Start Up No.1642: the UK’s missed chance for renewables, Telenor exits Myanmar, the totally repairable laptop, and more


The story of Lot’s wife and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have some basis in reality – caused by a meteorite skyburst. CC-licensed photo by jean louis mazieres on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Unsalted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Government should have moved earlier to low-carbon, say industry experts • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:

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The gas supply crunch has prompted a flurry of government meetings with industry, and reassurances in parliament on Monday from the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, that “there is no question of the lights going out” and that the UK is “highly resilient”.

But the supply issue demonstrates that fossil fuels are inherently subject to wild price fluctuations, which happen at least once a decade, according to Roger Fouquet, of the London School of Economics. “Price volatility is an inevitable part of the fossil fuel energy system,” he said. “Renewables do not suffer from these market-related problems.”

Switching to renewables reduces the impact of fossil fuel price fluctuation, but the UK is still “particularly exposed to international gas prices”, said Rob Gross of UCL. “Gas power stations set prices [in the UK], particularly when demand is high and renewables output is low. Countries with a lower share of gas in their power mix experience less volatile prices and we should expect that here too.”

Dan McGrail, chief executive of RenewableUK, which represents wind energy companies, said the government should learn the lesson for future years. “The first priority for government and the sector is, of course, protecting consumers in response to this price surge. The only way to do that in the long term is to have an energy system powered by cheap renewables, with flexible storage, hydrogen and other low-carbon technologies to meet demand at lowest cost.”

He pointed out that it was already cheaper, even before the gas price began soaring, to generate electricity by building a new windfarm than running an existing gas power plant.

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See also, from March 2016:

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Supporters of leaving the EU have said claims by Energy Secretary Amber Rudd that total household bills could rise by as much as £1.5m a day are “absurd”.

Ms Rudd said the UK faced an “electric shock” outside the EU, pointing to research suggesting energy costs could increase by £500m a year.

The UK, she claimed, was more at risk of Russian “hijacking” outside the EU. Leave campaigners said the UK did not depend on the EU or Russia for supplies and EU membership pushed costs up.

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Norway’s Telenor says Myanmar unit sale plan followed junta’s pressure on surveillance tech • Reuters

Fanny Potkin:

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Norwegian telecom firm Telenor is selling its Myanmar operations to avoid European Union sanctions after “continued pressure” from Myanmar’s military junta to activate intercept surveillance technology, the company’s Asia head told Reuters.

Telenor announced in July it would sell its Myanmar unit to Lebanese investment firm M1 Group for $105 million, prompting an outcry from activists in the country who have been relying on its services for communications.

A Reuters investigation in May found telecom and internet service providers in Myanmar had been secretly ordered in the months before the junta’s Feb. 1 coup to install invasive technology that would allow the army to freely eavesdrop on the communications of citizens.

“Since the military took over, it’s been clear for us that our presence will require Telenor Myanmar to activate intercept equipment and technology for the use of Myanmar authorities,” Asia head Jørgen Rostrup said in an interview.

Allowing the activation of the intercept technology would break the 2018 EU arms embargo against the Southeast Asian country, the executive added, stressing the need for legal or regulatory safeguards in Myanmar to protect human rights.

“Telenor Myanmar has not activated the equipment as of yet and will not do so voluntarily,” he said. He declined to comment on whether the intercept technology had been installed at Telenor’s operations in Myanmar.

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This is huge. Telenor was one of the two biggest mobile networks in Myanmar (along with Ooredoo) out of four, and one of the original enablers of the dramatic explosion in smartphone use there after 2010. (There’s a whole chapter about the effect of smartphones on Myanmar in my book Social Warming. Just sayin’.)
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For more on Myanmar, and much else, read Social Warming, my latest book.


The Framework is the most exciting laptop I’ve ever used • Pluralistic

Cory Doctorow:

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I was ready to buy another Thinkpad by last spring. What else was I going to buy? I wanted something maintainable, and I loved the hardware mouse-buttons and the Trackpoint. But Lenovo was estimating 4-5 months to fulfill orders, so I closed the window and bailed.

Then I saw Ifixit’s teardown of a Framework laptop. They described a computer whose hardware was fully user-maintainable/upgradeable. The system opens with six “captive” screws (they stay in the case) and then every component can be easily accessed.

There’s no tape. There’s no glue. Every part has a QR code that you can shoot with your phone to go to a service manual that has simple-to-follow instructions for installing, removing and replacing it. Every part is labeled in English, too!

The screen is replaceable. The keyboard is replaceable. The touchpad is replaceable. Removing the battery and replacing it takes less than five minutes. The computer actually ships with a screwdriver.

All this, without sacrificing size or power – it’s so similar to a Macbook that a friend who came over for dinner (and who knows about my feelings about proprietary Apple hardware) expressed shock that I’d switched to a Macbook!

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It certainly looks like a Macbook, but he’s running Ubuntu.
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To treat users fairly, Facebook must commit to transparency • Facebook Oversight Board

Catalina Botero-Marino, Jamal Greene, Michael McConnell and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, co-chairs of the Oversight Board:

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In light of recent developments, we are looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting. The Board has reached out to Facebook to request they provide further clarity about the information previously shared with us. We expect to receive a briefing from Facebook in the coming days and will be reporting what we hear from this as part of our first release of quarterly transparency reports which we will publish in October. On top of providing new information on the types of appeals the Board is receiving, these reports will provide an analysis of the Board’s decisions related to cross-check and Facebook’s responses on this topic.

We are also looking at how the Board can further explore policy issues related to cross-check, which may lead to further recommendations in this area.

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Since January the FBOB has received more than half a million requests from users to examine Facebook decisions, taken on 20 cases, issued 15 decisions and gone against Facebook 11 times. Not what you’d call a stunning throughput, but they don’t say how many requests were rejected – or maybe all but those 20 were.

However the WSJ has now got the FBOB annoyed. Wonder how that’s going to go.
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Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power: excerpt • NY Mag

Max Chafkin:

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At the time [in 1998-99], the Valley was so full of competing payments companies that there was a second one on the same floor. X.com was better funded than PayPal, with a famous investor — Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital — and a charismatic founder who’d already sold another start-up for some $300m. His name was Elon Musk.

Musk didn’t know that the engineers across the landing were also working on digital money transfers. (The sign on their door bore the name of a parent company.) X and PayPal shared a trash bin in the alley behind their building, and PayPal engineers later bragged to a group of X employees that they found documents that described X’s payments scheme, which used the web, rather than Palm Pilots, as well as a system for generating referrals by giving customers cash. They incorporated the ideas into PayPal’s strategy. Some X employees I spoke with took this boast literally, though Musk cast doubt on the story. “It’s possible, I suppose,” he told me. “But it’s a bit like saying, ‘You stole my idea for going to the moon.’” Even though he has long since moved on to running Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has complicated feelings about Thiel, in part because of what happened next.

Shifting PayPal’s focus to the web and paying new users referral fees juiced the company’s growth. Some of Thiel’s coders made a little software app to track how many people had created new accounts, which appeared on his screen as a little box titled “World Domination Index.” Every time a new user joined, the app played the sound of a bell. In November 1999, PayPal’s customer base was a few thousand. By spring, the index was up to 1 million. That was a nearly unprecedented rate of growth, but it meant that PayPal had spent something like $20 million on referral fees out of the $28 million it had raised. The losses, and the similarity of their businesses, persuaded Thiel and Musk to combine their companies.

Thiel left shortly after the merger. “I wouldn’t say we’re oil and water, but there are some pretty big differences,” Musk, who became CEO, told me. “Peter likes the games manship of investing — like we’re all playing chess. I don’t mind that, but I’m fundamentally into doing engineering and design. I’m not an inves tor. I feel like using other people’s money is not cool.” A person who has talked to each man about the other put it more succinctly: “Musk thinks Peter is a sociopath, and Peter thinks Musk is a fraud and a braggart.”

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I agree with Musk, based on what Thiel is described doing in the rest of the extract.
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Trump campaign knew lawyers’ voting machine claims were baseless, memo shows • NY Times

Alan Feuer:

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Two weeks after the 2020 election, a team of lawyers closely allied with Donald J. Trump held a widely watched news conference at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington. At the event, they laid out a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that a voting machine company had worked with an election software firm, the financier George Soros and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Mr. Trump.

But there was a problem for the Trump team, according to court documents released on Monday evening.

By the time the news conference occurred on Nov. 19, Mr. Trump’s campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.

The court papers, which were initially filed late last week as a motion in a defamation lawsuit brought against the campaign and others by a former Dominion employee, Eric Coomer, contain evidence that officials in the Trump campaign were aware early on that many of the claims against the companies were baseless.

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There’s a tiny bit of technology flavour to this, but really it’s about how democracy is poisoned and killed: by people willing to lie that elections were fraudulent. They, perhaps more even than those in Belarus and Russia who carry out fraudulent elections, are the murderers of democracy, because they are under its care – they just want to snuff it out when they dislike the outcome.
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iPhone 13 and Apple Silicon • Creative Strategies

Ben Bajarin on the difference that Apple’s ownership of its silicon design gives it over pretty much everyone else:

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I found this line found on Apple’s website explaining the tight integration of the hardware teams, software teams, and silicon teams demonstrates the unique way all three groups collaborate. 

“What’s truly unique about Apple is that we don’t just start with a superfast chip and build features around it. Instead, we start with an idea about a great experience we’d like you to have, and then we all work together to bring it to life.”

This subtle point often gets overlooked amidst talk of Apple’s silicon performance. To a degree, Apple is to blame since they have frequently called out their silicon performance against competitors. And while performance is a relevant metric, especially over time, as I will explain, where most consumers will see the advances in Apple silicon is in the key features and experiences that silicon is designed to enable. 

While it isn’t always obvious, Apple’s integrated product design approach of hardware, software, and silicon has led to many of the advances in camera, battery life, AI, video capture performance, and even ProMotion on iPhone 13 Pro. Apple has a luxury other silicon companies don’t. They custom-tune their architecture and silicon design specifically for iPhone and the feature they want iPhone to have. This allows them to spend their transistor budget on features instead of just pure performance.

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Bajarin focuses (ahem) on the macro feature in the new phones, but I heard that the “Cinematic video” system (which will shift the point of focus from one person to another as you film, if you so desire) was also a feature that Apple first dreamt up, and then implemented. (Others have done it, but theirs isn’t live as you capture.) Subtle difference. He also pegs the year-on-year improvement as about 11% for CPU, but much bigger for the GPU.
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The computer chip industry has a dirty climate secret • The Guardian

Pádraig Belton:

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TSMC alone uses almost 5% of all Taiwan’s electricity, according to figures from Greenpeace, predicted to rise to 7.2% in 2022, and it used about 63m tons of water in 2019. The company’s water use became a controversial topic during Taiwan’s drought this year, the country’s worst in a half century, which pitted chipmakers against farmers.

In the US, a single fab, Intel’s 700-acre campus in Ocotillo, Arizona, produced nearly 15,000 tons of waste in the first three months of this year, about 60% of it hazardous. It also consumed 927m gallons of fresh water, enough to fill about 1,400 Olympic swimming pools, and used 561m kilowatt-hours of energy.

Chip manufacturing, rather than energy consumption or hardware use, “accounts for most of the carbon output” from electronics devices, the Harvard researcher Udit Gupta and co-authors wrote in a 2020 paper.

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A Tunguska-sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea • Nature

Bunch et al:

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We present evidence that in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea. The proposed airburst was larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a ~ 50-m-wide bolide detonated with ~ 1000× more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. A city-wide ~ 1.5-m-thick carbon-and-ash-rich destruction layer contains peak concentrations of shocked quartz (~ 5–10 GPa); melted pottery and mudbricks; diamond-like carbon; soot; Fe- and Si-rich spherules; CaCO3 spherules from melted plaster; and melted platinum, iridium, nickel, gold, silver, zircon, chromite, and quartz. Heating experiments indicate temperatures exceeded 2000 °C. Amid city-side devastation, the airburst demolished 12  m of the 4-to-5-story palace complex and the massive 4-m-thick mudbrick rampart, while causing extreme disarticulation and skeletal fragmentation in nearby humans. An airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) produced hypersalinity, inhibited agriculture, and caused a ~ 300–600-year-long abandonment of ~ 120 regional settlements within a > 25-km radius. Tall el-Hammam may be the second oldest city/town destroyed by a cosmic airburst/impact, after Abu Hureyra, Syria, and possibly the earliest site with an oral tradition that was written down (Genesis).

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They think this may have become the origin of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (The comic Denis Norden always used to say that what he wanted to know was: what did they do in Gomorrah?) Tunguska was a 1908 event: for a proper alternative reality to ponder, consider that had it entered the atmosphere four hours earlier, it would have exploded over London.
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If you just message “hi” and nothing else I assume I’m getting fired • The Outline

Casey Johnston:

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Communication styles online have unspooled way faster than anyone can make sense of them. Only recently did people figure out there are stereotypically “male” and “female” ways on communicating on Slack that are essentially ruining people’s lives because of the way they clash—men tend to be terse and blunt and women tend to be empathetic and enthusiastic, but both expect each other to be the opposite way. I have a different problem, which is that when my boss slacks me “hi!”, and only “hi!”, my blood pressure shoots through the roof as I wait for her to say something else and she doesn’t, at which point I enter a catatonic state.

She did this the other day and my heart immediately began racing. Why? I’m not sure. All she did was say hi, a perfectly legal and normal thing for anyone to say to anyone else — people you know, people you don’t know. It’s maybe the only thing literally anyone can say to anyone else without consequence.

It has at least partly to do with the fact that conversations online never really end or begin, so it’s immediately alarming that she is not just saying the thing she ostensibly intends to tell or ask me. It’s botlike, like she wants to be sure first that I am there, the “shut the door and have a seat” of messages, before she launches into some exchange that she knows I won’t like.

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Though it’s also a neat bit of “generate content from an everyday occurrence”, she does have a point: it’s impossible to know if you’re over- or under-reacting to the subtext of messages. (There’s even a site, https://nohello.net/, explaining how just “hi” is awful.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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