Start Up No.1617: have we hit ‘peak car’?, biometric threat to Afghans, shipping prices rocket, Twitter’s culture shock, and more


The inventor of the sudoku has died, leaving a legacy of satisfied commuters and logicians. CC-licensed photo by Pedro Vera on Flickr.

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


We have hit “peak car” • Big Think

Tom Standage, arguing that we have hit “peak car”:

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Peak-car theorists attribute it to several overlapping factors. Most people now live in cities, most vehicle miles are driven in cities rather than rural areas, and the decline in driving is chiefly a decline in urban driving. The cost and hassle of car ownership has increased as traffic congestion has increased and cities have introduced congestion charging zones and pedestrianized parts of city centers and made parking scarcer and more expensive. For many urbanites, but particularly the young, cars are no longer regarded as essential, as smartphones let them shop and socialize online. The steady shift toward e-commerce also means cars are needed for fewer shopping trips. And when a car is needed, for a weekend away or to help a friend move house, car-sharing and rental services are readily accessible.

In recent years restrictions on car use in cities have become more severe, with the closure of some roads, or some areas, to private cars altogether. This has even been the case in car-loving America, as shown by the closures to private cars of Market Street in San Francisco and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, to make more room for public transport. Some cities have announced that they will ban nonelectric cars altogether in the 2030s or 2040s, to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions. Such moves are sometimes decried as a “war on the car.”

But even many motorists now support them: a survey of ten thousand people carried out in 2017 in ten European capital cities, for example, found that 63% of residents owned a car, but 84% said they would like to see fewer cars on the roads in their city. And just as car ownership has become less convenient, alternatives to car use — ride-hailing, bike-sharing, and other mobility services — have proliferated. Travel-planning apps also make public transport a more attractive option, by showing when buses, trains, or trams will arrive, and how to combine them to complete a journey. But the arrival of those alternatives seems merely to have accelerated what was, in Western countries at least, an existing trend that had been going on for some years.

The coronavirus pandemic seems likely, on balance, to accelerate it further. Fear of contagion has discouraged use of public transport and prompted some people to commute by car instead. But this seems unlikely to herald a global boom in car sales.

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Opposition to cars partly comes from the congestion but also the pollution. Ironic if it’s the tangible effect on the atmosphere at ground level that help lead to change that the rest of the atmosphere needs.
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Afghans scramble to delete digital history, evade biometrics • News Trust

Rina Chandran:

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Thousands of Afghans struggling to ensure the physical safety of their families after the Taliban took control of the country have an additional worry: that biometric databases and their own digital history can be used to track and target them.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of “chilling” curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls, and Amnesty International on Monday said thousands of Afghans – including academics, journalists and activists – were “at serious risk of Taliban reprisals”.

After years of a push to digitise databases in the country, and introduce digital identity cards and biometrics for voting, activists warn these technologies can be used to target and attack vulnerable groups.

“We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan,” the Human Rights First group wrote on Twitter on Monday. “This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology,” the group added.

The US-based advocacy group quickly published a Farsi-language version of its guide on how to delete digital history – that it had produced last year for activists in Hong Kong – and also put together a manual on how to evade biometrics.

Tips to bypass facial recognition include looking down, wearing things to obscure facial features, or applying many layers of makeup, the guide said, although fingerprint and iris scans were difficult to bypass.

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Why governments shouldn’t store biometrics. A lesson that we have to learn again and again.
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WhatsApp shuts down Taliban helpline in Kabul • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia:

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WhatsApp has shut down a complaints helpline set up by the Taliban when it took control of Kabul, after the messaging app came under pressure to block the group from using its services.

The complaints number was supposed to act as an emergency hotline for civilians to report violence, looting or other problems. The Taliban advertised the helpline on Sunday when it captured the city, and has used similar WhatsApp hotlines in the past, for example when it took over the city of Kunduz in 2016.

After taking Kabul, the Taliban pledged to create a stable government and not to harm the “life, property and honour” of citizens.

Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp, said it had blocked the number on Tuesday, along with other “official Taliban channels”, and added that it was actively scanning group names, descriptions and profile pictures on the messaging app to try to prevent the Taliban from using it. It added that its team of native Dari and Pashto speakers were “helping to identify and alert us to emerging issues on the platform”.

Critics in the US have attacked WhatsApp, along with other social media platforms, for not taking more action to shut down Taliban communications.

But experts in the region said that shutting down the WhatsApp numbers was “absurd” and “unhelpful” at a time when the military group was in effect governing the country, and citizens in Kabul were facing looting, panic and chaos. 

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That’s certainly a poser for Facebook. If the Taliban is proscribed in the US, can it use WhatsApp officially? (No, Facebook thinks.)
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Shipping bottlenecks set to prolong supply chain turmoil • Financial Times

Harry Dempsey, Chris Giles and Primrose Riordan :

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The closure of a terminal at the world’s third-busiest container port is only the latest sign that turmoil in ocean shipping could run into next year, posing a threat to global economic growth as chronic delays and soaring transport costs may leave demand unmet and push up consumer prices.

A coronavirus outbreak led to a partial shutdown at Ningbo-Zhoushan port last week and the resulting suspension of inbound and outbound container ships reduced the port’s capacity by a fifth. It follows another Chinese outbreak in May, which led to a three-week long closure of the Yantian terminal in Shenzhen and created knock-on effects in international shipping.

A relentless surge in shipping prices and persistent bottlenecks at ports around the world have added to the barrage of problems affecting supply chains. These include the semiconductor crunch and the rising price of raw materials, to truck driver shortages as retailers stock up ahead of the peak shopping season.

Importers and exporters are fighting to recoup costs caused by a rise in shipping costs, which have soared to about $15,800 to move a 40-foot container from China to the US west coast — a tenfold jump on pre-pandemic levels and up by half on last month, according to data provider Freightos.

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This, probably more than the Taliban, is what’s going to really affect us in the coming year.
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Culture change and conflict at Twitter • SF Gate

Kate Conger:

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Soon after joining Twitter in 2019, Dantley Davis gathered his staff in a conference room at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Twitter was too nice, he told the group, and he was there to change it.

Davis, the company’s new vice president of design, asked employees to go around the room, complimenting and critiquing one another. Tough criticism would help Twitter improve, he said. The barbs soon flew. Several attendees cried during the two-hour meeting, said three people who were there.

Davis, 43, has played a key role in a behind-the-scenes effort over the past two years to remake Twitter’s culture. The company had long been slow to build products, and under pressure from investors and users, executives landed on a diagnosis: Twitter’s collaborative environment had calcified, making workers reluctant to criticize one another. Davis, the company believed, was one of the answers to that problem.

The turmoil that followed revealed the trade-offs and conflicts that arise when companies attempt dramatic cultural shifts and put the onus on hard-nosed managers to make that change happen.

Davis repeatedly clashed with employees because of his blunt style. His treatment of workers was also the subject of several investigations by Twitter’s employee relations department, and of complaints to Jack Dorsey, the CEO, that too many people were leaving.

Company officials acknowledge that Davis may have gone too far at times, and he has promised to tone down the way he criticizes people. But they make no apologies and have even given him a more senior job title. Employee dissatisfaction, they said, is sometimes the cost of shaking things up.

“This is actually a Twitter culture change that we’ve been trying to drive,” said Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources.

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Since you’re wondering, Dantley has black and Korean heritage. Sounds like it has been quite the bracing experience at Twitter. Makes it sound more like the average newspaper office now.
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Why is it so hard to be rational? • The New Yorker

Joshua Rothman met his friend Greg, the most rational person he’d ever known, at college:

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When I was looking to buy a house, Greg walked me through the trade-offs of renting and owning (just rent); when I was contemplating switching careers, he stress-tested my scenarios (I switched). As an emotional and impulsive person by nature, I found myself working hard at rationality. Even Greg admitted that it was difficult work: he had to constantly inspect his thought processes for faults, like a science-fictional computer that had just become sentient.

Often, I asked myself, How would Greg think? I adopted his habit of tracking what I knew and how well I knew it, so that I could separate my well-founded opinions from my provisional views. Bad investors, Greg told me, often had flat, loosely drawn maps of their own knowledge, but good ones were careful cartographers, distinguishing between settled, surveyed, and unexplored territories. Through all this, our lives unfolded. Around the time I left my grad program to try out journalism, Greg swooned over his girlfriend’s rational mind, married her, and became a director at a hedge fund. His net worth is now several thousand times my own.

Meanwhile, half of Americans won’t get vaccinated; many believe in conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. It’s not that we don’t think—we are constantly reading, opining, debating—but that we seem to do it on the run, while squinting at trolls in our phones. This summer, on my phone, I read a blog post by the economist Arnold Kling, who noted that an unusually large number of books about rationality were being published this year, among them Steven Pinker’s “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” (Viking) and Julia Galef’s “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t” (Portfolio). It makes sense, Kling suggested, for rationality to be having a breakout moment.

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It really does, though it would be nice if it were even more widespread.
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Alligator handler recovering after attack, daring rescue • Associated Press

Sophia Eppolito:

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A Utah reptile center employee is recovering after an alligator yanked her into its enclosure during a presentation, thrashing her around before a fast-acting visitor leapt inside and helped free her from its jaws.

Video taken by a guest shows an unidentified handler at Scales & Tails Utah, in suburban Salt Lake City, talking to some adults and children about the alligator Saturday when it bit her hand and dragged her into the water.

Shane Richins, the company’s owner, said in an interview Monday that the handler was opening the enclosure to feed the alligator as usual, but this time the reptile “got a little extra spunky.”

He said the center normally has a strict policy for a second handler to be nearby when employees are working with the alligators. But that hasn’t been enforced in recent years if the worker isn’t planning to enter the enclosure, he said.

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The video is quite the watch: the alligator is a bit nonplussed at first but then the visitor discovers he has a tiger by the tail, so to speak.
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Sudoku creator Maki Kaji dies aged 69 in Japan • ITV News

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Sudoku creator Maki Kaji has died aged 69 at his home in Japan.

Mr Kaji, who had been suffering from bile duct cancer, died on 10 August near Tokyo.

Known as the Godfather of Sudoku, Mr Kaji created the puzzle to be easy for children and for those who did not want to think too hard.

The puzzle became a huge hit in the UK after a fan from New Zealand pitched it and got it published in The Times in 2004.

It soon became a national obsession and a popular pastime on commutes.

The term ‘Sudoku’ is made up of the Japanese characters for “number” and “single”.

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Died aged 69, going to be buried on 23/8 at 14:57.
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T-Mobile confirms it was hacked • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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The seller told Motherboard that 100 million people had their data compromised in the breach. In the forum post, they were offering data on 30 million people for 6 bitcoin, or around $270,000.

They told Motherboard at the time that T-Mobile had seemingly kicked them out of the company’s networks. T-Mobile’s announcement corroborates that somewhat, saying, “We are confident that the entry point used to gain access has been closed, and we are continuing our deep technical review of the situation across our systems to identify the nature of any data that was illegally accessed.”

Motherboard has seen samples of the data, and confirmed they contained accurate information on T-Mobile customers. The data includes social security numbers, phone numbers, names, physical addresses, unique IMEI numbers, and driver license information, the seller said.

“We have been working around the clock to investigate claims being made that T-Mobile data may have been illegally accessed. We take the protection of our customers very seriously and we are conducting an extensive analysis alongside digital forensic experts to understand the validity of these claims, and we are coordinating with law enforcement,” T-Mobile’s announcement added.

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Every database gets hacked eventually. Enough people trying, in time they’ll find a hole. It’s like the infinite monkeys, but they only have to get one word right.
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‘Bad News’: selling the story of disinformation • Harper’s Magazine

Joseph Bernstein:

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When dezinformatsiya appeared as an entry in the 1952 Great Soviet Encyclopedia, its meaning was ruthlessly ideological: “Dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion. The capitalist press and radio make wide use of dezinformatsiya.” Today, journalists, academics, and politicians still frame the disinformation issue in martial language, as a “war on truth” or “weaponized lies.” In the new context, however, bad information is a weapon wielded in an occasionally violent domestic political conflict rather than a cold war between superpowers.

Because the standards of the new field of study are so murky, the popular understanding of the persuasive effects of bad information has become overly dependent on anecdata about “rabbit holes” that privilege the role of novel technology over social, cultural, economic, and political context. (There are echoes of Cold War brainwashing fears here.) These stories of persuasion are, like the story of online advertising, plagued by the difficulty of disentangling correlation from causation. Is social media creating new types of people, or simply revealing long-obscured types of people to a segment of the public unaccustomed to seeing them? The latter possibility has embarrassing implications for the media and academia alike.

An even more vexing issue for the disinformation field, though, is the supposedly objective stance media researchers and journalists take toward the information ecosystem to which they themselves belong. Somewhat amazingly, this attempt has taken place alongside an agonizing and overdue questioning within the media of the harm done by unexamined professional standards of objectivity.

Like journalism, scholarship, and all other forms of knowledge creation, disinformation research reflects the culture, aspirations, and assumptions of its creators. A quick scan of the institutions that publish most frequently and influentially about disinformation: Harvard University, the New York Times, Stanford University, MIT, NBC, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc. That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain.

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He seems to be saying that people who worry about disinformation are fooling themselves and just want the old certitudes back. I’m not sure it’s that simple.
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Technology may be wreaking havoc on our morality • Vox

Sigal Samuel:

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It was on the day I read a Facebook post by my sick friend that I started to really question my relationship with technology.

An old friend had posted a status update saying he needed to rush to the hospital because he was having a health crisis. I half-choked on my tea and stared at my laptop. I recognized the post as a plea for support. I felt fear for him, and then … I did nothing about it, because I saw in another tab that I’d just gotten a new email and went to check that instead.

After a few minutes scrolling my Gmail, I realized something was messed up. The new email was obviously not as urgent as the sick friend, and yet I’d acted as if they had equal claims on my attention. What was wrong with me? Was I a terrible person? I dashed off a message to my friend, but continued to feel disturbed.

Gradually, though, I came to think this was less an indication that I was an immoral individual and more a reflection of a bigger societal problem. I began to notice that digital technology often seems to make it harder for us to respond in the right way when someone is suffering and needs our help.

Think of all the times a friend has called you to talk through something sad or stressful, and you could barely stop your twitchy fingers from checking your email or scrolling through Instagram as they talked. Think of all the times you’ve seen an article in your Facebook News Feed about anguished people desperate for help — starving children in Yemen, dying Covid-19 patients in India — only to get distracted by a funny meme that appears right above it.

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One of the people I quoted in passing in Social Warming pointed this out: social networks make no distinction between the most and the least important. The world is flat – unlike, say, a newspaper where you get bigger and smaller stories.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified


Yes, saved it for later: the plug for
Social Warming, my newest book.


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