Start Up No.1624: a call for geoengineering, OS hackathon for car charging, Facebook considering Election Commission, and more


Standard landline phones are going the way of the rotary dial from 2026, to be replaced by internet-connected ones. CC-licensed photo by Curtis Gregory Perry on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. The weekend starts later. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


What if it’s too late to save our planet without geoengineering? • The Guardian

Mollie Donegan:

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The vaccine was a technological intervention, injected into the arms of billions of people. Could we (should we?) look to technological solutions to our climate crisis, too?

This is the question posed by Holly Jean Buck in her 2019 book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. Zooming with me from Buffalo, New York, where she’s a professor of environment at the University of Buffalo, Buck is blunt in her assessment. The pace of climate change, and the insufficiency of humanity’s current response, have effectively already made the choice for us: mankind will have to engage in some kind of “geoengineering” – an umbrella term for various methods of intentional, planetary-scale climate intervention – whether we like it or not.

Geoengineering refers to any number of ways that humans can change our climate through interventions. The two main types of geoengineering are carbon engineering, which aims to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and solar engineering, which aims to reflect solar energy away from Earth.

“We’re in a climate crisis,” she tells me. “Mitigation isn’t going fast enough. Adaptation needs far more support than it’s getting. It’s clear that we need to remove some amount of carbon from the atmosphere.”

How much? “Hundreds of billions of gigatons,” Buck says. “We have emitted so much, and now we have so much legacy carbon. The challenge isn’t just cutting emissions.” The second challenge is “removing the carbon that’s up there. It’s this massive cleanup operation that we need to undertake this century.”

The idea of deliberately altering the climate can be frightening and distasteful, including to many environmentalists. But Buck argues that climate engineering is coming whether we like it or not. “If people on the environmental left – people who care about climate change – just reject all of these approaches out of hand, then we lose the ability to shape them, which would be a grave mistake,” she says.

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Got to be honest, I think we’re past “what if” and well into “just start doing anything, for pity’s sake.”
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Think you can solve the UK’s electric vehicle charging point puzzle? The Ordnance Survey wants to hear about it • The Register

Richard Speed:

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The UK’s venerable Ordnance Survey is to fling open its electronic doors in an effort to tackle infrastructure challenges faced by the UK’s rollout of electric vehicles (EVs).

Blighty does not have the best of records when it comes to access to charging points for EVs and, with a 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars looming, the question is where to put the plug-in posts.

Enter the Ordnance Survey (OS) and its detailed database of Brit geography. And, as seems to be de rigueur nowadays, a “hackathon” to come up with ways of using the normally premium data to come up with solutions.

The virtual hackathon is set to run from 6 to 7 October and participants have been set challenges including how EV infrastructure planning for local government in remote communities might be “levelled up”, identifying the charge points for EV fleets and where to develop them using geospatial data to nudge the internal combustion engine owner into a change of behaviour.

A more nebulous “Open innovation” challenge is also on the cards, asking participants to come up with other “sustainable concepts.”

While the latter challenge might make some think of UK property shows where somebody puts grass on the roof and forgets to order the windows (yes, we’re looking at you Grand Designs), using the data to identify where charge points are needed makes quite a bit of sense. The OS is providing participants access to all its premium data as well as its team of geographic information system specialists.

API Product Manager Charley Glynn said: “If Britain is to meet its carbon net zero targets in the next nine years, then difficult puzzles have to be solved in the EV and transportation market.

“For instance, how are we going to be able to manage the needs of potential EV owners who need to charge their car at home but live on the top floor of a block of flats, or planning car charging points in a terraced street where parking spaces are already in short supply?”

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Great to see OS getting involved in this.
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Electric car tax holding back Australia’s net zero ambitions, say experts • Australia New Daily

James Ried:

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an Australian Institute survey in South Australia revealed a user tax would make 70% of people there less likely to purchase an electric car, despite otherwise healthy demand.

More than 40% considered going electric with their next vehicle purchase while 72% supported the introduction of incentives.

“It shows there’s a lot of appetite for Australians to do more on climate action – certainly more than what’s on offer at the national level,” Australia Institute climate and energy program director Richie Merzian told The New Daily.

“What we’ve seen is strong support. Australians see a role for government in actually bringing down that sticker price.

“Seven out of 10 people want it, and seven out of 10 said it would disincentivize them to buy one if there was a tax rushed in.”

[The state of] Victoria’s new tax came into effect on July 1 and imposes a 2.5-cent charge for each kilometre travelled, putting the annual cost at $500 for a vehicle travelling 20,000 kilometres, while South Australia is slated to implement a similar tax next year.

The tax narrowly passed the Victorian parliament despite Hyundai, Volkswagen, Uber and the Electric Vehicle Council writing to MPs and urging them to vote against the plan.

When a user charge was first proposed in SA, Treasurer Rob Lucas said it would be based on a similar distance-travelled scheme, with motorists providing odometer readings to ensure all road users contributed fairly to the state’s road maintenance investment.

“The reality is, if you’re driving an electric vehicle then you’re not paying fuel excise at the pump and you’re contributing significantly less to the vital upkeep of our vast road network,” the Treasurer said.

But those opposed to the measure say the tax will only slow progress towards more environmentally-friendly motoring and are calling for incentives, such as subsidies or stamp duty waivers, to help reduce upfront EV costs.

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Road charging is inevitable once EVs become dominant, but it’s terrible to do it too early or not exempt EVs. As ever, Australia is showing how not to deal with the climate crisis. (Thanks Lloyd W for the link.)
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Facebook said to consider forming an Election Commission • The New York Times

Ryan Mac, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel:

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Facebook has approached academics and policy experts about forming a commission to advise it on global election-related matters, said five people with knowledge of the discussions, a move that would allow the social network to shift some of its political decision-making to an advisory body.

The proposed commission could decide on matters such as the viability of political ads and what to do about election-related misinformation, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential. Facebook is expected to announce the commission this fall in preparation for the 2022 midterm elections, they said, though the effort is preliminary and could still fall apart.

Outsourcing election matters to a panel of experts could help Facebook sidestep criticism of bias by political groups, two of the people said. The company has been blasted in recent years by conservatives, who have accused Facebook of suppressing their voices, as well as by civil rights groups and Democrats for allowing political misinformation to fester and spread online. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, does not want to be seen as the sole decision maker on political content, two of the people said.

Facebook declined to comment.

If an election commission is formed, it would emulate the step Facebook took in 2018 when it created what it calls the Oversight Board, a collection of journalism, legal and policy experts who adjudicate whether the company was correct to remove certain posts from its platforms. Facebook has pushed some content decisions to the Oversight Board for review, allowing it to show that it does not make determinations on its own.

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In principle, not a bad idea? But this will only be useful if they can determine it well before any elections.

However, as I point out in Social Warming, there are elections happening all over the world, all the time. Why have an Election Commission that only looks at US elections? But if it isn’t looking at that, then it needs to make decisions for each country, or for all countries. This is not good.
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Why are hyperlinks blue? • Mozilla Blog

Elise Blanchard:

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When a co-worker casually asked me why links are blue, I was stumped. As a user experience designer who has created websites since 2001, I’ve always made my links blue. I have advocated for the specific shade of blue, and for the consistent application of blue, yes, but I’ve never stopped and wondered, why are links blue? It was just a fact of life. Grass is green and hyperlinks are blue. Culturally, we associate links with the color blue so much that in 2016, when Google changed its links to black, it created quite a disruption. 

But now, I find myself all consumed by the question, WHY are links blue? WHO decided to make them blue? WHEN was this decision made, and HOW has this decision made such a lasting impact? 

I turned to my co-workers to help me research, and we started to find the answer. Mosaic, an early browser released by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina on January 23, 1993, had blue hyperlinks. To truly understand the origin and evolution of hyperlinks though, I took a journey through technology history and interfaces to explore how links were handled before color monitors, and how interfaces and hyperlinks rapidly evolved once color became an option.

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Quite a trip down memory lane, this one.
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How immunity generated from COVID-19 vaccines differs from an infection • NIH Director’s Blog

Dr Francis Collins:

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a new NIH-supported study shows that the answer to this question will vary based on how an individual’s antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were generated: over the course of a naturally acquired infection or from a COVID-19 vaccine.

The new evidence shows that protective antibodies generated in response to an mRNA vaccine will target a broader range of SARS-CoV-2 variants carrying “single letter” changes in a key portion of their spike protein compared to antibodies acquired from an infection.

These results add to evidence that people with acquired immunity may have differing levels of protection to emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. More importantly, the data provide further documentation that those who’ve had and recovered from a COVID-19 infection still stand to benefit from getting vaccinated.

These latest findings come from Jesse Bloom, Allison Greaney, and their team at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. In an earlier study, this same team focused on the receptor binding domain (RBD), a key region of the spike protein that studs SARS-CoV-2’s outer surface. This RBD is especially important because the virus uses this part of its spike protein to anchor to another protein called ACE2 on human cells before infecting them. That makes RBD a prime target for both naturally acquired antibodies and those generated by vaccines. Using a method called deep mutational scanning, the Seattle group’s previous study mapped out all possible mutations in the RBD that would change the ability of the virus to bind ACE2 and/or for RBD-directed antibodies to strike their targets.

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The methodology is impressive; the result, important. Vaccination is the way out, then, not “herd immunity” through infection.
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More and more humans are growing an extra artery, showing we’re still evolving • Science Alert

Mike McRae:

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An artery that temporarily runs down the center of our forearms while we’re still in the womb isn’t vanishing as often as it used to, according to researchers from Flinders University and the University of Adelaide in Australia.

That means there are more adults than ever with what amounts to be an extra channel of vascular tissue flowing under their wrist.

“Since the 18th century, anatomists have been studying the prevalence of this artery in adults and our study shows it’s clearly increasing,” Flinders University anatomist Teghan Lucas said in 2020.

“The prevalence was around 10% in people born in the mid-1880s compared to 30% in those born in the late 20th century, so that’s a significant increase in a fairly short period of time, when it comes to evolution.”

The median artery forms fairly early in development in all humans, transporting blood down the center of our arms to feed our growing hands. At around eight weeks, it usually regresses, leaving the task to two other vessels – the radial (which we can feel when we take a person’s pulse) and the ulnar arteries.

Anatomists have known for some time that this withering away of the median artery isn’t a guarantee. In some cases, it hangs around for another month or so.

…We might imagine having a persistent median artery could give dexterous fingers or strong forearms a dependable boost of blood long after we’re born. Yet having one also puts us at a greater risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, an uncomfortable condition that makes us less able to use our hands.

Nailing down the kinds of factors that play a major role in the processes selecting for a persistent median artery will require a lot more sleuthing.

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World’s largest chip maker to raise prices, threatening costlier electronics • WSJ

Yang Jie, Stephanie Yang and Yoko Kubota:

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The world’s largest contract chip maker is raising prices by as much as 20%, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that could result in consumers paying more for electronics.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) plans to increase the prices of its most advanced chips by roughly 10%, while less advanced chips used by customers like auto makers will cost about 20% more, these people said. The higher prices will generally take effect late this year or next year, the people said.

Apple is one of TSMC’s largest customers and its iPhones use advanced microprocessors made in TSMC foundries. It couldn’t be determined how much more Apple would pay.

A TSMC spokeswoman declined to comment on prices but said the company works closely with customers. An Apple spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The price increases come in the wake of a global semiconductor shortage that has affected Apple and most car makers, including General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. In August, GM said it had to idle three factories in North America that make large pickup trucks, the company’s biggest moneymaker. Last week, Toyota said it would curb production by 40% in September.

The price increases have a twofold purpose for TSMC as it addresses the shortage. In the short term, higher prices push down demand and preserve supply for customers who have no other choice. Over the longer term, the higher income will help TSMC invest aggressively in new capacity, according to analysts.

The company has said it plans to spend a total of $100bn over the next three years on new factories and equipment as well as research and development.

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Landline phones to be axed by 2025: digital switchover leads to fears elderly will struggle to cope • Daily Mail Online

Victoria Bischoff:

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The death knell has been sounded for the traditional landline telephone.

From 2025, all households and businesses will need the internet to make calls under a major digital shake-up. It means millions of customers will be pushed online for the first time or forced to rely on a mobile phone instead. Those without internet may need an engineer to visit their home to get them set up and those with older phones could need to buy a new handset.

Industry insiders compared the move to the switch to digital TV in 2012, when broadcasters stopped transmitting traditional analogue signals to household rooftop or indoor aerials. But while that change was led by the Government, the switch to ‘digital’ calls is being driven by the telecoms industry.

The upgrade will also impact other services that rely on the existing telephone network such as alarm systems, phones in lifts, payment terminals and red telephone boxes. Telecoms giants are aiming for the switchover to be complete in 2025.

But experts have raised concerns that millions of older and vulnerable households which are not online, do not use a mobile phone or live in a rural area with poor connectivity are at risk of being left behind.

Around 6% of households – roughly 1.5 million homes – do not have access to the internet, according to watchdog Ofcom. Many may only use the internet on their mobile phone via wireless services, while around half a million households do not own a mobile.

Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK, said: ‘Given that about half of older people over the age of 75 are not online, this could be a particular problem for our oldest citizens.”

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The phones in lifts etc will all get sorted – there’s money (and maintenance contracts) in sorting them out. Pretty certain there will be cheap contracts, and you only need 1Mbps to do VoIP. But it does mean that if your power goes out, you can’t make a phone call (or you’ll rely on a mobile signal). That’s going to be tricky.
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Google confirms it’s pulling the plug on Streams, its UK clinician support app • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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Google is infamous for spinning up products and killing them off, often in very short order. It’s an annoying enough habit when it’s stuff like messaging apps and games. But the tech giant’s ambitions stretch into many domains that touch human lives these days. Including, most directly, healthcare. And — it turns out — so does Google’s tendency to kill off products that its PR has previously touted as “life saving”.

To wit: following a recent reconfiguration of Google’s health efforts — reported earlier by Business Insider — the tech giant confirmed to TechCrunch that it is decommissioning its clinician support app, Streams.

The app, which Google Health PR bills as a “mobile medical device”, was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service in the years since, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.

At the time of writing, one NHS Trust — London’s Royal Free — is still using the app in its hospitals.

But, presumably, not for too much longer, since Google is in the process of taking Streams out back to be shot and tossed into its deadpool

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As the Google messaging app story (below) also demonstrates, Google really has a problem focusing on products with a strategy that lasts. Search? Yes. YouTube? Yes. Maps? Yes. Android? Yes. Chrome? Yes. Pretty much everything else? The most mixed of bags. The common thread of the listed products is that they create strategic benefits to bolster its ad business. Everything else, well, see how it goes. But that’s a problem for users of those products, because it’s never entirely clear if they’re strategy-adjacent enough to survive. (Google Reader: no. Streams: no.) (Thanks Wendy G for the link)
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A decade and a half of instability: the history of Google messaging apps • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Google’s 16 years of messenger wheel-spinning has allowed products from more focused companies to pass it by. Embarrassingly, nearly all of these products are much younger than Google’s messaging efforts. Consider competitors like WhatsApp (12 years old), Facebook Messenger (nine years old), iMessage (nine years old), and Slack (eight years old)—Google Talk even had video chat four years before Zoom was a thing.

Currently, you would probably rank Google’s offerings behind every other big-tech competitor. A lack of any kind of top-down messaging leadership at Google has led to a decade and a half of messaging purgatory, with Google both unable to leave the space altogether and unable to commit to a single product. While companies like Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into a lone messaging app, Google seems content only to spin up an innumerable number of under-funded, unstable side projects led by job-hopping project managers. There have been periods when Google briefly produced a good messaging solution, but the constant shutdowns, focus-shifting, and sabotage of established products have stopped Google from carrying much of these user bases—or user goodwill—forward into the present day.

Because no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products (and because it has barely been a month since the rollout of Google Chat), the time has come to outline the history of Google messaging. Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for a non-stop rollercoaster of new product launches, neglected established products, unexpected shut-downs, and legions of confused, frustrated, and exiled users.

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This is, to some extent, the shooting of fish in a barrel, but it’s August, and why not get it down in one place.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1624: a call for geoengineering, OS hackathon for car charging, Facebook considering Election Commission, and more

    • Well, it’s not quite like that. That story was a pickup of an Ofcom publication on the same day of its consideration of what the 2019 consultation meant. The DM had the best writeup of it, from the many I looked at.

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