Start Up No.1649: Facebook grilled, vaccine mandates work, USB-C gets more confusing, Ozy spirals, a 4K Switch?, and more


Your phone can tell if you’re being affected by marijuana use, say researchers. CC-licensed photo by Cold%2C Indrid on Flickr.

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


Facebook endures Senate grilling over Instagram’s effects on teens • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

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[Instagram CEO Adam] Mosseri announced [this week] that Facebook would pause plans to release a version of Instagram aimed at children in elementary and middle school — a rare decision by Facebook to change business plans after public pressure. But he has continued to defend the idea of the app, saying the reality is that children are online at very young ages and that Facebook is best equipped to create a safe environment for children on social media. The company has said it could provide stronger safety and privacy features on an app for young children than what is possible on its main Instagram app, pointing to what YouTube has done with YouTube Kids.

[Facebook global head of safety, Antigone] Davis reiterated some of that message in the hearing. But lawmakers balked at the company’s justification for an app for even younger children in light of the research on teenagers.

“Exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early.”

Congress has held numerous hearings with senior leaders at Facebook and other large tech companies in recent years, questioning them about issues including the spread of misinformation, market power and privacy. But legislators have struggled to write laws that address their concerns about those issues.

Though members of Congress have become more sophisticated about the tech industry, they have been focused narrowly on privacy and antitrust, said Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow focused on internet issues at the German Marshall Fund.

“This week the dam seemed to break,” Ms. Kornbluh said. The scrutiny on Facebook has made more lawmakers realize that researchers should have access to company data, to be able to assess how the services are working, she said.

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Honestly, I do try not to include “Facebook accused of doing bad things, hauled in front of lawmakers” links, but you can’t ignore this sort of thing. The stakes are rising all the time.
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If you want to understand more about Facebook (and other social networks), read Social Warming, my latest book.


Half of unvaccinated workers say they’d rather quit than get a shot – but real-world data suggest few follow through • The Conversation

Jack Barry, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand:

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while it is easy and cost-free to tell a pollster you’ll quit your job, actually doing so when it means losing a paycheck you and your family may depend upon is another matter.

And based on a sample of companies that already have vaccine mandates in place, the actual number who do resign rather than get the vaccine is much smaller than the survey data suggest.

Houston Methodist Hospital, for example, required its 25,000 workers to get a vaccine by June 7. Before the mandate, about 15% of its employees were unvaccinated. By mid-June, that percentage had dropped to 3% and hit 2% by late July. A total of 153 workers [less than 1%] were fired or resigned, while another 285 [1.1%] were granted medical or religious exemptions and 332 [1.3%] were allowed to defer it.

At Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, New Jersey, only five of its 527 workers [less than 1%] quit following its vaccine mandate. Two out of 250 workers [less than 1%] left Westminster Village in Bloomington, Illinois, and even in deeply conservative rural Alabama, a state with one of the lowest vaccine uptake rates, Hanceville Nursing & Rehab Center lost only six of its 260 employees [~2%].

Delta Airlines didn’t mandate a shot, but in August it did subject unvaccinated workers to a US$200 per month health insurance surcharge. Yet the airline said fewer than 2% of employees have quit over the policy.

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So basically it’s big talk but there’s no conviction behind it at all. Having the detail from the real-world experiment tells us a lot more. The UK has mandated vaccination for care home workers: it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens there, because care homes are petrified. Perhaps though social networks (looking at you, Facebook) amplify this stuff disproportionately.
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Smartphone sensors are capable of detecting cannabis high and have the potential to provide early intervention • Phys.org

Stevens Institute of Technology:

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With the rise of marijuana legalization in the United States, existing cannabis intoxication detection methods such as blood, urine, or saliva tests have limitations. Given the possible impairment in psychomotor functioning related to a cannabis “high,” such as slowed response time, this study can provide a way toward a just-in-time adaptive intervention among cannabis users.

Smart phone sensors that detect motion were monitored in young adults who reported cannabis use at least twice-per-week. More than 100 features were used to detect whether each participant was intoxicated, including GPS, noise, light and activity levels. Researchers then looked at day of week and time of day smartphone usage, while subjects self-reported being either “high” or “sober.”

Bae and her colleagues, including those at Rutgers and Carnegie Mellon University, found that the combination of the two datasets predicted cannabis intoxication with 90% accuracy in a natural environment. Bae created the AI to detect marijuana intoxication, which can potentially be applied to detect the emergence of a risky behavior, leading to early intervention in everyday settings.

“It’s important to give people the chance to change their behavior before something negative happens,” Bae said. “This study aims to predict human behavior as a way to support people while physically or cognitively impaired.”

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So the reports the other day about iPhones monitoring mood can sort of be done. (I didn’t link to it because it is soooo speculative. This is much more realistic.)
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USB-C cables are getting new, confusing logos for faster 240W charging standard • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) — the group that maintains the USB standard across its many varied incarnations — has introduced new, official logos for companies to use to brand their USB-C cables and packaging to go with its USB4 and 240W power standards. The goal is a noble one, aiming to help ease the confusion about the different types of USB-C cables (which can differ widely in things like charging and data transfer speeds) when you’re buying one.

Naturally, the USB-IF, in its… unique wisdom, has chosen to simplify things the only way it knows how: a slew of new logos that will soon adorn packaging for cables and chargers to help indicate to customers what charging and data speeds their devices support. Because nothing says “simple” like a chart of seven new logos for charging and data specifications.

The new branding is meant to tie in with the recent USB Power Delivery (USB PD) 3.1 specification that was announced earlier this year, which (confusingly) is part of the USB Type-C Release 2.1 specification, and offers devices that can charge with up to 240W of power — assuming you have the right cable and charger.

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Never simplify, always confuse. That’s the electronic way. (I was going to say “the American electronic way”, but have you seen the SKU names for Samsung or Sony TVs?)
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18-hour days and panic attacks: former Ozy staffers allege an abusive environment • CNN

Kerry Flynn:

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[24-year-old Eva] Rodriguez went back to work for a time after she completed the program. It was not until she tested positive for Covid-19 in February and was asked to work through it that she decided to quit, she said.

“It’s like a cult,” Rodriguez said. “I really felt like I would be nothing without them because they had given me so many great opportunities and that I would let them down severely if I ever quit.”

Interviews with nine former Ozy employees suggest Rodriguez’s story was not an isolated incident but rather part of a pervasive trend of staffers being worked to the point of exhaustion or worse. Seven of these former employees spoke with CNN Business on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution — some specifically cited concerns that Watson would try to damage their career prospects if he found out they spoke to the press.

Several of these former employees said they were angered after reading the Times’ story and seeing that Watson had attributed [COO Samir] Rao’s impersonation of a YouTube executive to a mental health crisis and said the company “stood by him,” noting that they’d seen Watson lacking support and empathy for such concerns with other employees in the past.

Watson, who previously worked as a host and commentator at CNBC, CNN and MSNBC, launched Ozy in 2013 as a digital media site with ambitions to cover “what’s new and what’s next.” That tagline, which has not really changed, was partly what attracted many reputable journalists to work for the startup. It was an opportunity, they believed, to not chase other outlets’ reporting and instead tell uncovered stories from across the globe.

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Ozy saw its chairman resign on Thursday night. (Back when Harvey Weinstein’s company was collapsing, he resigned from that board too.) This story also has an interesting detail about Rao’s behaviour relating to telephone calls. Apparently the company name comes from the poem Ozymandias – which they insist is about the importance of being humble, not the risks of hubris.

How long do we give it – a month?
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Nintendo Switch 4K: developers make games for nonexistent console • Bloomberg

Takashi Mochizuki and Olga Kharif:

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a system capable of handling 4K games isn’t expected to be released until late next year at the earliest, people familiar with the plans said. That leaves Nintendo at a technical disadvantage to rivals, whose shares have soared this year while Nintendo’s have lost 20%. It also risks alienating developers who have spent months tailoring their games to take advantage of upgraded hardware capabilities.

Nintendo responded to a list of questions by saying Bloomberg’s reporting is “inaccurate” and declined to specify which parts of the information it was referring to. In a tweet after the story’s publication, the company refuted it is supplying tools to drive 4K game development and reiterated it has “no plans” for any new Switch model beside the OLED variant.

After publication, Zynga spokeswoman Sarah Ross disputed what the people familiar with the matter said. “To clarify, Zynga does not have a 4K developer kit from Nintendo,” she said in a statement.

Bloomberg began reporting on details of the product more than a year ago, including the bigger OLED display, the fall release and the higher price. It was also supposed to contain a faster chip from Nvidia Corp. that would enable 4K graphics when connected to a television, people familiar with the plan said in March. Nvidia declined to comment.

But the 4K capability didn’t come to pass. It’s unclear exactly when the design changed. The reason, according to a person familiar with Nintendo’s hardware planning, was component shortages, a far-reaching problem born out of the Covid-19 pandemic. After unveiling the Switch OLED, Nintendo said it had “no plans for launching any other model at this time.”

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So, let’s unravel. Either Bloomberg is miiiiles wrong, or is dead right. Bloomberg says it has eleven independent sources on this. One, two, three could be wrong, but eleven? Nope. Thus it seems Nintendo is going to do a 4K something. Maybe not called “Switch”. (Thanks Ravi for the pointer.)
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Apple: top 10 podcast subscriptions, free channels (podcast roundup) • Variety

Todd Spangler:

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Apple for the first time has shared the top paid podcast subscriptions and free channels worldwide, from June 15 through September 15, providing a look at the most popular properties three months after the tech giant launched the services.

Apple’s top paid subscriptions are ranked in order of total subscribed listeners worldwide over the past three months and includes both channels and individual shows. The top free channels ranking is based on total listeners worldwide over the past three months for shows united under each channel and excludes fully paid or “freemium” channels (those with a mix of free and paid content). Apple Podcasts measures listeners as the number of unique devices that have played at least 1 second of an episode.

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This is very American-oriented, and I don’t listen to any in either set. It would be good to see nation-level versions: those would be properly interesting.
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Why has nuclear power been a flop? • Roots Of Progress

Jason Crawford reviews a book on this topic by Jack Devanney:

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The proximal cause of nuclear‘s flop is that it is expensive. In most places, it can‘t compete with fossil fuels. Natural gas can provide electricity at 7–8 cents/kWh; coal at 5 c/kWh.

Why is nuclear expensive? I‘m a little fuzzy on the economic model, but the answer seems to be that it‘s in design and construction costs for the plants themselves. If you can build a nuclear plant for around $2.50/W, you can sell electricity cheaply, at 3.5–4 c/kWh. But costs in the US are around 2–3x that. (Or they were—costs are so high now that we don‘t even build plants anymore.)

Why are the construction costs high? Well, they weren‘t always high. Through the 1950s and ‘60s, costs were declining rapidly. A law of economics says that costs in an industry tend to follow a power law as a function of production volume: that is, every time production doubles, costs fall by a constant% (typically 10 to 25%). This function is called the experience curve or the learning curve. Nuclear followed the learning curve up until about 1970, when it inverted and costs started rising.

Plotted over time, with a linear y-axis, the effect is even more dramatic. Devanney calls it the “plume,” as US nuclear constructions costs skyrocketed upwards:

Devanney Figure 7.10: Overnight nuclear plant cost as a function of start of construction. From J. Lovering, A. Yip, and T. Nordhaus, “Historical construction costs of global nuclear reactors” (2016)

This chart also shows that South Korea and India were still building cheaply into the 2000s. Elsewhere in the text, Devanney mentions that Korea, as late as 2013, was able to build for about $2.50/W.

The standard story about nuclear costs is that radiation is dangerous, and therefore safety is expensive. The book argues that this is wrong: nuclear can be made safe and cheap. It should be 3 c/kWh—cheaper than coal.

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But then Safety reared its unnecessary head.
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Sunak faces the brutal maths of electric vehicles • Financial Times

Chris Giles:

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Economics teaches us that people respond to incentives and, not surprisingly, the big switch in motoring is happening. Electric vehicles represented 11% of all new car registrations in August, close to double that of a year ago. The speed of the transition is far exceeding expert opinion and Norway’s experience suggests electric vehicles will be getting close to the majority of new sales by 2027, when current official forecasts suggest they might account for roughly a fifth of sales.

So far, the story of the electrification of Britain’s vehicle fleet is one of environmental gains and happy consumers. But this does not take into account the cost to taxpayers and other road users of the switch. Compared with a VW Golf driver, the ID. 3 owner benefits from a £2,500 plug-in grant for the new car, a 5% value added tax rate on electricity, no fuel duty and no annual vehicle excise duty. In addition, company car drivers benefit from much lower income tax on their benefit in kind, in effect giving them a few thousand pounds of additional (almost) tax-free income.

For a private buyer choosing an ID. 3 over a Golf, I calculate the Treasury loses roughly £1,250 a year in revenues. The net loss rises to £2,780 for a basic rate taxpaying company car driver and £4,160 annually for a higher rate taxpayer.

So, for higher-rate taxpayers, every million people who switch to an electric vehicle currently comes with a £4bn annual exchequer cost. That is enough to wipe out a third of the tax increases on earnings that Rishi Sunak has just imposed to bail out the health service and social care.

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Giles points out, as many are now doing (me included), that road pricing will be a necessity. Who’s going to grasp the nettle and tell everyone?
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Vice-versa • Status-Q

Quentin Stafford-Fraser, on Wednesday:

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Strange thought this morning: I bought an electric car and everyone else in the UK has range anxiety!

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By the end of Thursday the Petrol Retailer’s Association was still reporting that nearly a quarter of fuelling stations were empty, and [only] 50% were full up. There have been stories of stations being emptied within a few hours of a refuelling tanker arriving.

Good for “pure EV” owners. Meanwhile even hybrid owners have to fret because they need the petrol to power the small engine that recharges the battery once that’s discharged. (QSF has been driving EVs for the past six years, so he’s served his time among the range anxious.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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