Start Up No.1948: Google shows off its search chatbot Bard, former Twitter staff tell the real story, let’s mine the moon!, and more

In China, pig farming has been taken to dramatic new levels of industrialisation, with 26-floor towers in the middle of rural villages. CC-licensed photo by jennicatpinkjennicatpink 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 10 links for you. Even the squeak? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google shows off new AI search features, but a ChatGPT rival is still weeks away • The Verge

James Vincent:


Google demoed its latest advances in AI search at a live event in Paris on Wednesday — but the features pale in comparison to Microsoft’s announcement yesterday of the “new Bing,” which the company has demoed extensively to the press and offered limited public access to.

In perhaps the most interesting demo, Google showed off how it will use generative AI in the future to summarize information from the web. In the demo, the company showed a search for the question “what are the best constellations to look for while stargazing?” with an AI-generated response highlighting a few key options and how to spot them.

“New generative AI features will help us organize complex information and multiple viewpoints right in search results,” said Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan. “With this you’ll be able to quickly understand the big picture and then go on to explore different angles.”

Raghavan referred to this sort of response as a “NORA” reply — standing for “no one right answer.” (A common criticism of AI-generated search responses is that they tend to pick a single answer as definitive.) He did not specify when this feature would be available.


Google drew some heat for including a suggestion in its pre-publicity that the James Webb Space Telescope took the first picture of an exoplanet (last month), when in fact it was the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in 2004.

FT Alphaville tried to argue that Bard wasn’t wrong, but I think it’s wrong.

Also – Bard is weeks away? That’s nothing. Most people have no idea ChatGPT exists.
unique link to this extract

Her car died, so she walked to work. One day on the walk, she found $15,000 • The Seattle Times

Sydney Page:


Dianne Gordon’s green Jeep Liberty broke down about a year ago, and ever since, she’s been walking 2.7 miles each way to and from work, five days a week. Her car couldn’t be fixed, and Gordon, 65, couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

It takes her about an hour to walk from her home in White Lake Township, Mich., to VC’s Fresh Marketplace in Waterford Township, where she works behind the deli counter, slicing meat and serving salads. When her shift is over, she walks home.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Gordon, who lives alone. “I had to have a positive attitude.”

Gordon’s regular walks are usually uneventful. On Jan. 21, though, she spotted something unexpected: A Ziploc bag, filled with $14,780.

About 5:30 p.m. that day, Gordon was on her usual walk home. It was a notably cold afternoon, and she decided to stop at a gas station for a snack.

As she opened the door, “I happened to look down, and there was a bag of money,” Gordon said. “I picked it up, and there were some papers that went with it, and I turned it over, and there was even more money.”

She knew the money would be life-changing for her, she said, but she refrained from opening the cash-filled bag.

“I just looked at it, and I knew it wasn’t mine,” Gordon said. “I knew what I needed to do.”

She went into the gas station, clutching the bag of cash in her hands, and immediately called the police.


Ah, but what happened next? That’s what makes this worth reading.
unique link to this extract

Republicans, aided by Musk, accuse Big Tech of colluding with Democrats • The Washington Post

Cat Zakrzewski and Cristiano Lima:


Soon after Elon Musk took over Twitter, he began promoting screenshots of internal company documents that he said exposed “free speech suppression” on the social media platform during the 2020 election. Republicans were thrilled.

On Wednesday, Musk’s “Twitter Files” took center stage in a combative Capitol Hill hearing, as GOP leaders attempted to turn Twitter’s decision to briefly block sharing a New York Post story about the president’s son into evidence of a broad conspiracy. Conservatives have long argued that Silicon Valley favors Democrats by systematically suppressing right-wing viewpoints on social media. These allegations have evolved in nearly a half-decade of warnings, as politicians in Washington and beyond fixate on the industry’s communications with the FBI and Democratic leaders, seeking to cast the opposing party as against free speech.

“Twitter … was a private company that the federal government used to do what it cannot: limit the constitutional free exercise of speech,” said House Oversight Committee chair James Comer, flanked by a poster displaying the New York Post story. He added that the committee now knows all of this “because of Elon Musk,” joining a chorus of Republicans praising the mercurial billionaire throughout the hearing.

The testimony of former Twitter executives repeatedly contradicted these accusations. Still, Republicans plowed ahead with unsubstantial allegations of collusion between government officials and the company’s old regime. After one former Twitter executive testified that most of his interactions with the FBI were about foreign interference, Rep. Jim Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, shot back: “I think you guys got played.”

At times, the hearing veered away from Republican aims as Anika Collier Navaroli, a company whistleblower, brought forward new testimony alleging conservatives influenced the social network. The company changed its policies to accommodate Trump’s rule-breaking tweet, according to Navaroli, and the Trump White House asked Twitter to remove an insulting tweet about the former president, posted by the television personality Chrissy Teigen.


It’s all performative by the Republicans to get video clips for their social media campaigns.
unique link to this extract

China’s bid to improve food production? Giant towers of pigs • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Claire Fu:


The first sows arrived in late September at the hulking, 26-story high-rise towering above a rural village in central China. The female pigs were whisked away dozens at a time in industrial elevators to the higher floors where the hogs would reside from insemination to maturity.

This is pig farming in China, where agricultural land is scarce, food production is lagging and pork supply is a strategic imperative.

Inside the hulking edifice, which resembles the monolithic housing blocks seen across China and stands as tall as the London tower that houses Big Ben, the pigs are monitored on high-definition cameras by uniformed technicians in a NASA-like command center. Each floor operates like a self-contained farm for the different stages of a young pig’s life: an area for pregnant pigs, a room for farrowing piglets, spots for nursing and space for fattening the young hogs.

Feed is carried on a conveyor belt to the top floor, where it’s collected in giant tanks that deliver more than one million pounds of food a day to the floors below through high-tech feeding troughs that automatically dispense the meal to the hogs based on their stage of life, weight and health.
The building, located on the outskirts of Ezhou, a city on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, is being hailed as the world’s biggest free-standing pig farm with a second identical hog high-rise opening soon. The first farm started operating in October, and once both buildings reach full capacity later this year, it is expected to raise 1.2 million pigs annually.


You have to see the picture of the outside of the tower. It’s astonishing. Plus you really have to wonder about the potential for disease spread. And, er, would you want to live downwind?
unique link to this extract

A solution to the climate crisis: mining the moon, researchers say • The Guardian

Oliver Milman:


Proponents of a “moonshot” idea to deal with global heating have been handed a new, very literal, interpretation by researchers who have proposed firing plumes of moon dust from a gun into space in order to deflect the sun’s rays away from Earth.

The seemingly outlandish concept, outlined in a new research paper, would involve creating a “solar shield” in space by mining the moon of millions of tons of its dust and then “ballistically eject[ing]” it to a point in space about 1m miles from Earth, where the floating grains would partially block incoming sunlight.

“A really exciting part of our study was the realization that the natural lunar dust grains are just the right size and composition for efficiently scattering sunlight away from Earth,” said Ben Bromley, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Utah, who led the research, published in Plos Climate.

“Since it takes much less energy to launch these grains from the moon’s surface, as compared with an Earth launch, the ‘moonshot’ idea really stood out for us.”

Bromley and two other researchers considered a variety of properties, including coal and sea salt, that could dim the sun by as much as 2% if fired into space. The team eventually settled on the dust found on the moon, although millions of tons would have to be mined, sifted and loaded into a ballistic device, such as an electromagnetic rail gun, and fired into space each year into order to maintain this solar shield.


What an amazing idea. But why go to the moon? Why not just see if we can trigger some volcanoes? That dimmed the sun in The Year Without a Summer, and even gave us Frankenstein.
unique link to this extract

Book review: “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal” by Justin Gregg • The Guardian

PD Smith:


rather than being our crowning glory as a species, is it possible that human intelligence is in fact a liability, the source of our existential angst and increasingly apparent talent for self-destruction? This is the question Gregg sets out to answer in his entertaining and original book.

It is the very complexity of our intelligence that may well make us less successful in evolutionary terms
The delightfully absurd title stems from his claim that the 19th-century German philosopher, who had depression and eventually dementia, was “the quintessential example of how too much profundity can literally break your brain”. The “soul-tortured Nietzsche”, who sought meaning in suffering, is an example of how, as a species, we are simply too smart for our own good. By contrast, the narwhal (“one of my favourite marine animals”) demonstrates the fact that, from an evolutionary perspective, intelligence and complex thought are often a hindrance: “The absurdity of a narwhal experiencing an existential crisis is the key to understanding everything that is wrong about human thinking, and everything that is right about animal thinking.”

In search of evidence to support this theory, Gregg explores the nature of intelligence. Although non-human animals may have simpler minds than us, they are no less successful in their own way than we are, and do far less harm to their fellow beings: “The Earth is bursting with animal species that have hit on solutions for how to live a good life in ways that put the human species to shame.”


The dinosaurs got on pretty well, after all, and it’s arguable whether we’d do any better at diverting the asteroid. I often wonder what a planet full of dogs would be like. Quite happy, perhaps?
unique link to this extract

UK proposes making the sale and possession of encrypted phones illegal • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:


A section of the UK government has proposed making the sale or possession of bespoke encrypted phones for crime a criminal offence in its own right. The measure is intended to help the country’s law enforcement agencies tackle organized crime and those who facilitate it, but civil liberties experts tell Motherboard the proposal is overbroad and poorly defined, meaning it could sweep up other forms of secure communication used by the wider population if not adjusted.

The news highlights law enforcement’s continued targeting of the encrypted phone industry. Alongside technical operations, undercover investigations, and even creating their own phone company to secretly harvest messages, authorities are increasingly exploring legislative options too.

“At the moment the government proposal appears to be vague and overly broad. While it states that the provisions ‘will not apply to commercially available mobile phones nor the encrypted messaging apps available on them’ it is difficult to see how it will not result in targeting devices used on a daily [basis] by human rights defenders, protesters and pretty much all of us who want to keep our data secure,” Ioannis Kouvakas, senior legal officer and assistant general counsel at UK-based activism organization Privacy International, told Motherboard in an email.


Of course it’s Suella Braverman’s Home Office: here’s the document. The document specifies Encrochat, which were specially made for serious criminals. But that was infiltrated. Making the possession a crime is quite a step.
unique link to this extract

How living on Mars would warp the human body •

Troy Farah:


“We don’t know what a third of the [gravity] will do for us, we don’t know if it’ll provide any protection or if you can make use of that to give yourself enough gravitational loading to protect your skeleton and your muscles over time,” Fong says. “We don’t know, but we suspect that you’re going to need some sort of countermeasures.”

That means we’ll need to bring lots of medications and drugs to Mars, to anticipate every scenario, because we won’t be able to jog down to Walgreens if someone needs heart medications or a sleep aid. Unfortunately, we also don’t know much about how these meds might fare in space travel or if they’ll act differently in our bodies under the unique conditions of Mars.

Likewise, the psychological effects could be staggering for the first humans in history to completely lose sight of the Earth. This could have unforeseen mental health consequences.

“The suite of threats that presents to you on Mars are unique and poorly understood,” Fong says, noting that a day on Mars is about 37 minutes longer than an Earth day. “It’s dark out there. It messes with your circadian rhythms because the day is slightly longer. It’s just enough out of sync that it really messes you up. And you’re very isolated. Psychologically, there’s some not insignificant problems.”

Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere, magnetic field or an ozone layer, three things which make life a lot more comfortable on Earth. This means there’s still plenty of cancer-causing radiation on Mars (though slightly less than in space). And if you stepped outside sans spacesuit, the extreme cold would freeze you to death while the low atmospheric pressure would cause your blood to boil inside your veins. Life on Mars would be a life spent entirely indoors, unless you count being trapped inside a restrictive spacesuit as “outdoors.”


I dunno, it seems like timeshares there just aren’t going to work.
unique link to this extract

Chip suppliers warn on EU plan to bar ‘forever chemicals’ • Financial Times

Cheng Ting-Fang and Alice Hancock:


Five European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, on Tuesday proposed that the EU phase out tens of thousands of so-called forever chemicals, known as PFAS, used in the production of semiconductors, batteries, aircraft, cars, medical equipment and even frying pans and ski wax.

The ban would constitute “the broadest restriction proposal in history”, Frauke Averbeck, who led the proposal for the German Environment Agency, said. “It’s a huge step for us to take.”

“If no action is taken we estimate that the societal costs will exceed the costs without a restriction,” said Richard Luit, senior policy adviser at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and Environment. However, industry executives warned that a broad ban could have severe consequences for many sectors. Chemours, a leading supplier of high-end fluoropolymers, warned that the chemicals were “absolutely critical” for semiconductor manufacturing as well as a wide range of other industries.

“If we do not have these, there would be very severe global disruption,” said Denise Dignam, Chemours’ head of advanced performance materials. “I can’t think of how you would run these [semiconductor] manufacturing processes without these materials.” 

…PFAS are extensively used across industry and in consumer products because of their resistance to high temperatures and corrosion. In many cases there are no manufacturing alternatives. Their “forever chemicals” moniker stems from the fact that their carbon-fluorine bonds are among the strongest in organic chemistry, which means that they do not break down easily and accumulate over time in humans and in the environment. Several have been linked with impairments to unborn babies and damage to human internal organs as well as contaminating water and wildlife.


Challenging: what happens when you have a chemical that’s essential but also a serious problem over time? See also: oil.
unique link to this extract

The evolution of Facebook’s iOS app architecture

Dustin Shahidehpour is a software engineer (for the past nine years) at Meta:


Facebook for iOS (FBiOS) is the oldest mobile codebase at Meta. Since the app was rewritten in 2012, it has been worked on by thousands of engineers and shipped to billions of users, and it can support hundreds of engineers iterating on it at a time.

After years of iteration, the Facebook codebase does not resemble a typical iOS codebase:

• It’s full of C++, Objective-C(++), and Swift.
• It has dozens of dynamically loaded libraries (dylibs), and so many classes that they can’t be loaded into Xcode at once.
• There is almost zero raw usage of Apple’s SDK — everything has been wrapped or replaced by an in-house abstraction.
• The app makes heavy use of code generation, spurred by Buck, our custom build system.
• Without heavy caching from our build system, engineers would have to spend an entire workday waiting for the app to build.

FBiOS was never intentionally architected this way. The app’s codebase reflects 10 years of evolution, spurred by technical decisions necessary to support the growing number of engineers working on the app, its stability, and, above all, the user experience.


This reminds me a little of how biology teachers explain that the human body has evolved all sorts of design flaws: each step logically followed the previous one, until you end up with a mess that somehow just-about works, until it doesn’t and you die. John Gruber calls this post a cry for help, and it certainly seems like an app that can’t all actually be loaded into XCode is like the human pelvis being normally too narrow for a baby’s shoulders.

But you can refactor code.

(Shahidehpour’s CV includes two years as “drumline performer” for the Chicago Bulls, which seems literally to mean he was one of those folk who marches around banging a drum.)
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

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1948: Google shows off its search chatbot Bard, former Twitter staff tell the real story, let’s mine the moon!, and more

    • Sometimes that’s how it is. Paywalls help pay for journalism! And you can be sure you won’t get malware from a paywall.

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 )

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.