Start Up No.1,188: energy forecast hots up, MacBook Pro keyboard gets thumbs up, Sir Rod Stewart’s railway city, strife at Google?, and more


Too late for this one, but Wikihow will show you how to stop a wedding – and do much more, Wikipedia-style. CC-licensed photo by Jackie Lund on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. If you can’t get over it, you’ll have to go under it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Profound shifts’ underway in energy system, says IEA World Energy Outlook • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:

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The world’s CO2 emissions are set to continue rising for decades unless there is greater ambition on climate change, despite the “profound shifts” already underway in the global energy system.

That is one of the key messages from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2019, published today. This year’s 810-page edition is notable for its renamed central “Stated Policies Scenario” (STEPS), formerly known as the “New Policies Scenario”.

…On the basis of stated plans and policies around the world, the IEA [International Energy Agency] says that global energy needs will continue to rise by 1% per year until 2040, adding demand equivalent to China’s current total.

This growth is driven by a rising population – based on the UN’s “medium” projections to reach 9 billion people by 2040 – and an expanding economy, with global GDP increasing by 3.4% a year, per International Monetary Fund projections.

The rate of energy demand growth is around half the average rate of 2% seen since 2000, the IEA says, due to shifts towards less energy-intensive industries, energy efficiency gains and “saturation effects” – for example, where demand for cars reaches a peak.

Some 49% of demand growth would be met by renewables in the STEPS, as shown with the red line in the chart, below. Gas use is also expected to rise rapidly (blue), overtaking coal to become the second-largest source of energy after oil and meeting a third of the rise in overall demand.

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There isn’t any good news in this; we’re surely going to see rapidly rising global temperatures.
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Extraordinary scenes of Venice underwater after historic flood in Italy • Slate

Elliot Hannon:

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The mayor of Venice declared a state of emergency as six feet of water swept through the low-lying Italian city, the second highest flood in the city’s history. The surge in water left homes barricaded and streets flooded as residents and tourists waded through knee-high water. The city’s famous Piazza San Marco was flooded by more than three feet of water, according to Italian news agency ANSA, and the water level could rise to as much as five feet. “Venice is on its knees,” the city’s mayor said on Twitter Wednesday. Local officials say more water is expected after strong winds combined with high tides due to rainstorms caused the historic flood.

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Venice has been trying to build sea defences for years. This is the result: failure. It’s a harbinger for lots of low-lying cities around the world in the decades to come.
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The History of wikiHow and the Future of the Internet – The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

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I’m sure the first (and possibly only) lessons I had in kissing came from the pages of CosmoGIRL! (RIP), which probably obliquely suggested that it would be easier if I invested my allowance in Hilary Duff’s favorite boho-chic staples first. But today’s teens get to learn from wikiHow, the 14-year-old, crowdsourced web platform known for irony-free step-by-step guides to tasks as practical as setting up a Google Chromecast and as wildly inadvisable as stopping a wedding.

“If you’re under 25, you learned a lot of stuff on wikiHow,” the site’s cofounder Jack Herrick tells me over the phone. “A lot of the questions you asked wikiHow were the things you were too embarrassed to ask anyone else.”

As a result, wikiHow’s readers have a complicated relationship with the site, like you might have with your parents or anyone else who’s helped you through humiliating times. There’s real feeling there, Herrick believes, and that’s why there are also so many memes at wikihow’s expense: The best way to disguise your most sincere feelings is to make rude jokes. On Reddit, 500,000 people contribute to a subreddit solely devoted to ripping wikiHow illustrations from their context and recaptioning them, often bleakly: An image of a person choking themselves is labeled “How to punish the person ruining your life.” An illustration of a gravestone is titled “How to celebrate your unvaccinated child’s 5th birthday.”

…In 2005, wikiHow started experimenting with opt-out advertising, presenting site visitors with a button that turned off individual ads. Herrick expanded the idea in 2008 with a button that turned off all ads for 24 hours at a time. A few months later, he told The Wall Street Journal that revenue had fallen less than 1%, and that opt-out advertising was simply a “good netizen thing to do.”

Now, anyone who registers for a wikiHow account automatically has all of the site’s ads turned off for them, forever. The site makes its profit from casual readers who don’t register, and still see ads, and it sources its content from the invested readers who’ve turned them off, but then add value to the site by writing and editing.

The company never releases financial information, Herrick says, even to employees. He alternately refers to venture capital as “the wizard behind the curtain” and “Doritos.” As in, the idea that venture capitalists know anything that he can’t figure out himself is a myth. As in, once you eat one Dorito, you want more Doritos, forever.

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Google fires staffer, suspends two others, amid rising workplace tensions • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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Google has fired a staffer who allegedly leaked the names of Google employees and their personal details to the news media, Ryan Gallagher reports in a scoop for Bloomberg News. Two other Googlers have been put on leave for violating company policies, Google told Gallagher.

A Google spokeswoman told Gallagher that one of the employees “had searched for and shared confidential documents outside the scope of their job, while the other tracked the individual calendars of staff working in the community platforms, human resources, and communications teams.” The tracking made affected staff uncomfortable, the spokeswoman said.

Google’s move represents the latest sign of growing tensions between labor and management at Google. Until recently, Google was known for having one of Silicon Valley’s most open workplace cultures. Employees could access information about projects they weren’t working on. Rank-and-file employees could ask tough questions of senior management at weekly “TGIF” meetings that were broadcast throughout the company.

But that open culture has begun to break down as the polarization of the broader American political culture has seeped into Google’s workplace. Two years ago, for example, Google engineer James Damore wrote a controversial memo suggesting that biological differences could help explain the gender gap among engineers at Google. The memo leaked, and Damore was fired.

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Certainly ironic that a company which has contributed to the polarisation in the US (through YouTube’s “engagement trumps all” algorithm driving people towards extremes) should be suffering as a result.

(I’d quote directly from the Bloomberg piece, but I’ve already used up my three free articles, and feel that (at something like ten different subs) I’ve reached Peak Subscription, despite all Bloomberg’s blandishments and price-cut offers.)
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Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep • The Margins

Can Duruk reminisces about his time at Digg, as a way of thinking about Zuckerberg’s insistence that things are SO much better now that news is democratised by, um, Facebook:

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Obviously, [in the submissions to Digg] there was a lot of porn, and a whole lot of (not always mutually exclusively) spam. There were tons of manual and automated tooling to weed those out from ever reaching the front page. The list of items that showed up on the front was *mainly* determined by votes (there wasn’t much of a complicated algorithm), but the Digg editors still had final veto power. They had 15 minutes if I am remembering correctly before the next batch of stories would go live, so they’d visit all those 20 or so links in that 15 minutes to make sure nothing too salacious made it there.

However, the real mess wasn’t that Digg was not, in fact, some front-page made by the crowds, but rather, it was a bunch of groups fighting over it. There was definitely a considerable number of users (obviously not really a diverse crowd by any measure), but the real power generally rested with a small amount of people. There were, for example, conservative bury-brigades (digg, bury, get it?) that convened over Yahoo Groups (R.I.P.) and constituted what we now call Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior. Besides, however, the vintage alt-rights, we also had less weird people like the MrBabyman, who, with his weird but affable charm, commanded a ton of votes.

One of the many untold things that happened with Digg’s V4 launch was that our traffic and, more importantly, reputation took such a hit that we sort of had to wave the white flag to those folks. For years, Digg fought a silent battle for its front page with those influential groups; we needed them for the views, but we also did not like that they exerted as much control over the “democratic” front page as they did.

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The 16-inch MacBook Pro • Marco.org

Marco Arment seems to have had early access to the new MacBook Pro – unsurprising, as he’s a hugely influential developer and podcaster who has complained loud and long about the butterfly keyboard:

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I’m on cloud nine. Look at this glorious keyboard! An Esc[ape] key! Inverted-T arrow keys! A millimeter of key travel! Enough spacing between the keys for our fingers to accurately orient themselves! And keystrokes will probably work, 100% of the time, for years!

Five years ago, nobody would’ve considered any of these noteworthy, and readers would’ve suspected you weren’t of sound mind if you included them in a review.

Five years ago, laptop keyboards were fine. Everyone was pretty much satisfied with the ones they had, they worked, and we never had to talk or think about them.

Today, finally, we begin heading back to that world.

The butterfly keyboard was an anomaly — it was a huge departure from everything else we’d ever used, mostly not in good ways.

The new keyboard is very similar to the recent desktop Magic Keyboard, and I expect it to have a wide appeal, just as the Magic Keyboard does. It has slightly less travel and spacing, but the overall feeling is very similar — and it’s nothing at all like the butterfly keyboard.

I absolutely love it — not because it’s the most amazing keyboard in the world, but because it’s completely forgettable in the best possible way. It just feels normal again.

There’s a lot more to love about the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The screen and battery are bigger, but the size and weight barely increased. It’s almost as fast as my iMac Pro, and the new thermals can sustain higher performance. The speakers and microphone got huge, unexpected improvements.

And I didn’t get everything I wanted. But many of my wishlist items fall outside of what Apple is likely to ever do, and all of them are much less important than making the computer’s primary input device functional, acceptable, and reliable. Now we have the luxury of being able to complain about less-urgent wishes.

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I’d say it’s certain that Apple is going to see a gigantic leap in laptop sales this quarter, comparable to the bump when it finally produced the larger-screened iPhone 6, which pulled forward lots of delayed purchases. A lot of people having been sitting on their hands, waiting for a scissor-switch mechanism, because it’s simply more reliable. I’m among them. (The machine I’m using dates from 2012; it’s still perfectly usable.)

See also: Jason Snell; Dieter Bohn at The Verge.
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IBM: Our Mac-using employees outperform Windows users in every way • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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According to IBM, one staff member can support 5,400 Mac users, while the company needed one staff member per 242 PC users. Only 5% of Mac users called the help desk for assistance, compared with 40% of PC users. This Mac-IBM love affair has been ongoing for a few years, and the same IBM PR points out that in 2016, IBM CIO Fletcher Previn declared that IBM saves anywhere from $273 to $543 when its end users choose Mac over PC.

This year, the company gave even stronger evidence in favor of Macs over PCs. Supposedly 22% more macOS users exceed expectations in performance reviews compared with Windows users, while high-value sales deals tend to be 16% larger for macOS users. Mac users also have a higher “net promoter score” of 47.5 versus 15 and are 17% less likely to leave IBM. Mac users are also happier with third-party software availability at IBM, according to IBM’s own press release. In addition, Mac users are more likely to report that migration is simpler compared with Windows 7 to Windows 10. Windows users are nearly 5x more likely to need on-site help support.

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Just spitballing here, but is it possible that the Mac users are execs and the PC users are, for want of a better word, the drones who are viewed as eminently replaceable? Does the person at the reception desk use a Mac, or a PC? Hruska asks these and similar questions in his piece – but there aren’t any answers from IBM.

In short, a survey that reveals less than it appears to.
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I am railing: Sir Rod Stewart reveals his epic model railway city • BBC News

:

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In between making music and playing live, Sir Rod has been working on a massive, intricate model of a US city for the past 23 years.

He unveiled it as part of an interview with Railway Modeller magazine.

He then phoned in to Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 show to rebuff the host’s suggestion he had not built it himself.

“I would say 90% of it I built myself,” he insisted. “The only thing I wasn’t very good at and still am not is the electricals, so I had someone else do that.”

Sir Rod has released 13 studio albums and been on 19 tours during the time it took to build the city, which is modelled on both New York and Chicago around 1945.

“A lot of people laugh at it being a silly hobby, but it’s a wonderful hobby,” he said.

He told Railway Modeller he worked on the skyscrapers and other scenery while on tour, requesting an extra room for his constructions in his hotels.

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I won’t link to the pictures, because Railway Modeller deserves to have you look at them at the BBC site (so it will definitely get paid). They are amazing.

Another fact about Rod Stewart: when he goes to a restaurant with friends, over the course of the meal they surreptitiously try to move their table as close to the door as possible. Staff beware.
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Next in Google’s quest for consumer dominance: banking • WSJ

Peter Rudegeair and Liz Hoffman:

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Google will soon offer checking accounts to consumers, becoming the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to push into finance.

The project, code-named Cache, is expected to launch next year with accounts run by Citigroup and a credit union at Stanford University, a tiny lender in Google’s backyard.

Big tech companies see financial services as a way to get closer to users and glean valuable data. Apple introduced a credit card this summer. Amazon.com has talked to banks about offering checking accounts. Facebook is working on a digital currency it hopes will upend global payments.

Their ambitions could challenge incumbent financial-services firms, which fear losing their primacy and customers. They are also likely to stoke a reaction in Washington, where regulators are already investigating whether large technology companies have too much clout.

…Mr. Sengupta said Google wanted to bring value to consumers, banks and merchants, with services that could include loyalty programs, but it wouldn’t sell checking-account users’ financial data. The company said it doesn’t use Google Pay data for advertising purposes and doesn’t share that data with advertisers.

Fifty-eight per cent of people recently surveyed by consulting firm McKinsey & Co said they would trust financial products from Google. That was better than Apple and Facebook but worse than Amazon.

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Throwing Apple’s credit card and Facebook’s Libra into the same sentence really is putting a mountain next to a molehill in terms of impact, but okay.
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Nike won’t sell directly to Amazon anymore • CNBC

Lauren Thomas and Elly Cosgrove:

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Nike will stop selling merchandise directly to Amazon, as part of its push to sell more directly to consumers, the company confirmed to CNBC.

The abrupt halt will end a pilot test that Nike and Amazon launched together in 2017. At the time, Nike agreed to sell a limited product assortment to Amazon, in exchange for stricter policing of counterfeits and restrictions on unsanctioned sales of its products. That included Nike’s athletic footwear, apparel and accessories.

Prior to 2017, Nike had resisted such a deal with Amazon, focusing its attention on its own online marketplace and stores. The fear for many brands has always been that, by partnering with Amazon, a company loses control over how its brand is represented on the site.

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This will be a counterfeiting thing: no doubt it became harder to know if a seller there was perhaps a reseller. Now, Nike can be pretty certain about what is on there. And it can build out its direct-to-consumer sales, which are already 30% of annual sales.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

15 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,188: energy forecast hots up, MacBook Pro keyboard gets thumbs up, Sir Rod Stewart’s railway city, strife at Google?, and more

    • Also, the thumbs up will be after a while when reliability is known. Apple’s previous keyboard was too clicky and too no-travel, but we learned it was really crap only when it started failing at an unimaginable rate.

      Also, has anyone bothered to ask if replacements/repairs for the new keyboard are in the not-insane price bracket, or is that a not-Apple-approved question ?

      • Also, I don’t remember the butterfly keyboard getting anything but thumbs up too at launch (and this despite the obvious noise + travel flaws). Now it’s thumbs up with no info on reliability and repairability. Some people are easy to dazzle and don’t learn their lessons.

      • You need to do a search before you say things like that. Plenty of reviewers said “well, it’s not really for me, but maybe you the reader will be fine with it.” Here’s CNet, where it’s evident that the writer isn’t mad keen on it.
        The reason why people are relieved here is that the scissor switch mechanism it uses (read the articles linked to) is essentially the same as that used on Apple’s Magic keyboard, where reliability is known not to be a problem. On precise repairability, we’ll doubtless find out more on an iFixit teardown.

      • So I’ve checked the keyboard blurb on every review on the first page of a Google search for “mackook 2015 review”.
        1 review mentions it being too noisy
        about half mention it needing some getting used to,
        1 says he prefers the previous version even after a few days of acclimatization
        all include some marketing blurb about the magical butterfly switches.
        none mention cost of repair
        none mention reliability issues (of course)

        I understand cost and reliability were a surprise. The first time around. And the second. And the third. But by now, really ? The first question about those keyboards is: are they ultra-expensive crap, again ?

  1. Re. IBM: there’s also the issue of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at the guy who complained about Windows in your comments earlier: he didn’t seem to be very interested in fixing his issues, just complain about them. Did the ClearType thing work ? What else ? Smacks of “but I want the glamorous gear” attitude.

      • One of the things I’ve just discovered is that after forcing all of us over to Windows (still not enjoying the experience and Outlook, what a horrible app. Don’t they have designers over there?) it turns out that our CEO gets to keep his.

        Needless to say I’ll be using that as my excuse when they realized I’ve switched back to the test mac for my main machine.

      • I’ve tried the Cleartype settings but you’re talking to a Mac user who hasn’t used windows since 1998. Simple little things like you can’t have a question mark in a file name, the controls flip from one side of the screen to the other depending what action you’re taking (trash icon in outlook for example). From a RSI perspective it’s nuts (and bye bye all the gesture controls I could do with my Magic Trackpad, or all the hazel rules set up to make life easier).

        I’m simply going to switch back to a Mac at the first opportunity.

        And if you think I’m complaining, you should hear the Drupal developers who were moved. Apparently Drupal development sucks on windows.

      • I hope ClearType helped.
        The question mark thing is not a technical constraint, it’s a backwards compatibility thing. Back in 8.3 filename days “?” was disallowed, they’ve kept it banned just in case it throws off some ole code (I still use xxcopy occasionally ;-p). You can use Unicode question marks further up the code table though, just not the ASCII one.
        I don’t use Outlook on Windows (only on Android, where I like it a bit better than gMail) I wouldn’t know. You’re probably stuck with this one.
        Win10 does support trackpad gestures, if your Thinkpad is one of the nice ones and has a “Precision” trackpad. https://www.pcworld.com/article/3199486/windows-10-how-to-customize-multi-finger-touchpad-gestures.html for built-in stuff. Also there’s an app for that: https://www.multiswipe.com/
        Hazel: https://alternativeto.net/software/hazel/?platform=windows . I’ve no experience with any of that, but moving files around based on name or content isn’t rocket science. The Hazel guys doesn’t want to do Windows, others have.

      • Second try at the reply, with no URLs except PC World which may/should be whitelisted:

        I hope ClearType helped.

        The question mark thing is not a technical constraint, it’s a backwards compatibility thing. Back in 8.3 filename days “?” was disallowed, they’ve kept it banned just in case it throws off some ole code (I still use xxcopy occasionally ;-p). You can use Unicode question marks further up the code table though, just not the ASCII one.

        I don’t use Outlook on Windows (only on Android, where I like it a bit better than gMail) I wouldn’t know. You’re probably stuck with this one.

        Win10 does support trackpad gestures, if your Thinkpad is one of the nice ones and has a “Precision” trackpad. https://www.pcworld.com/article/3199486/windows-10-how-to-customize-multi-finger-touchpad-gestures.html for built-in stuff. Also there’s an app for that: multiswipe (dot)com

        Hazel: The dev recommends going to alternative (dot) to and asking for an hazel alternative, there are many. I’ve no experience with any of that, but moving files around based on name or content isn’t rocket science. The Hazel guys doesn’t want to do Windows, others have.

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