Start Up No.1456: 2020’s energy shifts, how ARM won the world, Singapore betrays Covid promises, kill those remote batteries!, and more

New lockdown, new monitor? We’ve got recommendations for quality monitors to go with your PC or Mac. CC-licensed photo by Matt Hamm on Flickr.

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

Ten charts that tell the weird story of oil and energy in 2020 • Bloomberg

Nathaniel Bullard:


Not all electric vehicles are cars
In May, BloombergNEF analysis found that the electric vehicles currently on the road are already avoiding a million barrels per day of the world’s would-be oil consumption. There are now millions of personal electric vehicles on the road and hundreds of thousands of electric buses, not to mention commercial electric vehicles. Yet none of those categories is the main part of avoided oil consumption today. For that we can thank the tiny electrics with two or three wheels — they’re responsible for more than half of that vanished demand for oil. There are almost a quarter-billion such electric vehicles on the road today. China buys more than 18 million electric two-wheelers a year; by 2040, BNEF expects the world to buy 70 million.

Electric vehicle sales are outperforming
Global automobile sales plunged in the first two quarters of 2020 to levels not seen since the financial crisis. Electric vehicles, though, fell less. That’s thanks to Europe, which had the largest fall in internal combustion sales (down almost 56% year on year) and a similarly humongous increase in EV sales (up more than 45%). Expect the electric vehicle market to grow in 2020.

BP calls the top on oil demand
The big takeaway from BP Plc’s annual energy outlook: Oil demand will peak this decade. That’s not because of aggressive policies aimed at reaching net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, nor as a result of carbon prices or other interventions aimed at limiting global temperature rise. BP says that even if energy policy keeps evolving at pretty much the pace it is today, oil demand will still start declining.


One other one: oil now has a lower return on equity than renewables. And while the “million barrels per day” number sounds good, current consumption is about 100 million per day. So there’s a long way to go.

(A new year hint: if you want to read a Bloomberg story but don’t have a subscription, try plugging the headline of the story into a search engine. You’ll almost always find a site which republishes it without a paywall, with permission.)
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How an obscure British PC maker invented ARM and changed the world • Ars Technica

Jason Torchinsky:


The ARM processor, the bit of silicon that controls over 130 billion devices all over the world and without which modernity would effectively come to a crashing halt, has a really strange origin story. Its journey is peppered with bits of seemingly bad luck that ended up providing crucial opportunities, unexpected technical benefits that would prove absolutely pivotal, and a start in some devices that would be considered abject failures.

But everything truly did sort of get set in motion by a TV show—a 1982 BBC program called The Computer Programme. This was an attempt by the BBC to educate Britons about just what the hell all these new fancy machines that looked like crappy typewriters connected to your telly were all about.

The show was part of a larger Computer Literacy Project started by the British government and the BBC as a response to fears that the UK was deeply and alarmingly unprepared for the new revolution in personal computing that was happening in America. Unlike most TV shows, the BBC wanted to feature a computer on the show that would be used to explain fundamental computing concepts and teach a bit of BASIC programming. The concepts included graphics and sound, the ability to connect to teletext networks, speech synthesis, and even some rudimentary AI. As a result, the computer needed for the show would have to be pretty good—in fact, the producers’ demands were initially so high that nothing on the market really satisfied the BBC’s aspirations.

So, the BBC put out a call to the UK’s young computer industry, which was then dominated by Sinclair, a company that made its fortune in calculators and tiny televisions. Ultimately, it was a much smaller upstart company that ended up getting the lucrative contract: Acorn Computers.


If you don’t know this story, then it’s a rewarding read. Apple supported it at the start, and then income from selling ARM shares supported Apple in its darkest days when it was making an operational loss.
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Haven, the Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan venture to disrupt health care, is disbanding after three years • CNBC

Hugh Son:


Haven, the joint venture formed by three of America’s most powerful companies to lower costs and improve outcomes in health care, is disbanding after three years, CNBC has learned exclusively.

The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on health-care projects, the people said.

The announcement three years ago that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase had teamed up to tackle one of the biggest problems facing corporate America – high and rising costs for employee health care  – sent shock waves throughout the world of medicine. Shares of health-care companies tumbled on fears about how the combined might of leaders in technology and finance could wring costs out of the system.

The move to shutter Haven may be a sign of how difficult it is to radically improve American health care, a complicated and entrenched system of doctors, insurers, drugmakers and middlemen that costs the country $3.5 trillion every year.


Guess it’s over to the politicians again then. Only Barack Obama has been able to make a significant change to it in the past 12 years.
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Singapore police can access COVID-19 contact tracing data for criminal investigations • ZDNet

Eileen Yu:


Singapore has confirmed its law enforcers will be able to access the country’s COVID-19 contact tracing data to aid in their criminal investigations. To date, more than 4.2 million residents or 78% of the local population have adopted the TraceTogether contact tracing app and wearable token, which is one of the world’s highest penetration rates.

This figure is double that of the adoption rate just three months ago in September, when TraceTogether had clocked 2.4 million downloads or about 40% of the population. A recent spike likely was fuelled by the government’s announcement that use of the app or token would be mandatory for entry into public venues in early-2021, when it was able to distribute the token to anyone who wanted one. 

Introduced last March, TraceTogether taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices – within 2 metres of each other for more than 30 minutes – to allow them to identify those who have been in close contact when needed.


It’s a complete reversal of what they said. Incredibly dangerous: people will never trust what the Singaporean government tells them again. (If they did in the first place.)
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More streaming remotes need to be battery-free • Gizmodo

Catie Keck:


We’re talking most of the major streaming devices available right now. Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast with Google TV, Nvidia Shield TV, Tivo Stream 4K, and others all require a pair of batteries that will most likely eventually wind up in the trash. Apple TV’s remote is a rare outlier; it charges via a Lightning port.

I’m not giving Apple a free pass here on its dumb proprietary charging protocol. Device- or maker-specific charging cables are a huge pain in the butt, an environmental nightmare in their own right, and an avoidable problem that might be solved with a universal charging standard like USB-C. In my perfect world, the next-generation Apple TV would phase out its hell port in favor of something that plays nice with other charging cables and devices—though based on its recent product launches, I’m not holding my breath.

But Apple still has the best solution for reducing battery waste than most other major streamers. A single charge on my Apple TV remote can last months without me having to plug it in again, while some Roku users, for example, have reported that their remotes chew through batteries like wild. Of course, rechargeable batteries are an option here, but how many users are really going out of their way to equip their clickers with these to avoid waste? And most streaming devices I’ve unboxed ship with a standard pair of AAA batteries anyway.


Apple’s solution is certainly the better one. Rechargeables would be good, but then you’d need the recharger too. It must be a price thing: including a rechargeable Li-ion battery and cable (and charger!) would be much more expensive than a gap and a couple of disposables.
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The ultimate MacBook+PC monitor showdown • So long, and thanks for all the bits

James Jones:


Like many folks finding their way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve recently accepted a job working permanently remote. So for the foreseeable future my workstation will be pulling double-duty for macOS-based software development with a MacBook Pro and Windows-based gaming on a PC.

Modern monitors come with a lot of interesting features. Did you know you can connect a MacBook to a monitor using a single USB-C cable and transmit USB, power, audio and video?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as knowing whether a monitor supports USB-C. Many monitors support USB-C but don’t have any sort of way to pipe the audio out from the monitor (for example, to a sound bar). And some monitors have USB-C and audio out, but only provide 15W of power.

So I set out to identify a monitor that meets all of my criteria. Specifically:

• Has a built-in KVM switch that lets me easily switch between my PC and MacBook.
• Provides at least 60W power over USB-C (the bare minimum to power a 16-inch MacBook Pro).
• Some sort of audio output (almost always analog).
• Upstream USB-B Port so that I can plug my keyboard and mouse into the monitor and pipe PC audio through the monitor to the sound bar.
• VESA mountable.
• IPS panel. The viewing angles on my TN panel are so bad it interferes with my work so IPS is a must.
• 27” or 34” ultrawide @ 1440p. Good for gaming and happens to be the ideal non-retina DPI for macOS. Full retina @ 5k instead of 1440p would be nice, but unfortunately I couldn’t find such a monitor that meets all the minimum criteria. Awkward DPIs are a deal-breaker due to scaling and “shimmering” effects mentioned in the linked post.


Just in case you’re contemplating, say, a six-week lockdown, and want to get a really good monitor. He has a list which, if you’re prepared to let some things go, should provide at least one or two good candidates. And they’re applicable for either Windows or Mac or both, don’t forget.
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Adobe Flash rides off into the sunset • The Verge

TC Sottek:


While Adobe won’t start blocking Flash content until January 12th, major browsers shut it all down on January 1st and Microsoft will block it in most versions of Windows. It’s over.

Flash enjoyed huge cultural relevance and looms large in web history, which might be why its funeral procession has lasted for years. Browsers started showing Flash the door early in the last decade, and in 2015 Adobe asked developers to move on to HTML5. Things became official in 2017, when Adobe announced it would end support.

While Adobe is finally (mercifully) letting Flash go, it will live on in many historical artifacts. The Internet Archive is preserving Flash games and animations, including well-known hits like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”


Two things really killed Flash: its woeful performance on mobile, and its calamitous security problems. Steve Jobs hammered a big nail into its coffin with his “Thoughts on Flash” in April 2010 [the original is long gone from Apple’s pages], and then Adobe read the writing on the wall at the end of 2011, and now here we are. At one point it was the most widely distributed third-party plugin on desktop browsers; it made a lot of criminals rich.
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Hundreds of Google employees unionize, culminating years of activism • The New York Times

Kate Conger:


More than 225 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group revealed on Monday, capping years of growing activism at one of the world’s largest companies and presenting a rare beachhead for labor organizers in staunchly anti-union Silicon Valley.

The union’s creation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its largely white-collar work force. It follows increasing demands by employees at Google for policy overhauls on pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top leadership.

The new union, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was organized in secret for the better part of a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada.

But unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer come to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, said the union was a necessary tool to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues.


But the workplace issues aren’t (just) things like pay. This is going to be something of a watershed for Google. Will it lance the anger that’s been building up, or is it going to be some sort of battering ram on management?
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URGENT: SECURITY: New maintainer is probably malicious · Issue #1263 • The Great Suspender

The Great Suspender is a Chrome extension that stops tabs sitting in the background from running. Some time last year it gained a new “owner”, origin obscure, and now people have become concerned about changes that have been made to the code:


On November 6th, @lucasdf discovered a smoking gun that the new maintainer is malicious. Although OpenWebAnalytics is a real software, it does not provide the files executed by the extension. Those are hosted on the unrelated site, which turns out to be immensely suspicious. That site is one month old, and is clearly designed to appear innocent, being hosted on a public webhost, and being given a seemingly innocent homepage from the CentOS project. However, the site contains no real information other than the tracking scripts, and is only found in the context of this extension. Most importantly, the minified javascript differs significantly from that distributed by the OWA project.

While there does exist an innocent explanation for this, I can no longer say that it is the most likely. Using the chrome web store version of this extension, without disabling tracking, will execute code from an untrusted third-party on your computer, with the power to modify any and all websites that you see. The fact that disabling tracking still works is irrelevant given the fact that most of the 2 million users of this extension have no idea that that option even exists. The fact that the code is not obvious malware is meaningless in light of the fact that it can be changed without notice, and that it is minified (human-unreadable).


As you might expect, the “issues” page for the project is suddenly alive with queries and questions. They’re not being answered.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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