decision. (Picture: surveillance capitalism dying from lack of data, as imagined by Stable Diffusion)

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A selection of 11 links for you. No, you’re welcome back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The slow death of surveillance capitalism has begun • WIRED UK

Morgan Meaker:


The ruling, which comes with a €390m ($414m) fine attached, is targeted specifically at Facebook and Instagram, but it’s a huge blow to Big Tech as a whole. It’s also a sign that GDPR, Europe’s landmark privacy law that was introduced in 2018, actually has teeth. More than 1,400 fines have been introduced since it took effect, but this time the bloc’s regulators have shown they are willing to take on the very business model that makes surveillance capitalism, a term coined by American scholar Shoshana Zuboff, tick. “It is the beginning of the end of the data free-for-all,” says Johnny Ryan, a privacy activist and senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

To appreciate why, you need to understand how Meta makes its billions. Right now, Meta users opt in to personalized advertising by agreeing to the company’s terms of service—a lengthy contract users must accept to use its products. In a ruling yesterday, Ireland’s data watchdog, which oversees Meta because the company’s EU headquarters are based in Dublin, said bundling personalized ads with terms of service in this way was a violation of GDPR. The ruling is a response to two complaints, both made on the day GDPR came into force in 2018.

…Research shows that when given the choice, a large chunk of Apple users (between 54% and 96%, according to different estimates) declined to be tracked. If Meta was forced to introduce a similar system, it would threaten one of the company’s main revenue streams.

Meta denies it has to alter the way it operates in response to the EU ruling, claiming it just needs to find a new way to legally justify how it processes people’s data. “We want to reassure users and businesses that they can continue to benefit from personalized advertising across the EU through Meta’s platforms,” the company said in a statement.

However Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist whose nonprofit NOYB filed both complaints addressed in the ruling, calls this response “PR bullshit” and argues that Meta is trying to avoid telling investors it has run out of legal arguments to defend its business model.


The biggest story, honestly, of the past three weeks. Sure, Facebook will still be able to track in the US, but Europe is a significant market.
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The Westminster Accounts – Explore the data • Tortoise


Every year, millions of pounds pour into Westminster – into the accounts of the people, groups, organisations and parties that work and operate at the centre of government. Although most of this money must technically be disclosed to the public, the way that information is reported, stored and displayed almost guarantees the records will not be widely scrutinised.

Payment records are spread across different government websites, often split into small files covering short periods of time and regularly published with duplicate entries, spelling mistakes and other errors. The data required to examine the financial interests of just one Member of Parliament is laborious to gather.

Tortoise Media and Sky News have programmatically collected and analysed thousands of donations and payment records from MPs, political parties, and all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs). The resulting database is an extensive, though not comprehensive, record of the financial interests in Westminster.


The list of MPs and what they’ve received is amazing. You’re unlikely to guess the top outside earner without a hint (think: former prime minister; no, not that one), and the top 20 is full of surprises.
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Google and DeepMind just launched MedPaLM, a medical large language model • Interesting Engineering

Loukia Papadopoulos:


MedPaLM addresses multiple-choice questions and questions posed by medical professionals and non-professionals through the delivery of various datasets. These datasets come from MedQA, MedMCQA, PubMedQA, LiveQA, MedicationQA, and MMLU. A new dataset of curated, frequently searched medical inquiries called HealthSearchQA was also added to improve MultiMedQA.

The HealthsearchQA dataset consists of 3,375 frequently asked consumer questions. It was collected by using seed medical diagnoses and their related symptoms. This model was developed on PaLM, a 540 billion parameter LLM, and its instruction-tuned variation Flan-PaLM to evaluate LLMs using MultiMedQA.

Med-PaLM currently claims to perform particularly well especially compared to Flan-PaLM. It still, however, needs to outperform a human medical expert’s judgment. Up to now, a group of healthcare professionals determined that 92.6% of the Med-PaLM responses were on par with clinician-generated answers (92.9%).

This is surprising as only 61.9% of the long-form Flan-PaLM answers were deemed to be in line with doctor assessments. Meanwhile, only 5.8% of Med-PaLM answers were deemed to potentially contribute to negative consequences, compared to 6.5% of clinician-generated answers and 29.7% of Flan-PaLM answers. This means that Med-PaLM replies are much safer.


Well, much safer than Flan-PaLM, but not that much different from humans. Also, who gets the malpractice suit when someone is badly injured by a bad decision from Med-PaLM?
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Elon Musk drove more than a million people to Mastodon – but many aren’t sticking around • The Guardian

Josh Nicholas:


The number of active users on the Mastodon social network has dropped more than 30% since the peak and is continuing a slow decline, according to the latest data posted on its website. There were about 1.8 million active users in the first week of January, down from over 2.5 million in early December.

Mastodon, an open-source network of largely independently hosted servers, has often been touted as an alternative to Twitter. And its growth appears connected to controversies at Twitter. But for many it doesn’t fulfil the role that Twitter did and experts say it may be too complicated to really replace it.

“Twitter, in its most basic form is simple,” Meg Coffey, a social media strategist, said. “You can open up an app or open up a website, type some words, and you’re done. I mean, it was [a] basic SMS platform.”

There were about 500,000 active Mastodon users before Elon Musk took control of Twitter at the end of October. By mid-November, that number climbed to almost 2 million active users.

…For many, Mastodon may have proved too hard to port over their communities and was just too complicated. Some may have gone back to Twitter, while others, said Coffey, may have dropped social media entirely.

“Everybody went and signed up [on Mastodon] and realised how hard it was, and then got back on Twitter and were like, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s hard. Maybe we won’t go there,’” she said.


The experience isn’t as rewarding, partly because of the much lower number of users, partly because there’s less serendipity, but also because there’s no good app for it – yet. The makers of Tweetbot, a very good third-party Twitter app, are working on a Mastodon one; that might make a differencce.
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Twitter cuts more staff overseeing global content moderation • BNN Bloomberg

Davey Alba and Kurt Wagner:


At least a dozen more cuts on Friday night affected workers in the company’s Dublin and Singapore offices, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public changes.

They included Nur Azhar Bin Ayob, the head of site integrity for Twitter’s Asia-Pacific region, a relatively recent hire; and Analuisa Dominguez, Twitter’s senior director of revenue policy.

Workers on teams handling the social network’s misinformation policy, global appeals and state media on the platform were also eliminated.

Ms Ella Irwin, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, confirmed several members of the teams were cut but denied that they targeted some of the areas mentioned by Bloomberg.

“It made more sense to consolidate teams under one leader (instead of two) for example,” Ms Irwin said in an emailed response to a request for comment.

She said Twitter did eliminate roles in areas of the company that didn’t get enough “volume” to justify continued support. But she said that Twitter had increased staffing in its appeals department, and that it would continue to have a head of revenue policy and a head for the platform’s Asia-Pacific region for trust and safety.


Content moderation no, appeals yes. Of course it makes no sense.
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Ministers are set to ban throwaway plastic that kills wildlife • Mail On Sunday

Claire Ellicot:


Ministers consulted on plans to ban single-use plastic items in 2021 backed by overwhelming public support. It means that businesses who use them will have to invest in sustainable alternatives to cut down on excess plastic.

Ms Coffey said: ‘A plastic fork can take 200 years to decompose – that is two centuries in landfill or polluting our oceans.

‘I am determined to drive forward action to tackle this issue head on. We know there is more to do, and we have again listened to the public’s calls.

“This new ban will have a huge impact to stop the pollution of billions of pieces of plastic and help to protect the natural environment for future generations.”

The ban will not cover plastic plates, bowls and trays that are used as packaging for takeaway food and drink in supermarkets and shops – but will cover packaging for food and drink that is eaten at a restaurant, cafe or takeaway.

This is because takeaway packaging is covered by a separate scheme which will make manufacturers contribute to the cost of disposing of their plastic packaging. That is due to come in next year.

The proposals require parliamentary approval and will be introduced in England from October to allow businesses time to prepare.

Each person currently uses an average of 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery every year in England. It was among the top 15 most littered items in 2020.«

Guess they’ll move to wooden cutlery and paper/cardboard containers instead? Surely a good thing.
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Riddle solved: why was Roman concrete so durable? • MIT News


For many years, researchers have assumed that the key to the ancient concrete’s durability [measured in thousands of years, rather than decades for the modern form] was based on one ingredient: pozzolanic material such as volcanic ash from the area of Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples. This specific kind of ash was even shipped all across the vast Roman empire to be used in construction, and was described as a key ingredient for concrete in accounts by architects and historians at the time.

Under closer examination, these ancient samples also contain small, distinctive, millimeter-scale bright white mineral features, which have been long recognized as a ubiquitous component of Roman concretes. These white chunks, often referred to as “lime clasts,” originate from lime, another key component of the ancient concrete mix. “Ever since I first began working with ancient Roman concrete, I’ve always been fascinated by these features,” says Masic. “These are not found in modern concrete formulations, so why are they present in these ancient materials?”

Previously disregarded as merely evidence of sloppy mixing practices, or poor-quality raw materials, the new study suggests that these tiny lime clasts gave the concrete a previously unrecognized self-healing capability.


Figuring out why Roman concrete lasts so long has been a sort of white whale for civil engineers and scientists. Now, it seems, landed. Except… this Twitter thread says it’s all baloney, that we’ve known this for ages, lots of old Roman concrete just fell down (survivor bias!), and that modern concrete is better.
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Why not Mars • Idle Words

Maciej Cieglowski:


When you hold on to a belief so strongly that neither facts nor reason can change it, what you are doing is no longer science, but religion. So I’ve come to believe the best way to look at our Mars program is as a faith-based initiative. There is a small cohort of people who really believe in going to Mars, the way some people believe in ghosts or cryptocurrency, and this group has an outsize effect on our space program.

At NASA, the faith takes the form of a cargo cult. The agency has persuaded itself that re-enacting the Moon landings with enough fidelity will reward them with a trip to Mars, bringing back the limitless budgets, uncomplicated patriotism, and rapt public attention of the early sixties. They send up their rockets with the same touching faith that keeps Amtrak hauling empty dining cars across the prairie, dreaming of the golden age of rail.

Outside of NASA, the Mars faith shades darker. It is part of a transhumanist worldview that holds mankind must either spread to the stars or die. Elon Musk, the Martian spiritual leader, has talked about the need to “preserve the light of consciousness” by making us a multiplanetary species. As he sees it, Mars is our only way off of a planet crawling with existential risk. And it’s not just enough to explore mars; we have make it a backup for all civilization. Failing to stock it with subsistence farming incels would be tantamount to humanity lying down in its open grave.

That is some heavy stuff to lay on a small, rocky world.


It’s a delight to report that Maiej is back from a self-imposed one-year break from Twitter, and from blogging, and that I can still spell his name without looking it up. Plus there’s this:


The difficult and unglamorous problems of a Mars mission—how do you wash your socks? What is there to eat?— get no love from Elon [Musk]. Once you get beyond “rocket factory go brrrrr,” there is no plan, just a familiar fog of Musky woo. The Mars rockets will refuel from autonomous robot factories powered by sunlight. Their crews will be shielded from radiation by some form of electromagnetic handwaving. Life support, the hardest practical problem in space travel, “is actually quite easy”. And of course Musk dismisses the problem of microbial contamination (which I can’t emphasize enough is governed by international treaty) as both inevitable and no big deal.


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Dell looks to phase out ‘made in China’ chips by 2024 • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang:


U.S. computer maker Dell aims to stop using chips made in China by 2024 and has told suppliers to significantly reduce the amount of other “made in China” components in its products as part of efforts to diversify its supply chain amid concerns over Washington-Beijing tensions.

The world’s third-largest computer maker by shipments told suppliers late last year that it aims to “meaningfully lower” the amount of China-made chips it uses, including those produced at facilities owned by non-Chinese chipmakers, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Nikkei Asia.

Dell’s goal is to have all chips used in its products produced in plants located outside China by 2024, they said.

The move is the latest example of how the tech war between the U.S. and China is accelerating electronics makers’ efforts to diversify production away from Asia’s biggest economy.

“The goal is quite aggressive. The determined shift involves not only those chips that are currently made by Chinese chipmakers but also at the facilities in China of non-Chinese suppliers,” one person with direct knowledge of the matter said. “If suppliers don’t have responding measures, they could eventually lose orders from Dell.”


Dell was the poster child for moving all its manufacture to China (and then getting ripped off by OEMs). Seems like it isn’t going to stop making PCs in China; just the chips. Baby steps.
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Alexa and Gmail: Big Tech’s billion dollar curse of the free • The Register

Rupert Goodwins:


Google is in an even worse position [than Amazon with Alexa], not from the amount of red ink currently bleeding from its Cloud division, but because of its room to manoeuver is far less. There are around 4 billion email accounts in the world, and around 1.8 billion of those are Gmail. When you run a service for that many users, they run you.

Forget smart speakers, the ultimate digital assistant is email. You can’t get more intimately entwined with a user’s digital life than that. As well as business and personal correspondence, email is the primary management interface for identity on other services, the major personal archive, the butler of daily life. Losing access to your primary email account is beyond traumatic. Google is notably brutal in pulling the plug on popular services it considers no longer interesting, but surely Gmail would be impossible to shrug off. And it must be profitable, with all those users. Right?

It is very far from clear that it is. Google isn’t saying. Gmail, like G Suite-cum-Workspace and the whole bouquet of user and business-facing appified services, is reported as part of Google Cloud, which is losing a lot of money now and perhaps a lot more next year. There are subscription models and a little advertising which will be making some money. Clearly not enough.

An easier way to judge Gmail’s hue in the revenue spreadsheet is to ask yourself as a personal Gmail user, how much you’re being monetized. The old adage that if you don’t pay, you’re the product, cut both ways. Products cost, especially if you’re buying billions.

Advertising within Gmail is very low key and easy to avoid altogether, and Google is very clear that it doesn’t monetize your email content: “We do not scan or read your Gmail messages to show you ads.“ Google has played fast and loose about how it uses data, but if it cheated here it would be beyond catastrophic.

If Google isn’t making any money from you on Gmail, and there are billions like you, the numbers can explode in no time. Even if the company’s only losing a cent a day per free user, that’s $3.5bn a year for a billion users.


Uncomfortable for Google, but as it makes about 20 times that amount in net profit each year even *with* this fiscal drag, perhaps not so worrying.
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Disguising solar panels as ancient Roman tiles in Pompeii • Techxplore

Diego Giulani:


Each year over 3.5 million tourists from all over the world visit Pompeii to admire the ruins left by the eruption of the Vesuvius that, in 79 AD, engulfed it together with the nearby city of Herculaneum. Some of them might have bumped into the sheep which have been recently introduced to mow the grass in the archaeological park. But certainly none of them will have seen the solar panels on the magnificent House of Cerere.

“They look exactly like the terracotta tiles used by the Romans, but they produce the electricity that we need to light the frescoes,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. This solution is part of a more comprehensive strategy to turn costs into savings opportunities and to embrace sustainable development.

“Pompeii is an ancient city which in some spots is fully preserved. Since we needed an extensive lightning system, we could either keep consuming energy, leaving poles and cables around and disfiguring the landscape, or choose to respect it and save millions of euros.”

Technically called “traditional PV tiles“, the invisible solar panels used in Pompeii come from Camisano Vicentino, a little Italian town with slightly more than 10 000 inhabitants, halfway between Padua and Vicenza. They were created and patented by the family business Dyaqua.


You have to see the picture: they look exactly like normal clay tiles (follow the link in the extract). Remarkable.
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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

1 thought on “Start Up No.1925: the MPs who make a mint, Google launches medical LLM, Mastodon growth stops, not Mars!, and more

  1. As someone who got grief for being an “early non-adopter” of Twitter, back when the chattering class was in love with its benefits to them, I’m darkly amused at all the current hype for Mastodon. As far as I can see, it’s based on apparently nothing more than said chattering class losing political power over Twitter. It’s something like the Internet version of people in the US who, when a Republican wins the presidency, say they want to move to Canada. Very few people actually move, but I believe Canadian immigration sites get a big boost in traffic at these times.

    Now, Canada is a fine country, but a large portion of the US is not going to move there. And if someone didn’t move there e.g. because the atrocious US health care system wasn’t a problem for them, though it bankrupts sick people every day, my sympathy over their existential angst from a Republican president is minimal.

    Mastodon has its use cases. But it’s revealing that so many people with big megaphones think that its killer app is roughly “Shunning the hated Great Techbro Satan and his MAGA minion trolls”. It’s quite a window into the mentality of what they consider crucial in life.

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