The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

We’re consuming toxic chemicals. Now we need to figure out how they’re affecting us.

What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.

There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Read more:

+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.

+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.

+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Inside Russia’s secretive cyberwarfare tactics
A whistleblower has lifted the lid on the country’s hacking and disinformation methods. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian hackers claim to have infiltrated a Russian colonel’s accounts. (Motherboard)
+ Russia is risking the creation of a “splinternet.” (MIT Technology Review)

2 There’s an AI coding war brewing
Ensuring developers get their hands on the best AI tools could emerge as the next major tech battleground. (Wired $)
+ Tesla has created an immediate AI threat to humanity. (Slate $)

3 Extremist content is thriving on Twitter’s For You page
Its algorithms are amplifying hateful and racist content, too. (WP $)
+ The company won’t charge its top advertisers for blue checks. (NYT $)

4 The rise and rise of police surveillance tech
Countries in the Middle East and beyond are following China’s lead. (NYT $)
+ How US police use counterterrorism money to buy spy tech. (MIT Technology Review)

5 India is on the hunt for new powerful spyware 
The notorious Pegasus system is too well known, so officials are widening their search. (FT $)
+ Twitter is censoring users who criticize the Indian prime minister. (The Intercept)

6 Virgin Orbit is ceasing operations
Richard Branson’s troubled rocket company failed to secure much-needed funding. (CNBC)

7 Streaming algorithms aren’t built to handle classical music 🎻
But Apple is confident it has a solution. (WSJ $)

8 These startups want to make it easier to invest in property
That’s often bad news for renters. (Wired $)

9 Who are online business courses really benefiting?
It’s an extremely lucrative career path for the savvy creators behind them. (Vox)
+ There’s a new anime dating game that simultaneously does your taxes. (TechCrunch)

10 The woolly mammoth meatball is a colossal PR stunt 🦣
Who could have guessed? (The Atlantic $)
+ How much would you pay to see a woolly mammoth? (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“It was all held together with duct tape.”

—An anonymous former Twitter employee describes the creaking system propping up the company’s blue checks to the Washington Post.

The big story

Should we believe in—or even want—immortality?

October 2022

Twenty years have passed since writer Jonathan Weiner first met Aubrey de Grey, the man with the Methuselah beard. Back then, Aubrey was already a True Believer in the quest for immortality. And he wasn’t yet a man in disgrace.

Weiner first met Aubrey in 2002, when Aubrey was still working as a computer programmer in the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. He rapidly became a secular guru, a prophet of immortality—to the intense annoyance of most of the scientists in the aging field. 

But Aubrey’s eagerness to convince believers they could live for centuries, millennia, or even longer, raises pertinent questions about what it is to want something we may not even believe in. Read the full story.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The roots of guitar music run far deeper than the birth of rock n roll.
+ Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about stars: including what happens after they die.
+ The world’s oldest cities are getting better with age.
+ What’s cooler than being cool? Birdwatching, that’s what.
+ Why did waterbeds never take off? They’re surprisingly high maintenance.

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