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November 25, 2022
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Technology

Technology
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Reed Albergotti
Reed Albergotti

Hi, and welcome to Semafor Tech, a twice-weekly newsletter from Louise Matsakis and me that gives an inside look at the struggle for the future of the tech industry. For our U.S. readers, we hope you had a great Thanksgiving and find some good deals today. Or better yet, get outside and enjoy the day off because inflation means Black Friday deals aren’t what they used to be. Today’s newsletter is all sides with no turkey, but we’ll be back with scoops next week!

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Buy/Sell

➚ Buy: In-person shopping. After years of being cooped up inside, the majority of shoppers say they prefer to do the brick-and-mortar thing this holiday season.

➘ Sell: E-commerce: High inflation combined with supply chain disruptions means those online deals aren’t nearly as good, taking all the joy out of internet shopping.

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Evidence

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Watchdogs

Arguably the most important part of the CHIPS and Science Act has yet to be funded by Congress — the “science” part. The semiconductor portion of the legislation is about boosting domestic production to avoid a potential economic catastrophe — China cutting off the U.S. supply of computer chips, which are in basically everything we own these days. But the second part increases funding for ambitious programs run by the National Science Foundation aimed at jumpstarting technological innovation to stay ahead of China. Lawmakers failed to fund a similar bill in 2007. In a letter Tuesday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators urged Congress to fully fund the bill this time around.

Reed

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Q&A

Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Meta’s Facebook

Reed: I’ve read so many articles about how the layoffs and resignations at Twitter are about to crash the service. Why hasn’t it shut down?

Alex: You can probably keep Twitter up and running, with no changes, with a couple hundred people. They just have to be the right people. One of the mistakes I think Elon made was structuring the rounds of layoffs and severance offers to only retain people who don’t have other great options. Twitter isn’t just going to fail. They have about 500,000 servers running thousands of services.

Many of those can fail and, since the system has been well-architected, Twitter will continue to run with some degradation. This already happened when the two-factor authentication service failed, and for at least a day people with 2FA enabled couldn’t log back in.

Eventually, there will be an issue that has to be addressed by SREs [site reliability engineer] or it will cause a cascading failure. Question will be if the right team exists at that point to stop the cascade. The other issue is that there is basically no security team left. So, it isn’t clear whether bug bounty reports are being addressed and if anybody is looking at alerts and investigating for breaches.

Twitter was never going to just fail. The problem is that Elon is now running much higher risks, with a team formed of the people who couldn’t afford to quit. One of my big worries is that the team that stopped government influence ops is decimated. It’s pretty much open season on Twitter for Iran, China, Russia, and anybody else who wants to run large networks of fake accounts to manipulate opinion.

Two more issues for Musk:

1. It will be very hard to make money with the key relationships broken.

2. The most common cause of downtime is code changes that go wrong. Executing on the product roadmap he has laid out with a skeleton crew will be really risky.

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Staff Picks
  • Amazon’s films have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but have never won. That might change now that the company is ramping up its output of movies aimed at theaters, Bloomberg reports. Amazon earlier this year closed its $8.5 billion deal to acquire MGM, but it’s still unclear how making movies helps the company, other than a loss leader to keep people coming back to Prime, which now has National Football League broadcast rights, too. The bottom line is that Amazon makes some stuff, such as the Echo, that customers love but that aren’t profitable. The question is, how long can it all survive?
  • Elon Musk hired “Daniel Johnson.” Yeah, as in “Ligma, Johnson,” half of the duo who posed as laid-off Twitter workers, fooling a couple of television journalists stationed outside the company’s headquarters. Daniel Johnson’s real name is Daniel Francis, according to Business Insider. Musk is the new king of Twitter, so it follows that he should have a court jester. Musk loves running jokes (see his 420 phase) and his “Johnson” salary is probably less than the bill for gourmet lunches, lattes, and wine for employees.
  • How do “large language models,” the artificial intelligence technology taking the world by storm, help scientists when academic journals are behind paywalls? That’s an interesting question raised in this MIT Tech Review article. Facebook tried to create an AI tool that would help scientists, but it basically ran into a paywall issue and instead ended up relying on the open web. So much good could be accomplished if large language models could read essentially every academic research paper out there. That seems like a problem academic journals should try to solve.
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Enthusiasms
Harrison Ford on the red carpet in Phoenix, Arizona.
Gage Skidmore

Hollywood has been de-aging characters for some time now, bringing back Carrie Fisher to create new Princess Leia scenes and turning Al Pacino and Robert De Niro young again. The latest Indiana Jones film takes this art to a new level with a hyper-realistic flashback from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Artificial intelligence seems to be taking us across the “uncanny valley” so quickly that it won’t be long before we have actors whose faces and voices are created from scratch by studios.

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Thanks for reading.

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Reed and Louise

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