Start Up No.1293: lockdown boosts voice search, how Jack Dorsey dodged the hedge fund, America’s sclerotic government, Texas gets solar, and more


A billboard: contributing, just a tiny bit, to making you less happy, new research says CC-licensed photo by Zara Gonzalez Hoang on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Got your pulse oximeter yet? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

University of Warwick study: advertising makes us unhappy • Harvard Business Review

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HBR: What prompted you to investigate this?

Professor Andrew Oswald: Colleagues and I have been studying human happiness for 30 years now, and recently my focus turned to national happiness. What are the characteristics of a happy country? What are the forces that mold one? What explains the ups and downs? I’d never looked at advertising before, but I met a researcher who was collecting data on it for a different reason, and it seemed to me that we should combine forces. Like a lot of people in Western society, I can’t help noticing the increasing amount of ads we’re bombarded with. For me, it was natural to wonder whether it might create dissatisfaction in our culture: How is your happiness and mine shaped by what we see, hear, and read? I think it’s rather intuitive that lots of ads would make us less happy. In a sense they’re trying to generate dissatisfaction—stirring up your desires so that you spend more on goods and services to ease that feeling. I appreciate, of course, that the world’s corporate advertisers and marketing firms won’t like hearing me say that.

Yeah, I don’t think they’d agree that that is the goal of advertising.

Their line is that advertising is trying to expose the public to new and exciting things to buy, and their task is to simply provide information, and in that way they raise human well-being. But the alternative argument, which goes back to Thorstein Veblen and others, is that exposing people to a lot of advertising raises their aspirations—and makes them feel that their own lives, achievements, belongings, and experiences are inadequate. This study supports the negative view, not the positive one…

…It’s worth wondering whether Western society has done the right thing by allowing large levels of advertising, almost unregulated, as though it were inevitable. Given these patterns, it seems like something we might want to think about. But we haven’t got any political punch line in this paper. We don’t recommend any policy.

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And yes, they did check to make sure it wasn’t just an “ice cream causes murder” type of correlation.
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Why are labels changing song titles after a release? TikTok • Rolling Stone

Elias Leight:

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As the burgeoning world of voice-search starts to have more influence on listening habits, making sure songs fit search terms in this way will only become more important, says Hazel Savage, CEO and cofounder of AI-based start-up Musiio. “Especially what we see with younger generations is they’re more and more comfortable with voice search,” Savage notes. In that space, “it’s all about how much data can you attach to each song,” she continues. “The more you have, the more powerful your search terms are gonna be.”
Astralwerks’ Andrews says “we’ve seen a lot more people using Alexa and voice search since they’re stuck at home.” And when the label attached the “(i love you baby)” to “ily,” “voice search results for the song tripled overnight.” 

The “ily” title change is already impacting the way Astralwerks looks at its catalog. “There’s a song of ours called ‘Sex’ by Eden that has over one million creations on TikTok; it’s one of the top ten trending tracks globally right now,” Andrews explains. “But the phrase people are using on the platform is, ‘catching feelings,’ nothing to do with sex at all. So the title of that one is going to change to ‘Sex (Catching Feelings)’ to optimize how people are absorbing the song. It’s going to be interesting to see that affect more and more people now.” 

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Really would like to know how much voice search on Alexa/Google Home/Siri has risen now that so many people are at home.
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Upgrade our 8-track government • WSJ

Andy Kessler:

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I’ll admit to using this line all the time: “The Howard Stern Show” asked Ringo Starr, “What did you do with the money?” “What money?” “The money your mother gave you for singing lessons.”

Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary told Tucker Carlson about a much-needed Covid-19 antibody test developed in January that was under review by the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Makary noted, “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it.” CD-ROM? They might as well have asked for applications on a deck of IBM punch cards with audio on 8-track tapes. The FDA budget is around $5.8 billion. What did you do with the money?

Last week, New Jersey put out a call for Cobol programmers to update its unemployment-benefits software, which runs on mainframes installed 40 years ago. Cobol was invented in 1959. New Jersey has a $39 billion budget. What did you do with the money?

I grew up in New Jersey (Exit 14), but this ineptitude is everywhere. A 2018 study revealed that only 42% of all state and local government computer systems were implemented after Oct. 25, 2001. The rest are “old or broken,” including two-thirds of those used for child support and half of those used for unemployment or vehicle registration.

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And there’s also this Bloomberg article by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in synchrony:

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Behind the ideological squabbling, the main problem with Western government is simple: It is out of date. If you want a symbol of this, look no further than U.S. school calendar, which was designed for an agrarian economy where children needed long summer holidays to bring in the harvest. Think of all the changes that America’s private sector has been through over the past century: vertical integration followed by contracting out; steep hierarchies followed by delayering; skyscraper headquarters followed by suburban campuses followed by a return to the city. Think of all the companies that have been created and destroyed in a never-ending whirlwind of creative destruction. Now think of Washington. The Department of Agriculture remains a giant despite the fact that agriculture accounts for only 2% of GDP.

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The Silicon Valley view would be “government’s never faced disruption”.
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Jeffrey Sachs on the catastrophic American response to the coronavirus • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner interviewed Sachs, but this extract is all Sachs, who is an economist who advised the Soviets on how to shift to a market economy, and the Bush administrations on the size of funding needed for wide-scale vaccination programs in developing countries:

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Basically, American politics has become deeply corrupt over decades, and it became so corrupt that normal governance already collapsed many years ago. And people with resources and knowledge know it, but they haven’t cared, because things have more or less gone on O.K., and the stock market has been booming, and even though in almost any private conversation Trump is viewed as a complete dolt and a complete incompetent, that was more or less laughed off as manageable because he wasn’t doing too much damage, either.

That’s the real situation. Nobody here has viewed government as actually very functional for a long time, and not because it couldn’t be. It has been increasingly designed to fail. Specifically, it’s been designed to respond to powerful lobbies that want deregulation or tax cuts or some special privileges rather than to function in a normal way. And powerful people shrug their shoulders at that, because for the élites that’s been O.K., but it obviously hasn’t really been O.K. for a long time. We’ve had rising death rates. We’ve had the deaths of despair. We’ve had the failure to come to grips with climate change. We’ve had widening inequalities and massive suffering. But it hasn’t mattered in such a visible way…

…The rich countries got the wave of the epidemic first, mainly because of the high extent of travel between China and Europe, and between China and the United States, and Europe and the United States. And the epidemic went out of control in this country basically because Trump did nothing and called upon the federal system almost not at all between early January and mid-March. And epidemics grow at exponential rates. The poorer countries by and large did not receive the intense seeding of the epidemic as early, because they have fewer flights, they have fewer visitors and tourists. So in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, the number of cases was lower. That’s why we’re seeing, at least for the moment, some greater measure of control.

These countries do not have test equipment. They do not have personal protective equipment. They do not have ventilators, and so on. And what I am recommending is that the International Monetary Fund provide emergency financing at essentially zero conditionality, other than that it be used responsibly. And that the World Health Organization work with governments that have the potential to supply additional equipment—that’s China, Korea, Japan, and a few others—and use the emergency financing and the availability of this urgently needed equipment to get it to these countries in need.

Where does the United States stand in this? Well, the United States has done the unimaginable, and that is to try to cut the functioning of the W.H.O. in the middle of the pandemic. So I’m not looking for American heroism. I’m looking for the United States not to be among the most destructive forces on the planet right now.

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In the coronavirus era, the force is still with Jack Dorsey • Vanity Fair

Nick Bilton:

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each day Dorsey wakes up in his multimillion-dollar glass mansion with postcard views of the Golden Gate Bridge, checks to see what the sleep-tracking ring on his finger says, then lowers himself into an ice bath before meditating in a warm tent sauna. This is followed by a seven-minute workout and then drinking his breakfast, which he calls “salt juice,” a concoction of water, salt, and lemon, which is the only thing he will “eat” until the evening, when he enjoys his single real meal of the day. His day wraps up in a slightly more extreme version of the way it began, with a ritual of 15 minutes in his barrel sauna, followed by three minutes in his ice bath, which he does back and forth three times for an hour. He then meditates again. People close to Dorsey caution, though, that his health routine “changes frequently, so what he’s doing now likely doesn’t align with what he talked about months ago.”

…While Dorsey managed to stave off a coup by [hedge fund] Elliott for now, Cohn is going to be sitting on the board of Twitter, leading an executive search that could recommend to replace Dorsey (though it will be left up to the board to decide if it wanted to follow through with those recommendations). And Dorsey is going to have to reach some pretty high metrics, including growing Twitter’s monetizable daily active users (people who use the platform daily and can be served ads) by 20% in order to remain CEO of both companies. As a result of the pandemic and the vertiginous fall in the stock markets, two weeks later, Silver Lake’s $1 billion investment had fallen by a third, as had Elliott’s. Which the bankers won’t be too happy about.

But, in an uncanny twist, given the virus now decimating the global economy, Dorsey might have just received a stay of execution. Any stock declines will be attributed to coronavirus eviscerating the markets as a whole. According to someone familiar with the company’s internal projections, the amount of time people spend on the site is expected to rise this quarter. While people around the globe are on lockdown in their homes, the one place millions are turning to for a constant flow of information is social media, especially Twitter.

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Browser boss: we’re blocking ad trackers because governments didn’t deal with them • Forbes

Barry Collins:

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The CEO of Vivaldi says his company’s new desktop and mobile browsers block ads for the first time because governments have failed to curb online advertising’s worst excesses.

Vivaldi 3 includes an integrated tracker blocker, powered by privacy-conscious search engine DuckDuckGo, as well as an adblocker. A built-in adblocker is also part of the first stable release of Vivaldi for Android devices.

Vivaldi CEO, Jon von Tetzchner, said the company had shied away from integrating adblockers in previous versions, but that the browser’s users had increasingly demanded greater protection that wasn’t being provided by lawmakers.

“The focus on Vivaldi 3 is privacy,” said von Tetzchner. “We’ve always been the browser that isn’t collecting data on you, but people have been asking: ‘what about tracker blocking?’”

Von Tetzchner said Vivaldi had hesitated to build such features into the browser previously, because it was concerned about “the internet being free and open”.

“I’ve been hoping for the governments to deal with that and stop the tracking, because I don’t think it’s really good for anyone.”

The issue came to a head with the release of the company’s mobile browser, where users found the browsing experience was being hampered by aggressive advertising. “Our thinking on the desktop side had been we’ll leave the adblocking to extensions,” von Tetzchner explained. “That was not an option on the mobile side. We saw the comments on the betas – this is what people wanted,” so the company decided to add the feature to both desktop and mobile.

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Not mentioned: Vivaldi’s share on the desktop and mobile. It’s below 0.1%. Still, having an adblocker will definitely get everyone to downl.. ah, forget it.
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Texas: how the home of US oil and gas fell in love with solar power • Financial Times

Gregory Meyer:

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A solar farm the size of a small city will open in the Texas shale heartland this month, adding more competition to a US oil and gas industry that is already flat on its back. 

The blue rows of panels at the Oberon photovoltaic project will generate 150 megawatts of power when they plug into the grid south of Notrees, an appropriately named town in the Permian Basin. Oberon’s developers want to eventually expand the project to 1,380MW — enough to serve 230,000 homes. 

A boom in solar projects is under way across Texas, the US oil and gas capital. The state will build a quarter of the record new industrial-scale solar capacity being installed across the US this year, according to the Energy Information Administration, part of the department of energy. 

Much of that solar investment is taking place in the Permian Basin, the centre of a US shale oil industry that is now reeling from the impact of the coronavirus crisis and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The solar projects are a threat to fossil fuels. Renewables have helped to force the closures of coal-fired power plants. They are now challenging the primacy of natural gas in the US electricity generation mix as the price of solar equipment keeps on falling. The Republican legislature has declined to rein in rapid increases in wind and solar despite its historic friendliness to the oil and gas industry. 

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This was written back at the start of the month – before the price of Texas oil collapsed below “on its back”. There’s never a problem pumping solar.
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Weekly pro esports schedule: Soccer, Nascar, NFL and more • Gearbrain

Alistair Charlton:

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Watching competitive video games played online is nothing new. But with the coronavirus pandemic pressing the pause button on almost all global sport, the entire industry has stepped up a gear.

Thrust into an all-new spotlight, esports now features many real-world sporting professionals, is broadcast live on television to record audiences, and is called by pro commentators.

Sports including soccer, basketball, football and various forms of motorsport have all headed online to keep fans entertained during lockdown.

Updated weekly, this article will feature highlights of upcoming esports events for you to watch online and on television. While we can’t promise to include every single esports event — there are hundreds — we will try to highlight events where real-world professionals are taking part.

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Neat idea. The professionals need something to keep them… sharp.
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China bat expert says her Wuhan lab wasn’t source of new coronavirus • WSJ

James Areddy:

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Dr. Shi Zhengli [the 55-year-old principal investigator at the Wuhan Institute of Virology] and the Chinese government say there is no evidence the virus came from laboratories in Wuhan. Scientists generally believe the pathogen crossed the species barrier into humans directly from bats or via another animal. Wild animals were sold in the Wuhan market.

As questions about the origin of the coronavirus grew, Dr. Shi pushed back aggressively. In a social-media post republished in Wuhan’s main Communist Party newspaper in February, she said she could “guarantee on my life” that the virus hadn’t originated in her labs. She went on to “advise those who believe and spread malicious media rumors to close their stinky mouths.”

Dr. Shi didn’t respond to questions from The Wall Street Journal. Her boss, Yuan Zhiming, a senior official at the Wuhan facility, told Chinese state television this month that while it is understandable that people might raise questions about the labs, “there’s no way this virus came from us.”

For Dr. Shi’s defenders, the pandemic is a tragic coincidence for a scientist who has devoted her life to tracking threats to human health. “All the elements of the conspiracy are there if you want to believe it,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based environmental health nonprofit, who has collaborated with Dr. Shi for several years. But, he said: “It’s not true.”

Jonna Mazet, a pandemic specialist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with Dr. Shi for a decade, said the Chinese scientist is cataloging all the coronaviruses she has studied over the years, and told her that “she didn’t have this virus in the lab before people were sick with it.”

Added Dr. Mazet: “She’s been under incredible strain and stress over this whole thing.”

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What proponents of the “escaped from the lab” hypothesis can’t answer is why so many of the early cases are linked to the market, which is quite some distance away.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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