Start Up No.1425: digital nomads stymied by Covid, the virtual influencers taking advantage, Intel’s chip dilemma, AOC on digital, and more

This older Dutch gentleman survived his encounter with an e-bike, but others haven’t been so lucky. CC-licensed photo by Dean Groom on Flickr.

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

The digital nomads did not prepare for this • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:


David Malka, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, had heard from friends who were living their best work-abroad lives. In June, he created a plan: he and his girlfriend would work from Amsterdam, with a quick stop at a discounted resort in Mexico along the way.

The first snag happened almost immediately. In Cabo San Lucas, Mr. Malka and his girlfriend realized that the European Union wasn’t about to reopen its borders to American travelers, as they had hoped. Returning to the United States wasn’t an option: Mr. Malka’s girlfriend was from the United Kingdom, and her visa wouldn’t allow it.

The two decided to stay in Mexico a bit longer. At first it was glamorous, Mr. Malka said. Working by laptop — he manages a portfolio of vacation rental properties — they had the resort to themselves. But by the second week, their situation began to feel like “Groundhog Day.” The city and the beach were closed, so the couple never left the resort. Meanwhile, the travel shutdown was hammering his business.

“All we could do is sit by the pool or go to the gym,” Mr. Malka said. The repetition, boredom and isolation all wore on them.

Eventually, the couple took a 28-hour, two-layover trip to Amsterdam, where Mr. Malka was indeed turned away at customs. They retreated to London, where they promptly broke up.
He has been there since. “Cold, raining, depressing,” he said. “Those are the first three adjectives that come to mind.”

Now Mr. Malka is trying to figure out how to get to Bali — it’s technically closed to visitors, but he heard about a special visa that can be rushed for $800 — or use his ancestry to obtain Portuguese citizenship. It’s a lot of logistics.


That taste in my mouth – it’s delicious, yummy schadenfreude, I’m pretty sure.
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Lil Miquela, LoL’s Seraphine: virtual influencers make more real money than ever • Bloomberg

Thuy Ong:


Virtual influencers were already gaining, well, influence long before Covid-19 struck.

Seraphine’s flowing pink hair and cat-themed Instagram posts had attracted thousands of fans when the news that she was created by Riot Games Inc. — the studio behind smash-hit esports game League of Legends — sent her account viral. Now her follower count is nearly 400,000 and she’s making appearances in Shanghai to promote her music, while most flesh-and-blood social-media stars are stuck at home. Despite not being real, she still sometimes wears a mask.

At a time when interacting safely with other humans can no longer be taken for granted, the appetite for digital spokespeople is accelerating. Brands are expected to spend as much as $15bn annually on influencer marketing by 2022, up from $8bn last year, according to Business Insider Intelligence. A growing slice of that money belongs to virtual influencers, and traditional marketing is experiencing serious disruption.

“Virtual influencers, while fake, have real business potential,” says Christopher Travers, the founder of, a website that documents the industry. “They are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die.”

Seraphine — who on Oct. 13 was also revealed to be a playable character on League of Legends, which draws as many as 8 million concurrent daily users — is one of about 125 active virtual influencers, according to Travers. More than 50 of those debuted on social media in the 18 months to June 2020. On YouTube, virtual influencers number more than 5,000.

Digital avatars developed by creative agencies, the biggest influencers can attract brand partnerships and other lucrative deals. With 2.8 million social-media followers and a fee of about $8,500 per sponsored post, Lil Miquela — a “model” who’s done promotions for Calvin Klein, Prada and other fashion brands — is the industry’s highest earner, according to OnBuy, a U.K.-based online marketplace. OnBuy estimates Lil Miquela will make about $11.7m for her creators this year.


OK, I really don’t get this. When you look at their posts, they’re just froth. Frothy froth.
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Intel’s success came with making its own chips. Until now • WSJ

Asa Fitch:


By 2019, Intel engineers and executives were debating how to manufacture future 10-nanometer CPU chips that had been held up because of earlier engineering delays. The debates were sometimes fierce, with some engineers urging management to consider letting someone else fabricate the chips if in-house facilities couldn’t, and some executives arguing that the factories could fix their problems.

Chief Engineer Venkata “Murthy” Renduchintala told analysts in May 2019 that Intel had learned lessons from earlier stumbles and that its 10-nanometer chips were on track. Intel’s next generation—7-nanometer CPUs—were on track to start production in 2021, he told them.

That didn’t happen. The manufacture of the next generation of CPUs is now a year behind initial plans, which will delay the arrival of products on the market by six months, Intel said. Intel shook up its technical team and announced Mr. Renduchintala’s departure. He declined to comment. Intel declined to comment on the departure, citing a statement at the time that he left amid a management shake-up aimed at improving the company’s chip-technology execution.

Mr. Swan in the July call told analysts: “We’re going to be pretty pragmatic about if and when we should be making stuff inside or making outside.”

The company’s new approach, Mr. Swan said, would be to make market-leading chips on schedule. Intel’s factories would be the preferred manufacturing option, but, if needed, production could be outsourced. Intel still plans to invest heavily in its own factories and future cutting-edge transistor technology, Mr. Swan has said.

As part of its move toward more outsourcing, Intel is adopting for some chips what it calls “disaggregation”—a process that lets it make a single chip using manufacturing processes in different places. Intel might start a chip in one in-house factory and then move it to another, or might start making a chip at an Intel plant and then ship it to an outside manufacturer to add elements Intel doesn’t produce as well. The company said it is beginning that type of mixed manufacturing, but on a limited basis with chips including a coming graphics-processing unit.


If Intel outsources, who will it trust to make the chips? Those are incredibly valuable templates. And who will have the capacity? Would it trust TSMC? Plus, will some PC makers start to peel off towards ARM architectures when they see what Apple has managed tomorrow (Tuesday)?
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Dutch government pilots technology to cut e-bike road deaths • The Guardian

Daniel Boffey:


Electric bike motors will be shut down when entering residential or built-up areas of Amsterdam, under a government-funded project to cut road deaths from the increasingly powerful vehicles.

The digital technology, which has been successfully trialled on a 4km stretch of bike lanes at Schiphol airport, was funded by the Dutch ministry of infrastructure and water management.

The not-for-profit Townmaking Institute behind the concept is working with e-bike manufacturers and government authorities with the expectation that the speed-cutting technology and new regulations could be rolled out by 2022.

Sixty-five people died last year while riding e-bikes, which have an integrated electric motor to propel the wheels, up from 57 in 2018. The vast majority were men over the age of 65. The standard e-bike reaches speeds of 12mph (20km/h), but faster models, such as speed pedelecs, can reach 28mph.


I really would like to know more about these kamikaze Dutch pensioners. I guess the absence of a helmet would be a big part in the severity of their injuries.
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Biden’s win, House losses, and what’s next for the Left • The New York Times


Astead Herndon: So what are you saying: Investment in digital advertising and canvassing are a greater reason moderate Democrats lost than any progressive policy?

Ocasio-Cortez: These folks are pointing toward Republican messaging that they feel killed them, right? But why were you so vulnerable to that attack?

If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders. I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign.

Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence. And so, yeah, they were vulnerable to these messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent. Sure, you can point to the message, but they were also sitting ducks. They were sitting ducks.

There’s a reason Barack Obama built an entire national campaign apparatus outside of the Democratic National Committee. And there’s a reason that when he didn’t activate or continue that, we lost House majorities. Because the party — in and of itself — does not have the core competencies, and no amount of money is going to fix that.

If I lost my election, and I went out and I said: “This is moderates’ fault. This is because you didn’t let us have a floor vote on Medicare for all.” And they opened the hood on my campaign, and they found that I only spent $5,000 on TV ads the week before the election? They would laugh. And that’s what they look like right now trying to blame the Movement for Black Lives for their loss.


For AOC, understanding the importance and nuance of digital is like a fish understanding water; in the weeks before the election she was on Twitch (no? Ask yer kids) pulling in new voters. But a lot of Democrats, and observers, read this Q+A and saw it as an attack on their policies. As she says, why let the opposition determine how you’re viewed? Some people just can’t be helped.
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On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter did better by making their products worse • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


it’s worth examining how Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are averting election-related trouble, because it sheds light on the very real problems they still face.

For months, nearly every step these companies have taken to safeguard the election has involved slowing down, shutting off or otherwise hampering core parts of their products — in effect, defending democracy by making their apps worse.

They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds. And as results came in, they relied on the calls made by news organizations like The Associated Press, rather than trusting that their systems would naturally bring the truth to the surface.

Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.

But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)


It’s increasingly recognised that the way to make social media less harmful is to make it more difficult to share content easily. There’s still plenty of work to do, but last week’s experience might be seen inside Facebook and Twitter as validation of what they did.
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Inside the Trump campaign as it grapples with defeat while plowing forward with legal fight – ABC News

Will Steakin, Katherine Faulders, and John Santucci:


Since Election Day, many Trump campaign staffers have been huddled on a noisy floor in the campaign’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters fielding hundreds of calls a day on a hotline the campaign set up as they try to find instances of voter fraud, multiple sources told ABC News.

But the hotline has turned into a nightmare for some, as staffers, some of whom have contracts that expire in the coming days, have been bombarded with prank calls from people laughing or mocking them over Biden’s win before hanging up, sources tell ABC News. Prank calling the Trump campaign’s hotline has already become a trend on TikTok, the social media network that was used earlier in the year in an attempt to tank the president’s rally in Tulsa by mass-requesting tickets.


TikTok’s revenge. Hasn’t been banned from US app stores (that was blocked by a federal judge in late September) but is still due to be forcibly sold to Oracle on 12 November, or else shut down. Quite the tightrope. Biden has no power to reverse this as president-elect, so we’re going to have to see whether ByteDance can pull a rabbit out of the hat here.
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Post Trump, conservative media faces a split • Buzzfeed News

Rosie Gray:


The fragmentation of conservative media has empowered the loudest voices calling to “stop the steal” and weakened any possibility that reality will intrude on those who are consuming their news through the hodgepodge of fringe sources popular on the Trump right these days.

On the final weekend of the campaign, I asked voters at Trump rallies where they got their news. Some did mention Fox News, but I was surprised that nearly everyone I talked to emphasized other sources just as much or more. The Parrishes, a retired couple who went to Trump’s rally in Hickory, North Carolina, told me they didn’t like Fox News apart from Tucker Carlson, finding the hosts too “egotistical and arrogant,” said Mary Ellen Parrish, and that “there’s a lot of deception,” her husband Chuck said. The couple mostly get their information online: Mary Ellen from Twitter and Chuck from YouTube, where he has discovered the “flat Earth” conspiracy theory, to which he ascribes.

Jerry Senn, 82, at Trump’s rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, mentioned One America News Network and Newsmax as his favorites, though he likes Fox too. He goes online to read Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Prager’s websites. Jennifer Justice, 34, at the same rally, said, “I don’t watch mainstream news. I follow a lot of people on YouTube and on alternative media, but I don’t watch Fox. I don’t watch MSNBC. I don’t watch CNN.” Some of her favorites include Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, and Candace Owens. Multiple voters mentioned how much news they get from Facebook.

Already, Trump family members and some of the new wave of Trump-like politicians are using Trump’s popularity with the base to threaten any Republican who doesn’t publicly agree with the fraud allegations.


All worth reading; as is the quite separate Twitter thread (here on one easily read page) by Matthew Sheffield, a “former conservative activist and journalist”, on the bias inherent in conservative media.
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Trump will lose his Twitter ‘public interest’ protections in January • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


President Donald Trump will lose Twitter privileges he enjoys as a world leader when President-Elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20th, 2021. Twitter confirmed that Trump’s @realDonaldTrump account will be subject to the same rules as any other user — including bans on inciting violence and posting false information about voting or the coronavirus pandemic.

Twitter applies special policies to world leaders and some other officials, leaving rule-breaking content online if there’s “a clear public interest value to keeping the tweet on the service.” The public interest policy was formalized in 2019, codifying a rule that had been informally enforced for some time.

“Twitter’s approach to world leaders, candidates, and public officials is based on the principle that people should be able to choose to see what their leaders are saying with clear context. This means that we may apply warnings and labels, and limit engagement to certain tweets. This policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions,” a Twitter spokesperson confirms to The Verge.

These changes will cover Trump’s personal account. Position-specific accounts like @WhiteHouse, @POTUS, and @FLOTUS are transferred to a new administration after an outgoing president steps down.


The fun part is going to be about how quickly Trump gets suspended for tweeting something offensive. (And unlike the White House, removing him from the @POTUS account will be pretty easy – though have you noticed how nobody ever took any notice of that account? That it was only about his personal account?)

At the same time, though, the fact that these exemptions exist is disturbing. How world-leadery do you have to be? How public an official?

In other news, the first bookmark I made about Trump was on 10 December 2015. Looking forward to doing the last of them around five years later.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1425: digital nomads stymied by Covid, the virtual influencers taking advantage, Intel’s chip dilemma, AOC on digital, and more

  1. For a world-leaderness rule of thumb, I’d say if you can order an army to invade another country, you qualify to have your tweets deemed as in the public interest. We can start debating candidacy, etc. But that would seem to cover many relevant cases. The concept that e.g. Twitter might block calling for a formal declaration of war, as being against its platform rules of inciting violence, sounds like something out of a parody of the neoliberal fetishization of corporate authoritarianism as social control.

    “I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”

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