Start Up No.1999: Vice Media heads for bankruptcy, Google seeks an AI moat, bitcoin trading thins, a16z’s trouble, and more

Remarkably, Apple and Google are working together to prevent AirTags being used for stalking. But what about for tracking your car? CC-licensed photo by Tatsuo Yamashita on Flickr.

There’s another post at the Social Warming Substack, due about 0845. It’s about the puzzle of correcting things on social networks.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Nearly around again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

EU warns Apple about limiting speeds of uncertified USB-C cables for iPhones • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


It was rumoured in February that Apple may be planning to limit charging speeds and other functionality of USB-C cables that are not certified under its “Made for iPhone” (MFi) program. Like the Lightning port on existing iPhones, a small chip inside the USB-C port on iPhone 15 models would confirm the authenticity of the USB-C cable connected.

“I believe Apple will optimize the fast charging performance of MFi-certified chargers for the iPhone 15,” Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in March.

In response to this rumour, European Commissioner Thierry Breton has sent Apple a letter warning the company that limiting the functionality of USB-C cables would not be permitted and would prevent iPhones from being sold in the EU when the law goes into effect, according to German newspaper Die Zeit. The letter was obtained by German press agency DPA, and the report says the EU also warned Apple during a meeting in mid-March.

Given that it has until the end of 2024 to adhere to the law, Apple could still move forward with including an authentication chip in the USB-C port on iPhone 15 models later this year. And with iPhone 16 models expected to launch in September 2024, even those devices would be on the market before the law goes into effect.

The report says the EU intends to publish a guide to ensure a “uniform interpretation” of the legislation by the third quarter of this year.


Does Apple have to “limit” the functionality of the cables? It could just put up a warning when you plug in an uncertified one, saying “this is not a certified Apple cable, speeds cannot be guaranteed” (but more briefly). Because USB-C cables really are a lottery. You might find the speeds of charging or data is variable anyway without Apple lifting a finger, or a chip.
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October 1999: Super-cyclone wreaks havoc in India • BBC On This Day

October 1999:


A massive cyclone has swept through the state of Orissa in eastern India, killing an unknown number of people and leaving thousands more homeless.

The extent of the damage is difficult to determine. The area is almost impossible to reach, as the cyclone has torn down bridges and made roads and railways impassable. All communications have been cut, and the rescue effort is being hampered by the continuing bad weather.

Officials in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, say nine deaths have been confirmed, but that number is expected to rise rapidly. Many towns and villages have not been able to report casualty figures or damage assessments because telephone lines have been brought down.

The winds are believed to have reached over 160 mph (250 km/h) – some of the highest ever recorded in the region.

A devastating tidal wave has also driven in across the low-lying plains along the coast, wiping out entire villages.


Perhaps the first of the serious, climate-change driven, extreme weather events. Though of course picking out one or the other and saying that’s the one is impossible.
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Vice Media reportedly headed for bankruptcy • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:


Vice, the global news publisher and TV company that was once valued at nearly $6bn (£5bn), is reportedly close to filing for bankruptcy.

The company, whose assets include Vice News, Motherboard, Refinery29 and Vice TV, has been involved in sale talks with at least five companies in an attempt to avoid filing for bankruptcy, according to the New York Times.

Vice, which hit a valuation of $5.7bn in 2017 as media giants including Rupert Murdoch, WPP and Disney clamoured for a slice of its youth appeal, has been seeking a sale at a price tag of about $1.5bn.

Last week, the company – which has been evaluating its future since plans to float using a special purpose acquisition vehicle (Spac) collapsed two years ago – announced it was cancelling its popular Vice News Tonight as part of a restructuring that could result in more than 100 staff being made redundant.

In February, Fortress Investment Group, the company’s debt holder, extended a $30m funding line to enable Vice to pay overdue bills to vendors. The same month, Nancy Dubuc, who took over as chief executive from controversial co-founder Shane Smith in 2018, announced her surprise departure.

If a sale cannot be agreed – suitors are said to be seeking a sub-$1bn deal – a bankruptcy process would result in Vice continuing to operate normally while an auction process is run.


This would be a pity: the Motherboard part of Vice, which writes about the technology world, has consistently been a terrific outlet. It’s hard to think it would continue quite so brightly under a different owner.
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Google internal memo: “we have no moat, and neither does OpenAI” • Semi Analysis

Dylan Patel, quoting a note that apparently was posted internally by a researcher at Google:


the uncomfortable truth is, we aren’t positioned to win this arms race and neither is OpenAI. While we’ve been squabbling, a third faction has been quietly eating our lunch.

I’m talking, of course, about open source. Plainly put, they are lapping us. Things we consider “major open problems” are solved and in people’s hands today. Just to name a few:

• LLMs on a phone: People are running foundation models on a Pixel 6 at 5 tokens / sec
• Scalable Personal AI: You can finetune a personalized AI on your laptop in an evening
• Responsible Release: This one isn’t “solved” so much as “obviated”. There are entire websites full of art models with no restrictions whatsoever, and text is not far behind
• Multimodality: The current multimodal ScienceQA SOTA was trained in an hour.

While our models still hold a slight edge in terms of quality, the gap is closing astonishingly quickly. Open-source models are faster, more customizable, more private, and pound-for-pound more capable. They are doing things with $100 and 13bn params that we struggle with at $10m and 540bn. And they are doing so in weeks, not months. This has profound implications for us:

We have no secret sauce. Our best hope is to learn from and collaborate with what others are doing outside Google. We should prioritize enabling 3P integrations.

People will not pay for a restricted model when free, unrestricted alternatives are comparable in quality. We should consider where our value add really is.

Giant models are slowing us down. In the long run, the best models are the ones which can be iterated upon quickly. We should make small variants more than an afterthought, now that we know what is possible in the <20bn parameter regime.


Google’s moat (the business element that protects its profits) always used to be its search index and the data gathered from it. But in AI, that doesn’t count for much.
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Google shared AI knowledge with the world – until ChatGPT caught up • The Washington Post

Nitasha Tiku and Gerrit De Vynck:


In February, Jeff Dean, Google’s longtime head of artificial intelligence, announced a stunning policy shift to his staff: they had to hold off sharing their work with the outside world.

For years Dean had run his department like a university, encouraging researchers to publish academic papers prolifically; they pushed out nearly 500 studies since 2019, according to Google Research’s website.

But the launch of OpenAI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT three months earlier had changed things. The San Francisco start-up kept up with Google by reading the team’s scientific papers, Dean said at the quarterly meeting for the company’s research division. Indeed, transformers — a foundational part of the latest AI tech and the T in ChatGPT — originated in a Google study.
Things had to change. Google would take advantage of its own AI discoveries, sharing papers only after the lab work had been turned into products, Dean said, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private information.

The policy change is part of a larger shift inside Google. Long considered the leader in AI, the tech giant has lurched into defensive mode — first to fend off a fleet of nimble AI competitors, and now to protect its core search business, stock price, and, potentially, its future, which executives have said is intertwined with AI.


Best time to build a moat: right about now.
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How eating ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) can affect your mental health • The New York Times

Sally Wadyka:


Recent research has demonstrated a link between highly processed foods and low mood. In one 2022 study of over 10,000 adults in the United States, the more UPFs participants ate, the more likely they were to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety. “There was a significant increase in mentally unhealthy days for those eating 60% or more of their calories from UPFs,” Dr. Hecht, the study’s author, said. “This is not proof of causation, but we can say that there seems to be an association.”

New research has also found a connection between high UPF consumption and cognitive decline. A 2022 study that followed nearly 11,000 Brazilian adults over a decade found a correlation between eating ultraprocessed foods and worse cognitive function (the ability to learn, remember, reason and solve problems). “While we have a natural decline in these abilities with age, we saw that this decline accelerated by 28% in people who consume more than 20% of their calories from UPFs,” said Natalia Gomes Goncalves, a professor at the University of São Paulo Medical School and the lead author of the study.

It’s possible that eating a healthy diet may offset the detrimental effects of eating ultraprocessed foods. The Brazilian researchers found that following a healthy eating regimen, like the MIND diet — which is rich in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, berries, fish, chicken and olive oil — greatly reduced the dementia risk associated with consuming ultraprocessed foods. Those who followed the MIND diet but still ate UPFs “had no association between UPF consumption and cognitive decline,” Dr. Goncalves said, adding that researchers still don’t know what a safe quantity of UPFs is.


The 2022 study does adjust for poverty level – that’s the most obvious thing you’d expect to predict both consumption of UPFs and depression/anxiety. So America, and the rest of us, are eating ourselves into gloom?
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Traders grow wary of ‘unloved’ bitcoin rally • Financial Times

Scott Chipolina:


The degree to which a market can absorb large orders without major changes to the price of bitcoin has declined since the start of the year, according to data provider CCData.

In January it would have required the purchase of more than 1,400 bitcoins, roughly equivalent to $23m at the time, to move the price of the token by more than 1% of its prevailing market value, CCData said.

Towards the end of last month it would have taken only 462 bitcoins, worth about $13m, to move market prices by 1%, the lowest point of market depth for the bitcoin-tether trading pair since May 2022, when the industry plunged into crisis.

“Prices are recovering, but liquidity has yet to return. No exchange or market maker has yet to fill the space that FTX and [its sister trading arm] Alameda once encompassed,” said Michael Safai, managing partner at crypto trading firm Dexterity Capital.

Investors who have bought into bitcoin in recent months are now holding on to their investments.

Glassnode, a crypto data provider, said “there has been remarkably little expenditure” by investors who bought bitcoin when it hit a two-year low after FTX’s failure last November.

“The ‘FOMO’ that drove a lot of first time institutional and retail investors last year is obviously not happening now, despite the fact the crypto markets have rallied significantly this year,” said one crypto fund manager based in Dubai, referring to a fear of missing out.

Moreover, there have been outflows of $72mn over the last two weeks in digital asset investments, ending a six-week run of consecutive inflows, according to CoinShares.


Wonder when we declare it all a zombie that no longer merits our attention.
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Apple and Google join forces to combat AirTag stalking • Bitdefender

Graham Cluley:


Apple and Google have announced that they are teaming up in order to combat the safety risks associated with AirTags and other tracking devices.

In a joint press release, the tech giants revealed that they had teamed up in an effort to thwart the growing problem of Bluetooth tracking devices being used to stalk individuals without their knowledge.

Although such gadgets were invented to help people locate their lost luggage or mislaid car keys, they have also been used to secretly track individuals’ location.

Although the phenomenon is often labelled “Airtag stalking” after the popular device Apple released in 2021, the problem of unwanted location-tracking can also be present with other gadgets, such as those from manufacturers such as Tile, Chipolo, and Pebblebee.

“Bluetooth trackers have created tremendous user benefits, but they also bring the potential of unwanted tracking, which requires industrywide action to solve,” said Dave Burke, who heads up Android engineering at Google.

Burke isn’t wrong. There are countless media reports of AirTags and their like being used by jealous partners and stalkers to monitor the movements of individuals without their knowledge.  It has even been alleged that one Indiana woman used an AirTag to track her boyfriend, and then – after an argument – murder him.

No major tech company wants to be associated with a technology that is making it easier to stalk people.

So it’s not a huge surprise that in a draft specification lodged with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Google and Apple describe how they aim to protect the privacy of individuals who do not want to either themselves or their belongings unwittingly tracked, by people misusing location-tracking accessories.


Not sure how this squares with the NYPD encouraging people to stick AirTags in their Hondas so they can track them when they’re nicked. A skim through the specification suggests that if you’re not the owner and the AirTag is “in range” (10 metres for Bluetooth LE?) then you should get an alert that it’s travelling with you.

Side note: think the last time I saw a joint Apple-Google press release was for Covid tracking.
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The Reverse-Scooby-Doo Theory of Tech Innovation • The Future, Now and Then

Dave Karpf:


There’s a standard trope that tech evangelists deploy when they talk about the latest fad. It goes something like this:

(1) Technology XYZ is arriving. It will be incredible for everyone. It is basically inevitable.

(2) The only thing that can stop it is regulators and/or incumbent industries. If they are so foolish as to stand in its way, then we won’t be rewarded with the glorious future that I am promising.

We can think of this as a “reverse-Scooby-Doo.” It’s as though Silicon Valley has assumed the role of a Scooby Doo villain, but decided in this case that he’s actually the hero. (“We would’ve gotten away with it, if not for those meddling regulators!”)

…My main hope from the years of “techlash” tech coverage is that we collectively might start to take the power of these tech companies seriously and stop treating them like a bunch of scrappy inventors, toiling away at their visions of the future they might one day build. Silicon Valley in the ‘90s was not the power center that it is today. The largest, most profitable, most powerful companies in the world ought to be judged based on how they are impacting the present, not based on their pitch decks for what the future might someday look like.

What I like about the study of digital futures’ past is the sense of perspective it provides. There’s something almost endearing in the old claims that “the technological future is inevitable, so long as those meddling regulators don’t get in the way!”, applied to technologies that had so very many fundamental flaws. Those were simpler times, offering object lessons that we might learn from today.

It’s much less endearing from the present-day tech billionaire class. Balaji Srinivasan either doesn’t understand the existing limits of AI or doesn’t care about the existing limits of AI. He’s rehashing an old set of rhetorical tropes that place Silicon Valley’s inventors, engineers, and investors as the motive force of history, and regards all existing social, economic, and political institutions as interfering villains or obstacles to be overcome.


This is a fabulous piece, from February, but newly relevant. Srinivasan is the guy who “bet” $1m that the US would go into hyperinflation within 90 days, then said “kidding!” after 45 days. Karpf has views on that too. I’m very much enjoying his Substack.
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Andreessen Horowitz saw the future — but did the future leave it behind? • The Verge

Elizabeth Lopatto:


One of the ways that [VC firm] Andreessen Horowitz marketed itself as distinct from its competitors was its founder-centric approach, which, during the go-go era of the 2010s, was in high style. It’s probably part of the reason that [co-founder Marc] Andreessen in 2015 defended [Theranos founder and subsequently convicted criminal Elizabeth] Holmes — he wanted to make it clear to founders that he was on their side no matter what. “We tend to be pro-megalomania,” Andreessen said in 2009.

More aggressive reporting on tech jeopardized the model of hyping a business and then selling after an inflated valuation. It’s no surprise, then, that Andreessen turned on the media. It probably didn’t help that The Wall Street Journal suggested in 2016 that a16z was all hat and no cattle — not really an elite firm if you looked at its returns, which had merely doubled its investment capital. The article contrasted a16z’s performance with that of Bill Gurley’s Benchmark, which “has multiplied investors’ money 11 times net of fees in its 2011 fund, according to a person familiar with its performance.”

Still, a 2014 Andreessen article about the news media is perceptive. Unlike most techies, Andreessen’s aware that the “view from nowhere” is a recent artifact, born from media consolidation. He knew how important distribution was. His list of possible business models was among those many publications experimented with. Andreessen and a16z even made a few media investments. They largely failed.

…The other vibe shift that would seriously affect a16z’s strategy, of course, was the Fed.

When a16z was founded in 2009, the Fed’s interest rate was near zero, where it mostly remained until 2022. A series of rate hikes beginning last year means that borrowing money is now more expensive than it has been at any point in the history of Andreessen Horowitz.


Wonderful piece, which shows that the questioning about tech has now moved on to the questioning about tech funding.
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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.1999: Vice Media heads for bankruptcy, Google seeks an AI moat, bitcoin trading thins, a16z’s trouble, and more

  1. I expect I’m not the only one to have recommended Dr Chris van Tulleken’s new book ‘Ultra-Processed People’, and his earlier podcast on UPF. It’s definitely changed how I think about food, and how our family eats.

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