the tuesday report #4 // last word on balloons, escalating conflict with china (tech war edition), union stuff intensifies, and a lot of weird science
Welcome back to the Tuesday Report, a Pirate Wires weekly digest. Subscribe, or die.
Getting chilly. While the purpose of the Chinese spy balloon is still unclear, earlier suggestions of something intelligent and nefarious (Twitter) increasingly seem… a little too kind to China? Our government is now indicating all of this was, after all, probably a mistake (Washington Post). Separately, as I speculated last week, the three UFOs our Air Force kicked the shit out of were likely benign (CNN). Not Chinese, not Martian, but a third, more interesting thing: meddlesome kids.
Nonetheless, tensions between the United States and China continue to escalate. After all, the balloons didn’t cause the rift between our countries, the balloons — or, the reaction to the balloons — were caused by the rift. Now, what does that rift mean going forward?
On the ground floor, we're looking at heightened industrial espionage (must be Tuesday). Reacting to coordination on the part of the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands to slow down advanced chip development in China — itself a reaction to China’s escalated military posturing — CCP agents are both stealing from, and attacking a Dutch semiconductor-equipment maker (WSJ) (Bloomberg). Elsewhere, after two of the US government’s largest defense contractors sold arms to Taiwan, China fined the companies, and added them to a list of “unreliable entities” (Bloomberg) (Twitter). Given the companies don’t really work with China, the gesture appears to be symbolic, and of a kind increasingly familiar; finally reacting to the FCC’s November decision to limit Hikvision product sales in the US, the Chinese-owned video surveillance firm is suing the US government (Axios). Nobody will care, highlighting once again what seems to be a huge imbalance in the conflict — in America’s favor.
In reaction to the reaction to the reaction (etc.), the US is launching a “disruptive technology strike force” with the goal of preventing adversarial countries like China and Russia from accessing or stealing our technology (WSJ). Chinese response, of some kind, is inevitable. But as we teeter on this trade cold war, China assumes the brunt of the risk, as Chinese companies are mostly selling into the American market, not the other way around. In the shorter term, disruption to the relationship between our two countries will result in more expensive goods for Americans. But it will result in economic cataclysm for China.
Still, I’m having a hard time understanding some of our strategy. Ford is attempting to build a US-based battery plant, for example, with Chinese technology (NYT). The plant has been framed as a “Trojan horse” by the GOP’s Glenn Youngkin. But unless I’m failing to understand some critical risk here, a factory based in the US, employing Americans, seems like a win?
Worth noting: China does, at least for now, have one considerable edge over America in rare metals. Fortunately, any Congress unafraid of Greta Thunberg can ameliorate the issue with a vote. Ryan McEntush broke this all down for Pirate Wires last summer in Control the Metal, Control the World.
Are we about to nuke Section 230? (Bloomberg)
Google faces America’s nine chief wizards in a hearing on the matter today (Post)
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki steps down (NYT)
The EU is attempting to kill Adobe’s Figma deal (Bloomberg)
UK fintech investment down 60% (Bloomberg)
Masayoshi Son now responsible for Softback losses (Bloomberg)
Bitcoin up, Chokepoint 2.0 be damned (NYT)
Terraform Labs, a stablecoin shop, charged with fraud (Axios)
Stonk God suing Reddit (WSJ)
David Guetta deepfakes Eminem’s voice (NY Post)
TikTok: fine with deepfake ads? (Twitter)
…still struggling to combat the sexual exploitation of children, however (WSJ)
Infrastructure when. Every plane in the country was grounded for the first time since 9/11 because of outdated equipment. A great report from the Journal on the FAA alert system that glitched, and grounded the nation’s planes for the first time since 9/11 (WSJ).
Call for tougher self-driving car regulation, followed by Tesla recall. A former NHTSA official told the New York Times that drivers are trusting Tesla’s autopilot too much, letting the cars speed, and getting in accidents as a result (NYT). The next day, Tesla announced a recall of 360,000 vehicles equipped with its full-self driving software (Bloomberg). Panic, it’s the end of the world!
Meanwhile, in reality:
UK Amazon workers to escalate strike. After a January 25 walkout that didn’t deliver results, over 350 Amazon employees in the UK are planning additional walkouts on Feb. 28 and Mar. 2, followed by a week-long strike in mid-March. They’re paid 10.5 pounds/hour and want 15, but aren’t recognized by Amazon as a union, so negotiations aren’t an option (BBC).
Oddly missing from the BBC report: Amazon employs something like 75,000 workers in the UK.
Google workers in Zurich follow their lead. In protest of the decision to cut 6% of its global workforce, 250 of Google’s 5,000 employees in Zurich staged a walkout (Bloomberg). Letting people go amidst economic uncertainty, and a looming, existential threat to search? Should it even be allowed? Europeans have opinions.
Tesla workers tried to form a union, then got canned. Last Tuesday, workers at Tesla’s “Buffalo plant” announced a unionization effort in collaboration with the group responsible for the recent spate of successful Starbucks unionizations (NYT). Note: “Plant” workers here means non-engineer office employees responsible for labeling data on Tesla’s Autopilot system. “Workers” – plural – appears to be just barely accurate, as photos depicting the unionization committee featured only seven of the roughly 800 such Buffalo employees.
Just over a day after the unionization announcement, Tesla fired at least 37 of its Buffalo employees – several of whom were involved in the campaign – after a routine performance review. A complaint has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleging union retaliation; Tesla denies the allegations (NYT).
Milk Wars. Friday, in a debut feature for Pirate Wires, Zachery Emmanuel produced what is probably the most comprehensive piece on the topic of ‘milk’ that exists on the internet.
The whole team is proud of this one, and I highly recommend you check it out while you still can. We’ll be locking it to paying subscribers end of day.
River wrote a great piece on America’s schizophrenic age of consent discourse — America Can’t Decide What An Adult Is. Then, you knew we were going to have opinions on the New York Times ‘going full MAGA’ controversy, in which: 1) GLAAD accused the Democratic stronghold of bigotry, 2) a bunch of B-team Times writers demanded the company cease critique of topics associated with trans activism, and 3) the Times basically told them to all get fucked. Breakdown from Brandon, and analysis from Max Meyer.
Lastly, a little something from yours truly. The New York Times technology team has once again embarrassed itself, this time in a masturbatory, 10,000 word interview with a mirror. Artificial intelligence may not yet be sentient, but it sure is calling into question the sentience of humans.
Grab my latest before we raise the paywall: It’s a chat bot, Kevin.
A bunch of crazy science links have me feeling like I’m home. This is, by the way, not to say I endorse the concept of a whole body gestational donation. But I’m interested in the topic, and would like to subscribe to the newsletter.
Farms of people? Life from death? Matters of perspective. A recent paper explores the “ethics of using brain-dead women as gestational surrogates.” Hypothetically speaking, the author argues, a “relatively simple tweak to systems that already facilitate organ donation” would allow brain-dead women to elect to donate their bodies for surrogacy in the same way you can consent to organ donation (PET).
We’re all eugenicists, fyi. In a survey of Americans published by Science, 43 percent of respondents would screen embryos for intelligence, and a third would favor editing an embryo to improve its chances of university admission (PET). X-ray vision when?
SSRIs: OUT. DMT trips: IN. The phase 2a clinical trial results came back, and London biotech company Small Pharma is happy to report DMT-therapy appears to be an effective treatment for depression (Freethink). Personally, I think DMT merely unlocks the true effective treatment, which is unknown to us and administered by aliens from the fifth dimension.
Scientists “switch off” autism with epilepsy drug. Do the vermin in your home keep re-organizing your bookshelf by color? Well, apparently autistic mice exist, and scientists quieted their symptoms with a $3 epilepsy drug. Human clinical trials coming soon (NY Post). (River wrote this one btw don’t @ me)
LLMs may or may not be developing theory of mind. Catalyzed by the release of a Stanford-affiliated researcher’s paper, there’s an ongoing debate about whether the author has demonstrated ChatGPT has developed the ability to understand the intentions of others, known broadly as “theory of mind.” Generally, theory of mind is thought to be unique to humans, though may exist in animals (Twitter). It’s bullshit, of course. We’ll get there one day, but at the moment we’re talking to a mirror.
Shielding the sun with a giant cloud of lunar dust? Sure, why not. While the most barista-looking activists of all time throw tomato soup on master works of art, researchers are considering alternatives to the climate apocalypse in science and technology. For example: mining moon dust, launching it into space, and shielding Earth’s surface from the sun (Freethink).
Trees mad. Biotech company Living Carbon has developed genetically-modified poplar trees that grow extremely fast, thereby absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a greatly-escalated rate. The company planted its first batch of trees in southern Georgia (NYT). Ecologists are wary, but when are they not?
This reminds me: A couple years back, I interviewed Gabriel Licina, a biohacker attempting to genetically modify flora in such a manner as they are capable of something he termed aggressive “afforestation.” In other words, he’s designing forests to spread quickly, and into places they never previously existed. His belief is this is the only way to prevent environmental cataclysm. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do love trees? Idk let’s try it out.
Another podcast worth listening to, and this one just came out —
I’m not typically quick with a Kara Swisher link, but this week she sat down with Trae Stephens — partner at Founders Fund, cofounder of Anduril, and (do not under any circumstances tell him I said this) dear friend of yours truly. The interview wasn’t terrible! Kara asked reasonable questions about American defense, defense technology, and the industry. Trae answered. Everyone was polite, and we all had a nice, informative time. Great job everyone.
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“But unless I’m failing to understand some critical risk here, a factory based in the US, employing Americans, seems like a win?“
Who owns and runs it? Who gets to keep the profits? How well are the workers paid and treated? Who else is in the factory besides Americans? Even more critical: what else is in the factories besides production facilities? The questions aren’t rhetorical. The answers determine risk.
A comment re: China and theft of IP.
I work for a US-based, global Fortune 500 company, who naturally, has operations in China. From where I sit in the company food-chain (the "meh" zone), I hear enough about cybersecurity from IT to know that it's taken deadly serious, but insofar as, say, IP theft, the threat is framed first as external. Inasmuch as internal considerations are discussed, its a matter of restricting folks to only what they need to do their jobs (duh). This is, of course, an implicit acknowledgement that there's a risk of employees with too much access stealing then selling technology to competitors and whatnot.
But there's a unique and - at least at my rung of the ladder - underdiscussed risk of doing business in China. For a US-owned business, you're looking at a joint-venture, as you cannot simply set up a foreign-owned subsidiary. At the surface level, you're partnering with a Chinese company, but that's a thin veneer for what you're really doing - partnering with the Chinese government. You may have the controlling interest, the employees may be on your payroll, etc. But they are Chinese citizens first and will respond to those pressures. And you're providing them with system access, an email address, company insider info, etc. as well as putting them in a unique position to "socially engineer" colleagues the world over for information, access, and beyond. The call is coming from inside the house.
There's cybersecurity, then there's maintaining cybersecurity when you're operating in a high-risk country and potentially inviting some unknown number of hackers inside your first "X" layers of defense. To what degree that gets discussed at the C-suite level, I don't know. But if that's not taken seriously, then any level of policies at the government level aren't going to do squat.
I'm interested to hear what any folks working in IT/cybersecurity have to say on this topic.