Start Up No.1488: how Team Trump’s love of coal screwed Texas’s electricity, why Loon failed, Apple’s M1X spotted?, and more


Australian publications won’t appear on Facebook, as of today, after it banned them in a row there. CC-licensed photo by State Library of Queensland on Flickr.

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

Facebook blocks Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing news • The Guardian

Josh Taylor:

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Facebook has followed through on its threat to ban Australians from seeing or posting news content on its site in response to the federal government’s news media code.

The tech giant’s Australian and New Zealand managing director, Will Easton, said this would block links to Australian publishers from being posted, while no Australian users would be able to share or see content from any news outlets, both Australian and international.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” he said in a blog post published on Thursday morning. “It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.

“With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

News sites, including Guardian Australia, show no posts on their Facebook page as of Thursday morning.

Users on Thursday reported seeing a pop-up error window when they attempted to post links to news, stating these cannot be posted in response to the news media code.

Easton said publishers stood to gain more from sharing content on Facebook than Facebook does, with news content accounting for less than 4% of all content shared, and the company was willing to support news, but only with “the right rules in place”.

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That’s quite a piece of brinkmanship. A decision that must have been agreed, if not put forward, in California. We’ll find out which by watching how quickly this decision is reversed – I’d have thought that if it’s a Zuckerberg decision, it’ll stick for longer. (Also, what precisely is “news” and a “publisher”? Is Substack a “publisher”? Is this blog?) Benedict Evans has a useful thread on this matter.

Meanwhile, Google has signed a deal to pay “significant” amounts to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the next three years.
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How Trump appointees short-circuited grid modernization in 2018 • The Atlantic

Peter Fairley, writing in August 2020:

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On August 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policy makers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the US power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the fuel contributing the most to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

…unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience during the talk: Catherine “Katie” Jereza, then a deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Energy Office of Electricity.

Jereza fired off an email to DOE headquarters—before Novacheck had even finished speaking, according to sources who viewed the email—raising an alarm about Seams’ anti-coal findings. That email ignited an internal firestorm. According to interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by more than 900 pages of documents and emails obtained by InvestigateWest through Freedom of Information Act requests and by additional documentation from industry sources, Trump officials would ultimately block Seams from seeing the light of day. And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.

A nearly impermeable electrical “seam” divides America’s eastern and western power grids. These giant pools of alternating current on either side of the Rockies contain a total of 950 gigawatts of power generation by thousands of power plants. (A third grid serves Texas.) But only a little over one gigawatt can cross between them. Western-grid power plants in Colorado send bulk power more than 1,000 miles away to California, for example, but merely a trickle across the seam to its next-door neighbor Nebraska. That separation raises power costs, and makes it hard to share growing surpluses of environmentally friendly wind and solar power. And years of neglect have left the grids—and the few connections between them—overloaded and ill-prepared to transition to highly variable renewable energy.

The Seams study set out to determine whether uniting America’s big grids would pay. Seven aging converter stations presently mediate the meager power flows across the East-West seam. Should power companies simply rebuild these electrical “stitches,” or should they upgrade to longer or stronger links? Seams’ working hypothesis had been that upgrading might create a more reliable, sustainable, and affordable US power system. The study’s results bore that hypothesis out.

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Who should Texans blame for their loss of power? Trump and his political appointees.
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Why Google’s internet balloon project Loon failed • Business Insider

Hugh Langley spoke to a number of former employees of the now-shuttered scheme, which was burning through $100m annually by the end:

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CEO Alastair Wingarth told The New York Times last year that the team chose Kenya because it was open to adopting new technologies, yet it took two years for Loon to get the project off the ground. Meanwhile, a contract to bring internet to users in Peru remained stuck in a similar regulatory hell.

“To get these government sign-offs and actually put our balloons on the stratosphere? That was hard,” said one former employee. “That was really hard.”

Unlocking more airspaces would have also allowed Loon to share balloons between countries. For example, if a balloon in Kenya flew off course, it could be rerouted to Mozambique and used there. Clearing these aerial pathways meant Loon could also deliver its balloons to their destinations efficiently – surfing any particularly good stratospheric winds that appeared en route.

But as time went on, Loon realized how tough it was to land these agreements. The company tried to get clearance to fly balloons over Venezuela, which would have made it easier to travel to other parts of South America, but the country’s authoritarian government would not allow Loon to do so, one former employee said.

Some governments were also suspicious of allowing Loon in their airspace. Employees say it was not uncommon for foreign dignitaries to visit Loon’s sites and offices to inspect their balloons for surveillance technology.

As Loon wrestled with sticky geopolitics, SoftBank’s money was fast drying up, and the company spent most of 2020 trying to attract new investment. Loon had some leads, the most promising of which was a new deal with SoftBank for a second cash injection, according to two former employees familiar with the negotiations.

The amount Loon hoped to get from the new deal could not be learned, but one said they expected it would have had to be at least $100m to be worth it.

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What’s odd to me is how Page and Brin, so farsighted in many other things about internet connectivity spreading, couldn’t see this bet was a failure. (Same happened with Google Fiber, for different reasons.)
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YouTube’s Shorts, quick-video answer to TikTok, coming to US in March • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw and Nico Grant:

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YouTube will introduce a short-form video feature called Shorts to the U.S. in March, making its biggest move yet to respond to the growing challenge from TikTok.

Americans will be able to use a preliminary version of Shorts while the company, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, continues developing the feature, YouTube said Wednesday in a blog post. Shorts lets users create and upload 15-second videos, the length of an average video on ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok. YouTube has been testing the feature in India since September, and said the videos are now being watched more than 3.5 billion times a day in the country, which is its largest market.

TikTok’s surge in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic has forced other social media companies to adjust their strategy and come up with similar products. Facebook Inc.’s Instagram debuted Reels, while Snap Inc. introduced Snapchat’s Spotlight and YouTube unveiled Shorts.

YouTube is the largest video site in the world and the easiest way for an amateur filmmaker, comedian or musician to make money. But as YouTube has gotten bigger and more professionalized, many younger people have turned to TikTok to popularize dance crazes and lip-synch video challenges with only their smartphones.

“We know there’s still a huge amount of people who find the bar for creation too high” on YouTube, Neal Mohan, chief product officer, wrote in the blog post.

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For ages YouTube has been pressing creators to make videos that have got longer and longer for “engagement” rather than brief clicks. Which worked… too well, so TikTok came in and made it simple to create stuff that was really engaging – or which the algorithm could choose so you’d always be shown something engaging.

I wonder how early in TikTok’s existence the scramble to create these me-too products occurred at each of the different companies.
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I was invited for a Covid vaccine because the NHS thought I was 6cm tall • Liverpool Echo

Liam Thorp is aged 32, fit and healthy, and the political editor at the Liverpool Echo, though that isn’t relevant to this story (which is completely true).

No extract, because the challenge is for you to work out why Thorp was invited, if you haven’t already read the story. Having begin vaccination for the most vulnerable groups, the NHS is now trying to begin it for the groups with the highest Covid mortality. So why would they invite Thorp, given the computers think he’s 6cm tall, a literal Tom Thumb? (Dwarfism – even the most extreme forms – is not a risk factor for Covid.)

Thorp does explain why in the story, if you give up.
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Apple ‘M1X’ chip specification prediction appears on benchmark site • AppleInsider

Mike Peterson:

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A supposed listing for an Apple M1 successor has surfaced on a benchmark site, though it’s likely that the chip’s specifications are a prediction rather than the results of a test.

The “M1X” chip is said to be a 12-core Apple Silicon CPU. As an iteration on the M1, the chip features 12 cores instead of its predecessor’s eight. Its internal GPU features 16 cores, instead of the 8-core GPU in the M1.

This is according to an alleged benchmark of a “pre-sample” of the “M1X” that appeared on CPU Monkey. It’s impossible to independently verify whether the specifications are accurate, so it’s likely wiser to take them as a forecast rather than a true leak of the next-generation Mac chipset.

The specifications do appear in-line with what Apple could release this year. The “M1X,” according to the listing, is still a 3.2GHz chip based on a 5-nanometer production process.

If the prediction turns out to be accurate, it looks like the upgrade would be focused on graphics. The listing suggests that “M1X” could have a 16-core GPU with 16GB of maximum memory. It could feature 256 execution units, rather than the M1’s 128, and may be able to drive three displays instead of two.

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The “benchmark” does indeed look like some sort of prediction, though of course it has attracted attention. (Here it is!) All this is in line with what we expect.
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Twitter begins testing voice DMs in India, Brazil, and Japan • Android Central

Babu Mohan:

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Twitter today announced that it has started testing a new voice messaging option for direct messages. The experimental feature is now available to users in three countries: India, Brazil, and Japan.

Manish Maheshwari, Managing Director, Twitter India, said in a statement:

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India is a priority market for Twitter and that is why we’re constantly testing new features and learning from people’s experience on the service here. We’re excited to bring the voice messages in DMs experiment to the country and give people a new way to express themselves and help them connect through the nuances, emotion, and empathy built by hearing someone’s voice.

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To send a voice DM to someone on Twitter, you will first have to tap on an existing conversation or start a new one. Next, tap on the voice recording icon to begin recording your message. Once you are done, tap it once more to stop recording. You’ll also be able to listen to the message before you hit send. While you can send a voice DM only through the Twitter app on Android and iOS devices currently, you’ll be able to listen to them even you’re using Twitter on a web browser.

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Twitter’s doing this because it’s essentially a text network, but India and Brazil particularly are countries where lots of users are semi-literate, and greatly prefer voice to text. (Why Japan too? Don’t know.) Google noticed about a decade ago that huge amounts of search queries were coming via speech-to-text conversions on phones. And now here’s Twitter finally getting in on the act.
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How a thriving fake review industry is gaming Amazon marketplace • Which? News

Hannah Walsh:

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In December 2020, we signed up to 10 sites offering review manipulation services, including free or discounted products in exchange for reviews, or sales campaigns for sellers to boost their positive reviews. We found:

• 702,000 product reviewers across just five businesses
• One site claiming to have processed $8.9m of refunds for reviews it had organised on Amazon
• Review campaigns claiming to be able to achieve ‘Amazon’s Choice’ status on products in just 10-14 days
• One site selling contact and social media details for Amazon reviewers

We also quizzed review businesses on the tactics they employ to stay one step ahead of Amazon’s checks.

AMZTigers is a company based in Germany offering ‘review campaigns’ that it claims will ‘help your products become best sellers’. It has a large army of reviewers: 62,000 globally, which can be used depending on where sellers ship to, and 20,000 are based in the UK.

Amazon prohibits sellers from paying third parties in exchange for reviews, and says that it suspends, bans and takes actions against those who violate these policies. But this is exactly the sort of service AMZTigers offers.

We posed as an Amazon seller and signed up to find out more. After a short registration, we were assigned an account manager who arranged a call to discuss what we were looking for, including whether we already had stock to sell.

For Amazon marketplace sellers that just want reviews, AMZTigers sells them individually for around £13, or in bulk packages starting at £620 for 50 reviews going up to an eye-watering £8,000 for 1,000 reviews – showing how seriously sellers take reviews, and the investment they’re willing to make.

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Worth remembering that it’s not just app stores that have problems with fake reviews, but and sort of store.
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Juily 2018: Starling Bank launches vertical debit cards • Starling Bank

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London, 24 July 2018: Starling, the mobile challenger bank, is introducing a new debit card with a vertical design that puts all customer details, including name, card number and expiry date, on the back.

The new card – the first of its kind for a UK bank – has been designed to reflect the way people use cards today, slotting them into ATMs and card machines or making contactless payments in a vertical, or portrait, orientation.

The new personal account card is teal, an understated and cool hue inspired by the blue-green tones of the plumage of the starling bird. It is also one of the initial group of 16 original ‘web colours’ formulated in 1987 to display web pages, reflecting Starling’s digital heritage. The business account card will be dark navy and both have a pearlised finish to produce a smooth, premium feel.

The front of the card bears the Starling Bank name. All the clutter of the customer name and banking details are on the back. This discreet design feature improves security by making it less easy to copy personal information.

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Thanks to Gareth Bowker for the pointer. So vertical credit card layounts aren’t such a new thing after all, but probably going to become widespread before long.
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AirPods as a Platform • julian.digital

Julian Lehr on how Apple could create yet another platform:

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I’m not against Apple opening Siri for developers. On the contrary, given that AirPods are meant to be worn all the time, a voice interface for situations that require multitasking is actually a very good idea. But voice input should remain the exceptional case. And it shouldn’t be what makes AirPods a platform.

Instead of voice, I’d love to see other input mechanisms that allow developers to build new ways for users to interact with the audio content they consume.

Most headsets currently on the market offer the following actions with one (or multiple) clicks of a physical button: pause/play/answer, skip forward, skip backward, volume up, volume down.

These inputs were invented a long time ago and there has been almost zero innovation since. Why has no one thought about additional buttons or click mechanisms that allow users to interact with the actual content?

For example, when listening to podcasts I often find myself wanting to bookmark things that are being talked about. It would be amazing if I could simply tap a button on my headphones which would add a timestamp to a bookmarks section of my podcast app. (Or better even, a transcript of the ~15 seconds of content before I pressed the button, which are then also automatically added to my notes app via an Apple Shortcut.)

Yes, you could build the same with voice as the input mechanism, but as we discussed earlier, saying “Hey Siri, please bookmark this!” just doesn’t seem very convenient.

While podcast apps might use the additional button as a bookmarking feature, Spotify could make it a Like button to quickly add songs to your Favorites playlist. Other developers could build completely new applications: Think about interactive audiobooks or similar two-way audio experiences, for example.

This is the beauty of platforms: You just provide developers with a set of tools and they will come up with use cases you hadn’t even thought about. Crowdsourced value creation.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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