Start Up No.1615: why consumption stalls climate action, how Likes make us outraged, when Google bought Android, and more


WhatsApp’s rise has transformed politics, but also presents a challenge for those looking to archive how politicians communicate. CC-licensed photo by Фотобанк Moscow-Live on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Do not overheat. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

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Why nobody’s ever going to do anything about the planet dying • Eudaimonia and Co

Umair Haque:

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Why is China the world’s largest carbon emitter?

It’s not because all those people in China are consuming stuff of their own. China’s level of consumption is about 30% of its economy. That’s a remarkably low figure. For comparison — and these are points we’re going to revisit — in Europe, it’s a moderate 50%, while consumption is 80% of the American economy, which is an astonishingly high figure.

Why is China’s level of consumption so low? Well, first let me point out that it is so low that economists have repeatedly warned it’s too low. They’re right — but in the wrong way. They mean that China should be encouraging people to live like Americans — overfed, undernourished, materialistic, and indifferent. They’re right to note the anomaly — but wrong to say that becoming American is the wrong answer.

China’s level of consumption is so low for a very simple reason. China is the rich world’s factory. America’s in particular. All those Chinese people aren’t working so hard to consume stuff themselves — they don’t and can’t. They’re working away to make stuff for Americans, mostly, to consume. Other rich countries, too, but mostly Americans — remember how America’s consumption is 80%, and Europe’s is 50%?

Now think of America. Think of Americans, selfish, greedy, gorging themselves on stuff. Where does all that stuff come from? Well, it comes from China, mostly.

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OK, this isn’t the most uplifting piece you’ll read this week. But it rings brutally, uncompromisingly true. (There are people who say Haque is “the master of catastrophe“, but I think it’s useful in trying to address global heating to know what we’re up against at the extreme.)
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‘Likes’ and ‘shares’ teach people to express more outrage online • YaleNews

Bill Hathaway:

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Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter argue that they merely provide a neutral platform for conversations that would otherwise happen elsewhere. But many have speculated that social media amplifies outrage. Hard evidence for this claim was missing, however, because measuring complex social expressions like moral outrage with precision poses a technical challenge, the researchers said.

To compile that evidence, [Bill] Brady and [Molly] Crockett assembled a team which built machine learning software capable of tracking moral outrage in Twitter posts. In observational studies of 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users, they used the software to test whether users expressed more outrage over time, and if so, why.

The team found that the incentives of social media platforms like Twitter really do change how people post. Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. To back up these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.

The results also suggest a troubling link to current debates on social media’s role in political polarization. Brady and his colleagues found that members of politically extreme networks expressed more outrage than members of politically moderate networks. However, members of politically moderate networks were actually more influenced by social rewards.

“Our studies find that people with politically moderate friends and followers are more sensitive to social feedback that reinforces their outrage expressions,” Crockett said. “This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time — the rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”

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Crockett’s work in particular was a fundamental discovery for me in writing Social Warming. And Bill Brady was a very helpful interviewee. This new paper confirms, scientifically, a lot of what was anecdotally obvious. Likes and shares condition us around outrage. There’s the feedback loop.
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WhatsApp with that? How communications in Whitehall and Westminster is changing • Medium

Gavin Freeguard used to work in British politics, pre-WhatsApp:

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What is the intent, incentive, context behind every seemingly throwaway message (‘speech act’ if you want to be technical)? They may be very different for all those group chat participants (one wants a conversation, the other wants a screenshot leaked). Look at some of the Cummings/Johnson exchanges: the former seems keen to discuss (and document) detail (and as much of it as possible), the latter to move on. Advisers can advise at length; politicians have decisions to make.

Two participants having very different intentions in and impressions of the same private conversation, which is then shared more widely, feels like a particular form of context collapse. This is where the new audiences may fail to appreciate the original context, having no idea what else was going on at the time or what the different participants were thinking. The internet is flat. But it is simultaneously very hilly, sheltering niche and expert groups ready to pore over each and every political detail. They may see deeper meaning in the disposable, intent in the incidental, cause in the casual. Something that appears black and white may actually be many shades of grey.

The above is a mass of contradictions and tensions. Platforms like WhatsApp are private and used to avoid accountability — but can sometimes end up being very public. Fleeting, but fixed, in how they formalise informal groups; instant, but indelible, turning throwaway remarks into tablets of stone. With endless messages but no official record, there is both a deluge of information and a drought.

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In Social Warming, I do show how WhatsApp (which invaded British politics from 2015 onwards) has radically changed the form and nature of intra-political discourse. Freeguard’s piece is about the question of archiving: how do we capture those discussions between ministers and others?
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Excerpt: How Google bought Android—according to folks in the room • Ars Technica

Chet Haase has written a book about the events of 2005, including the time when Android was just a scrappy startup pitching to VCs:

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The final part of the pitch (and the most important part, for the VCs they were pitching to) was how Android was going to make money. The open source platform described in the slides is essentially what the Android team eventually built and shipped. But if that was all there was, the company would not have been worth funding for VCs. Developing and giving away an open source platform sounds great from a save-the-world standpoint, but where’s the payoff? Where’s the upside for investors? That is, how did Android plan to make money off of a product that they planned to simply give away? Venture capitalists fund companies that they hope will make more (far more) than their investment back.

The path to revenue was clear for the other platform companies in the game. Microsoft made money by licensing its platform to Windows Phone partners; every phone sold contributed a per-device cost back to Microsoft. RIM made money both on the handsets they sold as well as the lucrative service contracts that their loyal enterprise customers signed up for. Nokia and the other Symbian adopters made money by selling the phones that they manufactured with variations of that operating system. Similarly, all of the other handset manufacturers funded their own software development through the revenue generated by the phones they sold.

So what was Android’s play that would fund the development of this awesome platform that they had yet to build and which they would give away free to other manufacturers to build their own devices?

Carrier services.

Carriers would provide applications, contacts, and other cloud-based data services to their customers for Android-based handsets. The carriers would pay Android for providing these services. Swetland explained: “Rather than running and hosting the services [like Danger did for its Hiptop phones], we would build the services and sell them to the carriers.”

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Imagine what things would have been like if Google hadn’t had the foresight to buy it. You’d have the iPhone ignoring the carriers, and then you’d have Nokia and Microsoft, and carrier-versioned Android handsets. The internet landscape would be nothing like it is now. Sometimes history works out OK.
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Why the Afghan military collapsed so quickly • The New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan:

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It began with individual outposts in rural areas where starving and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totalled around just one-sixth of that, according to US officials — were apparent. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Officials often turned a blind eye to what was happening, knowing full well that the Afghan forces’ real manpower count was far lower than what was on the books, skewed by corruption and secrecy that they quietly accepted.

And when the Taliban started building momentum after the United States’ announcement of withdrawal, it only increased the belief that fighting in the security forces — fighting for President Ashraf Ghani’s government — wasn’t worth dying for. In interview after interview, soldiers and police officers described moments of despair and feelings of abandonment.

On one frontline in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar last week, the Afghan security forces’ seeming inability to fend off the Taliban’s devastating offensive came down to potatoes.

After weeks of fighting, one cardboard box full of slimy potatoes was supposed to pass as a police unit’s daily rations. They hadn’t received anything other than spuds in various forms in several days, and their hunger and fatigue were wearing them down.

“These French fries are not going to hold these front lines!” a police officer yelled, disgusted by the lack of support they were receiving in the country’s second-largest city.

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The “Afghan military” has been a lie all along, propped up by the west. A mixture of corruption, tribalism (including loyalty to local warlords) and, finally, abandonment gave the Taliban all they needed.
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‘Easy money’: how international scam artists pulled off an epic theft of US Covid benefits • NBC News

Ken Dilanian, Kit Ramgopal and Chloe Atkins:

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Last June, the FBI got a warrant to hunt through the Google accounts of Abedemi Rufai, a Nigerian state government official.

What they found, they said in a sworn affidavit, was all the ingredients for a “massive” cyber fraud on U.S. government benefits: Stolen bank, credit card and tax information on Americans. Money transfers. And emails showing dozens of false unemployment claims in seven states that paid out $350,000.

Rufai was arrested in May at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport as he prepared to fly first class back to Nigeria, according to court records. He is being held without bail in Washington state, where he has pleaded not guilty to five counts of wire fraud.

Rufai’s case offers a small window into what law enforcement officials and private experts are calling the biggest fraud ever perpetrated against the United States, a significant portion of it carried out by foreigners.

Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers and Nigerian scammers have used stolen identities to plunder tens of billions of dollars in COVID benefits, spiriting the money overseas in a massive transfer of wealth from American taxpayers, officials and experts say. And they say it’s still happening.

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Oh, just somewhere between $87bn and $400bn.
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Kuo: redesigned MacBook Air with mini-LED display and several colour options to launch in mid 2022 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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Apple plans to launch a new MacBook Air with a mini-LED display and several colour options around mid 2022, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a research note obtained by MacRumors. These details line up with previous rumours about the new MacBook Air from sources like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and YouTube tech personality Jon Prosser.

Kuo said the new MacBook Air will feature an “all-new design” with a similar form factor as the next MacBook Pro models, which are also expected to feature a mini-LED display and flatter top and bottom edges. Previous rumours have suggested the new MacBook Air will also feature a faster Apple silicon chip and a MagSafe-branded magnetic power cable.

Kuo said it is not yet certain whether the existing M1 MacBook Air will be discontinued after the mini-LED model enters mass production, and this could have an effect on pricing. If the M1 MacBook Air is discontinued, Kuo said the mini-LED model will probably start at the same $999 price. If the M1 MacBook Air does remain available for purchase alongside the mini-LED model, Kuo believes it could receive a price cut.

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Having the range of colours would fit in with the new iMac scheme, and the timing – giving the current version plenty of time to amortise any costs from shifting to the M1 chip – makes sense too. Only question is whether the forthcoming MacBook Pro will come in colours. If not, why not?
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Apple executive defends tools to fight child abuse material, acknowledges privacy backlash • WSJ

Joanna Stern and Tim Higgins:

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“If and only if you meet a threshold of something on the order of 30 known child pornographic images matching, only then does Apple know anything about your account and know anything about those images, and at that point, only knows about those images, not about any of your other images,” Mr. Federighi said. “This isn’t doing some analysis for, did you have a picture of your child in the bathtub? Or, for that matter, did you have a picture of some pornography of any other sort? This is literally only matching on the exact fingerprints of specific known child pornographic images.”

Beyond creating a system that isn’t scanning through all of a user’s photos in the cloud, Mr. Federighi pointed to another benefit of placing the matching process on the phone directly. “Because it’s on the [phone], security researchers are constantly able to introspect what’s happening in Apple’s [phone] software,” he said. “So if any changes were made that were to expand the scope of this in some way—in a way that we had committed to not doing—there’s verifiability, they can spot that that’s happening.”

Critics have said the database of images could be corrupted, such as political material being inserted. Apple has pushed back against that idea. During the interview, Mr. Federighi said the database of images is constructed through the intersection of images from multiple child-safety organizations—not just the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He added that at least two “are in distinct jurisdictions.” Such groups and an independent auditor will be able to verify that the database consists only of images provided by those entities, he said.

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First time Apple has put a figure on the approximate number that will trip its detection systems. (How the figure is arrived at is explained in the Threat Security Model, below the next link.) The point about separate jurisdictions is also new. Although quite who is going to have the insight into what’s running on the phone is new to me; who are these “researchers”?
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Decrypting Apple’s plan to scan photos on your phone • Revue

Julia Angwin talks to former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos (who has been *very* busy in the past week) about, yes, that:

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Angwin: The [privacy] advocates are calling it a backdoor. Others have said it’s hypocritical because, in the San Bernardino case, they refused to comply with a court order to bypass the phone’s four-digit login. They said at that time that this order would be like creating a master key to open all iPhones. Is this a backdoor? 

Stamos: I would not call this a backdoor, but I do believe that the way Apple has rolled out device-side scanning has created the possibility of a new type of surveillance becoming popular globally. Most of my concerns are actually outside the United States. If you look at the existing child safety framework in the U.S., the jurisprudence has actually been going against it. 

But elsewhere in the world, there are already bills requiring preemptive scanning for illegality, so this might be part of the EU Digital Services Act, the U.K. Online Harms bill, and a variety of bills in India, for example. 

So while I wouldn’t call this itself a backdoor, my biggest concern is that Apple has effectively opened the door to a type of searching on devices. 

Angwin: Could you flesh out what it would look like if, for instance, India were to start using this capability? 

Stamos: In India, the Hindu nationalist government. Narendra Modi, the head of the BJP and the prime minister, is currently in a big fight with Silicon Valley trying to suppress the speech of his political enemies and to push rules that are seen as oppressive of the Muslim minority. 

India has incredibly broad laws that make speech illegal, such as laws around blasphemy that we don’t have. They have already been creating bills that would require the filtering of speech that is considered illegal in India. 

One of my concerns would be that those bills will now include that phones that are sold in India have the ability to filter out that content [deemed illegal] by the government in the same way NCMEC provides child safety fingerprints to Apple.

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Well, except that Apple posted a “Security Threat Model” paper on Friday which says that it will only include hashes of photos that are in the databases of two separate jurisdictions. So the Indian model won’t work. India could mandate that Apple includes NSO’s Pegasus monitoring software. Apple could tell India to go whistle, and publicise its refusal. The Indian government might face a problem if its citizens really thought it was monitoring them.
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These people who work from home have a secret: they have two jobs • WSJ

Rachel Feintzeig:

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They were bored. Or worried about layoffs. Or tired of working hard for a meager raise every year. They got another job offer.

Now they have a secret.

A small, dedicated group of white-collar workers, in industries from tech to banking to insurance, say they have found a way to double their pay: Work two full-time remote jobs, don’t tell anyone and, for the most part, don’t do too much work, either.

Alone in their home offices, they toggle between two laptops. They play “Tetris” with their calendars, trying to dodge endless meetings. Sometimes they log on to two meetings at once. They use paid time off—in some cases, unlimited—to juggle the occasional big project or ramp up at a new gig. Many say they don’t work more than 40 hours a week for both jobs combined. They don’t apologize for taking advantage of a system they feel has taken advantage of them.

“It’s two jobs for one,” says a 29-year-old software engineer who has been working simultaneously for a media company and an events company since June. He estimates he was logging three to 10 hours of actual work a week back when he held down one job. “The rest of it is just attending meetings and pretending to look busy.”

He was emboldened by a new website called Overemployed. Started by two tech workers this spring, it aims to rally workers around the concept of stealthily holding multiple jobs, framing it as a way to wrest back control after decades of stalled wages for some and a pandemic that led to unpredictable layoffs.

Gig work and outsourcing have been on the rise for years. Inflation is now ticking up, chipping away at spending power. Some employees in white-collar fields wonder why they should bother spending time building a career.

“The harder that you work, it seems like the less you get,” one of the workers with two jobs says. “People depend on you more. My paycheck is the same.”

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White-collar people working two jobs in the US is just an extension of what lots of blue-collar workers in the US have to do. So it’s a sort of equality at work.
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Possibly there have been enough boosts, but here’s another one for Social Warming, my latest book.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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