Start Up No.1494: the new competition in social networks, Apple Fitness+ two months in, who’s spy(pixel)ing on you?, and more


The pandemic is leading local authorities to remove swings from playgrounds, bizarre though it sounds. CC-licensed photo by Simon on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Roundabouts next? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why swings are disappearing from UK playgrounds • City Monitor

Emma Haslett:

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“In case nobody’s pointed this out, in terms of equipment, swings are way more popular than anything else,” says Tim Gill, author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities. “Always have been, always will be.”

Their popularity could be the very reason swings are disappearing, says Gill. Local authorities are faced with a dilemma: on one hand, successive lockdowns have hit kids’ mental health hard, with a report by the NHS and the UK’s statistics authority indicating one in six children had a probable mental health disorder last year, up from one in nine three years previously – and outdoor play is seen as a way to combat that. On the other, local residents are complaining to councils that parents may be using playgrounds as an excuse for under-the-radar socialising while their kids exercise.

“Members of the public have noticed that kids are still playing in playgrounds and adults are congregating around playgrounds, so they then have complained to local authorities,” says Mark Hardy, head of the Association of Play Industries (API), which represents 85% of the UK’s play sector. One poll on the TV show Loose Women in January showed 75% of the public wanted playgrounds to be closed.

An easy solution for councils may be to remove the most popular piece of equipment on the playground to control the number of people there. Taking away swings cuts a whole group of parents – of kids who aren’t old enough to use anything but a swing – out of the equation. It also cuts down on the number of people lingering, and potentially socialising, around swing sets as they push their kids or wait for one to become available.

“If a council does… feel the need to stop people from coming to a place – reduce the numbers – the quickest and easiest way to do that is to disable the swings,” says Gill. “It’s a device, I guess, for a certain end to be achieved.”

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People standing near each other in the open air: utterly minimal risk of coronavirus transmission. Kids stuck inside with parents: bigger risk of all sorts of other adverse effects. It would be great if busybody non-parents could stay out of some things. (Thanks Citizen Sev for the pointer.)
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Atlantic Ocean circulation at weakest in a millennium, say scientists • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:

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The Atlantic Ocean circulation that underpins the Gulf Stream, the weather system that brings warm and mild weather to Europe, is at its weakest in more than a millennium, and climate breakdown is the probable cause, according to new data.

Further weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could result in more storms battering the UK, more intense winters and an increase in damaging heatwaves and droughts across Europe.

Scientists predict that the AMOC will weaken further if global heating continues, and could reduce by about 34% to 45% by the end of this century, which could bring us close to a “tipping point” at which the system could become irrevocably unstable. A weakened Gulf Stream would also raise sea levels on the Atlantic coast of the US, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who co-authored the study published on Thursday in Nature Geoscience, told the Guardian that a weakening AMOC would increase the number and severity of storms hitting Britain, and bring more heatwaves to Europe.

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The only sort of climate news we’re going to get from here on it is bad climate news. Yet unlike the rule that usually applies for news – don’t give us the good, give us the doom! – we don’t seem to welcome the bad climate news.
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Exclusive: Google pledges changes to research oversight after internal revolt • Reuters

Jeffrey Dastin, Paresh Dave:

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An internal email, seen by Reuters, offered fresh detail on Google researchers’ concerns, showing exactly how Google’s legal department had modified one of the three AI papers, called “Extracting Training Data from Large Language Models.”

The email, dated Feb. 8, from a co-author of the paper, Nicholas Carlini, went to hundreds of colleagues, seeking to draw their attention to what he called “deeply insidious” edits by company lawyers.

“Let’s be clear here,” the roughly 1,200-word email said. “When we as academics write that we have a ‘concern’ or find something ‘worrying’ and a Google lawyer requires that we change it to sound nicer, this is very much Big Brother stepping in.”

Required edits, according to his email, included “negative-to-neutral” swaps such as changing the word “concerns” to “considerations,” and “dangers” to “risks.” Lawyers also required deleting references to Google technology; the authors’ finding that AI leaked copyrighted content; and the words “breach” and “sensitive,” the email said.

Carlini did not respond to requests for comment. Google in answer to questions about the email disputed its contention that lawyers were trying to control the paper’s tone. The company said it had no issues with the topics investigated by the paper, but it found some legal terms used inaccurately and conducted a thorough edit as a result.

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Quantifying carbon fluxes in the world’s forests • World Resources Institute

Nancy Harris and David Gibbs:

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The world is getting a better understanding of just how important forests are in the global fight against climate change.

New research, published in Nature Climate Change and available on Global Forest Watch, found that the world’s forests sequestered about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted between 2001 and 2019. In other words, forests provide a “carbon sink” that absorbs a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year, 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually.

Unlike other sectors, where carbon makes a one-way trip to the atmosphere, forests act as a two-way highway, absorbing CO2 when standing or regrowing and releasing it when cleared or degraded.

Before now, scientists estimated these global “carbon fluxes” from the sum of country-reported data, creating a coarse picture of the role forests play in both carbon emissions and sequestration. With these new data that combine ground measurements with satellite observations, we can now quantify carbon fluxes consistently over any area, from small local forests to countries to entire continents.

Using this more granular information, we found that the world’s forests emitted an average of 8.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year due to deforestation and other disturbances, and absorbed 16 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year.

…Over the past 20 years, forests across Southeast Asia have collectively become a net source of carbon emissions due to clearing for plantations, uncontrolled fires and drainage of peat soils.

The Amazon River basin, which stretches across nine countries in South America, is still a net carbon sink, but teeters on the edge of becoming a net source if forest loss continues at current rates.

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To prevent climate change getting worse, we need to not just stop carbon being added to the atmosphere (because what’s in there has an amplification effect) but also take it out, as the forests do.

How much? Something like half a trillion tonnes.
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Brexit trade delays getting worse at UK border, survey finds • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:

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Delays importing and exporting goods to and from the EU have worsened since Brexit was introduced at the start of the year and will result in stock shortages and price rises for consumers, according to a report.

A survey of 350 supply chain managers found that two out of three had experienced delays of “at least two to three days” getting goods into the UK, compared with 38% who reported delays in a similar survey in January.

A third of this group said the delays were “significantly longer” than in January, 28% said “slightly longer” and 15% reported delays of a similar length to January. Just 18% of those surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) said they experienced no delays or fewer delays.

The situation was only slightly better for exports, with 44% experiencing delays of at least two to three days getting goods into the EU.

The survey comes as one of the UK’s largest chemical producers, BASF, reveals it has experienced “substantial friction” from the new trade barriers caused by withdrawal from the EU.

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O’Carroll is The Guardian’s Brexit correspondent. I think she’s going to be in work for a long time. The UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested we should expect to see benefits of Brexit in about ten years’ time. By which time he’ll be well out of office.
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How social networks got competitive again • Platformer

Casey Newton:

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If I had to put a date on when competition ended among social networks in the United States, I’d choose Aug. 2, 2016. That’s when Instagram introduced its copy of Snapchat stories, blunting the momentum of an upstart challenger and sending a chill through the startup ecosystem.

I don’t think copying features is necessarily anti-competitive — in fact, as I’ll argue below, it’s a sign that the ecosystem is working as intended — but the effect of Facebook’s copying here was dramatic. Snap fell into a long funk, and would-be entrepreneurs and investors got the message: Facebook will seek to acquire or copy any upstart social product, dramatically limiting its odds of breakout success. Investment shrunk accordingly.

The previous year, after the success of Twitter’s Periscope app, Facebook had cloned its live video features, and enthusiasm for both products seemed to broadly peter out. When live group video experienced momentary success under Houseparty, Facebook cloned that too, and Houseparty later sold to Epic Games for an undisclosed sum.

It was in this stagnant environment that many people, myself included, came to believe that it had been a mistake to let Facebook acquire Instagram and WhatsApp.

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But he thinks there’s now serious competition again:

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when it comes to mobile short-form video, Facebook and YouTube face a real challenge [from TikTok].

So where else does Facebook suddenly find itself forced to compete?

For starters, there’s audio. While still available only by invitation, Clubhouse recently hit an estimated 10 million downloads. Celebrities including Tiffany Haddish, Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and Zuckerberg himself have made appearances on the app, granting it a cultural cachet rare in a social startup that is still less than a year old. Clubhouse raised money last month at a valuation of $1 billion — more than Facebook paid ultimately paid for Instagram.

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Apple Fitness Plus review: two months in, still on easy mode • The Verge

Dieter Bohn, Ashley Carman, Monica Chin, and Becca Farsace have all been giving it a try for the past two months:

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Fitness Plus’ main selling point is it’s easy to jump into — so long as your own oodles of Apple devices. The app requires an Apple Watch to access the classes, and then you’ll need an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to stream the workouts. (Critically, there’s no way to stream from a Mac, which makes no sense and required me to stream from my tiny iPhone display.) But because the app connects to the Watch, your rings show up in the corner of the screen throughout a workout. It serves as a reminder of how hard you’ve worked and how far you have to go to meet your goals for the day. Some people might find this motivational. I did.

As for equipment, the app offers a variety of cardio workouts, such as cycling, treadmill classes, and rowing, which require special equipment. But it also offers classes like Time to Walk, which Becca will dive into below, and dance classes that require no equipment at all. Most of the strength classes would like you to use dumbbells (which can be hard to find in stock currently), but you could get away with your bodyweight if necessary.

There’s no way to filter classes by equipment requirements or even area of focus, so expect to spend time in the app reading descriptions and watching previews to discern whether a class is for you. This is a pain and a hurdle that shouldn’t exist. Filters by workout type and equipment should be table stakes for any fitness app.

…If there’s a single message to take away from this review, it’s this: Apple Fitness Plus is great for beginners but may not offer the depth you’re looking for if you’re advanced in any specific sport. It’s accessible to anybody who is able to buy into Apple’s whole ecosystem, though.

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The Arizona Republic considers killing “zombies” as a staple of its digital subscription strategy • Better News

John Adams and Alia Beard Rau:

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The latest flash sale promising everything you’ve ever wanted in local journalism can bring the masses through the front door. But just as quickly as they flood the proverbial lobby, many will exit through the back door as soon as their sweet subscription deal expires.

So, at the end of 2018, The Arizona Republic decided we needed to focus on reducing churn. We were tired of working so hard to gain one subscription only to see two leave. We also wanted to focus on what the newsroom could control, separate from efforts in other departments that address churn issues like credit card expirations and customer service complaints.

When we began analyzing the data, we found an unnerving reality. About 42% of The Republic’s digital-only subscribers were not visiting our site once a month. Yes, re-read that and let it sink in. Forty-two% of the people paying for a digital subscription were not even reading one single article. Introducing: our “zombies.” The un-dead. Paying subscribers, but not a part of our living community.

We also discovered that 50% of our stops each month originated from that same group of disengaged subscribers. And so we started our journey to reduce churn through killing zombies.

Special side note to all the journo nerds out there: No zombies were actually hurt during this exercise in churn reduction. We also know that we didn’t want to “kill” these zombies (yes, technically, they are already dead). We actually wanted to bring them back to life as loyal, engaged subscribers. But we also knew that, “Creating loyalists and bringing zombies back to life” didn’t have the same pizzazz. So, don’t @ us.

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Surprised that they’re not counting their blessings at getting free money from 42% of subscribers. They might be like the AOL users who were still on dialup in 2010.
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‘Spy pixels in emails have become endemic’ • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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The use of “invisible” tracking tech in emails is now “endemic”, according to a messaging service that analysed its traffic at the BBC’s request.

Hey’s review indicated that two-thirds of emails sent to its users’ personal accounts contained a “spy pixel”, even after excluding for spam. Its makers said that many of the largest brands used email pixels, with the exception of the “big tech” firms.

Defenders of the trackers say they are a commonplace marketing tactic. And several of the companies involved noted their use of such tech was mentioned within their wider privacy policies.

Emails pixels can be used to log:
• if and when an email is opened
• how many times it is opened
• what device or devices are involved
• the user’s rough physical location, deduced from their internet protocol (IP) address – in some cases making it possible to see the street the recipient is on

This information can then be used to determine the impact of a specific email campaign, as well as to feed into more detailed customer profiles.

Hey’s co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson says they amount to a “grotesque invasion of privacy”.

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I did talk about this topic on BBC Radio Berkshire (fame!) last week, when it appeared. This is something that has been going on for absolutely years: PR firms used it to track whether journalists had opened emails; spammers have been using it since the 1990s. In that sense, I felt it was already endemic long before this.

But it’s becoming a topic du jour. John Gruber has been focusing on it, and I think the point he makes in a footnote at the end of his article linked there is the most cogent one:

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Effectively all email clients are web browsers now, yet don’t have any of the privacy protection features actual browsers do.

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(Thanks Sam R for the suggestion.)
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Quitting Twitter • Krishna’s words

Krishna Sundarram joined Twitter wayyyyyy back in.. late 2020:

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Problem 3 – Twitter warps people

Some guy with 14k followers said something. It was something like “only Indian people are rude/assholes in this particular way. Here are some anecdotes proving this”. This is a generalisation about a race of people based on anecdotes, so by definition racist. But since the person was Indian, it’s not. Don’t look at me, I don’t make the rules.

Dunking on other Indian people is a common pastime for Indian people – it makes us feel superior to our compatriots. Of course we wouldn’t do the thing that we’re talking about, we’re better than that. He wasn’t doing anything I haven’t heard a hundred others do.

I commented that there could be sampling bias here. Since we’re more likely to be annoyed/embarassed by the actions of Indian people, we’re more likely to notice and remember it. I relayed an anecdote of my Indian friend being very annoyed by something an Indian did but not even remembering that a white person had done the exact same thing the previous day (making us wait while taking a photo). I thought it was ok to say this. I asked “You ever think this is sampling bias? You notice and get annoyed when Indians do it and embarrass you but don’t if it’s someone else?”

Apparently not. He went on a massive tirade. Not content with responding rudely, he quote tweets me so he can dunk in front of all his followers. Apparently, I’m jingoistic deflector, part of the “elite” that refuses to “accept and introspect” and that I “deny deny deny” legitimate issues with India.

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So anyway, he’s gone. Another for the long list of “I’m quitting Twitter” blogposts. Which are usually followed in a couple of months by “Hey, I’m back on Twitter!” Said on Twitter, rather than a blogpost, because who has time for blogging?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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