Start Up No.1641: the undercounted greenhouse gas emissions, Facebook’s troll farm problem, US rebuffs Huawei again, and more

The knock-on effects of the European gas price rise point to systemic failures of investment over decades. CC-licensed photo by Grey World on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Invest in jumpers? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Climate TRACE releases first comprehensive, independent database of global greenhouse gas emissions • Medium

Climate TRACE:


Driven by satellites, remote sensing, and advanced applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the inventory is particularly relevant to the more than 100 countries that lack access to comprehensive emissions data from the past five years…

• In oil and gas production and refining, among the world’s top countries that submit regular inventories, emissions from oil and gas may collectively be around double (1 billion tons higher than) recent UNFCCC reports. Further, it is likely that over 1 billion additional tons CO2e per year — more than the annual emissions of the 100 lowest-ranking emitting countries combined — have gone uncounted by countries that aren’t required to report their oil and gas emissions regularly.

• Steel production globally resulted in 13.1 billion tons of CO2e between 2015 and 2020, equivalent to the total emissions of Japan and the United Kingdom combined over that same period. In 2020, steel emissions fell in nearly every country except for China. Further, this year China’s steel industry is on track for an estimated emissions increase of 158 Mt CO2e, roughly equal to the entire annual emissions of Singapore.

• Shipping and aviation together emitted nearly 11 billion tons of CO2e between 2015 and 2020, totals that would make these two sectors combined the 5th largest emitter in the world, if they were a country. Shipping emissions increased about 10% per year from 2018–2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, considerably faster than expected. Yet emissions from both sectors are exempted from countries’ mitigation commitments under the Paris Agreement.

• Forest fire emissions have more than doubled in Russia and the United States since 2015, which together now emit more from fires than Brazil.


Ahead of the COP26 meeting, and the gloomy news about targets being missed, this suggests that the measurement for those targets is miles off too. Really need someone to invent a machine to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, ideally along with a pocket-sized fusion reactor.
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Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


In the run-up to the 2020 election, the most highly contested in US history, Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were being run by Eastern European troll farms. These pages were part of a larger network that collectively reached nearly half of all Americans, according to an internal company report, and achieved that reach not through user choice but primarily as a result of Facebook’s own platform design and engagement-hungry algorithm.

The report, written in October 2019 and obtained by MIT Technology Review from a former Facebook employee not involved in researching it, found that after the 2016 election, Facebook failed to prioritize fundamental changes to how its platform promotes and distributes information. The company instead pursued a whack-a-mole strategy that involved monitoring and quashing the activity of bad actors when they engaged in political discourse, and adding some guardrails that prevented “the worst of the worst.”

But this approach did little to stem the underlying problem, the report noted. Troll farms—professionalized groups that work in a coordinated fashion to post provocative content, often propaganda, to social networks—were still building massive audiences by running networks of Facebook pages. Their content was reaching 140 million US users per month—75% of whom had never followed any of the pages. They were seeing the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system had pushed it into their news feeds.


This is starting to feel like a story I’ve read (and written) so, so many times before.
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Still on sale:
Social Warming, my latest book on how social networks are affecting everyone – even those who don’t use them.

Key security agencies split over whether to sanction a Huawei spinoff, Honor, by placing it on a Commerce blacklist • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Jeanne Whalen:


Last week, career personnel at four agencies responsible for making such decisions split on whether to put the smartphone-maker, Honor, on the Commerce Department’s entity list, which bars exports of US technology to the sanctioned firm without a department license. They couldn’t agree on whether a business that Huawei sold last year posed a significant threat to US national security.

Staff members at the Pentagon and Energy Department supported placing the company on the blacklist, while their counterparts at the Commerce Department and State Department opposed it, according to several people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential process.

The issue has been appealed to the political-appointee level at the four agencies, according to people familiar with the matter. If they deadlock, the issue can be escalated to the Cabinet level. In the event of a tie there, President Biden would make the final decision.

How to deal with Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment-maker, is a politically charged subject. The Trump administration placed it on the entity list in 2019 after calling the company a national security threat, including for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The United States indicted the daughter of Huawei’s founder on bank and wire fraud charges related to the Iran allegations and is seeking her extradition from Canada, a matter that has heightened tensions among the three countries.


Huawei could keep spinning off pieces and the US would still keep after it. Until there’s something the US particularly wants, commerce-wise, from China.
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Inside TikTok’s amateur investigation into Gabby Petito’s disappearance • Vice

Matthew Gault:


Petito and [apparent boyfriend Brian] Laundrie had been on a cross country roadtrip that left from New York city and ended somewhere in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. She was reported missing by her family on September 11. Laundrie returned to his family’s home early last week—without Petito—in a van registered to her. His family announced over the weekend that they hadn’t seen him in days, and human remains matching a description of Petito were found in Grand Teton National Park on Sunday.

Every new detail of the case has been pored over, analyzed, and dissected by dedicated groups of Petito investigators online. Until a body was found, the biggest new piece of information was more than an hour of Moab, Utah, PD bodycam footage that showed an interaction with the couple in an apparent domestic dispute. Law enforcement did not make any arrests—they merely separated the couple and had Laundrie spend a night in a hotel. The video was taken on August 12, a month before she was reported missing, and posted online on September 16.

Among the Petito investigators is Toumaian, who ran a mundane TikTok channel full of lifehacks and assorted musings until turning her attention to the Petito case. Now every new bit of information becomes two minutes of content that’s viewed millions of times. 


The quality of the work is best captured in a later sentence, “The leads and details are overwhelming and infinite.” I wonder if Bellingcat could be hired as a sort of open source gumshoe.
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Britain’s energy woes catch vulnerable sector in perfect storm • Financial Times

Nathalie Thomas, David Sheppard and Jim Pickard:


For Ed Davey, a former energy secretary and leader of the Liberal Democrats, the crisis is proof that UK government energy policy has been “lamentable”, with ministers failing to tackle problems such as Britain’s poor housing stock, among the worst-insulated in Europe.

Others point to Britain’s failure to invest in sufficient renewable energy capacity, new nuclear power stations to wean the country off its dependence on gas, or storage facilities.

There are also fears the UK has put too much faith in a just-in-time approach to critical energy supplies after output declines in the North Sea left the country more reliant on imports.

While UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said those warning of real shortages are “alarmist”, some in the industry say there could be reason for concerns in the event of a very cold winter that further tightens supplies across Europe.

Britain’s largest gas storage site, the ageing Rough facility off the Yorkshire coast, was closed to new injections in 2017 after owner Centrica said it was not economic to refurbish it. Gas storage owners had long called for government incentives to encourage investment in storage in a country that only has capacity to cover about 2% of annual demand — against 20-30% in most other large gas importers.

Cargos of LNG — which provided almost a fifth of UK supplies in 2019 — can be bid up by companies in Asia, often state-backed, which are less sensitive to prices.

Kwarteng this week quietly dropped Qatar — one of the world’s largest suppliers of LNG — from the list of countries such as Norway the government likes to trumpet as reliable suppliers. Qatari LNG cargoes have primarily sailed to Asia this year.


Also worth reading about why higher gas prices means less CO2 for industry.
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How many daily steps should you take to live longer? • The New York Times

Gretchen Reynolds:


To increase our chances for a long life, we probably should take at least 7,000 steps a day or play sports such as tennis, cycling, swimming, jogging or badminton for more than 2.5 hours per week, according to two, large-scale new studies of the relationship between physical activity and longevity. The two studies, which, together, followed more than 10,000 men and women for decades, show that the right types and amounts of physical activity reduce the risk of premature death by as much as 70 percent.

But they also suggest that there can be an upper limit to the longevity benefits of being active, and pushing beyond that ceiling is unlikely to add years to our life spans and, in extreme cases, might be detrimental.


Apparently 90 minutes is too much. So even with exercise there’s a Goldilocks effect.
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If an asteroid will truly strike Earth, NASA explains how you’ll know • Mashable

Mark Kaufman:


On April 13, 2029 (which happens to be Friday the 13th), something unsettling will happen.

A decent-sized asteroid, the 1,100-foot-wide Apophis, will pass so close to Earth it’ll be visible in the sky from certain places. Crucially, the giant rock will not strike our humble planet. But it will pass closer than 20,000 miles from the surface, which is closer than where some of the United States’ most prized weather satellites orbit.

Asteroids like Apophis hold a fascinating place in our existence: Big impacts are at once terrible threats to our lives and potentially the habitability for many species, but they’re also extremely rare and irregular events. Yet the internet — awash with clickbait — likes to incessantly warn of incoming threats with misleading headlines like “Asteroid heading our way day before presidential election,” “Should you be worried about the ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid passing by Earth today?,” and “Massive asteroid will swing by Earth after Valentine’s Day.”

These stories aren’t about real danger; many of the objects pass millions of miles away. Rather, the stories are about sensationalism.

Mashable spoke with NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, Lindley Johnson, who understands, perhaps better than anyone on the planet, what will happen when a big one comes. If a serious threat to either a region on Earth, a large swathe of Earth, or perhaps the entirety of Earth, is truly on its way — and astronomers know about it — so will you.


I wonder if we’ll have asteroid denialists. At least they’ll have the comfort of not being proven wrong.
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Clubhouse is developing a new way to invite friends to chat called ‘Wave’ • Engadget

Mariella Moon:


Clubhouse isn’t just an app you can fire up to attend talks by famous people. It has different types of rooms you can use, including ones where you can have intimate, private conversations with friends — and in the future, you may be able to invite those friends to chat by “waving” at them. Jane Manchun Wong, who’s famous for reverse engineering apps to find hidden experimental features, has discovered that Clubhouse is working on a new way to invite contacts to have an audio conversation. 

If the feature gets a wide release, Clubhouse will add a “Wave” button on users’ profiles that looks similar to the Wave button you see when you first connect with someone on Messenger. Tapping on it will let a friend know you want to chat, and the app will only open a room for you if they respond. 


Clubhouse, Clubhouse.. rings a bell. Google Trends shows interest in it is now at its lowest point since December 2020 (when it was pretty low). It peaked in early February 2021. Wonder what its burn rate is like.
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Future Mars housing may be built with astronaut blood and pee • Interesting Engineering

Chris Young:


A new type of cheaper housing has been proposed for future Mars colonists. All the astronauts need to do is pay in blood.

Researchers from the University of Manchester made the proposal — we promise this isn’t the plot of a 90s straight-to-VHS sci-fi horror movie — as a means to greatly reduce the cost and increase the speed of construction for future off-world colonies.

In a paper published in Materials Today Bio, they detail how extra-terrestrial dust can be mixed with the blood, urine, and other bodily fluids of astronauts to build walls that would protect them from radiation and meteor strikes. And the process could also “potentially solve a life-threatening emergency akin to the Apollo 13 disaster,” Dr. Aled Roberts, lead author on the study, tells us in an interview via email.

In their study, the University of Manchester researchers demonstrated how human serum albumin (HSA), a common protein from blood plasma, and urine, could be used as a binding agent for extra-terrestrial dust, turning it into a material stronger than ordinary concrete. 

The researchers state that the blood plasma protein required for the material could be safely extracted from astronauts multiple times a week using an existing procedure similar to blood donation. HSA is the most abundant protein in blood plasma and it replenishes at a rate of 12 – 25 g per day. The question is, would astronauts be able to maintain the mental and physical strength needed for space missions if they have blood plasma extracted several times per week?


The paper suggests using pretty much everything as binding agent. I once lived in a (very old) house whose walls were insulated with dried cow dung: it was warm. Quite a scheme.
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Fuel wasted due to US traffic congestion in 2020 cut in half from 2019 to 2020 • US Department of Energy


The traffic decline associated with the pandemic resulted in only half as much fuel being wasted in 2020 compared to 2019. Total excess fuel consumed due to congestion in 2020 was 1.7 billion gallons, the lowest since 1994. Before 2020, the trend was steadily rising to a peak of nearly 3.5 billion gallons in 2019. About 20% of the excess fuel in 2020 was consumed by heavy trucks.


That’s about 16 megatonnes of carbon dioxide not emitted (based on EPA data. Quite a saving.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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