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The feud between a weed influencer and scientist over puking stoners

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dna helix made of leaves


The group had been started by a CHS patient named Erica, a 37-year-old artist who had looked online for resources after her diagnosis and, finding nothing, had decided to establish “basically a blog of my full recovery process and all the things I’ve discovered along the way.” (Erica preferred not to use her last name, because of the backlash that comes with publicly discussing CHS.) She pinned posts recommending magnesium supplements and listing lesser-known CHS symptoms, such as seizures and “scromiting”—that is, screaming and vomiting at the same time. Before joining, members must agree to a set of rules, including “No posts of theories or unproven methods … This group is for proven methods and truth only.” 

Erica and Moon became fast friends, despite living across the country from each other. As the group grew, accumulating as many as a thousand new members every month, the two women felt they were uncovering crucial information, including which prescription drugs were best for this condition and which trigger foods (cacao, rosemary) might also cause CHS patients to puke. “There’s so many of us that we can actually use ourselves as guinea pigs,” Erica told me. “The articles that have been written by doctors themselves are actually wrong.” 

For example, she explained, she’s been told that some doctors recommend that CHS patients try using non-psychoactive CBD products. But when Moon tried taking CBD capsules, about six months after that dinner in Malibu, she ended up in the emergency room, with three ulcers, two hernias, and a bacterial infection. Now she and Erica worked to convince new members to the group that in order to be healthy, they had to quit all cannabis, for good. 

“We have saved thousands of lives,” Erica claims.

KELSEY DAKE

In September 2019, after she spoke on a panel at a cannabis medical conference, Moon was excited to hear that a researcher named Ethan Russo was interested in studying the condition. From 1998 to 2014 Russo conducted research for GW Pharmaceuticals, the only company with a plant-derived, FDA-approved cannabis drug (Epidiolex, a treatment for childhood epilepsy that is 98% CBD). Russo’s early belief in the promise of medical cannabis, combined with the imprimatur of a white coat, has made him something of a folk hero among pot lovers. 

Russo had been following the nascent research into cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, including a 2012 study showing that patients like Moon were spending as much as $95,000 in testing and hospitalization costs before receiving a CHS diagnosis. He thought the theories about CHS being caused by pesticides were “bullshit” and was curious about why CHS affected some stoners and not others, hypothesizing that a genetic mutation might be responsible. He figured if he could compare the genomes of a large group of CHS patients with the genomes of a control group of potheads who hadn’t developed CHS, he might be able to offer both patients and doctors some clarity.

“The original idea was, can we develop a diagnostic test for this?” Russo told me. “A $180 genetic test can maybe save people a lot of grief,” he said. And perhaps it could give parents of the many teenage and 20-something CHS patients who refused to believe that weed was making them sick “more ammunition to say, ‘Hey, Johnny, no toking for you.’”

He decided to team up with a genetic testing company called Endocanna Health, which had been using its DNA kits to offer individualized cannabis recommendations based on a person’s genetics. Russo, who doesn’t particularly like using cannabis himself, had taken the company’s DNA test and claimed its assessments of how his body was genetically predisposed to respond to weed were startlingly accurate. 

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China


Fashion creator Jenni Svoboda is designing a beanie with a melted cupcake top, sprinkles, and doughnuts for ears. But this outlandish accessory isn’t destined for the physical world—Svoboda is designing for the metaverse. She’s working in a burgeoning, if bizarre, new niche: fashion stylists who create or curate outfits for people in virtual spaces.

Metaverse stylists are increasingly sought-after as frequent users seek help dressing their avatars—often in experimental, wildly creative looks that defy personal expectations, societal standards, and sometimes even physics. 

Stylists like Svoboda are among those shaping the metaverse fashion industry, which is already generating hundreds of millions of dollars. But while, to the casual observer, it can seem outlandish and even obscene to spend so much money on virtual clothes, there are deeper, more personal, reasons why people are hiring professionals to curate their virtual outfits. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Making sense of the changes to China’s zero-covid policy

On December 1, 2019, the first known covid-19 patient started showing symptoms in Wuhan. Three years later, China is the last country in the world holding on to strict pandemic control restrictions. However, after days of intense protests that shocked the world, it looks as if things could finally change.

Beijing has just announced wide-ranging relaxations of its zero covid policy, including allowing people to quarantine at home instead of in special facilities for the first time.

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Uber’s facial recognition is locking Indian drivers out of their accounts 

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Uber checks that a driver’s face matches what the company has on file through a program called “Real-Time ID Check.” It was rolled out in the US in 2016, in India in 2017, and then in other markets. “This prevents fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised. It also protects riders by building another layer of accountability into the app to ensure the right person is behind the wheel,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in a statement in 2017.

But the company’s driver verification procedures are far from seamless. Adnan Taqi, an Uber driver in Mumbai, ran into trouble with it when the app prompted him to take a selfie around dusk. He was locked out for 48 hours, a big dent in his work schedule—he says he drives 18 hours straight, sometimes as much as 24 hours, to be able to make a living. Days later, he took a selfie that locked him out of his account again, this time for a whole week. That time, Taqi suspects, it came down to hair: “I hadn’t shaved for a few days and my hair had also grown out a bit,” he says. 

More than a dozen drivers interviewed for this story detailed instances of having to find better lighting to avoid being locked out of their Uber accounts. “Whenever Uber asks for a selfie in the evenings or at night, I’ve had to pull over and go under a streetlight to click a clear picture—otherwise there are chances of getting rejected,” said Santosh Kumar, an Uber driver from Hyderabad. 

Others have struggled with scratches on their cameras and low-budget smartphones. The problem isn’t unique to Uber. Drivers with Ola, which is backed by SoftBank, face similar issues. 

Some of these struggles can be explained by natural limitations in face recognition technology. The software starts by converting your face into a set of points, explains Jernej Kavka, an independent technology consultant with access to Microsoft’s Face API, which is what Uber uses to power Real-Time ID Check. 

Adnan Taqi holds up his phone in the driver’s seat of his car. Variations in lighting and facial hair have likely caused him to lose access to the app.

SELVAPRAKASH LAKSHMANAN

“With excessive facial hair, the points change and it may not recognize where the chin is,” Kavka says. The same thing happens when there is low lighting or the phone’s camera doesn’t have a good contrast. “This makes it difficult for the computer to detect edges,” he explains.

But the software may be especially brittle in India. In December 2021, tech policy researchers Smriti Parsheera (a fellow with the CyberBRICS project) and Gaurav Jain (an economist with the International Finance Corporation) posted a preprint paper that audited four commercial facial processing tools—Amazon’s Rekognition, Microsoft Azure’s Face, Face++, and FaceX—for their performance on Indian faces. When the software was applied to a database of 32,184 election candidates, Microsoft’s Face failed to even detect the presence of a face in more than 1,000 images, throwing an error rate of more than 3%—the worst among the four. 

It could be that the Uber app is failing drivers because its software was not trained on a diverse range of Indian faces, Parsheera says. But she says there may be other issues at play as well. “There could be a number of other contributing factors like lighting, angle, effects of aging, etc.,” she explained in writing. “But the lack of transparency surrounding the use of such systems makes it hard to provide a more concrete explanation.” 

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones


One evening in February last year, a 23-year-old Uber driver named Niradi Srikanth was getting ready to start another shift, ferrying passengers around the south Indian city of Hyderabad. He pointed the phone at his face to take a selfie to verify his identity. The process usually worked seamlessly. But this time he was unable to log in.

Srikanth suspected it was because he had recently shaved his head. After further attempts to log in were rejected, Uber informed him that his account had been blocked. He is not alone. In a survey conducted by MIT Technology Review of 150 Uber drivers in the country, almost half had been either temporarily or permanently locked out of their accounts because of problems with their selfie.

Hundreds of thousands of India’s gig economy workers are at the mercy of facial recognition technology, with few legal, policy or regulatory protections. For workers like Srikanth, getting blocked from or kicked off a platform can have devastating consequences. Read the full story.

—Varsha Bansal

I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

Police departments across the world are embracing drones, deploying them for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to even chasing criminals. Yet none of them seem to be trying to find out how encounters with drones leave people feeling—or whether the technology will help or hinder policing work.

A team from University College London and the London School of Economics is filling in the gaps, studying how people react when meeting police drones in virtual reality, and whether they come away feeling more or less trusting of the police. 

MIT Technology Review’s Melissa Heikkilä came away from her encounter with a VR police drone feeling unnerved. If others feel the same way, the big question is whether these drones are effective tools for policing in the first place. Read the full story.

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter covering AI and its effects on society. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

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