Start Up No.1510: Trump said to plan social network, car chip factory fire spells supply trouble, Johnson’s lockdown dithering, and more


Sperm whales realised they were being hunted in the 1800s and communicated to avoid death, scientists say. CC-licensed photo by Library Company of Philadelphia on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Email me callsh. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The New York Times is *so* done with its 77,000-member Facebook cooking group. What happens now? • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:

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Why would The New York Times want to abandon its 77,000-member cooking Facebook group? The one whose demise I surely ensured by reporting, upon its launch two years ago, that it was a “happy corner of the internet”? A place where, as one Times social media editor put it at the time, “everyone’s so nice to each other, and so encouraging, it feels like one long episode of ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ 24 hours a day”?

A lot can change in two years. It is very, very hard to meaningfully moderate a big Facebook group, perhaps nearly impossible to moderate one the size of a small city. As it turns out, it’s a full-time job — likely more than one — and one the Times no longer wants to do.

“The interest in this group is about much more than recipes or The New York Times. As it continues to grow and change, it should be run by people who are an engaged and informed part of the community. And so it is time to hand this group over to you, its members,” the editors of NYT Cooking wrote in a Facebook post this week, adding that they are looking for “a group of 10 to 20 volunteers to take over as moderators for this community.

…The 2020 election and the pandemic created division and breaking points within communities (real-life and virtual) everywhere; NYT Cooking was no exception. Politics seeped in constantly, despite a group rule that there “are many places to express your political views; this is not one of them.” When posts supporting presidential candidates were deleted, people started sneaking “vote” messages into their food pictures.

Holidays added another round of conflict. For instance: Someone posts a picture of a Thanksgiving table that is clearly set for a gathering beyond immediate family, or asks for a good recipe for a “big group,” or posts a picture of themselves at a “socially distanced” gathering where nobody is masked and everybody is close together; judgment ensues. This happened repeatedly.

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Social media would be great if it weren’t for the damn users.

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Trump will use ‘his own platform’ to return to social media after Twitter ban • The Guardian

Martin Pengelly:

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Donald Trump will soon use “his own platform” to return to social media, an adviser said on Sunday, months after the former president was banned from Twitter for inciting the US Capitol riot.

Trump has chafed in relative silence at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since losing his Twitter account and the protections and powers of office. Recently he has released short statements which many have likened to his tweets of old.

Speculation has been rife that Trump might seek to create his own TV network in an attempt to prise viewers from Fox News, which was first to call the crucial state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, to Trump’s considerable anger.

But on Sunday adviser Jason Miller said social media was the immediate target.

“The president’s been off of social media for a while,” he told Fox News Media Buzz host Howard Kurtz, “[but] his press releases, his statements have actually been getting almost more play than he ever did on Twitter before.”

Miller said he had been told by a reporter the statements were “much more elegant” and “more presidential” than Trump’s tweets, but added: “I do think that we’re going to see President Trump returning to social media in probably about two or three months here with his own platform.

“And this is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media, it’s going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does. But it will be his own platform.”

Asked if Trump was going to create the platform himself or with a company, Miller said: “I can’t go much further than what I was able to just share, but I can say that it will be big once he starts.

“There have been a lot of high-power meetings he’s been having at Mar-a-Lago with some teams of folks who have been coming in, and … it’s not just one company that’s approached the president, there have been numerous companies.

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Standard Trump-team bollocks. It’s going to be the biggest and the best – sure, like the infrastructure project, the wall, and the health plan. The reality is that running a social media network is difficult, and costs a lot of money. Where’s Trump going to find that? Is he really going to put that money in, skinflint that he is? Will he charge for it, and will people pay?

I’ll predict that it will have security holes, obvious mistakes, be rushed, get overwhelmed, be discovered to be the host for noxious and vicious and violent content.
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Are your NFTs on the wrong blockchain? • Fortune

David Morris:

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NFT discourse has inherited one of the laziest and most misleading habitual inaccuracies of the cryptocurrency industry. These art claims, we hear all the time, “live on the blockchain.” You can trade them “on the blockchain.” The blockchain, the blockchain, the blockchain.

It’s enough to drive a person to drink (more). Because there is no such thing as “the blockchain.” There are many blockchains, and they are effectively competing for market share in a battle that will have winners and losers. So the blockchain your NFT calls home could be just as important to its value as whether it was created by Rob Gronkowski or the CryptoPunks team.

“You can’t really have that kind of value accrual unless the blockchain underlying it is secure,” according to Sam Kazemian, cofounder and President of Everipedia. The blockchain firm has branched out from its initial Wikipedia-like project to build what Kazemian calls “Adobe for NFTs.” The aim is to help companies and artists easily launch their own NFTs, and Kazemian recently helped the Associated Press get its feet wet, but Everipedia doesn’t run its own blockchain.

The health of a blockchain is fundamental to the unique functionality of the NFTs on it. Just like cryptocurrencies, the real point of NFTs is that they offer a form of digital ‘ownership’ that doesn’t rely on a central authority, and their trading can’t (in principle) be censored. If the NFT is in your digital wallet, you don’t just own it, you possess it – the kind of possession that’s 9/10ths of the law. That’s why these things have any value as a category.

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I’m still left puzzled why you’d pay anything for something that can be reproduced perfectly and infinitely. To which the added element that you might just lose the token that claims to give you ownership of one of them if the company goes bust is just sprinkles on the top.
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The Infinite Drum Machine • Experiments with Google

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Sounds are complex and vary widely. This experiment uses machine learning to organize thousands of everyday sounds. The computer wasn’t given any descriptions or tags – only the audio. Using a technique called t-SNE, the computer placed similar sounds closer together. You can use the map to explore neighborhoods of similar sounds and even make beats using the drum sequencer.

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Fun! Though I couldn’t get it to work on Safari – only Chrome.
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Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information • The Guardian

Philip Hoare:

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Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors [of the study] discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead, who spoke to the Guardian from his house overlooking the ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches at Dalhousie University. Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.

It was a frighteningly rapid killing, and it accompanied other threats to the ironically named Pacific. From whaling and sealing stations to missionary bases, western culture was imported to an ocean that had remained largely untouched. As Herman Melville, himself a whaler in the Pacific in 1841, would write in Moby-Dick (1851): “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.”

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

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Renesas warns of hit to global chip supply after factory fire • Financial Times

Kana Inagaki:

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Renesas Electronics, one of the world’s largest makers of chips for the automotive industry, has warned that a fire at one of its factories could have “a massive impact” on global semiconductor supplies and halt production for at least a month.

The timing of Friday’s fire at the advanced chip facility in Japan could not be worse for carmakers, which were already wrestling with widespread disruption to supply chains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the US cold snap that led to mass blackouts in Texas. 

“We are concerned that there will be a massive impact on chip supplies,” Hidetoshi Shibata, chief executive of Renesas, said at an online news conference on Sunday. “We will pursue every means possible to minimise the impact.” 

The fire broke out in one of the clean rooms at the company’s plant in Naka city, north of Tokyo, bringing to a halt the production of 300mm wafers and burning about 2% of the facility’s manufacturing equipment.

About two-thirds of the affected production was automotive chips, according to Shibata.

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Dominic Cummings ready to reveal all on Boris Johnson’s lockdown paralysis • The Times

Steven Swinford, Oliver Wright and Chris Smyth on Boris Johnson’s dithering over an October lockdown, when he demanded to hear “other voices” rather than those advocating lockdown to save lives:

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That Sunday, Cummings and Vallance arranged a Zoom meeting for the prime minister with prominent lockdown sceptics including Professor Sunetra Gupta and Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University and Professor Anders Tegnell, a leading epidemiologist from Sweden who masterminded his country’s policy of avoiding a lockdown.

John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, made the case for a circuit breaker. By the end of the meeting the prime minister’s views were unclear. “He wasn’t convinced by the anti-lockdowners but he wasn’t persuaded of the need for a circuit breaker either,” a source said.

On the Tuesday, with case numbers at more than 6,000 a day, Cummings and other advisers had one last attempt. Over the weekend data analysts in Downing Street had drawn up projections for the number of cases, hospital admissions and deaths in four to six weeks.

Cummings opened the meeting by asking the prime minister to imagine it was being held in mid to late October, with the projections a reality and Britain in the grip of a second wave. “Dom was making the case that you’re going to have to lock down at that point, so let’s lock down today and save lives and reduce the need for a harder lockdown later,” one government source said.

Johnson again resisted. “He didn’t believe that lockdowns worked, he thought that the economic damage outweighed the public health benefits. He thought things would get better,” a source said. Another source said that the data at that stage was unclear — schools had just returned and the prime minister wanted to see whether the trend would continue before locking down.

That evening he announced relatively minor restrictions, including banning more than six people from meeting and a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. People were asked to work from home if they could.

It was not until the end of October, by which point case numbers had quadrupled, that Johnson eventually implemented the second lockdown. “Those five days were critical,” one Downing Street insider said. “We could have got ahead of it. Instead we let Captain Hindsight [Sir Keir Starmer] become Captain Foresight when he called for a lockdown.”

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This is the flip side – or the obvious outcome – of having a clown (see previous issue) as PM.
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Cursed Keyboard Image • jwz

Jamie Zawinski:

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Apple KeyChange Keyboard, English version. All versions of this innovative keyboard have keys resized to approximate their frequency of use in the keyboard’s language, allowing for smoother and more accurate typing.

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Hard nope from me, and from him. I can’t imagine that it would really be easier to type on this. Though it’s amusing.
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An incredible move: the Indiana Bell Telephone Building • Amusing Planet

Kaushik Patowary, continuing our occasional thread about moving entire buildings from one place to another wholesale:

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The relocation of the headquarters building of Indiana Bell Telephone Company in Indianapolis remains one of the most fascinating moves in the history of structure relocation.

The headquarters of Indiana Bell, a subsidiary of AT&T serving the US state of Indiana, was housed inside an 8-story, 11,000-ton building built in 1907. In 1929, the phone company decided they needed a larger building, but they couldn’t just demolish the old building because it was providing an essential service to the city. The building was also inconveniently located on the site where they wanted the larger structure. In the end it was decided that the old building will be moved to the back of the plot to make room for the new building.

The massive undertaking began on October 1930. Over the next four weeks, the massive steel and brick building was shifted inch by inch 16 meters south, rotated 90 degrees, and then shifted again by 30 meters west. The work was done with such precision that the building continued to operate during the entire duration of the move. All utility cables and pipes serving the building, including thousand of telephone cables, electric cables, gas pipes, sewer and water pipes had to be lengthened and made flexible to provide continuous service during the move. A movable wooden sidewalk allowed employees and the public to enter and leave the building at any time while the move was in progress. The company did not lose a single day of work nor interrupt their service during the entire period.

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There’s also a terrific GIF showing the building moving, and a thread about it on Twitter.
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Musk says Tesla would be shut down if its cars spied in China, elsewhere • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

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Tesla Inc chief executive Elon Musk said on Saturday his company would be shut down if its cars were used to spy, his first comments on news that China’s military has banned Teslas from its facilities.

“There’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information,” Musk told a prominent Chinese forum during a virtual discussion. “If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down.”

Sources told Reuters on Friday that the Chinese military has banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes, citing security concerns over cameras installed on the vehicles.

Those restrictions surfaced as the top Chinese and US diplomats were holding a contentious meeting in Alaska, the first such in-person interaction since US President Joe Biden took office in January.

Musk urged greater mutual trust between the world’s two biggest economies, in his remarks to the China Development Forum, a high-level business gathering is hosted by a foundation under the State Council.

He was holding a discussion panel with Xue Qikun, a Chinese quantum physicist who heads the Southern University of Science and Technology.

In China, the world’s biggest car market and a key battleground for electric vehicles (EVs), Tesla sold 147,445 vehicles last year, 30% of its global total. However, it is facing more competition this year from domestic rivals from Nio Inc to Geely.

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The cars do collect a ton of data and send it back to Tesla – that much emerged when a New York Times columnist complained about its range in 2013. If China really wants to make Musk uncomfortable, it has plenty of lines of inquiry.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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