Start Up No.1950: the blurry world of LLMs, Microsoft cuts jobs, an outside view of Brexit regret, Twitter in 25 tweets, and more

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have swapped weapons and war for deskbound jobs. And they find it utterly boring. CC-licensed photo by ResoluteSupportMediaResoluteSupportMedia on Flickr.

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Last Friday, there was another post due at the Social Warming Substack. The latest was “ChatGPT gets its iPhone moment; but does that make humans the PCs?

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

ChatGPT is a blurry JPEG of the web • The New Yorker

Ted Chiang is an SF writer (he wrote the short story that prompted the film Arrival) and a technical writer the rest of the time:


a common technique used by lossy compression algorithms is interpolation—that is, estimating what’s missing by looking at what’s on either side of the gap. When an image program is displaying a photo and has to reconstruct a pixel that was lost during the compression process, it looks at the nearby pixels and calculates the average. This is what ChatGPT does when it’s prompted to describe, say, losing a sock in the dryer using the style of the Declaration of Independence: it is taking two points in “lexical space” and generating the text that would occupy the location between them. (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one to separate his garments from their mates, in order to maintain the cleanliness and order thereof. . . .”) ChatGPT is so good at this form of interpolation that people find it entertaining: they’ve discovered a “blur” tool for paragraphs instead of photos, and are having a blast playing with it.

Given that large language models like ChatGPT are often extolled as the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, it may sound dismissive—or at least deflating—to describe them as lossy text-compression algorithms. I do think that this perspective offers a useful corrective to the tendency to anthropomorphize large language models…

…Large language models identify statistical regularities in text. Any analysis of the text of the Web will reveal that phrases like “supply is low” often appear in close proximity to phrases like “prices rise.” A chatbot that incorporates this correlation might, when asked a question about the effect of supply shortages, respond with an answer about prices increasing. If a large language model has compiled a vast number of correlations between economic terms—so many that it can offer plausible responses to a wide variety of questions—should we say that it actually understands economic theory?


This, by my reckoning, is the best article framing how to understand Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT. Read it all, especially the opening example about Xerox. (Thanks Wendyg for the link.)
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Magazine publishes serious errors in first AI-generated health article • Futurism

Jon Christian:


Take the very first article the bot published in Men’s Journal, which carries the title “What All Men Should Know About Low Testosterone,” and the human-sounding byline “Men’s Fitness Editors.” The story issued a cornucopia of medical claims, nutrition and lifestyle advice, and even suggested a specific medical treatment in the form of testosterone replacement therapy, all aimed at readers looking for guidance on a serious health issue.

Like most AI-generated content, the article was written with the confident authority of an actual expert. It sported academic-looking citations, and a disclosure at the top lent extra credibility by assuring readers that it had been “reviewed and fact-checked by our editorial team.” 

But on closer inspection, the whole thing fell apart. Bradley Anawalt, the chief of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center who has held leadership positions at the Endocrine Society, reviewed the article and told Futurism that it contained persistent factual mistakes and mischaracterizations of medical science that provide readers with a profoundly warped understanding of health issues.

“This article has many inaccuracies and falsehoods,” he said. “It lacks many of the nuances that are crucial to understand normal male health.”

Anawalt pointed to 18 specific errors he identified in the article. Some were flagrantly wrong about basic medical topics, like equating low blood testosterone with hypogonadism, a more expansive medical term. Others claimed sweeping links between diet, testosterone levels, and psychological symptoms that Anawalt says just aren’t supported by data.


Fortunately, no man in the world believes he has low testosterone, so no harm done. If it had been something to do with excess testosterone, on the other hand…
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Microsoft cuts jobs in HoloLens, Surface, Xbox as layoffs continue • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Dina Bass:


Microsoft Corp., implementing the layoff of 10,000 workers announced last month, on Thursday cut jobs in units including Surface devices, HoloLens mixed reality hardware and Xbox, according to people familiar with the matter.

Cuts to much of the HoloLens hardware team throw into question whether the company will produce a third iteration of the goggles outside of a planned version for the US Army, said the people, who declined to be named discussing confidential matters. At the Xbox gaming unit, reductions came in marketing and the Xbox Gaming Ecosystem Group, one of the people said.

Xbox chief Phil Spencer emailed employees Thursday to let them know about the cuts without detailing what parts of his business were impacted. “I encourage everyone to take the time and space necessary to process these changes and support your colleagues,” Spencer wrote in the email, which was seen by Bloomberg.

Microsoft declined to comment on the cuts, but said it remains committed to the mixed reality space and the current HoloLens 2 version. “While we don’t comment on specific staffing details, we can share there are no changes to HoloLens 2 and our commitment to mixed reality,” the company said in an emailed statement that pointed to a blog post from last week about its commitment.


So the Surface group hasn’t escaped. (Unsurprising given the way PC sales are forecast to dive this year.) Contrast with all the money being poured into ChatGPT/Bing.
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Taliban bureaucrats hate working online all day, ‘miss the days of jihad’ • Vice

Matthew Gault:


The Taliban may have won the war in Afghanistan, but the jihadists who once spent their days riding horses in the countryside are now stuck behind a desk, lamenting their boring computer jobs, spending all their time on Twitter, high rent, and commutes to work.

It’s been almost two years since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took over. In that time, the country’s new leaders have had time to take over its industries, occupy its buildings, and get very bored of the day-to-day drudgery of running the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

In a series of interviews with five former mujahideen turned government functionaries and police officers, the Afghanistan Analytics Network shed light on the inner lives of the men who spent a lifetime fighting an empire only to win and have to run a country.

The Afghanistan Analytics Network is a non-profit research agency. Researcher Sabawoon Samin conducted the interviews in person, primarily in Kabul. He interviewed five members of the Taliban to see how they’re adjusting to victory. “They ranged in age from 24 to 32 and had spent between six and 11 years in the Taliban, at different ranks: a Taliban commander, a sniper, a deputy commander and two fighters,” Samin said in his piece. After the fall of the Islamic Republic, the men secured jobs for the new government in Kabul. Two got civilian jobs and the other three got security positions. 

Huzaifa, a former sniper, said life was simple and free during jihad. “All we had to deal with was making plans for ta’aruz [attacks] against the enemy and for retreating,” he said. “People didn’t expect much from us, and we had little responsibility towards them, whereas now if someone is hungry, he deems us directly responsible for that…the Taliban used to be free of restrictions, but now we sit in one place, behind a desk and a computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Life’s become so wearisome; you do the same things every day. Being away from the family has only doubled the problem.”


Maybe this is the way the war is won: by boring the former fighters to death. Sadly, thousands are starving to death in the meantime, and women being denied access to education. (Via Helen Lewis’s excellent Bluestocking.)
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Why Britain has Brexit regret • Sydney Morning Herald

Tom Birts, an Australian abroad, bringing an Antipodean eye to Brits’ current situation:


I kept thinking about the electric meter. I remembered that, apart from the room we were in, all the lights were off.

We drove to London because the trains weren’t running. Oxford Street was busy. “See,” said London, “everything is normal.” I asked a man in a shop about sending something back to Australia. “We’ve been advised not to send anything abroad,” he said. “Not until we hear otherwise. We can’t guarantee it will get there.”

At a christening, we stood around and talked about the cost of living. They wouldn’t stand for this in France, we agreed. There would be riots.

What’s stoicism? What’s indifference? Which one keeps you from drowning?

Shortly before we’d arrived, my friend’s dad had a heart attack. We heard that the wait for an ambulance would have been nine hours, so my friend drove him to the hospital instead. He’s still alive, but the wait for an ambulance is longer now.

While we were there, a relative found themselves in the state of diagnosis where nobody has said cancer, but everyone knows it’s cancer and what cancer might do. “They’re rushing me in,” she said. “That’s good,” I said. “When?” “Next Monday. Hopefully.”

Utilities, transport, healthcare … the things that make a country a success or a failure. The things that make a country function like a country. We stopped at more than one petrol station with no fuel, more than one with fuel but no way to take our bank cards. I laughed at a sign in one of their windows that read “Help Wanted”. Yeah, right.

Maybe a nation, like a sturdy vessel, can drift slowly and indefinitely towards the horizon. Maybe bits can fall off and not be replaced and the basic structure, the ribs, are enough to keep it going. Maybe the water stops pouring in when the ship sinks low enough.


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The 25 tweets that show how Twitter changed the world • The New York Times


On Wednesday, Twitter announced that users who pay extra will be able to send their thoughts into the world in tweets of up to 4,000 characters, instead of 280 or less. A few hours later, the site glitched. Users couldn’t tweet; they couldn’t DM; #TwitterDown began trending. All of it — the muddled sense of identity, the breakdown of basic function — confirmed the sense that Twitter, a site that has hosted the global conversation for almost two decades, had become a rickety shell of itself, that its best days were behind it and that it would never be as significant again.

But what, exactly, is being lost? We wanted to capture the ways that Twitter — a platform used by a tiny percentage of the world’s population — changed how we protest, consume news, joke and, of course, argue. So we set ourselves to the task of sorting through the trillions of tweets sent since 2006 to determine which were just noise and which deserved a place in the history books. And then we asked: Could we maybe even … rank them?


For those who don’t like the NYT paywall, this article is “gifted” so should be available to all. The selected tweets are well-chosen (by a galaxy of choosers). Has it passed its peak? Will it be able to survive? Speaking of which…
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More than half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers stopped spending on platform, data show • CNN Business

Clare Duffy:


More than half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers in September were no longer spending on the platform in the first weeks of January, according to data provided to CNN by digital marketing analysis firm Pathmatics, in a striking sign of how far reaching the advertiser exodus has been following Elon Musk’s acquisition of the company.

Some 625 of the top 1,000 Twitter advertisers, including major brands such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Jeep, Wells Fargo and Merck, had pulled their ad dollars as of January, according to estimates from Pathmatics, based on data running through January 25.

Wells Fargo said it “paused our paid advertising on Twitter” but continues to use it as a social channel to engage with customers. The other brands did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As a result of the pullback, monthly revenue from Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers plummeted by more than 60% from October through January 25, from around $127m to just over $48m, according to the data.

The data demonstrate the sharp decline of what was once a $4.5bn advertising business for Twitter. After Musk completed his takeover of the company in late October, advertisers began to worry about the safety and stability of the platform given his plans to cut staff and relax content moderation policies. In early November, Musk said Twitter had seen a “massive revenue drop.”


Not to worry, he’s fired all those costly engineers (and he’ll fire any more who say he’s not popular)! And he’s stopped paying rent! Cost control is going great!
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The Mastodon bump is now a slump • WIRED

Amanda Hoover:


Mastodon’s active monthly user count dropped to 1.4 million by late January. It now has nearly half a million fewer total registered users than at the start of the year. Many newcomers have complained that Mastodon is hard to use. Some have returned to the devilish bird they knew: Twitter.

After a decade of Big Tech dominating social media, the idea of a small, alternative, and open source platform like Mastodon growing into a truly mainstream challenger was alluring to some. The decentralized platform operates very differently from services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and demands volunteers take on the job of sustaining and moderating servers. That’s because Mastodon is part of the Fediverse, a network of servers running interoperable open source software.

Thanks to dedicated admins, many instances survived the flood of sign-ups and came back stronger. But Mastodon never was, and never will be, Twitter. For some, that’s what makes Mastodon valuable. To others, it’s a barrier. But the Twitter migration showed that Mastodon can adapt—and quickly. 

“The biggest lesson of what happened is that Mastodon and the rest of the Fediverse can scale. This was a big question,” says Robert Gehl, a professor of communication and media studies at York University in Canada. He has studied Mastodon and says it’s enjoyed peaks of interest followed by slumps before. But that pattern can still add momentum. “Each time, a percentage of the wave sticks,” Gehl says. “You get people converting to it.” 

During Mastodon’s Musk bump, admins worked hard to get servers swamped by new users back online. They crowdfunded money to pay for increased hosting bills and updated their policies on content moderation.


Wired feels as though it has a weird downer on Mastodon. Sure, it’s not as big as Twitter. Perhaps it will never be as big? But Twitter feels like a place that’s decaying.
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Nuclear Tourism: when atomic tests were a tourist attraction in Las Vegas • Rare Historical Photos


Las Vegas is known as the city of lights and, at one time, that light was the glow of an atomic detonation in the Nevada desert. Starting in 1951, the US Army began testing nuclear ordnances just 65 miles from Sin City.

At night, the glow of the bombs lit up the sky, and mushroom clouds could be spotted rising over the horizon during the day.

In classical American fashion, fear was not the only reaction. Vegas started becoming a destination for a certain type of people — Nuclear Tourists.

Let’s roll back to understand why Nevada was selected for nuclear testing. The Yucca Flats of Nevada was located in the center of the American wasteland, making it the perfect place for nuclear testing. First off by being located in the middle of the desert, it created very few threats to surrounding homes.

Additionally, over 87% of the Nevada area is owned by the federal government. It had vast available lands, sunny weather, and good rail connections. The nuclear detonations provided a source of spectacles and entertainment for people who did live in this area. As a result, Vegas began to experience a new influx of people from across the country who would travel thousands of miles in order to catch a glimpse of this new show.

Soon after Las Vegas was transformed from the original city of 25,000 people to the world-renown spectacle of three million people. Journalists began jumping on this new exciting event, and the topic of atomic tourism became the biggest headliner everywhere. Even writers in the New York Times began referring to it as, “the non- ancient but nonetheless honorable pastime of atom-bomb watching.”


I couldn’t find an author. But it’s really the pictures that are the thing. So blasé about looking at raw radiation. Plus the consequences: there were an estimated 10,000-75,000 cases of thyroid cancer as a result, and/or possibly 1,800 leukaemia deaths.
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Google Stadia had less than 10% of cloud gaming market share • 9to5 Google

Kyle Bradshaw:


In new statistics shared by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), we’ve learned that Google Stadia had significantly fewer active users than most other cloud gaming services.

Following Microsoft’s announcement of its intention to acquire Activision Blizzard, regulatory bodies around the world have taken action to investigate how such a merger would affect competition in the video game industry. Because Microsoft is responsible for Xbox Game Pass Streaming, the merger’s effect on cloud gaming has been a key point of contention.

The CMA has released its provisional findings, explaining in great detail the ways that a merger between Microsoft and Activision Blizzard would have a negative impact on competition. In one section of the findings, the CMA offers statistics on how many active users each of the major cloud gaming platforms had in 2021 and 2022.

While the CMA does not provide the raw numbers for each service in the public version of its report, the regulator does show a percentage range (0-5%, 5-10%, etc) of market share that each had, based on the number of monthly average users (MAUs). In an appendix, it’s explained that these charts were created based on information provided directly by each company and reflect global usage, not just players in the UK.


You do have to dig around the appendix, but it’s on page C4. Apple (with its Arcade offering) doesn’t appear at all. Google Stadia had 5-10% of average monthly average users in 2021, and 0-5% of MAUs in 2022. Microsoft’s xCloud, Sony’s PlayStation and NVidia all have 20%+ of share.
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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.1950: the blurry world of LLMs, Microsoft cuts jobs, an outside view of Brexit regret, Twitter in 25 tweets, and more

  1. Apple Arcade isn’t listed because it’s not a comparison of subscription gaming services, it’s cloud gaming. The others have streaming elements to them, but Apple Arcade does not.

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