Start Up No.1,061: the right to drive?, HDDs begin to fade, Facebook’s crypto plan, this subscription life, and more


CC-licensed photo by Steve%20Corey on Flickr

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A selection of 9 links for you. Unfortunately. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts:

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Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

Two in five amphibian species are at risk of extinction, as are one-third of reef-forming corals, while other marine animals by down by close to one-third. The picture for insects – which are crucial to plant pollination – is less clear, but conservative estimates suggest at least one in 10 are threatened with extinction and, in some regions, populations have crashed. In economic terms, the losses are jaw-dropping. Pollinator loss has put up to $577bn (£440bn) of crop output at risk, while land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of global land.

The knock-on impacts on humankind, including freshwater shortages and climate instability, are already “ominous” and will worsen without drastic remedial action, the authors said.

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Yes, it is depressing. What’s more depressing is the inaction.
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Facebook building cryptocurrency-based payments system • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

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Seeking total investments of about $1bn, Facebook has talked to financial institutions including Visa, Mastercard and payment processor First Data, the people said. The money would underpin the value of the coin to protect it from the wild price swings seen in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, they said.

Facebook is also talking to e-commerce companies and apps about accepting the coin, and would seek smaller financial investments from those partners, one of the people said.

Bloomberg News reported in December that Facebook was working on a digital coin that users of its WhatsApp messaging service could use to transfer money, with a focus on overseas remittances. The New York Times reported in February that the company was seeking to raise as much as $1bn for the project.

Facebook is following rivals including Apple and Amazon into the financial lives of its users. Each has explored or launched major financial products in the past year, joining with traditional financial firms to manage the logistics and regulatory burdens.

Facebook aims to burrow more deeply into the lives of its users. It is building a type of checkout option that consumers could use on other websites, some of the people said. Similar to how a Facebook profile can be used to log into hundreds of websites (including The Wall Street Journal), Facebook envisions allowing those credentials to be selected as a payment method when users buy goods online.

One idea under discussion is Facebook paying users fractions of a coin when they view ads, interact with other content or shop on its platform—not unlike loyalty points accrued at retailers, some of the people said.

This would reward the kind of genuine interaction that Facebook, beset by bots and hate speech, has been trying to encourage. It could also blunt criticism that the company makes billions of dollars on the backs of its users, sometimes in troubling or invasive ways.

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One can see that a cryptocoin (this is definitely not Bitcoin) being used for transactions on WhatsApp could work. As Ben Thompson said in his discussion of this, it might be used to pay for ads. But it would also make it way easier for Facebook to track what you’re doing – and this time, through your spending.
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The fight for the right to drive • New Yorker

M. R. O’Connor:

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Perhaps it was inevitable that a nascent right-to-drive movement would spring up in America, where—as fervent gun-rights advocates and anti-vaccinators have shown—we seem intent on preserving freedom of choice even if it kills us. “People outside the United States look at it with bewilderment,” Toby Walsh, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, told me. In his book “Machines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence,” from 2018, Walsh predicts that, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will be so safe that we won’t be allowed to drive our own cars. Unlike Roy, he believes that we will neither notice nor care. In Walsh’s view, a constitutional amendment protecting the right to drive would be as misguided as the Second Amendment. “We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West,” he went on. “The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.”

Broussard has a term for the insistence that computers can do everything better than humans can: technochauvinism. “Most of the autonomous-vehicle manufacturers are technochauvinists,” she said. “The big spike in distracted-driving traffic accidents and fatalities in the past several years has been from people texting and driving. The argument that the cars themselves are the problem is not really looking at the correct issue. We would be substantially safer if we put cell-phone-jamming devices in cars. And we already have that technology.” Like Roy, she strongly disputes both the imminence and the safety of driverless technology. “There comes a point at which you have to divorce fantasy from reality, and the reality is that autonomous vehicles are two-ton killing machines. They do not work as well as advocates would have you believe.”

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A fascinating article on the inherent tensions as we try to decide whether self-driving cars really will. Not short, but well worthwhile.
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Shipments of PC hard drives predicted to drop by nearly 50% in 2019 • Anandtech

Anton Shilov:

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According to a new financial presentation from Nidec, a Japanese motor manufacturer that is responsible for around 85% of all HDD spindle motors, the company believes that shipments of hard drives for PCs will drop significantly this year. Citing numerous ongoing trends, the motor maker is preparing for HDD motor sales to drop by around 50% year-over-year for 2019. Meanwhile the company also expects sales of other types of HDDs to slow, but not as drastically. In fact, unit shipments of hard drives for datacenters are projected to increase a bit.

According to Nidec’s data, unit sales of hard drives declined by around 43% from 2010 to 2018, going from around 650m units in 2010 to 375m units in 2018. And it looks like sales will continue to drop in the coming years. Recently Nidec revised its HDD shipment forecast downwards from 356m drives to 309m drives in 2019, which will further drop to 290m units in 2020. The recent drops in HDD shipments have already forced Nidec to optimize its HDD motor production capacities and repurpose some capacity to other types of products.

Shipments of PC HDDs have been hit the hardest among all types of HDDs due to a combination of general market weaknesses and the transition of notebooks to SSDs. According to Nidec, shipments of PC HDDs decreased gradually from 289m drives in 2013 to 124m devices in 2018. However, this year sales of hard drives for PCs will drop sharply, going from 124m devices in 2018 to 65m units in 2019, or by around 48%.

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What with the declining SLR market and now this, Japan’s got it hard at the moment.
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A mystery frequency disrupted car fobs in an Ohio city; now residents know why • NY Times

Heather Murphy:

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Not every car fob failed to work, said Chris Branchick, whose parents live in North Olmsted. He said that whenever he visited his parents in his GMC vehicle, the fob would not unlock the car door; if he went in his fiancée’s Nissan, things were fine.

“We thought maybe it was a foreign versus domestic thing,” he said.

Officials from the cable company and AT&T joined the search for answers, and on Thursday, the Illuminating Company, a local electric utility, dispatched inspectors to investigate.

“They began by shutting off the power in the places where they detected the strongest reading for interfering radio frequencies,” said Chris Eck, a company spokesman. But even after shutting off power on an entire block, the overpowering frequency persisted.

“It’s like trying to talk to someone at a nightclub,” said Adam Scott Wandt, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, in explaining how a strong frequency can derail a weak frequency.
Dan Dalessandro, a television repairman, was one of several ham radio aficionados who went to investigate. At first, he said, all he picked up were “little blips” on a signal detector, but on one block — and at one house in particular — the signal was extraordinarily powerful.

By Saturday afternoon, City Councilman Chris Glassburn announced that the mystery had been solved: The source of the problem was a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement. It did so by turning off a light.

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Yes, I know what you’re thinking: hell of a battery, hell of a light.
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The only thing you can’t subscribe to now is stability • The Atlantic

Amanda Mull:

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For most of American consumer history, subscriptions were the province of magazines, cable, and other media: You paid an annual fee, and news and entertainment organizations gave you their new work as it became available. But as digital-payment technology has improved and people look for ways to navigate stress, stagnant wages, and online shopping’s near-infinite purchase choices, the value proposition of subscriptions has changed. So too have the kinds of products people can subscribe to.

Today, things that can routinely show up at your doorstep include: misshapen vegetables, personalized vitamin cocktails, dog toys, a vast wardrobe of clothing and accessories, and even a sofa. In a consumer market of disposable fast fashion and cheap assemble-at-home furniture, the idea of wasting less while getting to use nicer, higher-quality things for a monthly fee is a compelling sell. But what’s harder to predict is what might be lost when the effort to buy less stuff turns into renting huge swaths of your daily life.
A subscription, at its base, is simply a schedule of recurring fees that gives consumers continual access to goods or services. A car lease is a subscription, but so is your gym membership and the way you use Microsoft Office. Subscription creep dates to at least 2007, when Amazon launched Subscribe & Save, a service that lets shoppers pre-authorize periodic charges for thousands of consumable goods, such as sandwich bags or face wash (or toilet paper), usually at a slight discount over individual purchases. Then, in 2010, came Birchbox, which provides women with miniature portions of beauty products on a monthly basis for $15. At its peak, the company was valued at more than $500m.

Both Amazon’s and Birchbox’s models have been widely copied, and their success underscores the appeal of subscriptions to businesses and consumers alike, according to Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University. “The pain of payment and the friction of how a person is going to pay is totally gone,” he says.

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Neat observation.
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The thing about owning a Tesla no one talks about: nightmarish repair delays • SF Gate

Mike Moffitt:

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Neither vehicle was moving very fast, but the Tesla sustained front fender and suspension damage and wasn’t drivable. So the Burlingame resident had it towed a few days later to Chilton Auto Body in San Carlos, the nearest Tesla-approved body shop and the preferred shop of his insurer, Allstate.

Nearly six months later, he says his Model S still hasn’t been repaired.

“When my car got in an accident, it was somewhere in the thirties to be worked on and the last time I had a conversation with someone there a few weeks ago, there was well over 130 Teslas there to get fixed,” Hedges said.
“Now I think if you’re number 130 [in line to get fixed], it’s going to be well over a year to get your car back.”

We reached out to Chilton Auto Body over the phone and by email to confirm that scores of damaged Teslas were queued up at the shop and to learn out why the wait was so long. A Chilton representative said no one there was available to talk about the issue, referring SFGATE  to a manager who would not be back in the office until mid-May. There was no response to the email.

According to Hedges, Chilton has only two certified Tesla auto body technicians, and only one of of them has the credentials to repair suspensions.

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That’s sure to be the downside of a car that doesn’t have a standard outlet system of dealers.
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The race to develop the moon • New Yorker

Rivka Galchen:

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Water in space is valuable for drinking, of course, and as a source of oxygen. [George] Sowers [a professor of space resources at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden] told me that it can also be transformed into rocket fuel. “The moon could be a gas station,” he said. That sounded terrible to me, but not to most of the scientists I spoke to. “It could be used to refuel rockets on the way to Mars”—a trip that would take about nine months—“or considerably beyond, at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth,” Sowers said. He explained that launching fuel from the moon rather than from Earth is like climbing the Empire State Building rather than Mt. Everest. Fuel accounts for around 90% of the weight of a rocket, and every kilogram of weight brought from Earth to the moon costs roughly $35,000; if you don’t have to bring fuel from Earth, it becomes much cheaper to send a probe to Jupiter.

Down the hall, in the Center for Space Resources’ laboratory, near buckets of lunar and asteroid simulants, was a small 3D printer. Four graduate students were assembled there with Angel Abbud-Madrid, the center’s director. I asked them how difficult it would be to 3D-print, say, an electrolyzer—the machine needed to separate the hydrogen and oxygen in water to make rocket fuel. They laughed.

“Here, let me show you something very fancy,” Hunter Williams, who was wearing sapphire-colored earrings, said. He poured some Morton sea salt into a plastic cup and added water. He stuck two silver thumbtacks through the bottom of the plastic cup, then held a battery up to them. Small bubbles began forming on the thumbtacks. The oxygen was separating from the hydrogen. You probably did this experiment in middle school, without knowing that you were doing rocket science. “The idea is for whatever goes up to the moon to be that simple,” Williams said. “To be that basic.”

“It would be like living off the land,” Ben Thrift, another graduate student, added.

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The Uber IPO is a moral stain on Silicon Valley • NY Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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Uber — and to a lesser extent, its competitor Lyft — has indeed turned out to be a poster child for Silicon Valley’s messianic vision, but not in a way that should make anyone in this industry proud. Uber’s is likely to be the biggest tech I.P.O. since Facebook’s. It will turn a handful of people into millionaires and billionaires. But the gains for everyone else — for drivers, for the environment, for the world — remain in doubt. There’s a lesson here: If Uber is really the best that Silicon Valley can do, America desperately needs to find a better way to fund groundbreaking new ideas.

Today’s Uber is more responsible than yesterday’s: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s onetime Night King, was ousted as chief executive in 2017, and Dara Khosrowshahi, its new chief, has led a thorough rehabilitation. Yet Uber’s early insiders paid no real price for their sins. Mr. Kalanick’s stake will be worth nearly $9bn. Tech giants — including Apple, Google and Jeff Bezos, who all acquired significant stakes in Uber — will make a killing. Saudi Arabian petromonarchs will too.

Not Uber’s drivers. Recent studies show that Uber drivers make poverty wages — about $10 an hour after their vehicle expenses are deducted from their pay. Drivers’ fortunes might only worsen after the company goes public. Uber lost nearly $2bn in 2018, and the best long-term hope for Uber’s business is that drivers disappear altogether, replaced by cars that drive themselves. In rushed pursuit of that profitable vision, one of Uber’s self-driving cars killed a pedestrian last year.

The environmental gains have also yet to materialize.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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