Start Up No.1644: in search of the hurricane delivery man, the UK’s missed insulation scheme, Upworthy as data, and more

The EU is going to mandate USB-C for charging phones, tablets and other products to cut e-waste – but is that really the source of the problem? CC-licensed photo by Doug McCaughan on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Reusable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

European Commission proposes a common charger for electronic devices • European Commission


Today, the Commission is proposing:

• A harmonised charging port for electronic devices: USB-C will be the common port. This will allow consumers to charge their devices with the same USB-C charger, regardless of the device brand.
• Harmonised fast charging technology will help prevent that different producers unjustifiably limit the charging speed and will help to ensure that charging speed is the same when using any compatible charger for a device.
• Unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device: consumers will be able to purchase a new electronic device without a new charger. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused. Reducing production and disposal of new chargers is estimated to reduce the amount of electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes’ yearly.
• Improved information for consumers: producers will need to provide relevant information about charging performance, including information on the power required by the device and if it supports fast charging. This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger. Combined with the other measures, this would help consumers limit the number of new chargers purchased and help them save €250m a year on unnecessary charger purchases.

…In 2020, approximately 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU. On average, consumers own around three mobile phone chargers, of which they use two on a regular basis. Despite this, 38% of consumers report having experienced problems at least once that they could not charge their mobile phone because available chargers were incompatible. The situation is not only inconvenient but also costly for consumers, who spend approximately €2.4bn annually on standalone chargers that do not come with electronic devices. In addition, disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to pile up to 11,000 tonnes of e-waste every year.


I’d like to see the source of those statistics. I suspect the e-waste actually comes from non-phone devices. (This directive will apply to “smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles” – so not routers, set-top boxes, and various other electronic things with completely non-standard low-voltage plugs.) All sorts of perverse outcomes likely; the most probable being Apple abandoning the charging port in favour of inefficient wireless charging.

Some way from being law; the European Parliament still has to approve it, which isn’t certain.
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A search for the delivery worker in a viral Hurricane Ida video • The New Yorker

Eric Lach:


That night, more rain fell in a three-hour period than in any three-hour period in New York’s recorded history, breaking a record that had been set only ten days earlier, during Hurricane Henri. The man with the electric bicycle, meanwhile, cut a familiar profile, even to a new arrival: in recent years, the restaurant-delivery business, enabled by market-altering apps and a proliferation of electric bicycles, has exploded in New York City. Sixty-five thousand people, most of them poor immigrants, many of them undocumented, are now employed meeting the city’s demand for door-to-door burritos, grain bowls, and sushi combos.

Here, [photographer Johnny] Miller thought, was a [delivery] guy in the richest city in the world, out trying to make a buck in historically disastrous weather. “To see inequality and climate change come together in one video, like one frame,” Miller said later. “It just sort of happened.”


Lach joins Miller in his search for the delivery guy. It’s a story with an ending. Not, probably, the ending you’d expect. (Via Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things.)
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March 2021: UK government’s green homes grant in urgent need of rescue, MPs say • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey, in March 2021:


The UK government’s flagship home insulation scheme, intended to kickstart a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, has been botched, disastrous in administration, devastating in some of its impacts, and stands in urgent need of rescue, an influential committee of MPs has said.

Their outspoken criticism is a blow to the government’s plans for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and comes as ministers prepare to host vital UN climate talks – called Cop26 – in Glasgow this November.

There can be little chance of meeting the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 without a comprehensive programme to insulate Britain’s 19m draughty homes and switch from gas boilers to low-CO2 heating, the environmental audit committee of MPs said on Monday.

But they delivered a damning assessment of the green homes grant, launched last summer to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating, and demanded urgent action from ministers. They said the scheme was “rushed in conception and poorly implemented … [the] scheme administration appears nothing short of disastrous”.

They added: “The impact of its botched implementation has had devastating consequences on many of the builders and installers that can do the work, who have been left in limbo as a result of the orders cancelled and time taken to approve applications.”


Which is why there’s now a protest group called Insulate Britain which has been blocking roads to try to get the government to get homes insulated. If this project had been going fantastically well, the government could point to it. But no, not at all – rather as every environmental project (and pretty much every large-scale government project that has to permeate down to individuals) gets screwed up.
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The Upworthy Research Archive, a time series of 32,487 experiments in US media • Scientific Data

Nathan Matias et al:


The pursuit of audience attention online has led organizations to conduct thousands of behavioral experiments each year in media, politics, activism, and digital technology. One pioneer of A/B tests was, a US media publisher that conducted a randomized trial for every article they published.

Each experiment tested variations in a headline and image “package,” recording how many randomly-assigned viewers selected each variation. While none of these tests were designed to answer scientific questions, scientists can advance knowledge by meta-analyzing and data-mining the tens of thousands of experiments Upworthy conducted.

This archive records the stimuli and outcome for every A/B test fielded by Upworthy between January 24, 2013 and April 30, 2015. In total, the archive includes 32,487 experiments, 150,817 experiment arms, and 538,272,878 participant assignments. The open access dataset is organized to support exploratory and confirmatory research, as well as meta-scientific research on ways that scientists make use of the archive.


You won’t believe this one trick that data scientists use to make people read their papers.
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Another week, another chance to order Social Warming, my latest book, about how social media drives everyone a little mad – even if they don’t use it.

Apple will not reinstate Epic’s Fortnite developer account, but Epic’s other developer accounts remain active • Daring Fireball

John Gruber goes into some detail about the back-and-forth in which Epic wants to be able to update its Fortnite app on the App Store:


Sweeney tweeted the following on September 11, one day after the Epic-v.-Apple decision was delivered:


Thinking much more about whether we’re going to live in a world where two platform megacorps dictate software and world commerce to everyone or whether the digital world and the future metaverse will be a free world. Wouldn’t trade that away to get Fortnite back on iOS.


That doesn’t sound like the words of a man poised to comply with the App Store rules around in-app purchases. But, it doesn’t mean Epic wasn’t going to submit a Fortnite build that fully complies with the rules, either. Really does seem like Sweeney just thinking out loud in a tweet.


A good illustration of why chief executives in sticky legal positions shouldn’t be allowed near Twitter. See also: Elon Musk.
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COVID will end up resembling common cold by spring next year, leading experts say | UK News | Sky News

Rebecca Speare-Cole:


Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the virus could resemble the common cold by spring next year as people’s immunity to the virus is boosted by vaccines and exposure.

He added the country “is over the worst” and things “should be fine” once winter has passed, adding that there was continued exposure to the virus even in people who are vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel also said on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic could be over in a year as increased vaccine production ensures global supplies.

It comes the day after Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, whose work helped to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, said viruses tend to become weaker as they spread around.

Asked about her comments on Times Radio, Sir John said: “If you look at the trajectory we’re on, we’re a lot better off than we were six months ago. So the pressure on the NHS is largely abated. If you look at the deaths from COVID, they tend to be very elderly people, and it’s not entirely clear it was COVID that caused all those deaths.

“So I think we’re over the worst of it now and I think what will happen is, there will be quite a lot of background exposure to Delta,” he added, saying the case numbers are quite high but those who have had two vaccines and are infected will still lead to stronger herd immunity.


Hmm. UK deaths are running at about 1,000 per week, though flat; hospitalisations have come down quite dramatically. With more vaccination, perhaps this forecast is correct – for the UK, at least.
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File not found • The Verge

Monica Chin:


Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.


The generation where search engines plus smartphones and iPads have become pervasive. Also, if you’ve ever seen a teenager’s room you know that “filing” is not a familiar concept, at least for clothes.
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Facebook rolls out News Feed change that blocks watchdogs from gathering data • The Markup

Corin Faife:


Facebook has begun rolling out an update that is interfering with watchdogs monitoring the platform.

The Markup has found evidence that Facebook is adding changes to its website code that foils automated data collection of news feed posts—a technique that groups like NYU’s Ad Observatory, The Markup, and other researchers and journalists use to audit what’s happening on the platform on a large scale.

The changes, which attach junk code to HTML features meant to improve accessibility for visually impaired users, also impact browser-based ad blocking services on the platform. The new code risks damaging the user experience for people who are visually impaired, a group that has struggled to use the platform in the past.

The updates add superfluous text to news feed posts in the form of ARIA tags, an element of HTML code that is not rendered visually by a standard web browser but is used by screen reader software to map the structure and read aloud the contents of a page. Such code is also used by organizations like NYU’s Ad Observatory to identify sponsored posts on the platform and weed them out for further scrutiny. 


Bet that it’s in fact implemented to stymie ad-blocking, but of course Facebook won’t be unhappy if it gets in the way of Ad Observatory too.
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Section 230 and a tragedy of the commons • Communications of the ACM

Michael A Cusumano:


Given the law, social media platforms face a specific dilemma: If they edit too much content, then they become more akin to publishers rather than neutral platforms and that may invite strong legal challenges to their Section 230 protections. If they restrict too much content or ban too many users, then they diminish network effects and associated revenue streams. Fake news and conspiracy theories often go viral and have been better for business than real news, generating billions of dollars in advertisements.

…we would all benefit from a revision of Section 230 that allows the public to hold online platforms accountable at least for advertisements and profits tied to the wilful dissemination of false and dangerous information. We need government guardrails not only to protect the public but also to protect online platforms from their worst tendencies—the temptation to give in to harmful or destructive content that generates billions of dollars in sales and profits. Even Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged the problem of regulating digital content is too big for Facebook and other social media platforms to solve by themselves.


Cusumano is a professor and deputy dean at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coauthor of The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and Power (2019). He’s also completely wrong about Section 230: it doesn’t matter how much a platform edits – they never “become more akin to publishers”.

As to the other bit – holding platforms accountable based on “wilful” dissemination – try to define what “wilful” would look like. That Facebook (etc) monitored the content and let it go? But that’s not how platforms work. It’s amazing how people write daft articles like this and (respectable?) organisations publish them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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