Start Up No.1616: the American failure, GOP scrubs Trump’s Afghan deal, Yik Yak returns, Sonos beats Google, ‘Nestflix’, and more


Water levels in the Colorado river have dropped so far that farmers face mandatory cuts in use – and that could become permanent. CC-licensed photo by John Morton on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Impactful. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


We are no longer a serious people • The Pull Request

Antonio García Martínez thinks about Afghanistan; in the line above he quotes someone who describes himself as a “MAGA leftist” (🤔) saying “Has anyone thought to cancel the Taliban takeover by digging up all its old tweets?”:

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This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony [of the tweet] highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.

And all we can do in the wake of it, with our brains melted like butter in a microwave by four years of Trump and Twitter and everything else, is to once again try and understand in our terms a hyper-violent insurgency of fanatics, guilty of every manner of cultural barbarism, now running a country with the population of Texas.

What we should have been asking ourselves through four presidents’ worth of Afghanistan involvement, and 2,400 American lives (and God knows how many maimed and traumatized), and almost a trillion dollars, is this: what is our role there? What was the plan, if there ever was one? More specifically, how much are we willing to pay, in American lives and tax money, to impose (for imposing is what we’ll have to do) something vaguely resembling a liberal order in a country more than a few milestones behind us in the real-world Civilization game we’re all playing.

These are the questions a serious people, armed with all the wealth and power of global empire, ask themselves as they administer their dominion. But those are the questions we are not asking, for we are no longer a serious people.

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The US can break, but it can’t build. (You can also see how Garciá Martinez might not have quite been a great culture fit for Apple.)
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GOP scrubs webpage touting Trump’s ‘historic’ Taliban deal • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

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In the wake of the Taliban’s recent capture of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, it looks like the Republican Party is quietly scrubbing traces of the former president’s deals with the militant Islamist group.

The GOP has pulled a webpage praising Donald Trump over his administration’s “historic peace agreement with the Taliban.” The page, which has been archived here, was first instated in the midst of last year’s presidential election.

“Trump has continued to take the lead in peace talks as he signed a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which would end America’s longest war,” the now-deleted page read. It also noted that while the now ex-president has “championed peace,” Joe Biden had pushed “endless wars.” Elsewhere on the page, the GOP noted that Trump had “taken action to defeat ISIS and eliminate dangerous leaders.”

It’s worth noting here that Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban in Afghanistan and went on to become the organization’s top-ranking political chief, was released from Pakistani jail at the US’s request while Trump was in office.

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We have never been at war with Eastasia.
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Sonos win booms for small tech • Reuters

Lauren Silva Laughlin:

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A patent ruling in favor of Sonos is being heard by investors. Shares of the wireless-speaker company opened up more than 10% on Monday after a US trade judge said in a preliminary ruling that Alphabet’s Google infringed its patents. Such fights are background noise for US technology firms, but they can help smaller players keep up.

Sonos uses voice technology from Google, and the giant says the $5bn speaker firm sought its help. Meanwhile, with its move into connected devices, it’s no surprise Google encroached on Sonos’ turf.

The stakes are disproportionate. The roughly $500m in equity value Sonos gained early on Monday equates to an irrelevant 0.03% of Alphabet’s market capitalization.

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Originally began in January 2020 – ah, innocent times – when Sonos sued.
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Find out which groups get big tech funding • Tech Transparency Project

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Google, Facebook, and Amazon have built massive influence operations, in part by funding an array of third-party groups. A new tool from TTP shows where the tech money is going.

Big Tech companies are spending record sums on lobbying as they face growing regulatory scrutiny in Washington and the states. But the companies have also engaged in a more subtle form of influence building, funding everything from think tanks to advocacy groups to local chambers of commerce—which are involved in key policy debates and often serve to amplify the tech giants’ views.

It’s not always clear which groups get tech funding, making it difficult to see the hidden hand of companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Now, a new tool from the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) is shedding light on Big Tech’s extensive reach with these groups. This searchable database gives a quick readout on whether organizations have received funding from the tech companies since 2015.

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The alphabet soup of think tanks around tech that need funding is remarkable. Though it would be more helpful if the “more detail” links actually provided more detail. They don’t – they just link to the companies’ disclosure pages, which are hefty. What would really be helpful would be knowing what proportion of the think tanks’ funding comes from those sources.
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Local and anonymous social media app Yik Yak is back • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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The new app resembles the original version of Yik Yak from 2014: users can post and comment on short text posts that are only able to be viewed within a five-mile radius. Like Reddit, posts can be upvoted and downvoted, and a separate “hot” feed compiles the top post from the past 24 hours.

Originally launched in late 2013, the app was a flash-in-the-pan success (particularly at college campuses) for most of 2014, when it was valued at $400m by investors. But while the anonymity made it popular for college students, Yik Yak also was rife with bullying and harassment. In early 2016, in an effort to get things back on track, Yik Yak added optional social media handles, which were made mandatory in August of that year, effectively removing what had made the service unique. The original incarnation of Yik Yak ended up shutting down in early 2017, when it was sold for $1 million to Square for its engineering talent and IP.

The new Yik Yak looks to be taking a serious stance on bullying and harassment on its platform, though — something that the original incarnation of the app failed to do. The new owners have posted an extensive list of its “community guardrails,” which include prohibiting sharing of personal information, “anything that could be construed as bullying, abuse, defamation, harassment, stalking, or targeted hate or public humiliation,” and more.

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And you can get kicked off for breaking those rules. American schools are already back, so let’s see how big their moderation team is forced to get (or how big the backlog gets) before the stories start breaking through about people being, yes, bullied on YikYak. (Or maybe they’ll just stay on Snapchat and TikTok, which have risen to prominence in the meantime.)
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Niantic CEO: the metaverse could be a ‘dystopian nightmare’ • Fast Company

Mark Sullivan interviews John Hanke, CEO of the company that created the augmented reality game Pokemon Go:

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There’s this concept of an avatar, or a digital twin, representing you within a digital space. How does that figure into Niantic’s vision for the metaverse?

JH: It’s not as big of a part because when you meet other people in the game you are physically standing in front of them. In some of our games, like Pokémon Go, there is an avatar and you can see your own avatar. We don’t actually even show you other people’s avatars in the game unless somebody has taken over a Pokémon Go gym, and then there’s a version of their avatar that’s standing there, like Marcus Aurelius or something, like the champion of the gym. So you would get to know people a bit through that.

It’s the same for chat. Chat is such a huge part of most of these [virtual] experiences, and by chat I mean online text chat. And it’s never really been a big part of our games because it’s so much easier when people are playing together just to talk to the person next to you. It’s faster and higher bandwidth.

And that’s where the enhanced-vs.-replacement idea comes in. So just making the normal biological stuff better—enhancing or augmenting it. So I sure hope we can affect the industry and get it really fully headed in that direction. I feel like it’s inevitable, like it’s just a better, more natural way to use tech.

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Hanke doesn’t suggest it’s going to be dystopian at all, to my reading.
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Here it is, the plug for Social Warming, my latest book, about why social media drives everyone a little mad – even if they don’t use it.


The underrated material: concrete • Thread Reader App

Ed Conway, a Sky News correspondent, wrote a substantial thread on Twitter:

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What’s the most underrated material in the modern world?

How about CONCRETE?

Often dismissed as boring, ugly & inert.

Concrete is actually surprising, dynamic & incredibly complex.

With that in mind here are a few reasons why we need to start talking about concrete

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We do indeed. It’s a terrific thread (this is on a single page, with photos, no login required). You might know some of the details about concrete, but I’m fairly sure there’ll be something here that surprises you – even if it’s only the scale of the people standing beside the pipe that must be kept turning because if it stops then the heat of the materials inside will melt it.
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California’s dry season is turning into a permanent state of being • Phys.org

David Baker, Brian Sullivan and Josh Saul:

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Drought across the Western US has forced California to ration water to farms. Hydroelectric dams barely work. The smallest spark—from a lawnmower or even a flat tire—can explode into a wildfire.

While this region has always had dry summers, they’re supposed to follow a pattern that leads to relief with the arrival of the annual rainy season in November. But a break is no longer guaranteed.

In fact, there are now both short- and long-term factors drying out the Western U.S. Under the influence of fast-warming temperatures, as documented in detail by this week’s report from the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the region may be entering a drier state. Drought season might be giving way to a drought era.

Here are three forces desiccating the region.

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Sea currents (La Niña), warmer air drying the ground, and dry air being driven downwards. Telling quote:

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“Modern society really developed in the Western U.S. in the 1900s—that’s when all the infrastructure was built—and we’re experiencing conditions it wasn’t built to handle,” [UCLA climate scientist Park] Williams said. “In the 1900s, society was able to really evolve in a period of ignorant bliss.”

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No more ignorance, no more bliss.
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Colorado river woes: first water supply cuts to hammer Arizona farmers • Sentinel Colorado

Felicia Fonseca:

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A harvester rumbles through the fields in the early morning light, mowing down rows of corn and chopping up ears, husks and stalks into mulch for feed at a local dairy.

The cows won’t get their salad next year, at least not from this farm. There won’t be enough water to plant the corn crop.

Climate change, drought and high demand are expected to force the first-ever mandatory cuts to a water supply that 40 million people across the American West depend on — the Colorado River. The US Bureau of Reclamation’s projection next week will spare cities and tribes but hit Arizona farmers hard.

They knew this was coming. They have left fields unplanted, laser leveled the land, lined canals, installed drip irrigation, experimented with drought-resistant crops and found other ways to use water more efficiently.

Still, the cutbacks in Colorado River supply next year will be a blow for agriculture in Pinal County, Arizona’s top producer of cotton, barley and livestock. Dairies largely rely on local farms for feed and will have to search farther out for supply, and the local economy will take a hit.

The cuts are coming earlier than expected as a drought has intensified and reservoirs dipped to historic lows across the West. Scientists blame climate change for the warmer, more arid conditions over the past 30 years.

Standing next to a dry field, his boots kicking up dust, farmer Will Thelander said “more and more of the farm is going to look like this next year because we won’t have the water to keep things growing everywhere we want.”

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Big oil is vulnerable to climate change. Literally • WSJ

Jinjoo Lee:

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Alaska seems like one of the last places on the planet that could use extra cooling. That is exactly what it will soon need, though, to prevent one of the world’s largest oil pipeline systems from sinking into melting permafrost.

Recent wildfires, floods and droughts across the world are bringing the spotlight once again to the contribution that the oil-and-gas industry has made to climate change. Less talked about is how exposed the industry is itself to unusual and extreme weather. It doesn’t quite threaten the industry’s existence and could even benefit some producers. Shareholders and consumers could be left with the tab, though.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System received permission earlier this year to construct a cooling system to keep permafrost on parts of its pipeline frozen, according to a report from Inside Climate News. Billions of dollars of oil and gas infrastructure has been built on frozen ground. In Russia, roughly 23% of technical failures and almost a third of loss in fossil-fuel extraction are caused by melting permafrost, Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov said at a conference earlier this year, according to a report from the Moscow Times. All told, the Russian economy could lose more than $67bn by 2050 due to permafrost damage on infrastructure, according to the report.

…There is no shortage of ways in which the oil-and-gas industry is impacted by climate change. Floods can disrupt fossil-fuel transportation by barge and rail. A drought can impact oil production too. Reduced water availability can affect fracking and refining operations, both of which require a lot of it.

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Did they ever think of just not doing it? Good grief. Turns out the fossil fuel industry also produces more irony than can possibly be absorbed by the planet.
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Nestflix

Lynn Fisher:

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Welcome to Nestflix: the platform for your favourite nested films and shows.

Fictional movies within movies? Got ‘em. Fake shows within shows? You bet. Browse our selection of over 400 stories within stories.

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It’s a neat idea – you see something flash up on the screen or a billboard in a film or TV programme, usually as a smart little joke. I particularly liked this one. Each one says where it is referenced. (Via Ryan Broderick.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1616: the American failure, GOP scrubs Trump’s Afghan deal, Yik Yak returns, Sonos beats Google, ‘Nestflix’, and more

  1. It’s extremely hard to map funding to influence beyond doubt, in part due to all the ways misleading disclosure statements can be done.

    Let’s consider a hypothetical policy think tank where all its supposed “research” is in fact bought-and-paid-for advocacy for the funder of that work. Simplistically, let’s assume, for example:

    It takes money from media companies to argue their case against big ISP’s charging them higher prices.
    It takes money from big ISP’s to argue their case against government mandates.
    It takes money from its government for advice on using Internet tactics to destabilize other governments, and defense against those destabilization tactics.

    This lobbyist think tank then puts on its page: We are funded from a variety of sources, so are not beholden to any particular source. No one organization makes up the bulk of our funding. Our funders range from media companies to big ISP’s to the government.

    And that’s all true. But it implies an independence of thought which is not present in this hypothetical example.

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