Start Up No.1506: Berners-Lee calls for nicer networks, Telegraph mulls PPC journalism, carmakers try to delay electric future, and more

Hydrogen power! It’s the future. Or is it? CC-licensed photo by JOHN LLOYD on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. This is for everyone. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tim Berners-Lee: ‘We need social networks where bad things happen less’ • The Guardian

Harris interviews the web inventor:


“After Brexit and Trump, I think a lot of people realised: ‘We need to have a web that spreads more truth than rubbish.’ And at that point, the Web Foundation said: ‘It’s not just about getting the web to everyone, it has to serve humanity in a positive way.’”

This basic argument has now belatedly started to make its way into politics, something seen in both an increasingly loud conversation about the responsibilities of the big platforms for misinformation and hate speech – and the accompanying conversation about tackling the same platforms’ huge concentrations of power. On this stuff, Berners-Lee’s opinions are delicately balanced. To take two topical examples, he is opposed to Australia’s plans to force tech giants to pay news organisations even for the use of links to their articles (“the right to link is really important – it’s just part of free speech, and it makes the web functional”), though when I ask him about the possibility of Google and Facebook being forcibly broken up, he sounds at least open to the idea.

Dominance of the web by a tiny handful of companies, he reminds me, is hardly new, but over the years, things have always shifted. Look at the history of browsers: Netscape was succeeded by Internet Explorer, which in turn was nudged aside by Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

To that, there is an obvious riposte. The position of the 21st century’s big players looks very different.

“I think what the American public and lawmakers are doing … I think they’re aware of that,” he replies. “And they know from experience with big oil and with [the American telecoms utility] AT&T, that there have been times when US governments have broken up large companies. There’s a lot of discussion of that right now, and so that is a possibility.”


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Daily Telegraph plans to link journalists’ pay with article popularity • The Guardian

Archie Bland:


An email sent by the editor, Chris Evans, last Thursday told staff that “in due course” the outlet wants to use the “Stars” system, which scores stories published online according to factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get, “to link performance to reward” using subscription data.

Evans said: “It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

But staff are said to be up in arms about the proposals, with some registering their objections in meetings held to explain the plans since Evans’ email was sent.

Executives “tried to convince everybody that it’s just experimental, not a big deal”, one journalist told the Guardian. “They were squirming at the questions. Everyone is just hoping it’s one of those mad ideas that eventually they quietly chuck out. Everyone is outraged. People feel compromised.”

Another said: “I’d call the mood mutinous. If you’re writing royal stories or big political news or coronavirus stuff or you’re famous then you’re going to get huge numbers. Most reporters are at the mercy of editors and it’s not their fault if they’re getting assigned boring things – and now that’s going to affect their pay packet.”


I’m going to write a story about how Perverse Incentives led to Unintended Consequences. Though Matt Round (who runs – which recently featured the chess game inside 1k of Javascript) suggested, half-ironically, the journalists should also be able to decide where and how many ads are placed on their stories. It’s not unreasonable: if you’re going to pay them in this way, give them agency too.

Don’t expect too much “journalism”, though.
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Conspiracy theory books about Covid are all over Amazon • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko:


Conspiracy theorist David Icke’s lies about COVID-19 caused Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Spotify to ban him. But on Amazon, Icke, who believes in the existence of lizard people, is recommended reading.

Despite being filled with misinformation about the pandemic, Icke’s book The Answer at one point ranked 30th on’s bestseller list for Communication & Media Studies. Its popularity is partly thanks to the e-commerce giant’s powerful recommendation algorithms that suggest The Answer and other COVID conspiracy theory books to people searching for basic information about the coronavirus, according to new research shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News.

“Amazon is doing the least, by a substantial measure, of any of the major platforms to deal with the misinformation and conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 virus,” Marc Tuters, an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, told BuzzFeed News.

“For creators and consumers of conspiracies, is a one-stop shop,” said Tuters, who co-led the team that included researchers and students at King’s College London, the University of Amsterdam, and the Digital Methods Initiative Winter School, in association with the project.

The problem highlights how Amazon’s search and book promotion mechanisms often direct customers to COVID-19 conspiracy titles. Tuters does not advocate for banning the books but says Amazon needs to follow the lead of other platforms and elevate reliable information about COVID-19.


I’m sure Amazon will get onto this right away. Uh-huh. Top of the list. Got a star by it. Must-do. Real A+ priority. Got it marked down for, oh, 2030 or so.
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A hacker got all my texts for $16 • Vice

Joseph Cox:


I didn’t expect it to be that quick. While I was on a Google Hangouts call with a colleague, the hacker sent me screenshots of my Bumble and Postmates accounts, which he had broken into. Then he showed he had received texts that were meant for me that he had intercepted. Later he took over my WhatsApp account, too, and texted a friend pretending to be me.

Looking down at my phone, there was no sign it had been hacked. I still had reception; the phone said I was still connected to the T-Mobile network. Nothing was unusual there. But the hacker had swiftly, stealthily, and largely effortlessly redirected my text messages to themselves. And all for just $16.

I hadn’t been SIM swapped, where hackers trick or bribe telecom employees to port a target’s phone number to their own SIM card. Instead, the hacker used a service by a company called Sakari, which helps businesses do SMS marketing and mass messaging, to reroute my messages to him. This overlooked attack vector shows not only how unregulated commercial SMS tools are but also how there are gaping holes in our telecommunications infrastructure, with a hacker sometimes just having to pinky swear they have the consent of the target.

“Welcome to create an account if you want to mess with it, literally anyone can sign up,” Lucky225, the pseudonymous hacker who carried out the attack, told Motherboard, describing how easy it is to gain access to the tools necessary to seize phone numbers.


There are some stupefyingly stupid companies in the US which think that nobody will tell lies to gain advantage. Or do know it, and like to pretend it’s not their problem actually, even though they’re the conduit.

Foolish too how the carriers allow this to happen.
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Car industry lobbied UK government to delay ban on petrol and diesel cars • The Guardian

Jasper Jolly:


The government announced in November that it would move forward a ban on the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars from 2040 to 2030, but said that it would allow the sale of hybrid vehicles until 2035, in a significant victory for the car industry.

Carmakers including BMW, Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and McLaren argued strongly against a ban earlier than 2040, in written submissions to the government obtained by the Guardian. They also said plug-in hybrid cars should be exempted from the earlier deadline. Some of the claims made by the firms contradicted findings by environmental campaigners.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a lobby group, claimed in private modelling that a 2030 ban would cause UK car sales to drop from 2.3m in 2025 to only about 800,000 in that year. The 2035 ban would reduce UK car sales to about 1.2m in that year, it claimed, compared with more than 2m if a 2040 deadline was allowed.

BMW, which also owns Mini and Rolls-Royce factories in the UK, said there was “no scientific evidence to support such ambitious market uptake in the UK” for the previous 2040 ban, let alone an earlier date. A BMW spokesman said the claim related to modelling of consumer demand for electric cars.

The government decision to bring forward the deadline was partly based on advice from scientists on the Committee on Climate Change, which argued a total ban – including for hybrids – was needed by 2032 for the UK to meet its decarbonisation goals.

Ministers admitted in December they had relented on plans to ban hybrids in 2030, partly because of the threat to British car factories, most of which produce hybrids. Honda and Ford both raised the spectre of job losses in manufacturing as part of their evidence.


Hybrids are still, essentially, fossil-fuel driven vehicles. As Greg Archer of the thinktank Transport & Environment points out, they’re fighting a battle that’s already lost.
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The hydrogen revolution is real and it will change the world • Daily Telegraph

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:


The message from hard-headed industrialists at this year’s “energy Davos” surprised even those who keep up with this fast-moving technology. The switch to hydrogen is a fact on the ground; it is accelerating fast; it is heading for much lower costs than sceptics suppose; and future scale is vast.

Along the way, the oil “supermajors” are reinventing themselves for net-zero life, finding a green raison d’être by deploying their engineering and offshore know-how to lock carbon underground and unlock hydrogen above ground. They are no longer the perennial climate villains depicted by the green Taliban. Subtler moral judgment is required.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are also reinventing themselves, aiming to become mass global exporters of zero-carbon fuels for ships, aircraft, or Asian power plants. Abu Dhabi is already developing desert solar power for $1.35 per megawatt hour, tantamount to free energy. This will be converted into hydrogen by Siemens through electrolysis to make clean synthetic jet fuel. Carbon-free air travel is in sight.

Seifi Ghasemi heads the US conglomerate Air Products, the world’s biggest commercial producer of hydrogen. He manufactures mostly dirty “grey hydrogen” from fossils for refineries, industrial uses, or to make ammonia for fertilizers.

Ghasemi is hardly a green romantic. Aged 76, he knows his hydrogen and has seen it all. His conclusion is that this cycle is different from past episodes. Net-zero targets and the Sino-Western hydrogen race have changed the political landscape, and with it the cost calculus. So have rising carbon prices. EU emissions contracts have doubled since October to nearly €42 a tonne. This really bites.


The oil supermajors are reinventing themselves, are they? Evans-Pritchard is quite excited about this. But he’s been excited about a lot of things; the evidence doesn’t always agree.
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Google Voice is about to get a lot more frustrating to use • Android Police

Michael Crider:


The slow, painful stagnation of Google’s call forwarding service continues. An update to the support text for Google Voice says that soon SMS forwarding for Google Voice will no longer operate. That will leave the Google Voice app, on your phone or the web, as the only place that they’re visible. Google says that carriers are beginning to block these messages, which is, indeed, something we’ve observed over the last few weeks.

This is particularly bad news for those of us who’ve been using Google Voice as effectively our only phone number, forwarding it to new SIMs and devices as we get them. Phones tend to lean on their default texting app for integration into a lot of other services. The Google Voice app usually covers those, but it isn’t particularly friendly with the rest of Android outside of the notification basics. For example, my Fitbit Versa 3 doesn’t detect it as an option for a default text message app—I have to use the generic notification system instead. An end to SMS forwarding will add a bit of a headache there.

Google’s support page doesn’t give a specific timeframe for when SMS forwarding will end, leaving Voice users in a familiar limbo.


Google is great at getting a v1 out of the door, and often times the v2 as well. But it has enormous problems staying interested in products, and there’s always a question about what its overarching strategy is. How does Google Voice help its mission statement of “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”? Well.. it might help get a call from somewhere else? Sort of? The truth is, things are getting difficult (because of the carriers) and Google’s looking like it has lost interest.
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Texas power cut at Samsung fab line will hit world smartphone production • TrendForce


The Line S2 fab of Samsung in Austin, Texas sustained a power interruption, which has forced it to suspend operation since mid-February, under the impact from the winter storm. TrendForce’s latest investigations indicate that the capacity utilization rate for the entire fab is not expected to climb back to over 90% until the end of March. In particular, Samsung manufactures several products that are highly important for the production of smartphones, including the Qualcomm 5G RFIC, Samsung LSI OLED DDIC, and Samsung LSI CIS Logic IC. Supply-wise, the first two products sustained the brunt of the winter storm’s impact, and global smartphone production for 2Q21 is therefore expected to drop by about 5% as a result.

…the Qualcomm RFIC is primarily supplied to smartphone brands to be used in 5G handsets. This product is delivered to clients as part of either AP bundles or 5G modems. The winter storm’s impact on the production of the Qualcomm RFIC is expected to take place in 2Q21, resulting in a 30% decrease in 5G smartphone production for the quarter.


The Texas administration’s determination to let the free market have its way with electricity supply is echoing down the years.
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Vaccine efficacy, statistical power and mental models • Insight

Zeynep Tufekci:


There is, of course, a relationship between mild COVID—or breakthrough cases, getting symptoms of COVID despite being vaccinated—in that if you aren’t even getting mild disease, you are certainly not getting severe consequences. But the converse is not true: an inability to prevent mild disease does not necessarily signal an inability to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death. That would be the case if vaccinations and the immune system, indeed, had operated like a wall; if a wall can’t stop a five-foot wave because it is too short, it certainly can’t stop a nine-foot wave.  

Instead, though, the immune system is a tiered (and very complicated) system. The first line of defense is those antibodies that we keep hearing of (which are important and significant for our purposes here, also easier to measure) that attach to the invading pathogen and are, well, neutralizing (Hence neutralizing antibodies). But there is another component to our immune system, called T cells, which kick into action after an infection has occurred. They work to clear out the infected cells (which have become little factories producing the virus). 

…I certainly don’t have to pretend to understand all the complexities of the immune system which, my Atlantic colleague Ed Yong referred to as the place where “intuition goes to die.” But his whole article is absolutely worth reading for the non-specialist because the important message is this: the immune system is not a wall with a specific height that fails if the wave is taller. It’s a tiered system with very complex interactions. If the initial response falls short and “breakthrough” disease occurs despite vaccination, that does not mean that severe disease is necessarily more likely to occur – that “the wall” had been overcome the way a wave washed over the sea wall protecting the Fukushima plant.


This point, about why the vaccine prevents some forms but not others, is all about our mental model of the immune system as something that gets overwhelmed, as she points out.
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Vaccines seem to help the symptoms of Long Covid • Elemental

Akiko Iwasaki:


Back when I first learned about long Covid in June 2020, I proposed three possible mechanisms that might be causing it: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) “viral ghost,” which are fragments of the virus (RNA, proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but are still capable of stimulating the immune system; and 3) an autoimmune response induced by the infection. Of course, other mechanisms may also contribute.

Since then, many studies have provided support for all three of these mechanisms. Research has shown that viral reservoirs are present in tissues, viral RNA is found in non-respiratory tissues and is associated with inflammation, and diverse autoantibodies are detected in some Covid patients.

The three mechanisms of long Covid I proposed above are not mutually exclusive, and all three may benefit from the vaccines. If the first is true, vaccine-induced T cells (immune cells that attack and kill infected cells) and antibody responses may be able to eliminate the viral reservoir. If the second is true, vaccine-induced immunity may be able to eliminate the viral ghost if such viral components are associated with the spike protein, which the virus uses to gain entry into cells. If the third is true, the vaccine might divert autoimmune cells, as I will describe below.

I suspect that people with long Covid have varying degrees of all three mechanisms taking place. Thus, long Covid consists of multiple types of diseases. By understanding which mechanism(s) are causing long Covid within each person, suitable treatment can be given.


Principally of interest to people who have or know those with Long Covid, but the amount we’re adding to our knowledge of the immune system over the past year is amazing.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Robert Colvile’s surname was mispelt in yesterday’s post. He also answered a question on Twitter: if existing v nonexisting databases are what makes Test & Trace work (or not), what does he say about Wales, where it succeeded? His response: Wales used existing infrastructure, while England (where it went bad) didn’t.

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