Start Up No.1607: the electric car’s forgotten history, bear fight!, Surgisphere’s fake paper lives on, how to baffle climbers, and more


Got a landing spot for Amazon’s Prime Air drones? It’ll probably go untroubled for quite a long time. CC-licensed photo by Graham Smith on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Crimp it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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The slow collapse of Amazon’s drone delivery dream • WIRED UK

Andrew Kersley:

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Just five years ago, Prime Air’s UK operations were at the centre of a frenzied public relations campaign, with Amazon executives claiming that drones would be delivering packages within a few years. The company offered tours of its secret drone lab to local schools, opened a huge new office in Cambridge and released an array of promotional videos for the flights that received millions of views. UK regulators also fast-tracked approvals for drone testing, which made the country an ideal testbed for drone flights and paved the way for Amazon to gain regulatory approval elsewhere.

But in the intervening years the tours stopped, the promotional videos were unlisted from Amazon’s YouTube channel and, bar occasional promises from executives like Jeff Wilke that delivery drones would become a reality “within months”, the firm’s previously widespread PR campaign disappeared. Meanwhile, despite being one of the first big companies to show interest in drones, Amazon was overtaken by Alphabet-owned Wing and UPS in the race for US regulatory approval. Now, half a decade after first conducting UK test flights, the project’s entire UK data analysis team is being made redundant.

An Amazon spokesperson says it will still have a Prime Air presence in the UK after the cuts, but refuses to disclose what type of work will take place. The spokesperson also refused to confirm, citing security reasons, if any of the test flights that once filled promotional videos will still take place in the UK. The spokesperson adds that the company has found positions in other parts of its business for some affected employees and that it will keep growing its presence in the region. The spokesperson did not confirm how many employees were offered other jobs internally.

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Lots of very juicy details about life in an office where everyone has come to realise that it’s dead, Jim.
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The lost history of the electric car – and what it tells us about the future of transport • The Guardian

Tom Standage, in an extract from his forthcoming book:

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Pollution, congestion and noise were merely the most obvious manifestations of a deeper dependency. An outbreak of equine influenza in North America in October 1872 incapacitated all horses and mules for several weeks, providing a stark reminder of society’s reliance on animal power. The New York Times noted “the disappearance of trucks, drays, express-wagons and general vehicles” from the streets. “The present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and commerce,” noted the Nation. Horses and stables, the newspaper observed, “are wheels in our great social machine, the stoppage of which means injury to all classes and conditions of persons, injury to commerce, to agriculture, to trade, to social life”.

Yet societies on both sides of the Atlantic continued to become steadily more dependent on horses. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of horses in American cities grew fourfold, while the human population merely doubled. By the turn of the century there was one horse for every 10 people in Britain, and one for every four in the US. Providing hay and oats for horses required vast areas of farmland, reducing the space available to grow food for people. Feeding the US’s 20 million horses required one-third of its total crop area, while Britain’s 3.5 million horses had long been reliant on imported fodder.

Horses had become both indispensable and unsustainable. To advocates of a newly emerging technology, the solution seemed obvious: get rid of horses and replace them with self-propelling motor vehicles, known at the time as horseless carriages. Today, we call them cars.

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It’s like a metaphor, innit.
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Intense bear fight caught on camera – 3 different angles • YouTube

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Big brown bears fighting in Kuhmo, Finland. The fight took place near the bear hides operated by Boreal Wildlife Centre.

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I like the way they initially use the tree as a means to not quite engage. Until they do.

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Retracted COVID paper lives on in new citations • MedPage Today

Nicole Lou:

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Published online on May 1, 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study relied on Surgisphere data to claim an association between renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) inhibitor therapy and worse outcomes in hospitalized COVID-19 patients with cardiovascular disease.

The journal retracted the paper due to concerns about fraudulent data on June 4, 2020 in a widely publicized move, but the study has continued to rack up citations — totaling at least 652 as of May 31, 2021, reported Todd Lee, MD, MPH, of McGill University in Montreal, and colleagues.

Just 17.6% of verified citations acknowledged or noted that the paper was retracted, according to their research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine. [Most citations were used to support a statement in the article, and 2.6% included the data in a new analysis.]

In May of this year alone – 11 months after the article was retracted – it was referenced 21 times.

“Our findings challenge authors, peer reviewers, journal editors, and academic institutions to do a better job of addressing the broader issues of ongoing citations of retracted scientific studies and protecting the integrity of the medical literature,” Lee’s group urged.

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This feels like more evidence that it almost works better to distrust stuff until it has been replicated.
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The climbing wall architects of the Tokyo Games • The New York Times

Natalie Berry:

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“We’re not paid to be nice to athletes, but if they can’t make progress, we’ve gone wrong,” said Percy Bishton, the chief setter at the Tokyo Olympics. “Nobody wants to watch climbers who can’t get off the floor.”

To gauge the level of the world’s best, setters climb with the best. Athletes often work as commercial setters, and some setters are former competitors.

Bishton falls into a different category: He’s a pig farmer. “There aren’t many Olympic athletes farming pigs,” he said.

His route to Tokyo began as a teenager, when he screwed pieces of rock to the exterior of the house while his parents were away. Bishton followed in the hand- and footholds of many British climbers of his era, eventually taking a position as a climbing instructor. But in the 1990s, indoor climbs were rarely changed, and Bishton became bored of the same routes. He decided to reset a climb. One new route inevitably led to another, and it developed into a job, he said.

There’s little glamour.

“It’s extreme D.I.Y.,” Bishton said. “We’re all eccentric, resilient and tough characters.”

Setters invent new movements and compose complex sequences. Over time, some become easy to decipher. Occasionally, athletes find overlooked solutions. From run-and-jumps to gibbonlike leaps, tiptoe teetering to awkward contortion, moves are added to the setters’ playbook and athletes’ repertoires.

But the physicality of setting is juxtaposed with a cerebral aspect. “There’s an artistic element, and many of us also have an analytical, engineering side,” said Bishton, who is also a woodworker.

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Do read the whole article – Berry has done a fantastic job of explaining the complexity of setting routes – but if you had an image of Bishton as a rotund jolly bloke with a pipe hanging out of his mouth, think again. He’s a very good climber in his own right. (He also declared his retirement from routesetting in 2016. God laughs at your plans.)
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Your Facebook account was hacked. Getting help may take weeks — or $299 • NPR

Shannon Bond on the desperate measures some people take to get their hacked Facebook accounts back, given there’s almost zero customer support on Facebook:

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Brandon Sherman of Nevada City, Calif., followed a tip he found on Reddit to get his hacked account back.

“I ultimately broke down and bought a $300 Oculus Quest 2,” he said. Oculus is a virtual reality company owned by Facebook but with its own customer support system.

Sherman contacted Oculus with his headset’s serial number and heard back right away. He plans to return the unopened device, and while he’s glad the strategy worked, he doesn’t think it’s fair.

“The only way you can get any customer service is if you prove that you’ve actually purchased something from them,” he said.

When McNamara, the Facebook user in Canada, first heard about the Oculus trick, she thought it was a joke. But she said, “Once I started thinking about it, all my memories, I really realized that I wanted to do whatever possible to get it back.”

So she, too, ordered an expensive gadget she never planned to use and returned it as soon as she got back into her Facebook account.

(A warning to anyone thinking about trying this — other Reddit users have said they tried contacting Oculus support but were unable to get their Facebook accounts restored. Also, last week, Facebook said it was temporarily halting sales of the Oculus Quest 2, which retails starting at $299, because its foam lining caused skin irritation for some customers.)

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Don’t mention on Twitter that you’ve had your Facebook account hacked: it attracts a ton of scammers who will promise to get it back, but cannot do anything of the sort. (I wrote about that for Which? Computing magazine.)
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Giving young people a safer, more private experience on Instagram – About Facebook

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Wherever we can, we want to stop young people from hearing from adults they don’t know or don’t want to hear from. We believe private accounts are the best way to prevent this from happening. So starting this week, everyone who is under 16 years old (or under 18 in certain countries) will be defaulted into a private account when they join Instagram. 

Private accounts let people control who sees or responds to their content. If you have a private account, people have to follow you to see your posts, Stories and Reels. People also can’t comment on your content in those places, and they won’t see your content at all in places like Explore or hashtags. 

Historically, we asked young people to choose between a public account or a private account when they signed up for Instagram, but our recent research showed that they appreciate a more private experience. During testing, eight out of ten young people accepted the private default settings during sign-up. 

…Starting in a few weeks, we’ll only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 (or older in certain countries) based on their age, gender and location. This means that previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or on their activity on other apps and websites, will no longer be available to advertisers.

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I’d say the latter part will make the bigger difference. Notice too that existing under-16 accounts aren’t being made private, even though that would make no difference for those who already follow them. It’s not as if Instagram has any means of age verification either.
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eBay manager imprisoned for harassment of journalists the CEO wanted to “take down” • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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A former eBay security manager who pleaded guilty for his role in a cyberstalking conspiracy was sentenced to 18 months in prison yesterday.

Philip Cooke, former senior manager of security operations for eBay’s Global Security Team, pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and one count of conspiracy to commit witness tampering. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on each charge, with the two sentences to be served concurrently, according to an order issued in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He was also fined $15,000 and sentenced to supervised release of three years after he gets out of prison.

The Department of Justice alleged that in 2019, Cooke helped plan and attempt to cover up the stalking of Ina and David Steiner of Natick, Massachusetts, who run the news website EcommerceBytes. Cooke was one of seven eBay employees accused of harassment involving sending threatening messages and deliveries of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask to the couple’s home. Several conspirators allegedly traveled from California to Massachusetts to conduct surveillance on the couple, but Cooke was not among them. Cooke wasn’t included in the initial charges filed in June 2020 but was charged a few weeks later.

eBay executives were angered by EcommerceBytes’ news coverage of eBay. Text messages show that then-Chief Communications Officer Steven Wymer wrote, “We are going to crush this lady,” referring to editor Ina Steiner. In another text, then-CEO Devin Wenig allegedly wrote to Wymer, “Take her down.” Wenig and Wymer were not charged.

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Just closing the circle on this one, which first surfaced just over a year ago. That Wenig and Wymer didn’t get charged feels remarkable, but if they didn’t actually say what to do, well…
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How Facebook’s content moderation failed Palestinians • WIRED Middle East

Bani Sapra:

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From the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement, social media platforms have become a public space for activists to rally global attention to their cause. For Palestinians—whose voices have long been left out of mainstream conversations—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok have provided ways to reclaim their narratives, spreading awareness of their situations, filming confrontations with the Israeli security forces, and documenting violent clampdowns on protests.

However, as Shtaya points out, the platforms themselves aren’t always neutral. Although Instagram posted a mea culpa late on May 6, blaming the removal of stories, highlights, and archives on technical problems occurring around the world, Shtaya points out that the glitches don’t explain all the cases she flagged that day. More importantly, Shtaya says that Palestinians continued to face difficulties posting after Instagram said that it had resolved the problems on May 7.

“Sixty-eight% of the cases that we have received on Instagram were after the platform announced that they solved their technical glitches,” she says. “So their announcement was somehow meaningless for Palestinians.”

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I saw this in Benedict Evans’s newsletter and thought “well, that’s interesting – I didn’t see this on Wired UK or Wired.com”. Turns out that despite this being a story about Facebook, moderation, and suppression of speech in demonstration, and despite Sapra’s byline appearing on other stories in other Wired sites, this one didn’t get picked up. You could layer the irony on your toast.
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Why is China smashing its tech industry? • Noahpinion

Noah Smith on China’s peculiar attack on a number of its tech companies and even their funding:

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The U.S. has slapped down a few of its corporate giants before — Microsoft, AT&T, Standard Oil — but ultimately it didn’t crush the industries these companies were a part of. We’re unlikely to see major action against all the U.S. internet companies at once, and broad EU action will likely take the form of new rules rather than a sweeping crackdown. China’s attack on its tech companies, in contrast, seems far more comprehensive — it’s not just attacking the biggest internet companies, it’s attacking the entire sector. (Update: An important piece of evidence here is that China also appears to be reducing venture funding. If you want more competition you don’t squash new entrants!) For whatever reason, China is suddenly not a fan of the industry we call “tech”.

This is strange because for years, it was conventional wisdom in the Western media that having a “tech” sector was crucial to innovation and growth etc. In fact, for many years American pundits argued that China’s economy would be held back by the government’s insistence on control of information, because it would make it impossible for China to build a world-class tech sector! Then China did build a world-class tech sector anyway, and now it’s willfully smashing the world-class tech sector it built. So much for U.S.-style “innovation”.

But notice that China isn’t cracking down on all of its technology companies. Huawei, for example, still seems to enjoy the government’s full backing. The government is going hell-bent-for-leather to try to create a world-class domestic semiconductor industry, throwing huge amounts of money at even the most speculative startups. And it’s still spending heavily on A.I. It’s not technology that China is smashing — it’s the consumer-facing internet software companies that Americans tend to label “tech”.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: thanks to Gregory Buthis for the link to the Belarusian heavies v sprinter transcript yesterday.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1607: the electric car’s forgotten history, bear fight!, Surgisphere’s fake paper lives on, how to baffle climbers, and more

  1. I think Wenig and Wymer got off for the same reason Trump hasn’t been jailed in the last 10 years: Everyone knows what they want them to do without actually spelling it out. The evidence of proof sometimes seems ridiculously high in the states.

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