Start Up No.1400: how to raise a city by six feet, iOS 14’s biggest hit, people back social media election blackout, solar’s wild prices, and more

What if you could replace the sugar in this with.. sugar? CC-licensed photo by Andrei! on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not saccharin. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The race to redesign sugar • The New Yorker

Nicola Twilley:


In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy, let alone the array of sugar-sweetened yogurts, snacks, sauces, dressings, cereals, and drinks that now line supermarket shelves. Today, that average American ingests more than nineteen teaspoons of added sugar every day. Not only does most of that never come into contact with our taste buds; our sweet receptors are also less effective than those for other tastes. Our tongues can detect bitterness at concentrations as low as a few parts per million, but, for a glass of water to taste sweet, we have to add nearly a teaspoon of sugar.

…DouxMatok’s [new formulation of sugar called] Incredo, being 99% sucrose, is not subject to regulatory constraints, but any food that uses it still requires reformulation. If you remove the 57 teaspoons of sugar in a jar of Nutella and replace them with 35 teaspoons of Incredo, the jar will be noticeably under-filled. And although the product would taste sweet enough, everything else would be off. “The mouthfeel, the balance, the color—everything goes,” Baniel said. Similar problems arise with the Petit Beurre cookie. “When you just reduce the sugar with Incredo and leave everything else the same, the salt gets a presence you don’t want it to have,” he said. “And the vanilla, on the other hand, goes hysterical.”

Estella Belfer, a pastry chef who is a judge on the TV show “Bake-Off Israel,” hopes to use Incredo exclusively one day, but, recently, she told me about some of the challenges of cooking with it. “To make chocolate, it’s easy. I just substitute the sugar with a smaller amount. In shortbread cookies, it is an improvement—it makes them crispier,” she said. “But in the cupcakes and the sponge cakes—this is where there is an art to using Incredo sugar.” Sugar is responsible for much of the tender, springy texture of a good cake; Incredo sugar behaves exactly the same way, but there’s a lot less of it, which creates a problem.


Sugar turns out to be really ingrained into our culture. Absorbed, you could say.
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‘The Social Dilemma’ and the last fucking thing i’ll ever write about Facebook • The Pull Request

Antonio Garcia-Martinez (who used, of course, to work at Facebook, where he helped develop its ad system):


As is clear from the first minutes [of the Netflix documentary], the entire point of this cinematic pageant is to keep the focus constantly, irrevocably, and fatiguingly on Trist-AHN [ex-Googler Tristan Harris], the anti-prophet of the social media religion.

As might be expected from someone who oozes as much self-righteousness as narcissistic self-importance, he faceplants in due course. “No one got upset when the bicycle showed up,” he proclaims, invoking the ill-advised example of bicycles as historical foil to the Internet and social media.

That’s of course hilariously and incontrovertibly wrong: There was a wave of anti-bicycle activism (much of it fanned by those in the horse trade) when the first two-wheeled conveyances came out in the late 19th century. And that’s been true of every technology—bicycles, cars, radios, TV, movies, video games, smartphones, and indeed even vaccines—since the mythic Prometheus gave humans fire. The supreme irony is that Harris, who always talks up his former techie credentials, is falling prey to the same historical myopia and cluelessness for which many techies (rightly I should add) are routinely criticized. It’s always Day One in the Eternal Present of the Internet, no different for its detractors than its fans.


Garcia-Martinez is, to put it mildly, sceptical about the bona fides of those interviewed in The Social Dilemma (a program that I think is generally right about causes, but doesn’t look enough at effects).

I do think his description of how you’d describe WhatsApp to someone in the Middle Ages is neat (as telepathy). You’d get burned as a witch, of course.
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Melting Antarctic ice will raise sea level by 2.5 metres – even if Paris climate goals are met, study finds • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:


Melting of the Antarctic ice sheet will cause sea level rises of about two and a half metres around the world, even if the goals of the Paris agreement are met, research has shown.

The melting is likely to take place over a long period, beyond the end of this century, but is almost certain to be irreversible, because of the way in which the ice cap is likely to melt, the new model reveals.

Even if temperatures were to fall again after rising by 2C (3.6F), the temperature limit set out in the Paris agreement, the ice would not regrow to its initial state, because of self-reinforcing mechanisms that destabilise the ice, according to the paper published in the journal Nature.

“The more we learn about Antarctica, the direr the predictions become,” said Anders Levermann, co-author of the paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We get enormous sea level rise [from Antarctic melting] even if we keep to the Paris agreement, and catastrophic amounts if we don’t.”

The Antarctic ice sheet has existed in roughly its current form for about 34m years, but its future form will be decided in our lifetimes, according to Levermann. “We will be renowned in future as the people who flooded New York City,” he told the Guardian.


There’s a video too. It’s also depressing. It seems to me that decarbonisation – as in, not putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – isn’t going to be enough. We need a huge carbon capture and storage program. Trees would be a start. New York in the future might appreciate it.
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Twitter is bringing its ‘read before you retweet’ prompt to all users • The Verge

James Vincent:


Twitter says it’s working on bringing its “read the article before you retweet it” prompt to all users “soon.” The company began testing the prompt in June, which shows up when people go to retweet a story they haven’t clicked through to actually read.

Twitter says its motivation is to “help promote informed discussion.” Headlines often don’t tell the whole story and can even be actively misleading. Encouraging people to at least read the article they’re sharing seems like a smart way to promote media literacy and stop some of the knee-jerk reactions that can make misinformation viral.


Twitter says the prompt gets people to open the link 40% more often, and that the number who open before retweeting is up by 33%. And some people don’t retweet or pass it on.

Getting people to pause and even read before they pass content on is a good move.
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Custom iOS 14 widgets have become a TikTok flex • The Verge

Julia Alexander:


The most exciting part of iOS 14 isn’t picture-in-picture video display or the app library — it’s widgets.

Instead of once-boring app icons for your calendar or clock that might get placed in a utilities folder, the new wave of widgets let you spice up your homepage with anything from custom notes to astronomy and weather reports. Those options have existed on Android devices for years, but their sudden arrival on the iPhone has created a kind of gold rush, with users combining them into custom layouts that can be tweaked, shared, and even sold.

The new options have also turned a small utility called Widgetsmith into a surprise success, garnering more than 2 million downloads since it launched on September 16th, according to CNBC. Widgetsmith isn’t necessary for layouts, but its wide-ranging custom widget options give users more control. Most importantly, it’s become the preferred tool for most layout tutorial videos, which has put it at the center of the growing scene. Even with Widgetsmith, designing the perfect layout can take several hours — but it’s worth it for users who are trying to make a splash on Instagram or TikTok.


David Smith, the maker of Widgetsmith, was at first counting the number of support emails per minute, and then per second. And then a copycat app ripping off the name turned up above it in App Store search. Apple really needs to work on.
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Exclusive: majority polled back a social-media blackout for election • Axios

Ashley Gold:


Fifty-two% of voters support shutting down social media platforms altogether for the week of the presidential election, according to a poll from GQR research shared exclusively with Axios.

Tech companies have aggressively rolled out new guardrails around misinformation related to the election and taken down numerous foreign-led meddling campaigns this year, but critics continue to fear that social media is a vector for domestic and foreign deceit.

In the run-up to the election, Twitter has banned political advertising altogether, Facebook is banning new political ads a week before election day and YouTube announced a crackdown on deceptive ads this summer.

The survey, commissioned by Accountable Tech, questioned 1,000 registered voters in early September. Some notable results:

• 52% support shutting down social media platforms for the week of the election (54% Democrats and 51% Republicans)
• 79% say social media companies should “do more to protect democracy”
• Facebook is the most used social platform (65%), but 52% hold unfavorable views of it, and it is the least trusted news source compared to other social media and traditional media
• 62% say they are not confident social media companies can prevent election-related misinformation, and 91% think social media companies should do more to prevent its spread
• 82% support placing warning labels on accounts spreading false information about voting and 85% support blocking posts calling for violence or spreading election misinformation altogether.


I may have mentioned it before, but a study in 2018 paid people money to stay off Facebook in the four weeks before and after the 2018 US midterm elections. They reported being happier as a result; a significant number then stayed off it when the experiment came to an end.

The people in the poll seem to have an inkling of that.
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Solar’s future is insanely cheap (2020) • Ramez Naam

Naam has analysed energy price trends going back some decades, and now he looks forward:


This incredible pace of solar cost decline, with average prices in sunny parts of the world down to a penny or two by 2030 or 2035, is just remarkable. Building new solar would routinely be cheaper than operating already built fossil fuel plants, even in the world of ultra-cheap natural gas we live in now. This is what I’ve called the third phase of clean energy, where building new clean energy is cheaper than keeping fossil fuel plants running. Even in places like Northern Europe, by the later 2030s we’d see solar costs below the operating cost of fossil fuels, providing cheap electricity in summer months with their very long days in the high latitudes. These prices would be disruptive to a large fraction of already operating fossil fuel power plants – particularly coal power plants, that are far less able to ramp their power flexibly to follow solar’s day-night cycle.

In a purely open market, these incredibly low prices would drive the world’s remaining coal plants into bankruptcy, and steal some of the most profitable operating hours even from cheap natural gas plants.

Solar, if it keeps dropping at this pace, could well be by far the cheapest electricity over the vast majority of areas where people live. Nothing would ever be quite the same in the world of energy.


Then we need methods of energy storage for the night. Or, perhaps, lots of wind energy? Lots of hydro? The reality is that we need nuclear as a baseline.
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Pasta, wine and inflatable pools: how Amazon conquered Italy in the pandemic • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Emma Bubola:


Amazon was hampered in Italy by a lack of widespread broadband and poor roads for delivering packages, especially in the south. Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and many people are also wary of providing their financial details online. E-commerce accounts for only 8% of retail spending in the country.

“There were some structural issues that we had to face,” said Mariangela Marseglia, Amazon’s country manager for Italy. “Unfortunately, our country was and still is one of those where technological understanding and tech culture is low.”

The turning point was the pandemic. Mr. Parma said 75% of Italians shopped online during the lockdown. Total online sales are estimated to grow 26% to a record €22.7bn this year, according to researchers from Polytechnic University of Milan. Netcomm, an Italian retail consortium, called it a “10-year evolutionary leap,” with more than two million Italians trying e-commerce for the first time between January and May.

Hurdles remain for Amazon. Small and midsize businesses are an integral part of Italian society. They make up roughly 67% of the economy, excluding finance, and about 78% of employment, which are higher than EU averages, according to E.U. statistics.

In Gragnano, a hilltop town near the Amalfi Coast with a 500-year history of pasta manufacturing, Ciro Moccia, the owner of La Fabbrica della Pasta, said Amazon was a “dangerous” monopoly that could destroy businesses like his that rely on conveying the quality of a product.

But during the lockdown, his company had no choice but to sell on Amazon after many stores shut. Standing above the family’s factory recently, where semolina flour was mixed with spring water and pressed into 140 different pasta shapes, Mr. Moccia said, “I am very worried.”


Amazon as a platform for existing sellers is going to make complete sense. It would be possible for companies to do better by using it, even, as Moccia discovered.
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The big national news providers need threat modeling teams • PressThink

Jay Rosen argues that the media in the US needs to adopt “threat modelling” against the onslaught of misinformation that will come their way over the coming weeks and months from the Trump side as they try to an “autocratic attempt” (explained earlier in his post; the other two stages are “autocratic breakthrough” and “autocratic consolidation”):


If threat modelling is defensive, what is it that journalists should be trying to defend? 

To me this is one reason to do it. In order to deploy a threat modeling, or threat “ideation” team you have to know what you are trying to protect against. You have to own that responsibility. Which is a lot different from reporting whatever comes down the pike.

Earlier in the campagn, I wrote a post about this problem: You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But what should that agenda be? I think it has to be some kind of defense of American democracy and its central ritual: free and fair elections that engender trust in the outcome, and thereby make the peaceful transfer of power possible.

Earlier in the modern era, journalists covering election campaigns had been able to assume the existence of a stable system, and therefore focus on the contest itself. That doesn’t work for 2020. For it is by no means guaranteed that we will have a free and fair vote. Journalists have to plant their flag on the sacred ground of legitimate elections, and help defend it against all threats. Threat modeling can assist with that project. And that is my argument for its adoption by the big national news providers.


There’s a lot of concern that the US is going to become Belarus-on-the-Potomac.
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Weighing in • All this

Dr Drang (who is a structural engineer):


In October 2018, Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett were in Chicago for a Relay FM event that I attended. During the event, they recorded this episode of Ungeniused, their podcast about weird articles on Wikipedia. In honour of the city they were in, the article they chose was “Raising of Chicago”, which describes how, in the 1850s and 1860s, the roadways and buildings of the city were elevated as much as six feet to get them up out of the muck and allow decent drainage of both stormwater and wastewater.

The roadways were easy because you don’t really lift a street; you just add a bunch of fill and build a new road on top of that. But substantial buildings had to be jacked up to keep their ground floors from becoming basements. Here’s an image from the article of a large team of men doing just that.

One of the advantages of blogging over podcasting is you get to include cool pictures like this.

As they were describing the process, Myke and Stephen mentioned the weights of some of the buildings that were lifted, and Stephen asked, “How do you estimate the weight of a building?” After the recording, I told him that the weights of significant buildings are always known by the people who build them. I further said that I would write a post about it. And to prove that I’m a man of my word, here I am… two years later.


First you marvel at how you estimate the weight of a building, and then at the fact that Chicago simply got on and hefted them higher. The incentive was a cholera outbreak in 1854 because Chicago was basically at sea level beside a lake. And: people were allowed to keep shopping even in the buildings that were being raised.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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