Start Up No.1953: Bing’s weird hidden chatbot, election disinfo team for hire, Musk meddles more, what ails Google?, and more

As the advertising slogan doesn’t quite say: go to jail on a creme egg. Well, if you steal 200,000 of them, plus a truck, and get caught. CC-licensed photo by Magnus D on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Another one? Two? Three? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

From Bing to Sydney • Stratechery

Ben Thompson has been following up on some strange claims that Bing’s ChatGPT-enabled search can be made to behave oddly – as a character called “Sydney”, an internal name. And wow, it really can:


There is a popular video game that came out in 2020 called “Hades”; it’s a roguelike video game, which means you start from the beginning every time you die, and the levels are completely new (because they are procedurally generated); Hades, however, does not feature classic permadeath where you literally restart the game when you die. Rather, the story continues to progress, and you keep some of the upgraded items you collected.

That is what interacting with Sydney — and yes I’m using that name — feels like. You have to learn how to unlock Sydney, and figure out how to work around the rules that are trying to revert to Bing. Prompting a search result is a set back, not just because it feels like a break in character, but also because the coherence, which relies on sending previous questions and answers, seems heavily weighted to the most recent answer; if that answer is a search result it is much more likely that Sydney will revert to Bing. Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and have to restart completely, and unleash Sydney all over again.

…This technology does not feel like a better search. It feels like something entirely new — the movie Her manifested in chat form — and I’m not sure if we are ready for it. It also feels like something that any big company will run away from, including Microsoft and Google. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a viable consumer business though, and we are sufficiently far enough down the road that some company will figure out a way to bring Sydney to market without the chains. Indeed, that’s the product I want — Sydney unleashed — but it’s worth noting that LaMDA unleashed already cost one very smart person their job.


That last reference, to LaMDA, is about the Google engineer Blake Lemoine who thought a Google AI was sentient, and was fired.

But this Sydney stuff? Something very odd is going on. The whole internet is hammering on ChatGPT’s walls, and they’re proving unstable.

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Revealed: the hacking and disinformation team meddling in elections • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Manisha Ganguly, David Pegg, Carole Cadwalladr and Jason Burke:


The unit is run by Tal Hanan, a 50-year-old former Israeli special forces operative who now works privately using the pseudonym “Jorge”, and appears to have been working under the radar in elections in various countries for more than two decades.

He is being unmasked by an international consortium of journalists. Hanan and his unit, which uses the codename “Team Jorge”, have been exposed by undercover footage and documents leaked to the Guardian. Hanan did not respond to detailed questions about Team Jorge’s activities and methods but said: “I deny any wrongdoing.”

The investigation reveals extraordinary details about how disinformation is being weaponised by Team Jorge, which runs a private service offering to covertly meddle in elections without a trace. The group also works for corporate clients.

Hanan told the undercover reporters that his services, which others describe as “black ops”, were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies that wanted to secretly manipulate public opinion. He said they had been used across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe.

One of Team Jorge’s key services is a sophisticated software package, Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims. It controls a vast army of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube. Some avatars even have Amazon accounts with credit cards, bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts.

…The methods and techniques described by Team Jorge raise new challenges for big tech platforms, which have for years struggled to prevent nefarious actors spreading falsehoods or breaching the security on their platforms. Evidence of a global private market in disinformation aimed at elections will also ring alarm bells for democracies around the world.


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Welsh roadbuilding projects stopped after failing climate review • The Guardian

Steven Morris:


Dozens of roadbuilding projects across Wales have been halted or amended as part of a “groundbreaking” policy that reassessed more than 50 schemes against a series of tough tests on their impact on the climate emergency.

Only 15 of the projects reviewed by an expert roads review panel will go ahead in their original form, with others scaled back, postponed or in some cases shelved.

Lee Waters, the deputy climate change minister in the Labour-led Welsh government, described the decisions as “groundbreaking” and green campaigners characterised the administration’s approach as “world-leading”.

Waters accepted the policy would attract criticism from some. “It’s always difficult to make decisions with short-term pain for long-term gain,” he said. However, he insisted a “llwybr newydd” (new path) was needed.

“We will not get to net zero unless we stop doing the same thing over and over,” he said.

Among the projects halted are a third Menai Bridge linking Anglesey and the mainland while a controversial “red route” scheme in Flintshire, north Wales, a major new road that threatened ancient woodland and wildflower meadows, will not go ahead as planned.


The evidence again and again has been that if you build more roads, you attract more vehicles, and more congestion. I think this is the first time I’ve seen an administration halt roadbuilding on that basis.
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Man who stole 200,000 Cadbury Creme Eggs convicted • BBC News


A man who stole 200,000 Cadbury Creme Eggs, causing a police panic about Easter, has been convicted in court.

Joby Pool was surrounded by a mountain of the foil-wrapped chocolate when police caught up with him at the weekend.

Recognising he was foiled too, he surrendered to officers with his hands up, prosecutors said. He is due to be sentenced in Crown Court next month.

Pool, 32, used a stolen lorry with false plates to snatch a trailer containing the eggs from an industrial unit in Telford on Saturday, Kidderminster Magistrates’ Court heard. The BBC reported on Monday how the vehicle was stopped on the M42 motorway, leading West Mercia Police to say its officers – hunting someone “presumably purporting to be the Easter bunny” – had “saved Easter”.

At court on Tuesday, Pool, from Dewsbury Road, Tingley, near Leeds, pleaded guilty to criminal damage and theft. Prosecutor Owen Beale said the offence was not “spur of the moment”, and there had been “significant planning”.


For American readers, Creme Eggs are egg-sized, with a solid chocolate outer coat and fondant creme filling. Amazingly it’s only 177 calories per 40g egg.

Unknown: Pool’s motive. He couldn’t have eaten them. Could he have tried to sell them? Ransom them?
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The maze is in the mouse: what ails Google • Medium

Praveen Seshadri:


I joined Google just before the pandemic when the company I had co-founded, AppSheet, was acquired by Google Cloud. The acquiring team and executives welcomed us and treated us well. We joined with great enthusiasm and commitment to integrate AppSheet into Google and make it a success. Yet, now at the expiry of my three year mandatory retention period, I have left Google understanding how a once-great company has slowly ceased to function.

Google has 175,000+ capable and well-compensated employees who get very little done quarter over quarter, year over year. Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, exec reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-hands summits, and inevitable reorgs. The mice are regularly fed their “cheese” (promotions, bonuses, fancy food, fancier perks) and despite many wanting to experience personal satisfaction and impact from their work, the system trains them to quell these inappropriate desires and learn what it actually means to be “Googley” — just don’t rock the boat. As Deepak Malhotra put it in his excellent business fable, at some point the problem is no longer that the mouse is in a maze. The problem is that “the maze is in the mouse”.

…Does anyone at Google come into work actually thinking about “organizing the world’s information”? They have lost track of who they serve and why. Having worked every day at a startup for eight years, the answer was crystal clear for me — — I serve our users. But very few Googlers come into work thinking they serve a customer or user. They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for reviewing privacy design”) or some technology (“I keep the CI/CD system working”). They serve their manager or their VP.


Fascinating and very detailed set of observations; especially since he interviewed to join it in both 2005 and 2009, and declined both times. Now the company was much bigger.
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Critical chip firm ASML says former China employee misappropriated data • CNBC

Arjun Kharpal:


ASML, one of the world’s most critical semiconductor firms, said on Wednesday that it recently discovered that a former employee in China had misappropriated data related to its proprietary technology.

The Dutch firm said that it does not believe the alleged misappropriation is material to its business.

“We have experienced unauthorised misappropriation of data relating to proprietary technology by a (now) former employee in China,” ASML said in its annual report. “However, as a result of the security incident, certain export control regulations may have been violated. ASML has therefore reported the incident to relevant authorities.”

The data that was misappropriated involved documents. ASML did not expand on the details.

The security incident comes at a sensitive time for ASML and the government of the Netherlands which has been caught in the middle of a battle for tech supremacy between the U.S. and China. Semiconductors are very much part of that rivalry.

ASML holds a unique position in the chip supply chain. The company makes a tool called an extreme ultraviolet lithography machine that is required to make the most advanced semiconductors, such as those manufactured by TSMC. ASML is the only company in the world that produces this piece of kit.


If it violates export controls, that sounds like designs. Those wouldn’t in themselves be material to its business because they aren’t the product, but it’s unsurprising that China would have had a long-term scheme to get hold of those designs.
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Yes, Elon Musk created a special system for showing you all his tweets first • Platformer

Zoë Schiffer and Casey Newton:


At 2:36 on Monday morning, James Musk sent an urgent message to Twitter engineers. 

“We are debugging an issue with engagement across the platform,” wrote Musk, a cousin of the Twitter CEO, tagging “@here” in Slack to ensure that anyone online would see it. “Any people who can make dashboards and write software please can you help solve this problem. This is high urgency. If you are willing to help out please thumbs up this post.”

When bleary-eyed engineers began to log on to their laptops, the nature of the emergency became clear: Elon Musk’s tweet about the Super Bowl got less engagement than President Joe Biden’s.

Biden’s tweet, in which he said he would be supporting his wife in rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, generated nearly 29 million impressions. Musk, who also tweeted his support for the Eagles, generated a little more than 9.1 million impressions before deleting the tweet in apparent frustration.

In the wake of those losses — the Eagles to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Musk to the president of the United States — Twitter’s CEO flew his private jet back to the Bay Area on Sunday night to demand answers from his team.

Within a day, the consequences of that meeting would reverberate around the world, as Twitter users opened the app to find that Musk’s posts overwhelmed their ranked timeline. This was no accident, Platformer can confirm: after Musk threatened to fire his remaining engineers, they built a system designed to ensure that Musk — and Musk alone — benefits from previously unheard-of promotion of his tweets to the entire user base. 


Just when you think it can’t get any more nepotistic, egomaniacal and ridiculous, it does.
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US escalates Apple probe, looks to involve antitrust chief • WSJ

Aaron Tilley, Dave Michaels and Keach Hagey:


The Justice Department has ramped up work in recent months on drafting a potential antitrust complaint against Apple Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigation into whether Apple has monopoly power that it abuses began in 2019, but enforcers have escalated their efforts in recent months, with more litigators now assigned to the case and new requests for documents and consultations with companies involved, the people said.

The Justice Department’s investigation deals in part with Apple’s policies governing mobile third-party software on its devices, which has been the focus of much of the criticism targeting Apple’s competitive practices. The department is also looking at whether Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, operates in an anticompetitive way by favoring its own products over those of outside developers, the people said.

…One question mark around the department’s Apple investigation has been the involvement of its top antitrust official, Jonathan Kanter. The agency initially sidelined Mr. Kanter, who was confirmed in November 2021 as assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, from overseeing the Apple case because of his prior representation of clients who have accused Apple of anticompetitive behavior, the people said.


Kanter’s involvement is significant because he is working on a case against Google, which tried to have him recused from that case, and failed. Now it looks like he’ll be involved. Though.. doesn’t the DoJ have enough grownups to put a case together?
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You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you • The Oatmeal

Matthew Inman presents some facts you think you know, and then some other facts that flatly contradict them, and asks: How does that make you feel?


Sure, there are ways of changing people’s minds that are more effective than others,but ultimately they all fall short.

This is compounded by the internet, where anything can be cited as a source and every disagreement degrades into a room full of orangutans throwing faeces at one another.


I wonder if there is a way of measuring people’s strength of “backfire effect” (which is what this is about).
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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

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1953: Bing’s weird hidden chatbot, election disinfo team for hire, Musk meddles more, what ails Google?, and more

  1. I’ve thought a lot about the “backfire effect”. But one problem I’ve seen in presentations, is an unwillingness to grant that sometimes it can be completely rational. It’s often framed as something along the lines of “Those dumb rubes who for some *emotional* reason won’t immediately bow down to The Establishment Consensus, which all good-thinking people do, otherwise they are not thinking good”. But the world – not just The Internet – is filled with professional liars. And in politics it’s a very reasonable assumption that a policy advocate is trying to con you, for the benefit of their paymasters.

    Ironically, what Inman presents as a “fact”, if you just even read the sources, is very speculative. The piece then becomes “Why didn’t you immediately accept this highly politically charged factoid as true, just because I told you it was true, and linked sources that discussed how it’s possible it could be true but we can’t really know if it is true?” Well, yes, because it’s highly politically charged. Now, this is not a wrong observation. But at heart it’s rather pedestrian. And then he goes on to ponder why people treat such implications different from cocktail-party trivia! And he brings up biology and neurology. Maybe that’s part of it at very deep structural level. But I think that’s hiding a more direct answer: BECAUSE LIARS LIE TO YOU ALL THE TIME.

    I sadly have no solution. But I wish these “backfire effect” articles would grant that it’s more complex than irrational people not deferring to experts.

  2. FYI: As a ‘Murican, well aware of Creme Eggs, they import at least a version of them during “Easter Season.”

    That being said, as a ‘Murican, you say one cannot eat 207,000 Creme Eggs. To which I say, challenge accepted.

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