Start Up No.1590: the world of hyperobjects, the joy of Twitter, the risky carbon capture hype, the coming card shortage, and more


A number of Chinese brands including Aukey have been banned from Amazon, apparently for soliciting good reviews. But do consumers then benefit? CC-licensed photo by Ilcatta86 dotcom on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Contains no football. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Introducing the idea of ‘hyperobjects’ • High Country News

Timothy Morton:

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I’m an environmental philosopher. In 2008, I invented a word to describe all kinds of things that you can study and think about and compute, but that are not so easy to see directly: hyperobjects. Things like: not just a Styrofoam cup or two, but all the Styrofoam on Earth, ever. All that Styrofoam is going to last an awfully long time: 500 years, maybe. It’s going to outlive me by a great extent. Will my family’s descendants even be related to me in any kind of meaningful way by 2514? There is so much more Styrofoam on Earth right now than there is Timothy Morton.

…Many people have told me, “Oh, now I have a term for this thing I’ve been trying to grasp!” We can see, for instance, that global warming has the properties of a hyperobject. It is “viscous” — whatever I do, wherever I am, it sort of “sticks” to me. It is “nonlocal” — its effects are globally distributed through a huge tract of time. It forces me to experience time in an unusual way. It is “phased” — I only experience pieces of it at any one time. And it is “inter-objective” — it consists of all kinds of other entities but it isn’t reducible to them.

If you can understand global warming, you have to do something about it. Forget about needing proof or needing to convince more people. Just stick to what’s really super obvious. Can you understand hyperobjects? Then you are obliged to care about them.

So hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space and we are obliged to care about them, even if we didn’t manufacture them. Take the biosphere. I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But I know it exists, and I know I’m part of it. I should care about it.

Or global warming. I can’t see or touch it. What I can see and touch are these raindrops, this snow, that sunburn patch on the back of my neck. I can touch the weather. But I can’t touch climate. So someone can declare: “See! It snowed in Boise, Idaho, this week. That means there’s no global warming!” We can’t directly see global warming, because it’s not only really widespread and really really long-lasting (100,000 years); it’s also super high-dimensional. It’s not just 3-D. It’s an incredibly complex entity that you have to map in what they call a high-dimensional- phase space: a space that plots all the states of a system.

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This article was linked to by Charlie Warzel, which appeared in Friday’s edition, but this article (from 2015!) is worth considering in its own right. I hadn’t heard this concept, so maybe it needs a bit more publicity. Especially with all the hyperobjects we’re trying to deal with.
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Who wins when Amazon pulls brands from its store? • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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instead of examining why these companies [such as Choetech, Aukey, Mpow, RavPower, Vava and TaoTronics] are attempting to manipulate its system and making adjustments to its platform to discourage this activity, Amazon has taken a heavy-handed whack-a-mole approach to just banning those that get caught breaking its rules.

Amazon doesn’t seem to be interested in changing the incentives on its platform, preferring to just remove sellers it deems to be bad actors. In its June blog post, the company pointed blame at social media companies for not better policing groups that collaborate to game the Amazon reviews system, and boasted that it reported over 1,000 groups in just the first three months of 2021. The company’s position is that this is how it protects shoppers from getting scammed or having a bad experience.

But as long as sellers on Amazon are incentivized and rewarded for high star ratings and positive customer reviews on their products, there are going to be those that use tactics that Amazon doesn’t like, and come off as less than scrupulous to those buying the products. Those companies are more likely going to be smaller outfits that don’t have other retail channels or brand recognition to fall back on — even if their product is good enough to stand on its own. That is the reality of the system that Amazon has built.

An even more cynical take on this is that Amazon is just going to supplant these retailers’ products with more of its own AmazonBasics-branded gear. The company has been caught in the past using data from what’s popular on its store to inform its AmazonBasics product roadmap. Amazon could be in the process of rolling out lower-priced versions of what Anker and Belkin are selling with its name on it, taking the place of the RavPowers and Choetechs that used to be there. I’m not convinced that this is what’s happening here, but in the service of teasing out all possibilities, there it is.

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If it depends on reviews, and if actual buyers can be incentivised to subsequently give exaggerated reviews, then there’s no obvious way to prevent it. An internet hyperobject, perhaps.
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I’m a Twitter addict and I don’t care • Financial Times

Henry Mance:

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Nearly every journalist is on Twitter, and nearly every journalist feels bad about it. We scroll in meetings and at social gatherings. We read other people’s tweets even when we’re right in front of them. All future films about journalism will need a newsroom scene with the line: “Have you seen this video — oh wait, you posted it.”

…Occasionally there is a diatribe against Twitter, which resonates deep in the guilty hearts of addicts. This week it was an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine entitled: “You Really Need to Quit Twitter”. I knew it was excellent, because it was recommended by several people I follow. Lucky I was on Twitter or I might have missed it.

Even so I took the article to heart and gave up the social network for a day. I read a book without thinking which excerpt I would photograph and share later. For 24 hours, my purpose in life was not to entertain users named Owllookout and The Levitate Guy with my offhand opinions. 

But I also missed Twitter because a lot of the stuff on there is . . . quite good. A lot of the people I have met there are now . . . my friends. Of all the delusions of Twitter addiction, the biggest one is that we would be better off without it.

Was life really better when you heard dire football commentary on TV and couldn’t laugh about it in unison? When you couldn’t ask for film recommendations and DIY tips and receive good ones almost immediately?

Sometimes it’s claimed that classic literature would never have been created had Twitter existed. Well, I have waded through Moby Dick, and I’m OK with an alternate universe where Herman Melville is accustomed to a 280-character limit. Our culture would be fine with slightly less detail about whale blubber.

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Worth saying that Mance (@henrymance) is an excellent follow on Twitter.
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Do app store rules matter? • Benedict Evans

Evans reckons the EU, at a minimum, will force Apple to allow sideloading, but what about the 30% tax on digital goods?:

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games companies have been able to build a $50bn industry even while giving Apple 30%, though some of them would like the extra cash. Here the issue is not so much Apple’s commission as the business model rules – Stadia is not allowed on the app store at any price, though Roblox is, for reasons no-one understands. Again, this is why a narrow focus on the 30% or side-loading misses the point – regulators are looking at the whole system.

So, are there significant, valuable, mainstream consumer things that can’t happen because of Apple’s rules – not just on that 30%, but on the store and the sandbox? Are there lots of potential Stadias out there being blocked by Apple, or is this just a wealth transfer from Apple to Tencent? Is there an explosion of activity waiting to expand the model far beyond games once the rules are changed?

It’s hard to know in advance. One could argue that the reason all the money is in games is that Apple’s rules have effectively blocked anything other than games and a few other smaller industries (such as online dating) from building a big directly paid software or content model on iOS. For example, people making productivity apps have complained since the beginning about the lack of basic business tools like free trials or upgrade prices. On the other hand, there are very few mainstream consumer successes to point to where Android’s looser rules did enable something that doesn’t exist on iOS. And, of course, companies from Uber to Amazon to Snap or Instagram have built big businesses on the iPhone entirely outside Apple’s rules.

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The Android counterexample seems to suggest that there isn’t the same potential for solid digital goods businesses on mobile that there is on the desktop. (The Kindle is a special case, if it’s even profitable.)
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Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction • MIT Technology Review

James Temple:

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Since carbon dioxide persists for hundreds to thousands of years in the atmosphere, there’s little scientific dispute that massive amounts of it will have to be removed to prevent really dangerous levels of warming—or to bring the planet back to a safer climate.

The question is how much. A variety of scientific models have put it at anywhere from 1.3 billion tons per year to 29 billion tons by midcentury to hold global warming at 1.5˚C. A 2017 UN report estimated that keeping the planet from heating past 2˚C will require removing 10 billion tons annually by 2050 and 20 billion by 2100.

(A paper published in Nature Climate Change in June further complicated the matter by noting that removing tons of carbon dioxide  from the atmosphere might not be as effective at easing warming as hoped, because the shifting atmospheric chemistry could, in turn, affect how readily land and oceans release their CO2.)

Ten billion tons is a giant number, nearly double the US’s current annual carbon emissions. And there are limited options for large-scale carbon removal. These include direct air capture, the use of various minerals that bind with CO2, reforestation efforts, and what’s known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (using crops as fuel but capturing any emissions released when they’re combusted).

None of these options can be easily scaled up. Direct air capture is still prohibitively expensive and energy intensive. Using crops for fuel means snatching land from other uses, such as growing food for a swelling population.

Yet suddenly, nations and corporations are increasingly relying, openly or implicitly, on large amounts of carbon removal in their net-zero plans, including those from oil and gas companies like Eni and Shell as well as businesses such as Amazon, Apple, Unilever, and United.

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Just planting loads of trees sounds great – but as scientists point out, “people live where those trees would go.”
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Great work, useful idiots of the media: most Americans buy the unsubstantiated “lab leak” theory • Salon.com

Amanda Marcotte:

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we now have a Politico-Harvard poll released Friday morning that shows Americans are “almost twice as likely to say the virus was the result of a lab leak in China than human contact with an infected animal.” And while the lab-leak theory has been hyped by Trump apologists looking to distract from the ex-president’s massive mishandling of the pandemic, the buy-in for this unlikely theory is not particularly partisan. Politico reports that “59% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats” believe the lab-leak narrative, while only 28% said the virus came “from an infected animal.” This is a dramatic change from March 2020, when only 29% of Americans — basically far-right authoritarians — endorsed the lab-leak theory. 

So what happened to change people’s minds? Well, it wasn’t persuasive evidence. On that front, nothing has changed. No one has produced any biological evidence to dispute last year’s findings from the Tulane University School of Medicine, which “determined that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes by comparing the genetic sequences and protein structures of other coronaviruses to those of new virus.” There have been no whistleblowers, unless you count the Australian scientist who worked until November 2019 at the virology lab in Wuhan, and who says “it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” which is to say she saw nothing sinister or careless. 

The scientific evidence points in the same direction that it did a year ago, as Lindsay Beyerstein argues in a science-heavy, deeply technical piece for the New Republic: “20 years of post-SARS research into the origins and spread of bat coronaviruses point to a natural origin for Covid-19,” and the supposed lab-leak evidence “is neither new nor compelling.”

It wasn’t evidence that changed people’s minds. It was irresponsible media hype of the “lab leak” theory, brought on by a major push from right-wing conspiracy theorists, and also some gullible pundits and journalists who let themselves be used by the right.

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It’s conveniently forgotten (or not known) by some of the “lab leak” proponents that pretty much every time a new zoonosis (animal-to-human) disease emerges, conspiracy theorists say it was made in a lab. But no novel zoonosis has ever emerged first from a lab. And we have a desire to have a simple story to explain new things. But rather as we struggle with exponentials in disease spread, we struggle with the idea of evolution hitting the jackpot.
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Films made for Netflix look more like TV shows. Here’s the technical reason why • The Conversation

Ari Mattes:

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An old black and white film, shot on celluloid, has a grainy texture that draws the eye into and around the image. This is partly the result of the degradation of the film print, which occurs over time, but primarily because of the physical processing of the film itself.

All celluloid film has a grainy look. This “grain” is an optical effect related to the small particles of metallic silver that emerge through the film’s chemical processing. This is not the case with digital cameras. Thus video images captured by high resolution sensors look different to those shot on celluloid. The images in [the Netflix production] Mank look flat, depthless, they are too clean and clear.

This is not as much of a problem on a big screen, when the images are huge, but the high resolution is really noticeable when the images are compressed on the kind of domestic TV or computer screens most people use to stream Netflix. The edges look too sharp, the shades too clearly delineated — compared to what we have been used to as cinemagoers.

The absurd thing is companies like CineGrain now sell digital overlays of film stock that can endow video with the grainy film look. (Their company motto is “make digital more cinematic using CineGrain.”) The natural result of the physical process has been superseded by video, but digital cinema makers reintroduce this as one component in achieving a “film look”.

Netflix does allow limited exceptions to its rule, with use of non-approved cameras requiring its explicit approval and a “more flexible” approach to non-fiction productions. According to Y.M. Cinema magazine, 30% of Netflix’s “best movies of 2020” were made on non-approved cameras.

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I’ll be honest: I don’t notice the difference. Maybe if we saw Netflix films in the cinema we would.
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Apple AirPod battery life problem shows need for right-to-repair laws • CNBC

Kif Leswing:

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Apple provides “battery service” for AirPods, at the cost of $49 per earbud. But functionally, Apple simply gives you a replacement pair, and the old earbuds are recycled. It’s not a repair, it’s a replacement. And it’s expensive. AirPods originally cost $159, so opting for battery service costs more than half of the price of a new pair.

Apple sold about 72.8 million AirPods units in 2020, according to a CounterPoint research estimate, so tens of millions of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the coming years.

PodSwap is a Miami company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert which aims to keep AirPods “out of the landfill.” They’re not associated with Apple.

They believe they’re the only company performing AirPod battery replacements, although other companies “refurbish” old AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was formed after the founders experienced dying AirPods themselves and thought that upgrading or replacing them would be wasteful and impractical.

I recently replaced a pair of AirPods that were only holding a charge for 45 minutes – too short to complete a phone call. I paid $59 on PodSwap’s Shopify site and a few days later received a replacement pair of AirPods with new batteries. They weren’t my old AirPods, they were another set that had their batteries replaced.

Along with those new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. It wants your old AirPods back. It then cleans and sanitizes the old pair, puts in new batteries and sends them out to the next person who wants to change the battery in their old AirPods.

But PodSwap faces many challenges that show why repair advocates want new rules. Alpert said the design of the AirPod makes it challenging for repair shops or companies like theirs to do a lot of battery replacements. PodSwap’s process uses both robotics and manual labor, the founders said.

“The process was developed through trial and error and a large number of units were ‘sacrificed’ and ultimately recycled. One major challenge we faced was overcoming the uniqueness of this product. Each AirPod is assembled with slight differences, which creates complexity in the disassembly,” Alpert said.

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How effective are coronavirus vaccines against the Delta variant? • Financial Times

Donato Paolo Mancini and John Burn-Murdoch:

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So called “real-world” analysis of 14,019 cases of the Delta variant in the UK, released by Public Health England in June, found the BioNTech/Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines were, respectively, 96% and 92% effective against hospitalisation after two doses.

Late on Thursday, Pfizer reiterated it believed its shot worked against Delta, especially after a potential third booster dose. But it also added it planned to study a variant-targeted inoculation, with trials slated to start as early as next month.

The high efficacy of the shots in the UK, where the Delta variant is dominant and more than the half the population has been fully vaccinated, is reflected in the current mortality rate for Covid-19 patients, which at 0.085% is 20 times lower than at its peak, according to Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at PHE.

But the question of whether the vaccines remain as effective at preventing infection, and therefore transmission and spread, is more fraught.

Early figures from the real-world studies in the UK in May found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 88% effective at preventing symptomatic infection with the Delta variant. A month later, that number was revised down to 79% by Scottish researchers.

Canadian scientists on Saturday, using a combination of methods, estimated that the Pfizer jab was 87% effective at preventing infection with the Delta variant. That was “comparable”, the researchers said, to the 89% protection the shot provided against the Alpha variant, first identified in Britain.

A fourth study, compiled by Israel’s health ministry, details of which were reported this week, suggested the Pfizer vaccine was much less effective against symptomatic infection with Delta, providing only 64% protection. Pfizer and Israeli health officials, however, were quick to caution that the study was based on preliminary and highly localised infection numbers, and had other methodological weaknesses.

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Of course, it’s so hard to remember what the numbers mean. (Especially “20 times lower”, which one understands, but could also be said “5%” or “one-twentieth”.) It’s that if you previously would have had 100 people falling ill, then with 95% protection only 5 will, and the proportion of serious illness will be down too. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Card shortage coming, manufacturers warn • ThePaypers

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Card manufacturers have warned about millions of cards going missing as early as the second half of 2021 due to semiconductor supply difficulties, according to Le Figaro.
The Smart Payment Association (SPA), an organisation that represents large payment card manufacturers, such as Thales or Idemia declared that ‘without any improvement in the situation, millions of cards will be missing’. In a press release, the structure points to the urgency of taking action to protect these companies from the shortage of semiconductors, a supply problem that affects the whole world. The consequences of stopping the production of bank cards would be substantial as customers around world won’t be able to recover a card or to renew it.

For several months, semiconductor production plants, mainly located in Asia, have not been able to meet growing demand. As a result, several sectors have already found themselves in complicated situations, in particular the automotive industry. Smart cards use this technology to identify themselves and ensure network security. 

The problem is urgent. According to the SPA, the first problems could be felt as early as the second half of 2021, but they would become much more noticeable in 2022. In order to limit the breakage, the Smart Payment Association hopes that the sector will be considered a priority in the supply of chips.

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My first reaction to this (and probably yours too) was “haha, I’ll be fine thanks, I’ll keep paying on my watch/phone.” But cards are set to expire and new ones have to be sent out as a sort of verification. Maybe if this bites hard there will be some sort of move to send cards without chips but which update your on-device card identity?
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You mean you haven’t
ordered Social Warming, my latest book?


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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