Start Up No.1392: telework better, what Apple announced, life on.. Venus?, Kardashian v Facebook, Goodreads or bad?, and more


Smoke from the fires in the western US is playing havoc with automated weather forecasts too. CC-licensed photo by Joe Wilcox on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to (actually) save time when you’re working remotely • Harvard Business Review

Lauren Howe , Ashley Whillans and Jochen Menges:

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While the widespread shift to remote work hasn’t been without its challenges, it does offer a major silver lining: For many of us, commuting has become a thing of the past. In the United States alone, eliminating the daily commute has saved workers around 89 million hours each week — equivalent to time savings of more than 44.5 million full workdays since the pandemic began! These numbers suggest that working remotely could be a deus ex machina for reclaiming one of our most precious and limited resources: time.

But despite the potential for staggering time savings, many have struggled to achieve everything they hoped the pandemic would finally make time for: baking sourdough, meditating, or writing the next great literary masterpiece. On the contrary, data we collected from 12,000 people across the U.S. and Europe during the pandemic show that the additional time is often burned on unproductive work and unsatisfying leisure activities. Having more time does not necessarily mean that we use it wisely. So, what are we doing wrong?

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Definitely good recommendations in here (as freelances will tell you). I’m very much in favour of the Feierabend. (It’s a German compound word, of course.)
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Is America a myth? • The New Yorker

Robin Wright:

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Today, America is littered with prideful secessionist movements. Mirroring Brexit—Britain’s exit from the European Union—they advocate for Texit (Texas), Calexit (California), and Verexit (Vermont). In 2017, a Vermont poll found that more than twenty% of Vermonters believed that the state should consider “peaceably leaving the United States and becoming an independent republic, as it was from 1777 to 1791.”

The Texas Nationalist Movement, which claims hundreds of thousands of members, is demanding a state referendum on secession. Then there’s the more fanciful proposal for Cascadia, a progressive bio-republic carved out of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The trend is bipartisan and transregional; secessionist sentiment has even emerged in the last two states to join the union—Alaska and Hawaii.

The need for internal trade and the dangers of external threats have helped hold America together. Disparate factions throughout the country rallied to counter British aggression in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the Germans and the Japanese, in the twentieth; and Al Qaeda, after the 9/11 attacks, in the twenty-first.

But, now, without outside threats, the nation is increasingly turning on itself. “We are definitely not united,” Blight said. “Are we on the brink of secession of some kind? No, not in a sectional sense. But, in the interior of our minds and our communities, we are already in a period of slow-evolving secession” in ways that are deeper than ideology and political beliefs. “We are tribes with at least two or more sources of information, facts, narratives, and stories we live in.” The United States today, Blight said, is a “house divided about what holds the house up.”

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I can’t decide whether to feel anxious for America, or just accept that it’s going to turn into an utter pudding. Not long before we find out, I guess.
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Apple’s ‘Time Flies’ event: the nine biggest announcements • The Verge

• New Apple Watch
• new cheaper less featured Apple Watch
•no USB adapter in the Watch boxes
• Family Setup for Watches (so you can track your kids..)
• new iPad Air
• new cheaper iPad
• Fitness subscription service
• Apple One bundling lots of services such as iCloud, Music, T+ and News+ (which is interesting if, like me, you’ve got a family setup)
• the new version of iOS and iPadOS and WatchOS being released today.

Read the whole thing for the finer detail.
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Scientists find gas linked to life in atmosphere of Venus • The Guardian

Ian Sample:

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Traces of a pungent gas that waft through the clouds of Venus may be emanations from aerial organisms – microbial life, but not as we know it.

Astronomers detected phosphine 30 miles up in the planet’s atmosphere and have failed to identify a process other than life that could account for its presence.

The discovery raises the possibility that life gained a foothold on Earth’s inner neighbour and remnants clung on – or floated on, at least – as Venus suffered runaway global warming that made the planet hellish.

For 2bn years, Venus was temperate and harboured an ocean. But today, a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere blankets a near-waterless surface where temperatures top 450C. The clouds in the sky are hardly inviting, containing droplets of 90% sulphuric acid.

The conditions on Venus are so deeply unpleasant that many scientists believe the planet is dead. Rather than coming from floating Venusians, they suspect phosphine arises from more mundane processes.

“It’s completely startling to say life could survive surrounded by so much sulphuric acid,” said Prof Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University, leader of the team who made the discovery. “But all the geological and photochemical routes we can think of are far too underproductive to make the phosphine we see.”

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Faintly exciting: this has been predicted for decades. There are flybys by existing spacecraft due over the next few months; not clear whether they have the telemetry to analyse this. Fingers crossed.
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Facebook climate change hub to fight misinformation • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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The climate change hub comes after the company dealt with a rash of misinformation across its services regarding the cause of the wildfires raging across the Western U.S. One article containing false information blaming the wildfires on antifa arsonists had been shared more than 63,000 times on Facebook, according to The Guardian.

The new feature is called the Climate Science Information Center, and it will provide Facebook users with facts, figures and data from factual sources, the company said in a blog post. These sources include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.N. Environment Programme, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, World Meteorological Organization and the Met Office.

In addition to the information center, Facebook said it will continue to reduce the distribution of posts containing false information on its News Feed feature and it will label those posts as false. Facebook, however, did not say it would remove those posts. The company also did not say if it would remove or label posts within private Facebook groups that contain misinformation about climate change.

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Why oh why oh flipping why won’t Facebook remove false information, but will do for spam and female nipples? We can be sure that this “climate change hub” is going to make a big difference; look how well it worked for coronavirus. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.
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Oracle doesn’t buy TikTok, but gets a lucrative hosting deal, and Trump & friends will pretend this means something • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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Oracle put out a very short press release saying that it will “serve as the trusted technology provider” to TikTok. That’s not how you describe a sale. This is a hosting deal.

Oracle will just host TikTok on its wannabe, way-behind-the-competition, cloud platform. And Trump and his cult-like supporters will pretend this actually accomplishes something. Oracle’s executive suite has long been vocal Trump supporters, so this basically dumps a giant hosting contract into Oracle’s lap. ByteDance will effectively still own TikTok, and Trump will pretend he’s done something. For what it’s worth, this is the second big Oracle cloud deal done in the last few months, with the previous one being with videoconferencing company Zoom.

As Russell Brandom over at the Verge notes, this deal “accomplished nothing.” ByteDance still owns TikTok (and, according to reports, retains full control over TikTok’s algorithm). As former Yahoo and Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos points out, literally none of the concerns people have raised about TikTok (most of which were bogus in the first place) are solved by an Oracle hosting deal.

(On Twitter, Stamos said that “A deal where Oracle takes over hosting without source code and significant operational changes would not address any of the legitimate concerns about TikTok, and the White House accepting such a deal would demonstrate that this exercise was pure grift.”)

As Stamos points out, accepting this deal would show that it’s nothing but “pure grift,” basically dumping a forced contract into Oracle’s lap, a company which (again) has had an executive licking Trump’s boots since day one.

And people can’t even truly argue that Oracle will somehow make whatever little “private” data there is on TikTok “more secure.” It’s not like it was just months ago that an Oracle-owned subsidiary, BlueKai, leaked data that tracked users all over the web, exposing billions of records.

In other words, the whole thing was a joke. Like so much of this administration it was performative nonsense by Trump, who was mad that some kids made him look foolish on TikTok, combined with anti-Chinese racism, to push for a deal he had no legal right to push for, resulting in a weird scramble that doesn’t accomplish what he wanted, but does shift a bunch of money to some of his vocal and wealthy supporters. The “Art of the Grift.”

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The SwiftOnSecurity account, which is wise, pointed out that Oracle’s claim that the deal would create 25,000 jobs in the US is beyond ridiculous: “Gmail has 1.5 billion users and is engineered by a team of a few hundred people,” it noted. Snapchat: 2,000 people. Total.
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Kim Kardashian to freeze Facebook, Instagram accounts in #StopHateForProfit effort • Axios

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Kim Kardashian West announced that she will temporarily freeze her Instagram and Facebook accounts on Wednesday because the platforms “continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation — created by groups to sow division and split America apart.”

Why it matters: The announcement from such a high-profile user is likely to be a PR disaster for Instagram and Facebook, as well as a boost to the #StopHateForProfit campaign. Kardashian West is the 7th most followed account on Instagram with 188 million followers. She currently has 30 million followers on Facebook.

What she’s saying: “I love that I can connect directly with you through Instagram and Facebook, but I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart – only to take steps after people are killed,” Kardashian West wrote.

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She announced it on Twitter. Though of course with Facebook and Instagram, if you don’t post on these platforms, all that happens is that you subside beneath the waves; other people will come and fill the space.

A style note about Axios, which loves to think that it’s being edgy and different with its paragraph introductions of “Why it matters” and “What she’s saying”: if you remove them (which I usually do when quoting Axios stories), it makes absolutely no difference to how the story reads.
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Beware rigged China fever cameras • IPVM

Ethan Ace and John Honovich:

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how do these China systems get near ‘normal’ temperatures of a person zooming by on a skateboard?

Many China systems we tested rig measurements using “compensation” algorithms to estimate skin temperature. So for example, when the measured max temperature of a person is ~91°F, the camera might add 6 degrees reporting them at 97°, but when measured at 94°, it might add just 4 degrees, reporting them at 98°.

The chart below shows our findings from one of our tests:

This is clever but dangerous. It is clever since these algorithms correctly assume most people have normal temperatures, so they disproportionately increase low readings into more normal ones. And since almost no one has a fever at any given time, it is typically right even if the process is wrong / rigged.

It is dangerous because when the system has an obvious bad reading (like a guy zooming by on a skateboard) it gives a false sense of accuracy. The guy on the skateboard probably does not have a fever since very few have fevers but a thermal system can not determine that directly, since the angle of incident and the speed of the skateboarder makes that impossible.

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Don’t miss the example in the post of what happened when they had skateboard guy walk past one of these “fever cameras” holding a piece of cardboard over his forehead. And the diagnosis of a printout of someone’s face. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Why Goodreads is bad for books • New Statesman

Sarah Manavis:

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Ten years ago, Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant from the UK (now based in New York), mounted his own challenger to Goodreads: 7books, launched in 2010 and now offline, having peaked at 6,000 users. Since then, Critchlow has been analysing why Goodreads competitors tend not to work. Earlier this year, he published a blog post called “A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads”.  In it, he outlined the fundamental challenges behind creating a serious Goodreads competitor. 

“In my mind, there’s three core reasons that Goodreads remains dominant,” he tells me. “Firstly, they are the incumbent with a large user base.” Secondly, he explains, the sheer mass of books data Amazon holds is unparalleled. Goodreads and Amazon dominate web searches for books, which allows them to account for a large proportion of book-related internet traffic. While Amazon’s product API, which catalogues huge numbers of books, can be used by anyone, it is also the only repository of its kind, meaning any new competitor would almost certainly have to use the same tools Goodreads has been working with for many years. 

“Amazon,” Critchlow tells me, “has showed no mercy when dealing with competitors before.”

The final issue Critchlow cites is monetisation: margins on books are already “razor-thin”, and most demand goes via Amazon. “If you were to compete you would need significant scale,” he says, to make any money – and the most likely way to make money in the short term would be through affiliate links, which pay commission on sending readers to online stores – and one online store in particular. “Again,” notes Critchlow, ”you’d be dealing with Amazon directly.”

Critchlow believes all of this all contributes to Amazon doing next to nothing to improve Goodreads’s functionality.

…Critchlow may be sceptical, but new competitors continue to enter the book-tech fray, and one in particular is beginning to make waves.

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That would be The StoryGraph (which bought the URL from a creative writing site for undergraduates; web searches are thus a bit puzzling.) The example of Goodreads is a classic case of how the internet doesn’t necessarily solve for global equilibria; its faults are legion but tolerated because whaddya gonna do, huh?
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Smoke has caused temperature forecasts to go crazy (plus an update) • Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Clifford Mass:

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The wildfire smoke has a profound impact on surface temperature, causing cooling by reflecting the sun’s rays back to space and absorbing some of it aloft. That is probably obvious to most of you from being outside yesterday, but consider the radiation measurements on the roof of my building at the University of Washington (see top panel below).  Much less radiation yesterday (a drop of 22% from 19.83 to 15.49).

The temperature plot is shown right below – highs dropping from 95 to 73.

Now here is the problem.  Most weather prediction systems are not including smoke and thus are missing its profound cooling effect.  Thus, their forecasts are too warm–and too warm by as much as 20F in areas of dense smoke. On my smartphone right now, Portland is predicted to get to 79F and Eugene, Oregon to 82F. In truth, they won’t get out of the 60s. These forecasts are coming from Weather.com.

The automated services are all too warm because the modelling systems on which they are based do not include smoke. That is also true of many of the National Weather Service models. The NOAA/NWS HRRR smoke modeling system is still experimental and will go operational this year. And I expect all modeling systems will include smoke within the next few years.

This situation shows why it is good we have skilful human forecasters minding the shop at the National Weather Service: they are manually correcting the model predictions so that accurate forecasts are still available

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Hurrah for humans at times of maximum disaster, I guess. (If you live in the US northwest, Mass’s blog looks like a useful resource on weather.)
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USB-C was supposed to simplify our lives. Instead, it’s a total mess • OneZero

Owen Williams:

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Anyone going all-in on USB-C will run into problems with an optional standard called Power Delivery. The standard allows devices to charge at a much higher wattage relative to older connectors, therefore allowing them to charge faster. But it requires the right combination of charger, cables, and device to actually achieve this.

If you buy a USB-C charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery and try to use it with a Microsoft Surface, for example, the laptop will complain that it’s “not charging” despite receiving some power. Fixing this requires figuring out whether or not it’s the cable or wall charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery, and replacing it with something that does support it. There would be no way for a layperson to hold two USB-C chargers and know the difference between one that supports Power Delivery and one that doesn’t.

Furthering the confusion, some devices actually can’t be charged with chargers supporting Power Delivery, despite sporting a USB-C port — because they weren’t designed to negotiate the higher wattage being delivered by the Power Delivery standard. A pair of cheap Anker headphones I own, for example, refuse to charge when plugged into a MacBook charger. Other devices, like the Nintendo Switch, only partially support the standard, and some unsupported chargers have bricked devices, reportedly due to the Switch’s maximum voltage being exceeded.

Then there’s DisplayPort and Thunderbolt, another set of standards supported by some USB-C devices. DisplayPort allows the use of an external display, such as a 4K monitor, but only supports one at a time at full resolution.

Thunderbolt, yet another optional standard, is a much faster layer on top of USB-C that allows additional possibilities, like the use of multiple displays daisy-chained from a single port, or the use of an external graphics card. It uses the exact same connector, but can be identified with an additional “lightning” symbol when supported.

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The standards committees must have thought that they were doing just the right thing by bringing all of these different things – Data! Power! Video! Audio! – into one plug. Too clever by half. And too late now to undo the mess. We’re stuck with USB-C and this incomprehensible mess until someone splits them up again.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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