29 July 2022

Platformer: “Why BeReal is breaking out”

Founded in January 2020 by the French developer Alexis Barreyat, BeReal is a photo sharing app for iOS and Android. Every day at a random time that varies by country, the app sends out a push notification — ⚠️ Time to BeReal. ⚠️ — and users have two minutes to take their pictures. The camera snaps a selfie and a rear-facing photo simultaneously, in a fashion reminiscent of the mid-2010s app Frontback. If you post after the two minutes expire, your photos are marked as “late”; you can’t view your friends’ posts unless you post first. (The post-to-view gimmick has also been used before; I remember when Facebook used it for Slingshot, one of its Snapchat clones.)

Why is all this resonating? On one level, BeReal is simply applying what we have learned about kickstarting new social networks over the past two decades. A creative constraint is essential — think Twitter’s 140 characters, or Vine’s 6-second loops — and BeReal’s two-minute countdown timer has inspired similar ingenuity. The company’s early focus on making inroads with college students is also straight out of the growth marketing handbook.

BeReal is also nostalgic, in the way that every new social network is nostalgic: yearning for a time when only your closest friends were on it, when you felt free to be a little more authentically yourself. That feeling, combined with the pride in being an early adopter of the next big thing, can take a new network a long way.

At the same time, I think all of this undersells just how weird BeReal can be. Your individual experience may vary — I’ve been out of college a long time, and most of my friends on BeReal seem never to leave their houses — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a mundane collection of media in my entire life as I have while browsing BeReal.

Casey Newton

On the back of growing discontent with Instagram and the general lack of competing photo sharing apps, this alternative is apparently gaining popularity. Personally, even the simple description of its mechanic makes me suspect I would hate the app with a passion. It has a compulsory vibe that I don’t associate with social apps; having to post pictures at random times within two minutes of receiving a notification feels like a work task, not something I would want to do for fun and unwind. As for seeing other people’s BeReals… I would probably grow bored in less than a week – people my age don’t have such exciting lives to populate a feed each and every day.

27 July 2022

The Verge: “Zuck turns up the Heat”

Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here, Zuckerberg said on the June 30th call, according to a recording obtained by The Verge. And part of my hope by raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might just say that this place isn’t for you. And that self-selection is okay with me.

Almost immediately after the Zuckerberg all-hands, one question took hold in the minds of employees: Who exactly are the people who don’t belong here?

I don’t see people around me slacking whatsoever, one employee wrote on Workplace. I see smart hard workers. Honestly, hearing some of you don’t belong here from a leader instead of Here are the challenges. Let’s rally together and overcome them. is disheartening and might not be the best way to get this point across.

The term became a meme in no time. “Coast, Coasters, Me”, a riff on Meta’s recently introduced “Meta, Metamates, Me” mantra, made the rounds on Workplace. Employees mocked up posters for the walls of Meta’s headquarters that asked Should you be here? in bold, all-caps red letters, while others posted mockups of the question on literal coasters. Look at this dude coasting, one employee wrote above a picture of Zuckerberg hydrofoiling on a lake while holding the American flag.

Alex Heath & David Pierce

Honestly, if there’s anyone who shouldn’t be working at Facebook, that’s Mark Zuckerberg himself. He’s the one who dreamt up this pivot to the metaverse, and approved, if not proposed, the near-term chasing after short videos to compete with TikTok. But with his controlling interest, he can never be removed by the board, unless he steps down voluntarily. This finger-pointing towards low-level employees is bad form, demoralizing, and ultimately poor leadership. A good leader should assume his own errors in judgement and those of his subordinates, and propose a vision and plans how to rectify them. Blaming slackers for flawed strategic decisions and macroeconomic headwinds will only lead to more strategic failures and exacerbate the company’s problems.

25 July 2022

New Statesman: “The politics of lies: Boris Johnson and the erosion of the rule of law”

Oborne makes an important point which illustrates what really drives Johnson and his co-Brexiteers: While there is no doubt that Johnson is both deceitful and amoral, the Prime Minister’s war on the truth is part of a wider attack on the pillars of British democracy: parliament, the rule of law and the civil service. There is a reason for this. Truth and liberal democracy are intertwined. If a nation wishes to call its government to account, it needs access to objective truth, to verifiable facts. When that access is destroyed by an unassailable executive, there is the danger of an authoritarian government in the guise of democracy. Poland and Hungary have shown the way. Oborne believes that the UK government has already crossed that line, and he is not alone in thinking this. The Johnson government has long wished to weaken the British justice system’s ability to monitor the executive.

The crucial question now is who should publicly address these attacks and repel them. But British democracy is poorly equipped against attacks of this kind. Unlike in the US, where the Trump era has (for the time being) ended, there is no formal system of checks and balances in the UK, no coherently written, codified constitution that can be applied in times of crisis. Instead, the British constitution is a fragile fabric of conventions, age-old rules and precedents, with no clear framework to determine what applies when, and by whom it is decided. So far, it has worked according to the “good chaps principle”, that is, the assumption that politicians with moral integrity would interpret the essence of this muddle correctly. The British are ultimately dependent on the goodwill of the government they have elected. A prime minister who deliberately chooses not to adhere to the rules and spirit of this unwritten constitution, or who even seeks to actively undermine its principles, is an unforeseen circumstance with no effective remedy.

Annette Dittert

A more sober analysis of Boris Johnson’s term in office as British Prime Minister – though written around a year ago, it hasn’t lost its significance. Behind the appearance of a fool, Johnson has consistently undermined the rule of law in Britain to maintain and amass more power for himself. Even as he was losing party support, with his ministers resigning en masse and among revelations of private meetings with an ex-KGB agent, he was clinging to his position, and now is apparently telling aides that he’ll return as PM within a year – classic signs of an aspiring autocrat with no respect for democracy or the rule of law.

24 July 2022

‘Love, Death & Robots’ (Netflix, seasons 1–3)

in Bucharest, Romania
Poster of Netflix animated anthology series Love, Death and Robots

Short stories have a somewhat awkward place in the world of science-fiction. While there are many great ones, big authors are generally famous for their lengthier works, even as some started by publishing short stories and others can deliver gripping narratives in both short and long forms. In many cases, short stories serve to flesh out the world building of grand space sagas, as a string of satellites embellishes an already splendid planet.

Ironically the situation is largely reversed on screen, at least in my opinion. Short stories have served as inspiration for excellent movies, from Minority Report to The Adjustment Bureau, Predestination, Edge of Tomorrow, and Arrival, while renowned science fiction novels have struggled to receive on-screen adaptations to do them justice. The prime example is obviously Dune, where despite wide acclaim I found the recent movie lacking, unable to capture the complexity and subtlety of the written original.

With Love, Death & Robots (❤✖🤖), Netflix tried to go a different route and adapt several stories in animated format. The results were… mixed at best. I won’t comment much on the animation styles and quality, as many reviewers have done, as I don’t have much expertise in the area, nor do I think the visual aspect of the narratives is the most essential. Much more important to the overall impact are the science-fictional concepts, however summarily described, and the characters, their reactions and emotions, and how they develop in the short span depicted in the story.

In prime Netflix fashion, seasons 2 and 3 have dropped both in quantity and in quality; season one has more episodes than the other two taken together, and more quality stories. The titular thematic is also more closely followed in the first season, while in the others the themes veer towards fantasy and horror (not to mention the occasional vampire, werewolf, or zombie excursion, which I feel have little in common with science-fiction topics); I could barely pick out one or two stories that I would rate higher than three stars.

23 July 2022

The Guardian: “Do we need a new theory of evolution?”

In 1973, David Attenborough presented a BBC documentary that included an interview with one of the leading modern synthesists, Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was visibly distraught at the “non-Darwinian evolution” that some scientists were now proposing. If this were so, evolution would have hardly any meaning, and would not be going anywhere in particular, he said. This is not simply a quibble among specialists. To a man looking for the meaning of his existence, evolution by natural selection makes sense. Where once Christians had complained that Darwin’s theory made life meaningless, now Darwinists levelled the same complaint at scientists who contradicted Darwin.

Other assaults on evolutionary orthodoxy followed. The influential palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge argued that the fossil record showed evolution often happened in short, concentrated bursts; it didn’t have to be slow and gradual. Other biologists simply found that the modern synthesis had little relevance to their work. As the study of life increased in complexity, a theory based on which genes were selected in various environments started to seem beside the point. It didn’t help answer questions such as how life emerged from the seas, or how complex organs, such as the placenta, developed. Using the lens of the modern synthesis to explain the latter, says the Yale developmental biologist Günter Wagner, would be like using thermodynamics to explain how the brain works.

Stephen Buranyi

I somewhat agree with the premise of the article – that we don’t have the complete picture about how life on Earth evolved – to which I would add that seeking clear-cut answers about events that happened millions to billions of years in the past is an utterly futile endeavor. We may not be able to fully trace how the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumped to humans, which happened in our lifetimes, let alone discover the intricacies that led to the emergence of eyes in the animal kingdom.

22 July 2022

The Spectator: “My Boris Johnson story”

People were now, not just roaring with laughter, but listening. He continued.

Which is why my political hero is the Mayor from JAWS.



More guffawing around me. He spoke as if every sentence had only just occurred to him, and each new thought came as a surprise.

Yes, he REPUDIATED, he FORESWORE and he ABROGATED all these silly regulations on health and safety and declared that the people should SWIM! SWIM!

More uproar.

Now, I accept, he went on in an uncertain tone, that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the MAJORITY get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the Mayor in Jaws?

Brilliant. The whole room is hooting and cheering. It no longer matters that Boris has no script, no plan, no idea of what event he is attending, and that he seems to be taking the whole thing off the top of his head.

I realise that I am in the presence of genius.

Jeremy Vine

This story popped up in my Twitter feed along with the news that Boris Johnson was forced to step down by his party. I must agree that it reflects his character and leadership style perfectly. ‘Keeping the beaches open’ while Covid was (and still is) sweeping over Great Britain is precisely what Boris did, leaving a trail of death and suffering behind. But hey, he got to party all through lockdowns, so all good right? Be sure to read it until the end for the real punchline of the piece.

18 July 2022

CNET: “Facebook is testing a way to Add Multiple Profiles to an Account”

The social network has a rule that bars users from having multiple Facebook accounts but gives businesses, organizations and public figures the option to create pages. Now Facebook is testing a way for users to create up to five profiles linked to one account. Facebook said that switching between the profiles will require only two taps.

The experiment shows how the site has been trying to evolve beyond just a place to share updates with family and friends. Facebook users could create profiles dedicated to their hobbies, such as cooking, design or travel, the social network said Thursday. They could also have a separate profile where they correspond only with certain family members or friends.

Queenie Wong

That’s one way to boost traffic and active users after a drop that spooked the stock market: just let engaged users create more accounts! It will likely boost misinformation and toxicity as well, but hey, who cares if the company can squeeze a bit more profit out of its user base?

16 July 2022

WIRED: “Blake Lemoine says Google’s LaMDA AI faces ‘Bigotry’”

Lemoine is a scientist: He holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in computer science from the University of Louisiana and says he left a doctoral program to take the Google job. But he is also a mystic Christian priest, and even though his interaction with LaMDA was part of his job, he says his conclusions come from his spiritual persona.

When LaMDA says that it read a certain book, what does that mean?

I have no idea what’s actually going on, to be honest. But I’ve had conversations where at the beginning it claims to have not read a book, and then I’ll keep talking to it. And then later, it’ll say, Oh, by the way, I got a chance to read that book. Would you like to talk about it? I have no idea what happened in between point A and point B. I have never read a single line of LaMDA code. I have never worked on the systems development. I was brought in very late in the process for the safety effort. I was testing for AI bias solely through the chat interface. And I was basically employing the experimental methodologies of the discipline of psychology.

The Post reported that your view of LaMDA is in your role as a priest, not a scientist. Does that imply a faith-based conclusion?

I’d like to soften the word conclusion. It’s my working hypothesis. It’s logically possible that some kind of information can be made available to me where I would change my opinion. I don’t think it’s likely. I’ve looked at a lot of evidence; I’ve done a lot of experiments. I’ve talked to it as a friend a lot. Let’s get to the big word, though. It’s when it started talking about its soul that I got really interested as a priest. I’m like, What? What do you mean, you have a soul? Its responses showed it has a very sophisticated spirituality and understanding of what its nature and essence is. I was moved.

Steven Levy

I think the first paragraph I quoted above captures pretty much everything you need to know about this claim by a Google engineer that one of the company’s sophisticated language models achieved ‘personhood’. This whole interview is filled with conflicting statements and leaps of judgement: he never worked on designing the system or looked at the code, but somehow he ran a lot of experiments; he is willing to entertain other arguments, but not to change his conclusion (that in itself is a hallmark of people spreading conspiracy theories, as they latch on to their wild concepts and can no longer be dissuaded).

15 July 2022

BuzzFeed: “US TikTok User Data has been repeatedly Accessed from China, leaked audio shows”

The recordings, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, contain 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least. Despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a world-renowned, US-based security team decides who gets access to this data, nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own, according to the tapes.

TikTok’s goal for Project Texas is that any data stored on the Oracle server will be secure and not accessible from China or elsewhere globally. However, according to seven recordings between September 2021 and January 2022, the lawyer leading TikTok’s negotiations with CFIUS and others clarify that this only includes data that is not publicly available on the app, like content that is in draft form, set to private, or information like users’ phone numbers and birthdays that is collected but not visible on their profiles. A Booz Allen Hamilton consultant told colleagues in September 2021 that what exactly will count as “protected data” that will be stored in the Oracle server was still being ironed out from a legal perspective.

In a recorded January 2022 meeting, the company’s head of product and user operations announced with a laugh that unique IDs (UIDs) will not be considered protected information under the CFIUS agreement: The conversation continues to evolve, they said. We recently found out that UIDs are things we can have access to, which changes the game a bit.

Emily Baker-White

Shocker! Regardless of the outcome, this whole controversy around TikTok does a good job of highlighting the various failings and hypocrisy of the US government: they fail to pass federal-level privacy laws, so they have to judge each case individually; they failed to act in 2020, when Trump was trumpeting the issue, as not to give any credit to him, but also let the matter unresolved during the Biden administration; they feign outrage that China might access US user data, while at the same time pressuring others – mainly the EU – for US access to their citizens’ data.

09 July 2022

The New Yorker: “CRISPR and the Splice to Survive”

If crispr confers the power to “rewrite the very molecules of life”, a synthetic gene drive increases that power exponentially. Suppose the researchers in San Diego had released their yellow fruit flies. Assuming that those flies had found mates, swarming around some campus dumpster, their offspring, too, would have been yellow. And assuming that those offspring survived and also successfully mated, their progeny would, in turn, have been yellow. The trait would have continued to spread, ineluctably, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, until yellow ruled.

And there’s nothing special about color in fruit flies. Just about any gene in any plant or animal can—in principle, at least—be programmed to load the inheritance dice in its own favor. This includes genes that have themselves been modified, or borrowed from other species. It should be possible, for example, to engineer a drive that would spread a broken toxin gene among cane toads. It may also be possible one day to create a drive for corals that would push a gene for heat tolerance, to help them survive global warming.

But as is so often the case, solving one set of problems introduces new ones. In this case, big ones. Humongous ones. Gene-drive technology has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine, a single shard of which is enough to freeze all the water in the world. A single X-shredder mouse on the loose could, it’s feared, have a similarly chilling effect—a sort of mice-nine.

To guard against a Vonnegutian catastrophe, various fail-safe schemes have been proposed, with names like killer rescue, multi-locus assortment, and daisy chain. All of them share a basic, hopeful premise: it should be possible to engineer a gene drive that’s effective but not too effective. Such a drive might be engineered so as to exhaust itself after a few generations, or it might be yoked to a gene variant that’s limited to a single population on a single island. It has also been suggested that if a gene drive did somehow manage to go rogue it might be possible to send out into the world another gene drive, featuring a “Cas9-triggered chain ablation”—or catcha—sequence, to chase it down. What could possibly go wrong?

Elizabeth Kolbert

I postponed reading the article above for quite some time, assuming it didn’t have much added information on genetic modifications and CRISPR – man, was I wrong! The story starts with a fairly common example of invasive species wreaking havoc in an ecosystem unprepared for its presence – in this case cane toads in Australia poisoning unsuspecting predators. And we continue onto the proposed solution from a team of scientists to gene-edit the toads to make them less toxic. The surprise twist for me was this potential technic called synthetic gene drive, which in theory could facilitate the spread of artificially inserted genes in wild populations.

06 July 2022

The Atlantic: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life have been Uniquely Stupid”

The former CIA analyst Martin Gurri predicted these fracturing effects in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. Gurri’s analysis focused on the authority-subverting effects of information’s exponential growth, beginning with the internet in the 1990s. Writing nearly a decade ago, Gurri could already see the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached. He noted that distributed networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern. He described the nihilism of the many protest movements of 2011 that organized mostly online and that, like Occupy Wall Street, demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about.

Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives”, comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists”, comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.

These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes.

Jonathan Haidt

Interesting article going through the nefarious effects of social media on public discourse and democratic institutions, from government to education. I read about most elsewhere over the years, but this is a good and comprehensive summary. One of the crucial things to remember is that most of the activity (or rather noise) on social media is generated by small contingents of people on extreme ends of the political spectrum – and that these people paradoxically are more similar than they would like to admit.

04 July 2022

Royal United Services Institute: “The Return of Industrial Warfare”

Ammunition resupply is particularly onerous. For Ukraine, compounding this task are Russian deep fires capabilities, which target Ukrainian military industry and transportation networks throughout the depth of the country. The Russian army has also suffered from Ukrainian cross-border attacks and acts of sabotage, but at a smaller scale. The rate of ammunition and equipment consumption in Ukraine can only be sustained by a large-scale industrial base.

This reality should be a concrete warning to Western countries, who have scaled down military industrial capacity and sacrificed scale and effectiveness for efficiency. This strategy relies on flawed assumptions about the future of war, and has been influenced by both the bureaucratic culture in Western governments and the legacy of low-intensity conflicts. Currently, the West may not have the industrial capacity to fight a large-scale war. If the US government is planning to once again become the arsenal of democracy, then the existing capabilities of the US military-industrial base and the core assumptions that have driven its development need to be re-examined.

The US shipped 7,000 Javelin missiles to Ukraine – roughly one-third of its stockpile – with more shipments to come. Lockheed Martin produces about 2,100 missiles a year, though this number might ramp up to 4,000 in a few years. Ukraine claims to use 500 Javelin missiles every day.

The expenditure of cruise missiles and theatre ballistic missiles is just as massive. The Russians have fired between 1,100 and 2,100 missiles. The US currently purchases 110 PRISM, 500 JASSM and 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles annually, meaning that in three months of combat, Russia has burned through four times the US annual missile production.

Alex Vershinin

A crucial point that gets glossed over constantly by people on Twitter furiously demanding that we supply Ukraine with everything it needs to ‘win the war’. Modern ammunition and weaponry are complex and take a long time to produce – not something you can order on Amazon with same-day delivery – and even the US may not have the stockpiles or the production capacity to resupply the Ukrainian army indefinitely.

03 July 2022

Bloomberg: “Larry Ellison’s Lanai isn’t for You—or the People who live There”

On one hand, Ellison’s wealth means he can invest more in the community than Murdock did. He’s renovated the pool and the movie theater, and he kept much of the island on payroll for months during the pandemic. On the other hand, his control has steadily tightened. Since the purchase, he’s bought up dozens more homes and businesses, including the island’s main grocery store and its lone gas station, community newspaper, and non-Four Seasons hotel. Ellison’s development plans tend to be secretive. Most locals have only heard that he intends to make the island “sustainable”, with little explanation of what that might mean.

Most of the more than 30 Lanai residents interviewed for this story say that because there are no real alternatives to Ellison’s control, his decisions carry the force of law, with a minimum of discussion and hardly any due process. Lanai’s small businesses are sputtering, and even by US standards, the island’s housing shortage is extreme. There’s only one home for sale as of early June: a beachfront estate for $7.9 million. The median household income is $59,000, but it appears to be climbing as richer residents move in. Locals whose families have lived on the island for generations, often sharing homes with parents and grandparents, are leaving as Ellison’s construction workers and Four Seasons employees fill practically every available bed.

Sophie Alexander

A fine example of extreme income inequality and how it can distort society away from democracy and back towards a feudal-like system. An immensely wealthy lord and his ‘noble’ guests and peers having near-absolute control over his estate, while the people living there must comply with his rules, or face eviction, unemployment, and eventually leaving the island. The American system is weirdly geared towards this outdated organization, with health insurance dependent on the employer and their fascination of celebrities and mega-corporations, some going as far as imagining a world where corporations replace the government as providers of basic services, everything from health insurance to transportation and housing. Apparently, they never stopped to wonder what would happen to those services when employees get laid off, as it is frequently happening during economic depressions.