“李老师”口述:如何成为推特上中国抗议信息的聚集地

Editor’s note: This is a translation of a story about a Chinese painter based in Italy who became a critical source of information for many in China during recent protests against the country’s zero-covid policy. Find the English language version here.

过去一周,随着针对中国新冠防疫政策的抗议席卷了社交媒体,一个推特账号@李老师不是你老师 变成了各种相关信息来源的“集散地”。中国各地民众纷纷通过私信发来抗议视频和实时消息,而该账号帮投稿人隐去身份,匿名将这些消息发布出来。

这个账户背后只有一个人:李(大家称他为李老师),出于安全考虑,他要求只透露姓氏。他是一位居住在意大利的中国画家,且从未在新闻行业工作过,但这并没有阻止他把自己的推特账号变成了一个单人值守的新闻直播间。

针对新冠清零政策的抗议活动在 11 月的最后一个周末达到了高峰,李老师每秒钟都会收到十几条私信,他也在尽可能在收到投稿的一瞬间分辨、过滤掉不实信息。尽管在过去的一年里,他一直在发布关注者们的匿名私信,但这对他来说,也是一次完全不同的经历。

长期以来,他一直在网上关注并谈论中国的社会问题。2021 年的时候,他开始在微博上收到私信,这些人担心暴露自己的身份,希望通过他将这些信息发布出去。

但是后来,他发布的消息开始被审查和删帖;到今年2月,他的账户被封禁。之后的两个月中,他又有 49 个账户陆续被禁。但他的关注者们大方地让他使用自己的手机号去注册更多的账号(来发布信息)。今年 4 月,他被微博禁止访问,于是辗转到了推特。也正是在推特上,他收到了大量国际账户以及翻墙访问推特的中国用户的关注。

上周,郑州富士康工厂的工人与管理层爆发冲突,李老师开始通过中国社交媒体和他的关注者提供的信息来跟踪事态走向。那一晚,他只休息了 3 个小时。

到周末,中国的大城市里爆发了更多的抗议活动。李老师又一次开始发布实时抗议视频录像,以期一方面帮助在中国国内的人了解信息,来决定是否要参与其中;另一方面告诉身处海外的人们,中国正在发生的事情。“让大家感觉,这一秒我虽然在世界各地,但是这件事情正在发生,而我正在看,”李老师说。

他的推特帐户现在已经成为抗议活动信息的集散地,仅在过去一周就吸引了超过 60 万名关注者。

但是他也因为所做的事,承受着代价:在中国的社交媒体平台(如微博、微信等)上提及他的账号名称会被审查。他也在私信中收到死亡威胁,并且警方已经去拜访了他在中国的家。

但在焦虑之中又混杂着解放和自由的感觉,李老师觉得,他自己终于可以毫无恐惧地在社交媒体上直言习近平了。他还开玩笑说,他的推特头像是一只猫的涂鸦,但现在这个涂鸦恐怕已经成为了最著名也最危险的一只猫。

在上周早些时候的一次长谈中,李老师向我描述了他正在做的事以及他承受的巨大压力,也解释了要保持客观的难处所在。他所做的事占用了他几乎所有的非休息时间,后来他不得不强迫自己在周一的时候休息,这也促成了一次奇遇。

以下,是李老师本人讲述的他的故事。本文后续内容经过了轻微改动和重新组织,以保证表达清晰。——Zeyi Yang

恐惧者的传声筒

这个账号的话,其实本质上来说,它和很多的推特的普通用户是一样的,就是发一些关于生活的话题、关于自己专业方面的一些话题,然后当然也包括社会的一些议题。

但是这个账号它其实还承载着另外一个功能。我也不知道从什么时候开始,渐渐地我开始收到私信投稿,大家会发一些正在发生的事情或者是他们自己的事情,然后希望我帮他们发出来。我觉得这个可能也是中国互联网上,或者说是习近平上台以后,这种越来越强烈的网络管制或者说言论管制的情况下,开始衍生出来的一种情况。大家不敢自己直接在网上去说这些东西,哪怕是匿名的,他们也不敢去说。但是他们又想要表达,所以他们希望有别人来替他们说。

在微博上也是一样的,我可能最开始只有几千个、一万个粉丝,然后渐渐地大家发现这个人他可以说话,然后就来找我。就是从徐州丰县“八孩母亲”事件开始,当时我帮一个人去发表内容(他想找他的姐姐),那个内容在微博上应该是转了三万多次,然后我的号就炸了。我的号炸了之后我就继续建新的账号,然后在那几个月里基本上就是一直被炸,大概两个月时间我炸了五十个号。 我最快的时候是十分钟炸一个。你只要一炸我的号,我就会立刻建一个。

我的粉丝,我也不知道他们怎么就可以立刻找到我,然后瞬间一万多人就又关注回来。然后直到是他们好像找到那个卖号的网站,把那个网站炸了,我就再也找不到账号了。

当时在那个过程里,我其实是很感动的,因为在微博上你是需要手机号来验证的,但大量的网友他们把手机号借给我,说:“没事,李老师,你就用我手机号来验证,没关系。”也是很让我感动的事情。后来就彻底没有号了,我就没办法,只能来推特。

我的推特账号是 2020 年建的,但是我其实是今年四月份才转到推特。从一开始,这个最新的消息都会(有粉丝)发给我,我不知道为什么,就是总有人他们就在新闻发生现场,然后就可以立刻发给我,包括(十月份)上海举白色横幅的那件事情。慢慢地,粉丝数就多起来了。

我在报导这个富士康事件之前,大概有 14 万粉丝;报导完涨到了 19 万;现在是多少万我已经不知道了。(编辑注:采访时李老师的推特账号有 67 万粉丝,截止到发稿时已超过 78 万。)

单人扛起的新闻直播间

这几天的话,我大概只能睡五个小时吧,然后其他的时间就全部在(推特)上面。 没有其他人,只有我自己,连我女朋友都没有参与。

其实我在线时间最长的一天不是这两天,是富士康冲突那天。因为那个事情就是(变化)太快了,他们一直不停的话,我也没法停。我就没有想过说,反正这事和自己没关系,要不就睡觉去吧,没有想过。

乌鲁木齐火灾这件事其实引发了大家的一个共情。火灾确实是每个人心里的一个痛,因为每个人都被封在家里出不去过。而且包括之前每一次类似的社会事件,无论这件事情和政府有没有关系,它都会把(舆论)封锁起来。那么在一次又一次的闭嘴当中,人们就开始愤怒了。总是有一个导火线,这个导火线到底是哪一件事,哪怕不是今天,也可能是明天,或者后天。

我本来以为(11月)26号晚上的新疆抗议是载入历史的一页,结果那只是历史的一个开端。

特别是当抗议者喊出四通桥的那些口号的时候,我心里就是:完了,人们在上海市中心去喊这些口号,这会是一个非常非常严重的事情。那这个时候,就必须用一个中立、客观的态度去记录它,因为如果不这样的话,就是在推特上,可能很快它也会消失掉。我的想法就是,我要立刻去接过这个接力棒,然后就不自觉地就开始了。

紧接着就是一种很难说的感觉,就是大家所有人全部都汇聚过来,各种各样、天南地北的信息就汇聚过来,然后告诉你:嘿,这里发生了什么;嘿,那里发生了什么;你知道吗,我们广州也这样了;我现在在武汉,武汉现在这样;我现在在北京,然后我正跟着大部队在一起走……

就是突然所有的实时信息都涌到我这里,那种感觉不知道怎么去形容。 但是也已经没有时间去想了。心跳得特别得快,然后手和脑子在不停地去切换几个软件。因为你知道推特是没有办法直接从网站上存视频的,所以不停地切换软件、剪辑视频、导出,然后发到推特上。(编辑注: 李老师会为视频添加字幕,隐去原作者信息,以及把多个短视频编辑在一起)到后边就已经没有时间去剪辑视频了。一个十二秒的微信视频,他拍了发过来,然后我就会直接用,就是这样,没有时间去想。

(私信频率)最高的时候应该是星期日下午六点左右,当时是中国的五个大城市:北京、上海、成都、武汉、广州,同时都有非常多的人在街上。所以我基本上每秒都能收到十几条消息。到最后我已经没法去筛选信息了,就是我看见,我点开,然后这个事情值得发,我就发。

全国各地的网友都在跟我说这个实时情况。为了不让更多的人遭受危险,他们亲自去(抗议)现场,然后告诉我现场的情况。包括有网友骑着共享单车,经过南京总统府,然后一边骑,一边拍,拍下来以后告诉我说南京这边的情况,然后告诉我一定要让大家小心。我觉得确实是一个蛮感动的事情。

到目前为止,渐渐地我就成为了一个“演播厅主播”,就是说全国各地的现场“记者”不断地给我发来反馈。比如说星期一在杭州,有五六个人同时在不断地给我发最新的消息,当然中间有段时间停了, 因为清场的时候大家全部都在逃。

保持客观的重要性

在推特上会有非常非常多的添油加醋的消息。从他们的角度他们认为这是对的,他们认为你必须最大限度地去引发大家的愤怒,然后才会有反抗。但是对我来说的话,我认为我们需要真实的信息,我们需要知道真正发生了什么,这是最重要的。如果说我们是为了情绪的话,那其实到最后我就真成“境外势力”了是吧?

如果说外网可以有一个渠道能够客观、实时、准确地去随时记录这些事,那么对于墙内的民众来说,他们就会笃定这件事。在现在这种非常极端的消息封锁的情况下, 有一个账号可以以几乎几秒钟一条的速度不断地去发布全国各地各种消息,其实对于大家来说,也是一种鼓励。

中国人从小跟着爱国主义长大,所以他们比较畏缩,或者说他们不太敢直接地去说一些内容或者直接去反对什么。其实大家在抗议中唱国歌、举红旗、举国旗,你必须得明白,中国人他就是爱国的,那么他们自然是带着这一份情怀来去向政府要求一些东西。所以他们愿意给我投稿,因为他们知道我是中立、客观、真实地在报道这件事情。但是其他人的话,他们不敢去投;万一真的就像国内说的,被境外势力利用了,是吧?

可以这样说,他们想要反对,但是又不是那么绝对的反对,他们希望有一个折中的点。那么我其实就是那个折中的点。发生的事情我会报导,但是我只报导事情,我不会多说一句。可能这就是为什么我成为这个中心,当然我成为这个中心也和我一直在发内容有关系。

所以我尽量做到有什么信息就报道什么信息,但是现在这件事很难完成,因为投稿实在太多了。可能一个事情,我需要几个不同角度的拍摄,我才能确认这件事情。比如说昨天晚上有传言武汉有枪击、成都有枪击、西安有枪击,但是我都没有找到可以去验证的视频,所以最后我都没有发。那么也因此,一些推特上的网友会认为我可能在故意地掩盖一些警方的错误。

所以现在有一些比较尴尬的情况,就是国内认为我在煽动这些事情,但是国外的人认为我是大外宣, 这就形成了一个非常矛盾的点。当你选择站在中间的时候,你肯定是承受了两边的压力,但是没关系。

应对混乱和虚假

而且我基本上就是没有时间思考,基本上就是几秒钟一条,几秒钟一条;然后消息又非常快、非常乱,还有发一些非常重复的视频。还有好多就直接从我这儿发出去的视频,然后他不知道从朋友圈什么地方,又发回来给我。可能这一条是北京、下一条是广州、下一条就是上海。他们又没办法马上知道我这个视频发没发,所以他又重新发给我。比如总是把前面可能 9 点的视频,然后他 12 点的时候又发给我,他以为这就是当时的情况。

可能今天晚上投稿给我最多的一个假视频,是一个警车开车在立交桥下碾人的视频,我应该看了有六、七十次吧,都说是这个四通桥底下或者怎么样,但其实它就是一个国外的视频。很多人是愿意相信这些视频的,(其实)他们就是愿意相信说发生了一个大新闻。

星期一上午我遭遇的比较大的危机就是,我不知道是谁,是不是(中国政府)的人,他们不断给我发假消息。就是有一些消息是真实发生但是地点不对的,然后有一些就直接看一眼就知道是假的的消息,可能他们希望从那个方面去打倒我吧。

虽然说在私信里面不断地有人希望我呼吁,不断地有人希望我去总结口号或者发布口号,或者发布让大家应该怎么怎么做,但是我一直没有突破那条线。因为我觉得每个人都有一个自己的“任务”,我的任务就是报道这件事情。如果说我突然加入进来(抗议)的话,我就等于是真的在指挥了,而我又并不在现场。如果说真正死了人的话,那血债其实就是算在我头上的,因为是我指挥他们去的。所以我认为不应该这样,我只能去报导。

但是我认为,最后这个帽子是肯定会扣在我头上,就是我不做这件事,我之后也会被认为在做这件事。

那么如果我始终能够保证独立性的话,那可能是一根蜡烛,可能是一根火炬,就是立在那里。

工作带来的精神压力

我刚刚研究生毕业,严格意义上就说,我也就是个刚毕业的学生对吧。所以就是突然被拉进这件事,让我突然成为了这样的一个角色。没有什么感觉。其实说来说去的,更多就是揪心吧,就是不知道自己会怎么样。也会很害怕,会不会哪天过马路,突然一个车往我这儿撞过来,制造一个交通事故啥的。更多的其实是当我关掉电脑以后,我会有一些担忧,但是当我坐在电脑前的时候,我又没有时间去考虑自己。

我主要觉得这很累,只有今天,我是强迫给自己放假的。平时的话,我基本上就是我坐在那,从开始,然后一直到结束,我几乎都不会站起来。

但是今天,我开始受到一些威胁,然后我心理压力会比较大。不得不怕,你看过那么多,你知道那么多。 所以今天,就是强制给我自己放了一个假。也不算什么放假吧,就是下去走了几圈,然后走的时间比较久。

今天也挺奇妙的。

我昨天晚上确实有收到死亡威胁,我不知道他是谁,他反正就是说“我们已经知道你在哪了,你就等着就好了。”我当时没来得及截图,因为那个消息很快就被其他的消息给盖住。我扫了一眼,那个消息立刻就没有了,但是当时真的就是心里就悬着。

然后今天早上我出门买猫粮的时候,我就在猫眼里反复查看,看有没有人在我家门外。然后一路上我都不断地在看马路上有没有这个站岗的人或者怎么样,他们是不是真得能找到我。回来的时候呢,就是楼梯里一直有异动,然后我就把东西放在门口,我就站在这个猫眼里等着看了十分钟,一直没有看到人。后来我心里想这样不是办法,我必须得让他走,我当时想的就是说,我直接开直播然后找他,然后让他走。其实结果就是没有人,是一只很小、很小、很小的猫,不知道为什么它突然躲在那里,然后我就把它抱回家了,现在我女朋友在喂它吃东西。反正就是觉得挺奇妙的。我正在考虑,要不要叫它乌鲁木齐。

我忘了是不是从习近平上台以来,一直都感觉特委屈。就是觉得这些年,就是为了能够说话,然后不断地、反复地审查自己,一直都小心翼翼。

然后昨天吧,突然就不怕了。没有时间去想这个事情,就一直在不断地发。简单来说就是,当他们喊出“习近平下台”的时候,突然就觉得无所谓了,我可以把这个事情给报道出来,这几个字我也敢打。他们敢喊,我也敢打,这样一个感觉。

你知道这三个字打出来要意味着什么,就是完全不同的这种概念。那一刻就是突然就感觉自己又死、又活、又解脱、又委曲,就是非常非常复杂的这种感觉。

The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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.

A new app aims to help the millions of people living with long covid

The news: A new app could help people with long covid cope with their condition by giving them a clearer understanding of what helps—and hinders—their health. The platform, called Visible, collects data every day to help people understand how their symptoms fluctuate.

How it works: Visible tracks a user’s heart rate variability in order to recommend when someone should take it easy for the next few days to avoid exhausting themselves, checking their heart rate in the morning and getting them to score their symptoms in the evening. 

Why it matters: Millions of people around the world live with long covid. Behind the numbers, there is an enormous amount of individual pain, misery, and frustration, especially regarding medical ignorance about the condition. Visible’s co-founder hopes to not only help individual people better manage long covid, but to provide better data to help researchers gain a better understanding of the condition too. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

Read more of our reporting on long covid:

+ A battle is raging over long covid in children. While potentially millions of children suffer from this mysterious illness, researchers are still debating how big a problem it is. Read the full story.

+ We’ve only just begun to examine the racial disparities of long covid. It may take years to understand the full impact of the pandemic and its aftermath on Black people in the US. Read the full story.

+ From April 2021: Could covid lead to a lifetime of autoimmune disease? Evidence is growing that in some people covid infections are producing autoantibodies targeting the body’s organs. If true, it could mean years of lingering sickness and misery for many. Read the full story.

California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

This week, dozens of companies are expected to compete for the right to lease the first commercial wind power sites off the coast of California in a federal online auction that could kick-start the state’s next clean energy boom.

The state has an ambitious goal: building 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. That’s equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s total generating capacity today, or enough to power 25 million homes.

But the plans are facing a daunting geological challenge: the continental shelf drops steeply just a few miles off the California coast, alongside enormous engineering and regulatory obstacles. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

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

1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

The gig workers fighting back against the algorithms

April 2022

In the Bendungan Hilir neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from Jakarta’s glitzy central business district, motorcycle drivers gather in an informal “base camp.” They are drivers with Gojek, Indonesia’s largest ride-hailing firm. They’re also part of the backbone of a growing movement of resistance against the dispatch algorithms that dominate their lives.

Base camps grew out of a tradition that existed before algorithmic ride-hailing services came to Indonesia. They’re the network through which drivers around the city stay in tight communication. This sense of community is now at the heart of what distinguishes Jakarta’s drivers from other gig workers around the world, and could reveal a new playbook for resistance: a way for workers to build collective power, achieve a measure of security, and take care of one another when seemingly no one else will. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao & Nadine Freischlad

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.)

+ Punk to politician is a pretty cool job trajectory.
+ The cast of the Lord of the Rings reuniting over Zoom is exactly what I need right now.
+ Loving your favorite music runs a lot deeper than simply liking how it sounds.
+ We’re approaching the end of the year, which means it’s the perfect time to dive into a controversial list of the year’s best movies.
+ Happy birthday to Jonathan the tortoise, who, by turning 190 yesterday, officially became the world’s oldest living land animal!

California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

This week, dozens of companies are expected to compete for the right to lease the first commercial wind power sites off the coast of California in a federal online auction that could kick-start the state’s next clean energy boom.

Collectively, the winners will pay at least tens of millions of dollars for exclusive rights to submit plans to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for wind turbines at five sites that stretch across more than 370,000 acres of the Pacific. Three of the areas are clustered near Morro Bay along the central coast, starting about 20 miles due west from the picturesque seaside town of Cambria. Two more are located off Humboldt County in the north. 

Annual average wind speeds around the Morro Bay sites reach 8 to 10 meters per second, exceeding those around some large offshore wind farms already developed in the North Sea. Towering turbines on the locations up for lease could deliver 4.5 gigawatts of clean electricity to the California grid, enough to power more than 1.5 million homes. 

The state has an even more ambitious goal: building 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. That’s equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s total generating capacity today, or enough to power 25 million homes.

But the audacious plans for offshore wind face a daunting geological challenge: the continental shelf drops steeply just a few miles off the California coast. That makes it prohibitively expensive to erect standard offshore wind turbines, which are set atop fixed structures that extend to the seafloor. The turbines built near Morro Bay and off Humboldt, where water depths reach up to 1,300 meters (around 4,300 feet), will need to be placed on floating platforms, a speculative and very costly technology.  

Some companies have begun using such platforms, which are tethered to the sea bottom on moorings, in places such as the coasts of Portugal and Scotland. But these sites still produce relatively little power. To meet its ambitious plans, California will need to develop sprawling fleets of these floating wind turbines very quickly.

The hope is that the state, as a huge consumer of electricity, will provide a giant early market for the technology, helping to scale it up, pushing down costs, and driving innovation in the nascent sector. That would boost US efforts to develop more offshore wind power, a clean energy sector where the nation has long lagged regions like China and the UK. If the floating industry does prove viable, it will also unlock vast amounts of renewable resources around the globe that have largely been off limits to date.

But there are enormous engineering and regulatory challenges ahead. Achieving California’s targets could require creating or upgrading ports, constructing new vessels, streamlining permitting processes, building up a West Coast wind manufacturing sector, and shifting to new types of platforms that could be cheaper to deliver and install. And all of that would have to occur at an incredibly rapid pace.

David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, readily acknowledges the looming difficulties, but he says the state is committed to working through them. 

“This is a technology that is ripe and ready,” he says. “We’re all in.”

High hopes 

The appeal of floating wind is obvious. Somewhere around 60 meters deep (nearly 200 feet) it becomes impractical for developers to build what are called fixed wind foundations. But the winds above deep waters far off the coast are often ideal: strong and consistent. 

Off Morro Bay and other potential California sites, the winds dip at midday but rise in the early evening, in nearly perfect sync with consumer demand—and in much the opposite pattern from the electricity generated by solar farms. 

Those characteristics will help the state’s grid operators draw more of their electricity from carbon-free sources through the evening, which will serve an increasingly crucial function as the California power sector moves off fossil fuels, says Alla Weinstein, chief executive of Trident Winds, which is a partner in the Castle Wind joint venture, which is bidding in the auction this week.

The state’s climate laws will require 90% of its electricity to come from such resources by 2035. That same year, California will mandate that all new passenger vehicles sold in the state must be zero-emissions, placing growing demands on the grid.

Hochschild says California also hopes a boom in floating wind will spur economic development, including the emergence of a state-based manufacturing sector near ports that could supply turbine blades, towers, and other components. Offshore wind development could spark tens of billions of dollars in investments over the next quarter-century, he says.

In addition to their monetary bids, companies participating in the auction can earn credits by committing to invest in workforce training, support the development of domestic wind supply chains, and engage with indigenous tribes and other underserved communities, among other considerations. These credits will be considered in determining the winner.

But California is pinning a lot of hopes on an industry that scarcely exists today. 

a floating wind turbine
SEBASTIEN SALOM GOMIS / AFP VIA AP IMAGES

Only a handful of mostly small demonstration projects have been developed so far, totalling around 125 megawatts, according to a Department of Energy report published earlier this year. The largest floating farm in the world so far is the nearly 50-megawatt Kincardine project off the shores of Scotland. There are also small projects operating in China, Japan, France, Norway, and Portugal, the report notes. 

There are big plans to build more globally. The total capacity of projects in the pipeline—including large sites in Australia, Brazil, South Korea, and the United Kingdom—doubled in 2021, to more than 60 gigawatts.

The Biden administration has set a US goal of developing 15 gigawatts of floating wind by 2035 and established a program designed to cut the cost of the technology by 70% over that time. (It’s also aiming to build 30 gigawatts of all types of offshore wind by 2030.)

High costs 

For now, however, floating wind power remains hugely expensive. 

It’s hard to put precise figures on the technology today, given the small pool of projects across different regions, but the levelized cost is roughly $200 per megawatt-hour, according to the DOE report. (Levelized costs of energy are the average calculated across a project’s lifetime, taking into account the costs of building and operating it.)

Standard offshore wind, land-based wind projects, and large-scale solar farms run around $80, $30 and $35 per megawatt-hour, respectively, according to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That wide gulf will clearly discourage grid operators from signing long-term power purchase agreements unless they’re incentivized or required to by policies or regulators.

California’s climate laws could do just that, pushing grid operators to source more and more of their electricity from carbon-free sources across more hours of the day, even if it is initially more expensive.

In addition to the high costs, any US floating wind development will also have to grapple with some onerous regulations. Under a century-old law, any ship delivering goods or people from one US site to another must be built, owned, and primarily crewed by American citizens. Past findings and precedents suggest that floating wind sites will fall under those restrictions, says Carl Valenstein, an attorney focused on maritime industries at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

The problem is there are limited numbers of compliant ships that could tow out and plant the assembled floating turbines. Foreign-flag vessels could do some of the work on site, and it’s possible certain US ships could be retrofitted to achieve some of the tasks. But it’s clear the American ship-building sector will need to get moving fast for the US to have any hope of meeting both the fixed and floating offshore wind targets.

“At some point in the next year, people are going to have to ask the question: Where are we going to get the ships to implement these plans along the current timelines?” Valenstein says. “If a lot of these projects get going, those capacity constraints will be really felt—and you don’t get these ships built overnight.”

California faces still more challenges. Many of the state’s ports are too shallow and its bridges too low to accommodate the giant turbines, towers, and platforms, which are far easier to assemble before they’re carried to the offshore site.

In addition, it could cost tens of billions of dollars to develop the electricity transmission capacity needed to plug all the envisioned offshore wind turbines into the grid. California’s Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s main electricity network, found that just accommodating four gigawatts of electricity from the sites near Humboldt County could cost between $5 and $8 billion.

Finally, there’s the question of permitting. 

Winning the federal auction is merely the start. Every winning developer will still need to work through lengthy environmental review and approval processes with a variety of federal, state, and local agencies, ultimately securing no fewer than 30 permits. Weinstein says it could take five to seven years.

And Californians have a well-earned reputation for blocking and stalling major developments. They are particularly touchy about coastal projects—whether they can see them or not.

Catching the wind 

Despite the challenges, fans of floating wind remain optimistic. 

Walt Musial, who leads the research efforts on offshore wind at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, predicts that costs will come down as the industry moves beyond the pilot scale and developers gain experience building more and bigger floating wind facilities.

Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

A new app aims to help the millions of people living with long covid

A new app could help people with long covid cope with their condition by giving them a clearer understanding of what helps—and hinders—their health.

People with long covid, defined by the World Health Organization as a post-covid illness lasting two months or more, suffer from symptoms that include headaches, fatigue, weakness, and fever. Some use a practice called pacing, where they balance activity with periods of rest to recover, to keep things under control. If they exert themselves too hard, it can make things worse.

The new app, called Visible, aims to help people manage that process by collecting data every day in order to understand how their symptoms fluctuate. Users measure their heart rate variability (the variation in time between beats) every morning by placing a finger over the phone’s camera for 60 seconds. This measures the pulse by recording small changes in the color of the user’s skin.

The user then rates the severity of their long covid symptoms in the evening on a scale of 0 to 3 (0 representing no symptoms, and 3 representing severe symptoms). Research from the American Heart Association has found that reduced heart rate variability, which corresponds with a more stressed nervous system, is common in people with long covid. 

Tracking heart rate variability makes it easier to predict when someone is likely to become fatigued. Visible uses this data to create a “pace score” of 1 to 10 (8-10 indicating good recent pacing, 4-6 suggesting it would be wise to factor in a quiet next few days, and 1-3 meaning the person should prioritize rest) to help users decide when to take it easy. 

Visible’s co-creator, Harry Leeming, who has been living with long covid since September 2020, hopes that it will help both users and the wider society gain a better understanding of the condition, which medical experts still know surprisingly little about. Users will soon be able to opt to share their data with researchers at Imperial College London, the company says. 

Visible is just one of a range of projects designed to help people with long covid. Researchers from University College London have recently created an app called Lungy, which is designed to help users with long covid, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do breathing exercises. Another app, from the UK’s Northern Care Alliance NHS Group, has been developed to help patients log their progress so that clinicians can adjust their treatment accordingly.

Behind the numbers, there is an enormous amount of individual pain, misery, and frustration regarding medical ignorance about the condition, says Mike Clarke, a 44-year-old medical copywriter in Bristol, UK, who has been living with long covid since October 2020. He has to spend hours every day lying down because even just sitting up puts strain on his heart.

“I had a couple of particularly bad health days, and my score [on the app] the next day was appropriately low. It may not seem like much, but after two years of doctors telling me all medical tests showed that everything in my body was fine, I’ve felt more validated by the data from Visible in a week and half of use,” he says.

“After two years with absolutely no progress, most people like me with long covid are desperate for someone or something—anything—to offer hope. To me, the Visible app provides me little glimpses of that.”

The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs

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.

How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

As protests against rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media in the past week, one Twitter account has emerged as the central source of information: @李老师不是你老师 (“Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”). 

People everywhere in China have sent protest footage and real-time updates to the account through private messages, and it has posted them, with the sender’s identity hidden, on their behalf.

The man behind the account, Li, is a Chinese painter based in Italy, who requested to be identified only by his last name in light of the security risks. He’s been tirelessly posting footage around the clock to help people within China get information, and also to inform the wider world.

The work has been taking its toll—he’s received death threats, and police have visited his family back in China. But it also comes with a sense of liberation, Li told Zeyi Yang, our China reporter. Read the full story.

Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

The news: Text-to-image AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—have sent ripples through the creative industries. Now, two biotech labs are using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.

Why it matters: Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem

We’re all crawling with bugs. Our bodies are home to plenty of distinct ecosystems that host microbes, fungi, and other organisms that are crucial to our wellbeing. These ecosystems appear to change as we age—and these changes can potentially put us at increased risk of age-related diseases.

The big questions are: what can we do to maintain a happy microbiome—and, even if we manage to achieve it, will it actually help us to keep age-related illnesses at bay? Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 China’s government is cracking down hard on protest content
Among other orders, tech companies have been told to take down guides on how to use VPNs. (WSJ $)
+ Workers at the Zhengzhou iPhone factory are under intense pressure. (FT $)
+ There’s no way for the Chinese government to abandon ‘zero covid’ without losing face. (Vox)
+ Protestors have embraced analogue methods to escape surveillance. (Rest of World)

2 FTX’s collapse is bad news for AI
The embattled crypto exchange invested hundreds of millions in AI projects. Will they have to pay it back? (NYT $)   
+ FTX’s implosion is obviously not doing crypto’s reputation any favors, either. (WSJ $)
+ Bitcoin looks likely to further drop in value. (Bloomberg $)
+ What’s next for effective altruism? It’s not looking good. (New Yorker $)

3 Kanye West has been banned from Twitter, again
The rapper tweeted a vile antisemitic symbol. (BBC)
+ West also praised Hitler during an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (Vox
+ His deal to buy Parler has fallen through. (CNN)

4 Weight loss app Noom is struggling with vulnerable users
The platform promotes a “psychological” approach to weight loss, which some conflate with therapy. (Insider $)

5 The high aviation costs of Amazon’s obsession with two-day delivery ✈️
Delivering goods via plane is neither cheap nor terribly efficient. (Wired $)
+ This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the price. (MIT Technology Review)

6 OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT is still spouting nonsense
It’s confidently regurgitating false information. (The Verge)
+ These six high-profile artists’ AI creations are quite something. (The Guardian)
+ While everyone waits for GPT-4, OpenAI is still fixing its predecessor. (MIT Technology Review)

7 The US Army wanted to recruit Gen Z gamers over Twitch
With a particular focus on reaching women, and Black and Hispanic players. (Motherboard)

8 Beavers are moving to the Arctic 🦫
And they could end up traveling even farther, due to global warming. (Knowable Magazine)
+ The radical intervention that might save the “doomsday” glacier. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Inside the weird world of Competitive Excel
Yes, the spreadsheet software. (The Atlantic $)

10 Saturn’s rarely-seen moon has been captured on camera 🪐
Titan looks surprisingly like Earth in the JWST images. (Inverse)

Quote of the day

“They sound like the guy playing the violin on the Titanic.”

—A senior media buyer lampoons the unusually generous deals Twitter is currently offering advertisers in a desperate bid to convince them to keep spending money with the increasingly volatile platform, to the Financial Times.

The big story

The quest to show that biological sex matters in the immune system

immunity concept illustration

August 2022

For years, microbiologist Sabra Klein has painstakingly made the case that sex—defined by biological attributes such as our sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and reproductive tissues—can influence immune responses.

Through research in animal models and humans, Klein and others have shown how and why male and female immune systems respond differently to the flu virus, HIV, and certain cancer therapies, and why most women receive greater protection from vaccines but are also more likely to get severe asthma and autoimmune disorders.

Klein has helped spearhead a shift in immunology, a field that long thought sex differences didn’t matter—and she’s set her sights on pushing the field of sex differences even further. Read the full story.

—Sandeep Ravindran

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.)

+ I bet you didn’t know that the way ducks swim in formation is inspiring how freight ships move. 
+ This is a really fascinating account of what it’s like to be a deaf livestreamer.
+ I envy anyone lucky enough to live close to any of these lovely-looking city hike trails.
+ This vegan mac and cheese looks outstanding.
+ Wednesday Addams, how we love ye.

Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem

This article is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, sign up here.

We’re all crawling with bugs. Our bodies are home to plenty of distinct ecosystems that are home to microbes, fungi, and other organisms. They are crucial to our well-being. Shifts in the microbiome have been linked to a whole host of diseases. Look after your bugs and they’ll look after you, the theory goes.

These ecosystems appear to change as we age—and these changes can potentially put us at increased risk of age-related diseases. So how can we best look after them as we get old? And could an A-grade ecosystem help fend off diseases and help us lead longer, healthier lives?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering this week, partly because I know a few people who have been put on antibiotics for winter infections. These drugs—lifesaving though they can be—can cause mass destruction of gut microbes, wiping out the good along with the bad. How might people who take them best restore a healthy ecosystem afterwards?

I also came across a recent study in which scientists looked at thousands of samples of people’s gut microbe populations to see how they change with age. The standard approach to working out what microbes are living in a person’s gut is to look at feces. The idea is that when we have a bowel movement, we shed plenty of gut bacteria. Scientists can find out which species and strains of bacteria are present to get an estimate of what’s in your intestines.

In this study, a team based at University College Cork in Ireland analyzed data that had already been collected from 21,000 samples of human feces. These had come from people all over the world, including Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. Nineteen nationalities were represented. The samples were all from adults between 18 and 100. 

The authors of this study wanted to get a better handle on what makes for a “good” microbiome, especially as we get older. It has been difficult for microbiologists to work this out. We do know that some bacteria can produce compounds that are good for our guts. Some seem to aid digestion, for example, while others lower inflammation.
 
But when it comes to the ecosystem as a whole, things get more complicated. At the moment, the accepted wisdom is that variety seems to be a good thing—the more microbial diversity, the better. Some scientists believe that unique microbiomes also have benefits, and that a collection of microbes that differs from the norm can keep you healthy.
 
The team looked at how the microbiomes of younger people compared with those of older people, and how they appeared to change with age. The scientists also looked at how the microbial ecosystems varied with signs of unhealthy aging, such as cognitive decline, frailty, and inflammation.
 
They found that the microbiome does seem to change with age, and that, on the whole, the ecosystems in our guts do tend to become more unique—it looks as though we lose aspects of a general “core” microbiome and stray toward a more individual one.
 
But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, this uniqueness seems to be linked to unhealthy aging and the development of those age-related symptoms listed above, which we’d all rather stave off for as long as possible. And measuring diversity alone doesn’t tell us much about whether the bugs in our guts are helpful or not in this regard.
 
The findings back up what these researchers and others have seen before, challenging the notion that uniqueness is a good thing. Another team has come up with a good analogy, which is known as the Anna Karenina principle of the microbiome: “All happy microbiomes look alike; each unhappy microbiome is unhappy in its own way.”
 
Of course, the big question is: What can we do to maintain a happy microbiome? And will it actually help us stave off age-related diseases?
 
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, on the whole, a diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and fiber is good for the gut. A couple of years ago, researchers found that after 12 months on a Mediterranean diet—one rich in olive oil, nuts, legumes, and fish, as well as fruit and veg—older people saw changes in their microbiomes that might benefit their health. These changes have been linked to a lowered risk of developing frailty and cognitive decline.
 
But at the individual level, we can’t really be sure of the impact that changes to our diets will have. Probiotics are a good example; you can chug down millions of microbes, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll survive the journey to your gut. Even if they do get there, we don’t know if they’ll be able to form niches in the existing ecosystem, or if they might cause some kind of unwelcome disruption. Some microbial ecosystems might respond really well to fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, while others might not.
 
I personally love kimchi and sauerkraut. If they do turn out to support my microbiome in a way that protects me against age-related diseases, then that’s just the icing on the less-microbiome-friendly cake.

To read more, check out these stories from the Tech Review archive:
 
At-home microbiome tests can tell you which bugs are in your poo, but not much more than that, as Emily Mullin found.
 
Industrial-scale fermentation is one of the technologies transforming the way we produce and prepare our food, according to these experts.
 
Can restricting your calorie intake help you live longer? It seems to work for monkeys, as Katherine Bourzac wrote in 2009. 
 
Adam Piore bravely tried caloric restriction himself to find out if it might help people, too. Teaser: even if you live longer on the diet, you will be miserable doing so. 

From around the web:

Would you pay $15,000 to save your cat’s life? More people are turning to expensive surgery to extend the lives of their pets. (The Atlantic)
 
The World Health Organization will now start using the term “mpox” in place of “monkeypox,” which will be phased out over the next year. (WHO)
 
After three years in prison, He Jiankui—the scientist behind the infamous “CRISPR babies”—is attempting a comeback. (STAT)
 
Tech that allows scientists to listen in on the natural world is revealing some truly amazing discoveries. Who knew that Amazonian sea turtles make more than 200 distinct sounds? And that they start making sounds before they even hatch? (The Guardian)
 
These recordings provide plenty of inspiration for musicians. Whale song is particularly popular. (The New Yorker)
 
Scientists are using tiny worms to diagnose pancreatic cancer. The test, launched in Japan, could be available in the US next year. (Reuters)

How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

As protests against rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media in the past week, one Twitter account has emerged as the central source of information: @李老师不是你老师 (“Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”). People everywhere in China have sent protest footage and real-time updates to the account through private messages, and it has posted them on their behalf—taking care to keep the sources anonymous during a period of widespread fear and uncertainty.

There’s just one man behind the account: Li, a Chinese painter based in Italy, who requested to be identified only by his last name in light of the security risks. He has never received training in journalism, but that hasn’t stopped him from operating what’s essentially become a one-person newsroom. 

At the peak of activity over the weekend, Li was receiving dozens of submissions every second, and he did his best to filter out unreliable information in a matter of moments. It was a totally new experience—even though he’d spent the past year posting anonymous submissions from his followers. While he has long talked about Chinese social issues online, sometime in 2021 he started receiving private messages on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter (which is banned in China), from people asking him to post on their behalf. They feared exposing their own identities. 

His posts would get removed by Chinese censors, and by February, his account was banned. Over the next two months, another 49 of his accounts were suspended. But his followers generously allowed him to borrow their phone numbers to keep registering for more. In April 2022, after he could no longer access new Weibo accounts, he finally moved to Twitter. There, he quickly grew a large following of international accounts and Chinese people accessing the blocked social media platform via VPN. 

Then, last week, workers in a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou started a violent confrontation with management, and Li started monitoring the situation through Chinese social media and follower submissions. He slept only three hours that night.

More protests then broke out over the weekend in major Chinese cities, and Li once again posted real-time protest footage—aiming to help people within China get information so they could decide if they wanted to join in, and also to inform people outside China about what was really going on. “Even though they’re not in China right this second, things are happening, and they’re watching,” Li told me. 

His Twitter account is now the hub for information on the protests, having gained over 600,000 followers in the past tumultuous week alone. 

The demanding work, though, has taken a toll. Within China, mentions of his account name have been censored on social media platforms, including Weibo and WeChat. He is getting death threats and insults in DMs. And police have visited his family back in China. 

But the anxiety has been mixed with a feeling of liberation as he feels he’s finally able to say the name of Xi Jinping on social media without fear. Li joked that his Twitter avatar, which is a doodle of a cat, has become the most famous and most dangerous cat of his time. 

Over a long conversation early this week, Li told me about what it’s like to be under such immense pressure and how challenging it can be to remain objective. Though this work has occupied almost every waking minute, he told me, he finally forced himself to start taking breaks on Monday—which led to a surprise encounter that warmed his heart. 

Here’s Li’s story, told in his own words. The following transcript has been translated, lightly edited, and rearranged for clarity. —Zeyi Yang

On lending his voice to people who are afraid 

This account is, in essence, the same as many other ordinary Twitter users’. I talk about my life, some topics related to my profession, and, of course, social issues.

But this account also carries another purpose. I don’t know when it started, but gradually I began receiving submissions. People would contact me through private messages, send me what’s happening, or their own stories, and hope I could post that for them. 

I think this may be a phenomenon that emerged from the increasingly strong internet and speech controls on Chinese digital platforms since Xi Jinping came to power. People are afraid to say things directly on the internet, even if their accounts are anonymous. But they still have the desire for expression, so they want someone else to say it for them. 

It was the same on Weibo. Last year, at a time when I only had less than 10,000 followers, people slowly realized that this person could speak [for them], so they came to me. Then, when news broke [in February] about the mother who gave birth to eight children [Editor’s note: She was a trafficking victim who was found chained in a shed], I helped someone publish a submission about how he wanted to find his sister. That was reposted over 30,000 times on Weibo, and then my account was banned. 

In the months after my account was gone, I kept registering new accounts, and they kept getting banned. In about two months, I had 50 accounts suspended. The fastest record was when it took 10 minutes for an account to disappear [after registration]. As soon as [censors] blew up my account, I would immediately start a new one.

My followers—I don’t know why—were able to immediately find me, so I would gain thousands of followers in an instant. It ended when [the regulators] seemed to find the website where I bought those Weibo accounts and suspended that website, after which I couldn’t access any more accounts.

I was really moved during that period. Weibo verifies your identity through your phone number. But a lot of online friends just lent me their phone numbers and said: “It’s okay, Teacher Li, you can use my number for verification. That’s fine.” That really touched me. But later I couldn’t get a new account, so I had to move to Twitter. 

My [Twitter] account was registered in 2020, but I actually started using it in April [2022]. From the very beginning, I have always been sent the latest news. I don’t know why, but there’s always someone on the ground who can send something to me immediately, including about the incident in Shanghai where people held up a white banner [in October]. Slowly, the number of followers grew.

Before I reported on the Foxconn incident, I had about 140,000 followers, and then it got to 190,000 when I finished reporting on Foxconn. I lost count of how many followers I have now. [Editor’s note: By the time of our interview, Li had over 670,000 followers on Twitter; by the time of publishing, the number had increased to over 784,000.

On becoming a one-man newsroom (on only a few hours of sleep)

These days I sleep for about five hours, and I’m focusing on [Twitter] for the rest of the day. There’s no one else. Even my girlfriend is not involved—just me.

In fact, the day I was online for the longest time was not in the past few days; it was during the Foxconn [protest]. Because the situation was developing so quickly, if they didn’t stop, I couldn’t stop. It didn’t cross my mind that since this had nothing to do with me, I could go to sleep. I never had that thought.

The fire in Urumqi [which sparked the broader wave of protests] has actually triggered a lot of empathy from the public. The possibility of a fire is really a concern for everyone, because all of them have at one point been locked in their home and not allowed to go out. 

In every similar news event in the past, no matter whether the government was responsible, it would always censor the news. After having their mouths sealed again and again, people became furious. There is always going to be a last straw, no matter what it ends up being. If it didn’t happen today, it would happen tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. 

I thought [the protest in] Xinjiang on the night of the 26th was a moment to be remembered in history, but it turned out that was just the beginning of the story.

Particularly when protesters chanted the slogans that originated from the Sitong Bridge protest, I was like, “Oh no, it’s going to be a very, very serious thing if people are shouting these slogans in the center of Shanghai.” I had to document it in a neutral and objective manner, because if not, it could soon be forgotten, even on Twitter. I thought, “I need to take up the baton immediately,” and then I started doing it without thinking too much. 

It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

So one reason they are willing to pass on information to me is that they know that I am reporting it in a neutral, objective, and truthful way. But for other accounts, they are afraid of messaging them because what if it’s true—as they are told in China—that they are being taken advantage of by foreign forces? 

You can understand it like this: they want to voice their opposition, but they also don’t want it to be too radical. They want to stay in the middle. So I’m actually that middle point. I will report on what happens, but I will only report on what happens and not say a word more. That’s probably why I’ve become the central hub. Of course, I’ve become the central hub also because I’ve kept posting and posting.

So I try to only report on whatever information I receive, but it’s hard to do that now, because there are so many submissions. And to fact-check one thing, I may need videos from several different angles. 

For example, last night there were rumors of a shooting in Wuhan, a shooting in Chengdu, and a shooting in Xi’an, but I didn’t find any videos that I could use to verify them, so I didn’t end up posting anything. Well, that resulted in some Twitter users thinking I might be deliberately covering up some faults by the police.

And now there’s a somewhat awkward situation where some people in China think I’m inciting these things and some people abroad think I’m a big China propagandist. That’s a very difficult spot to be in. When you choose to stand in the middle, you are definitely under pressure from both sides, but that’s okay.

On dealing with digital chaos and deception

Since I basically had no time to think and was just posting every few seconds, the feed became very dense and very chaotic. Some people sent me the same videos repetitively. There were also many videos that originated from me, and then spread to other platforms like WeChat Moments, and were later sent back to me. Maybe this post was about Beijing, the next was Guangzhou, and the next one was Shanghai. There was no way for people to know at once whether the video in their hands had been sent or not, so they had to resend it to me. Maybe the video was taken at 9:00, but they sent it to me at almost 12:00 and thought it was in real time.

The fake video I got the most Sunday night was probably one where a police car was driving under an overpass and running over people. I must have watched it 60 or 70 times. Every time, it says that it was the Sitong Bridge or something. But that footage was actually not taken in China. Many people are willing to believe these videos, or they just want to believe that something big has happened.

One big crisis I experienced Monday morning was that—I don’t know who it was and whether it was someone [on the Chinese government’s side], but they kept sending me false news. There were some messages about things that happened, but not at the places they claimed. Then there were some messages that you could tell were fake immediately. Maybe they were hoping to take me down in this way. 

There are always people in my private messages who want me to post a call to action, or people who want me to summarize the slogans and post them, or declare what people should do, but I have not crossed that line. I believe everyone has a mission for themselves, and my mission is to report on what happened. If I suddenly joined those [activists], I would have really become—particularly since I wasn’t there on the ground—the one giving commands. If people died in the end, then the blood would be on me, because I directed them to act. So I don’t think that should be the case. I can only do the reporting. 

But I think in the end, I will inevitably be the one to blame. Even if I don’t do it, people will assume I’m guilty. 

If I can keep my independence till the end, then I can be a candle, a torch, just standing there on my own.

On the mental toll the work is taking

​​I just finished graduate school, so technically I’m a recent graduate, and I was just dragged into this thing out of nowhere and suddenly found myself with a role in it. I don’t know how to feel. I’m just anxious. I don’t know what will happen to me. Of course, I’m afraid that one day a car is going to run toward me when I’m crossing the road and fake a traffic accident or something. But I only worry about it when I turn off the computer. When I’m sitting in front of it, I don’t have time to think about myself.

It’s mostly just exhausting. I forced myself to take a break today. Usually, I just sit there, start, and keep going until the end, and I hardly ever get up.

But today I started to get some threats, and I became more stressed. You have to be afraid because you have seen so much and know so much. So today, I’m forcing myself to take a vacation. It’s not much of a vacation, I guess, but I spent a long time just walking.

Today has also been quite amazing. 

I got this death threat last night, but I don’t know where it’s from. It just said, “We already know where you live. You just wait.” I didn’t have time to take a screenshot then, because that message was quickly pushed down by other messages. I took one look and it was gone, immediately. But since then, it has been heavy on my mind.

Then this morning when I went out to buy cat food, I stood in front of the peephole and checked repeatedly whether someone was standing outside. On the way, I kept checking if someone was tailing me. And after I returned home, there was some weird movement in the stairs, so I put down everything by the door and stood in front of the peephole for 10 minutes, but never saw anyone. 

Then I thought to myself, I can’t do this forever—I have to make the person leave. I was thinking I would start livestreaming, find them, and then ask them to leave. But it turned out that there was no one. It was a tiny, tiny, tiny kitten. I don’t know why it was hiding there, but I took it home. And now my girlfriend is feeding it. This is the amazing thing that happened today. I’m considering naming it Urumqi.

I forgot whether it started when Xi Jinping came to power [in 2013], but I’ve been feeling quite aggrieved. All these years, I’ve been constantly, repeatedly censoring myself and staying cautious just so I can keep talking.

But just yesterday, suddenly, I’m not afraid anymore. I had no time to think about it, and I just kept posting. The simple version of what happened is: When they shouted out “Xi Jinping, step down,” I suddenly felt it didn’t matter anymore. I can report this thing. I can type these words. If they aren’t afraid to say it, then I’m also not afraid to type it. That’s it.

You know what these three characters mean when they are typed out. It’s completely different [from other words]. At that moment, I suddenly felt like I’m dead, I’m alive, I’m liberated, and I’m aggrieved, all at the same time. It was a very, very complicated feeling.

Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

The explosion in text-to-image AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—has sent ripples through the creative industries, from fashion to filmmaking, by providing weird and wonderful images on demand.

The same technology behind these programs is also making a splash in biotech labs, which have started using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.

Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”

At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.

These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CTO of Generate Biomedicines.

“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Symmetrical protein structures generated by Chroma
GENERATE BIOMEDICINES

Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part. 

Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”

But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.

Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.  

A protein structure generated by RoseTTAFold Diffusion (left) and the same structure created in the lab (right)
IAN C HAYDON / UW INSTITUTE FOR PROTEIN DESIGN

The two programs announced today are also not the first use of diffusion models for protein generation. A handful of studies in the last few months from Amini and others have shown that diffusion models are a promising technique, but these were proof-of-concept prototypes. Chroma and RoseTTAFold Diffusion build on this work and are the first full-fledged programs that can produce precise designs for a wide variety of proteins.

Namrata Anand, who co-developed one of the first diffusion models for protein generation in May 2022, thinks the big significance of Chroma and RoseTTAFold Diffusion is that they have taken the technique and supersized it, training on more data and more computers. “It may be fair to say that this is more like DALL-E because of how they’ve scaled things up,” she says.

Diffusion models are neural networks trained to remove “noise”—random perturbations added to data—from their input. Given a random mess of pixels, a diffusion model will try to turn it into a recognizable image.

In Chroma, noise is added by unraveling the amino acid chains that a protein is made from. Given a random clump of these chains, Chroma tries to put them together to form a protein. Guided by specified constraints on what the result should look like, Chroma can generate novel proteins with specific properties.

Baker’s team takes a different approach, though the end results are similar. Its diffusion model starts with an even more scrambled structure. Another key difference is that RoseTTAFold Diffusion uses information about how the pieces of a protein fit together provided by a separate neural network trained to predict protein structure (as DeepMind’s AlphaFold does). This guides the overall generative process. 

Generate Biomedicines and Baker’s team both show off an impressive array of results. They are able to generate proteins with multiple degrees of symmetry, including proteins that are circular, triangular, or hexagonal. To illustrate the versatility of their program, Generate Biomedicines generated proteins shaped like the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet and the numerals 0 to 10. Both teams can also generate pieces of proteins, matching new parts to existing structures.

Most of these demonstrated structures would serve no purpose in practice. But because a protein’s function is determined by its shape, being able to generate different structures on demand is crucial.

Generating strange designs on a computer is one thing. But the goal is to turn these designs into real proteins. To test whether Chroma produced designs that could be made, Generate Biomedicines took the sequences for some of its designs—the amino acid strings that make up the protein—and ran them through another AI program. They found that 55% of them would be predicted to fold into the structure generated by Chroma, which suggests that these are designs for viable proteins.

Baker’s team ran a similar test. But Baker and his colleagues have gone a lot further than Generate Biomedicines in evaluating their model. They have created some of RoseTTAFold Diffusion’s designs in their lab. (Generate Biomedicines says that it is also doing lab tests but is not yet ready to share results.) “This is more than just proof of concept,” says Trippe. “We’re actually using this to make really great proteins.”

A protein structure generated by RoseTTAFold Diffusion that binds to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein
IAN C HAYDON / UW INSTITUTE FOR PROTEIN DESIGN

For Baker, the headline result is the generation of a new protein that attaches to the parathyroid hormone, which controls calcium levels in the blood. “We basically gave the model the hormone and nothing else and told it to make a protein that binds to it,” he says. When they tested the novel protein in the lab, they found that it attached to the hormone more tightly than anything that could have been generated using other computational methods—and more tightly than existing drugs. “It came up with this protein design out of thin air,” says Baker. 

Grigoryan acknowledges that inventing new proteins is just the first step of many. We’re a drug company, he says. “At the end of the day what matters is whether we can make medicines that work or not.” Protein based drugs need to be manufactured in large numbers, then tested in the lab and finally in humans. This can take years. But he thinks that his company and others will find ways to speed up those steps up as well.

“The rate of scientific progress comes in fits and starts,” says Baker. “But right now we’re in the middle of what can only be called a technological revolution.”