Start Up No.1656: energy prices rocket worldwide, a Facebook ban for reducing Facebook use, what do people *really* search for?, and more

There’s a good reason why the shift from email to Slack has led to more office unrest. CC-licensed photo by Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

And you will know us by the company we keep • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei:


One of my favorite heuristics for spotting flaws in a system is to look at those trying to break it. Advanced social media users have long tried to hack their away around graph design problems. Users who create finsta’s or alt Twitter accounts are doing so, in part, to create alternative graphs more suited to particular purposes. One can imagine alternative social architectures that wouldn’t require users to create multiple accounts to implement these tactics. But in this world where each social media account can only be associated with one identity, users are locked into a single graph per account.

One clever way an app might help solve the graph design problem is by removing the burden of unfollowing accounts that no longer interest users. Just as our social graphs change throughout our lives, so could our online social graphs. Our set of friends in kindergarten tend not to be the same friends we have in grade school, high school, college, and beyond.

A higher fidelity social product would automatically nip and tuck our social graphs over time as they observed our interaction patterns. Imagine Twitter or Instagram just silently unfollowing accounts you haven’t engaged with in a while, accounts that have gone dormant, and so on.

…It’s no surprise that many tech companies install Slack and then suddenly find themselves, shortly thereafter, dealing with employee uprisings. When you rewire the communications topology of any group, you alter the dynamic among the members. Slack’s public channels act as public squares within companies, exposing more employees to each other’s thoughts. This can lead to an employee finding others who share what they thought were minority opinions, like reservations about specific company policies. We’re only now seeing how many companies operated in relative peace in the past in large part because of the privacy inherent in e-mail as a communications technology.


Any post by Eugene Wei is a must-link, must read. The inclusion of Bezos’s taxonomy of decisions is a bonus. Plus the point about WeChat not needing as many ads because of its skim on services.
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China’s noisy ‘dancing grannies’ silenced by device that disables speakers • The Guardian

Chi Hui Lin and Helen Davidson:


Across China’s public parks and squares, in the early hours of the morning or late in the afternoon, the grannies gather.

The gangs, made up mostly of middle-aged and older women who went through the Cultural Revolution, take to a corner of a local park or sporting ground and dance in unison to Chinese music. Loud music.

The tradition has led to alarming standoffs, with the blaring music frequently blamed for disturbing the peace in often high-density residential areas. But many are too scared to confront the women.

The dilemma of the dancing grannies has prompted some to seek out tech solutions. One went viral online this week: a remote stun gun-style device that claims to be able to disable a speaker from 50 metres away.

Reviews of the item were positive. “Downstairs is finally quiet. For two days the grannies thought their speaker is not working!”, said one on Taobao, China’s version of eBay.


Very reminiscent of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies:
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Petrol prices skyrocket as the global energy crisis worsens • CNN

Matt Egan:


Natural gas prices have skyrocketed so much, especially in Europe and Asia, that power plants and factories may increasingly turn to a relatively cheaper fuel source for electricity: crude oil.

“It’s a case of just trying to keep the lights on,” said Matt Smith, Kpler’s lead oil analyst for the Americas. “This is essentially creating demand that typically isn’t there,”

Citigroup on Monday ramped up its Brent oil forecast to $85 a barrel for the fourth quarter and said crude will likely hit $90 at times. The Wall Street bank cited “price contagion this winter” and the expected switching of power plants away from sky-high natural gas to oil.

Citi added that a “very cold winter” could see Europe “running out of gas” by February.

Oil has long been there as a potential substitute for natural gas — except until recently, it didn’t make any financial sense. That’s because for much of the past dozen years, natural gas prices have been very low, making switching to oil uneconomical.

But in Europe, natural gas prices have gone from below $2 per million BTU last year to as much as $55 this fall. That is the equivalent of $320 a barrel oil.


Running out of gas is going to be quite the interesting phenomenon.
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In global energy crisis, anti-nuclear chickens come home to roost • Foreign Policy

Ted Nordhaus:


as the share of renewable energy grows in places like California and Germany, the technical challenges associated with scaling up renewables become more difficult. Once the share of variable renewable energy (i.e., solar and wind) begins to approach 20% or so, it swamps the electrical grid whenever the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Surges of wind and solar power at particular times of the day not only undermine the economics of other power sources on the grid but also undermine the economics of adding additional wind and solar. This phenomenon, called value deflation, is already eroding the economics of wind and solar in California and elsewhere—even at relatively low shares of grid penetration.

…Unfortunately, California’s electricity follies are hardly exceptional. Germany’s hundreds of billions of euros in renewable energy subsidies have bought it the costliest retail electricity in Europe. The need to fill the hole left by the nation’s shuttered nuclear plants and back up growing wind and solar generation has forced Germany to become even more dependent on domestically produced (and extremely carbon-intensive) lignite coal and Russian natural gas, resulting in largely stagnant—and lately rising—emissions. The former has forced the nation to delay its climate ambitions. The latter has left Germany’s economy and citizenry vulnerable to price gouging and blackmail.

Belgium, bowing to pressure from the country’s Green parties, is moving forward with plans to retire its nuclear power plants by 2025 without so much as a pretense of replacing them with clean generation. Instead, it will subsidize construction of new natural gas plants. Spain, meanwhile, just announced electricity price controls in response to spiraling natural gas and electricity prices, a move that threatens both its renewable energy and nuclear power sectors.


The subheading of this article is “In virtually every country that has closed nuclear plants, clean electricity has been replaced with dirty power.” Which says a lot about how wrong we got it from about 1980 onwards over nuclear power. Do we blame Three Mile Island or Chernobyl?
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An exhibition that helps us rethink our relationship to Facebook • Hyper Allergic

Filippo Lorenzin:


Software for Less is an opportunity to learn more about a perspective on digital technology that combines technical expertise with a certain passion for metalanguage. For example, [Ben] Grosser’s “Safebook” (2018) is a Web browser plugin that purifies Facebook pages by filtering out texts and images to leave only the interface elements: gray buttons, blue circles, white squares. These design elements lose their primary function and, once released, become geometric shapes with which we interact in a playful and inconsequential way. In a certain sense, it is a utopia of interaction: Without relying on archaic forms of communication such as texts, images, and reactions, we can move freely between galaxies of round balloons, in a space where it seems impossible to meet friction.

As well as “Safebook”, there are many other works by Grosser in which his interest in cropping and eliminating the content in order to highlight aspects otherwise hidden becomes evident. “Order of Magnitude” (2019) is a supercut of Mark Zuckerberg saying the words “more,” “grow,” and every utterance of a metric such as “two million” or “one billion,” resulting in a hypnotic, albeit alienating experience. The speed with which the words are spoken is reminiscent of the precision of a machine scanning a document for keywords to highlight.

Among Grosser’s most recent works is “Minus” (2021), a finite social network where users get only 100 posts for life. The platform shows how few opportunities they have left instead of how many likes and reshares they have accumulated. The limit imposed on the user presents problems of scarcity in a context — the online world — which has made overabundance a fundamental part of its functioning. By using Minus, our usual interaction with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other traditional platforms must be redefined: What is really worth sharing? What thoughts or events in our life can aspire to be part of the 100 posts we have available on Minus?


Grosser’s work – such as browser extensions that remove the numbers and red notification signifiers from Twitter and Facebook – and his comments were very helpful to me in considering what social warming really looks like. Those neverending notifications are a subtle anxiety generator.
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If you’d like to know more about Grosser’s work, you could read my latest book, Social Warming.

Facebook banned me for life because i help people use it less • Slate

Louis Barclay:


I had the idea for Unfollow Everything a few years ago, when I realized you don’t actually need to have a News Feed. If you unfollow everything—all of your friends, groups, and pages—your News Feed ends up empty.

This isn’t the same as unfriending. If you unfollow your friends and groups, you’re still connected to them, and you can look up their profiles if you want. But by unfollowing everything, you eliminate your News Feed. This leaves you free to use Facebook without the feed, or to more actively curate it by refollowing only those friends and groups whose posts you really want to see.

I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.

When I unfollowed everything for the first time, I did it manually. I spent hours using a Facebook-provided feature to click unfollow on each of my friends, groups, and pages. I quickly realized that very few people would go to the same trouble, so I coded a simple tool that would automate the process. In July 2020, I published it to the Chrome Store, where people could download it for free.

Unfollow Everything started taking off. People loved it. Thousands of people got rid of their News Feed using it. Reviews included comments like “I am officially not addicted to Facebook thanks to you!” I received emails from people telling me that using the tool had changed their lives.


Then academic researchers got interested. Then Facebook noticed.
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Brazil’s central bank built a mobile payment system with 110 million users • Bloomberg on MSN

Maria Eloisa Capurro and Shannon Sims:


Pix, a system which allows fast money transfers over smartphones, has become ubiquitous in the 11 months since it was launched by Brazil’s central bank. All that’s needed to send cash to someone is a simple key they’ve set up, such as an email address or phone number. Similar to the privately owned Zelle in the U.S., Pix works through multiple apps from banks and other digital wallet services. It’s already been used at least once by 110 million Brazilians and about $89 billion has moved through the network. Brazil now registers more instant transfers than the U.S.

The launch of Pix turned out to be well-timed. With businesses closed during the pandemic, the use of cash at points of sale decreased by 25% in 2020, according to a report from technology consultant FIS. Informal work boomed, accounting for 80% of the new jobs added in Latin America’s largest economy in the first three months of 2021. Pix made paying people digitally almost as easy as using paper money. “We expected considerable acceptance from individuals, and we knew companies would come later on,” says Carlos Eduardo Brandt, the chief of management and operations for Pix. “But in terms of magnitude, it surprised us.”

Fast digital money has some of the risks associated with cash. A notorious crime in Brazil is “express kidnapping,” in which criminals grab victims, take them to an ATM, and force them at knifepoint or gunpoint to withdraw the maximum amount possible. Pix, it seems, is the new ATM: muggers skip the trip to the cash machine and simply make people transfer their savings via an app. Although Pix transactions are traceable, in some cases criminals may be using accounts in others’ names.


Why have you not heard of it? Because it doesn’t use blockchain.
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We need to talk about how Apple is normalising surveillance • WIRED UK

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI:


once one starts scratching the surface, Apple’s contribution to the development of invasive technologies and the normalisation of surveillance becomes evident. Apple created the Bluetooth beacons tracking people in shops, gyms, hotels, airports and more by connecting to their phones. Apple’s usage of Face ID as a way to unlock the iPhone has contributed to normalising facial recognition. Its AirTag – a small device that can be stuck to personal items in order to track them – has caused concerns among privacy advocates that they will make it easier to track people.

The Apple Watch, as the most advanced wearable on the market, leads us one step closer to under-the-skin surveillance, which can read our bodies and emotions. Most recently, Apple has developed a tool that can scan photos in people’s devices in search of child abuse material.  While the objective is noble, the tool could be used for less ethical purposes and, according to security expert Bruce Schneier, it effectively breaks end-to-end encryption – the most powerful way we currently have to protect the privacy of our devices. (Apple later decided to pause its plans to roll out the tool.)

…If Apple is serious about privacy, it should offer an iPhone model for the privacy-conscious: one without facial recognition and without encryption-breaking tools, one in which it is easy to cover the camera, and in which the microphone can be mechanically turned off, among other features.


OK, Apple did create Bluetooth beacons, but facial recognition was already on the rise by the time Face ID was introduced (2017): Samsung and other Android OEMs had already been offering it. AirTags are very late to the game. Véliz is blaming Apple for the widespread use of things that were often already in widespread use. Not even sure what to say about her take on the Watch. Altogether not very persuasive. (Thanks G for the link.)

And the phone she wants is the iPhone SE. Touch ID, no CSAM scan, camera easy to cover. Though you’ll need to stuff the mic.
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Was Facebook’s spin on Frances Haugen ‘bad PR’? • Protocol

Issie Lapowsky:


For Nu Wexler, a former Facebook policy communications staffer, the anti-Haugen spin was overkill. “The statement they put out about Frances Haugen was beyond the pale,” said Wexler, who also worked in policy communications at Google and Twitter. “As a former employee, I disagreed with what they said, and as a communications professional, I think it was really bad PR.”

The counterattack strategy has differed dramatically from the regretful responses Facebook has offered in past episodes, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In those cases, the company often responded with an apology and a plan.

This time around, from Mark Zuckerberg on down, the company has been decidedly less apologetic, with Haugen as a case study for the new approach. For some former Facebook employees watching from home, the experiment in public aggression is backfiring.

From Wexler’s point of view, Haugen demonstrated clear facility of the facts and familiarity with the industry. “They’re going to have a hard time convincing people that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said.

Katie Harbath, a public policy director at Facebook for 10 years who left the company in March, said, “All these folks, whether they had direct reports or not, they all have perspective and expertise that should be heard. [Though] It shouldn’t be the only one that’s heard,” she added.


A follow-on from the examination of the somewhat mad Twitter tactics of Andy Stone, Facebook PR.
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Magic Leap is back with $500m in funding and a new AR headset • The Verge

Kim Lyons:


Magic Leap has raised $500m in funding and is preparing to release a new AR headset, the Magic Leap 2, next year, the company announced Monday. The headset will be generally available next year, the company said, and “select customers” are using it as part of an early access program.

CEO Peggy Johnson said in a statement that with the new funding “Magic Leap will have greater financial flexibility and the resources needed to continue our growth trajectory as we expand on our industry-leading AR technology.” She revealed the new device in an Monday appearance on CNBC.


“Built for enterprise” this time. That’s with $3bn in venture funding down the drain.. except maybe not? That $500m must be pretty diluted in terms of what shares it buys by now. Seems like everyone’s put money into Magic Leap except the milkman.
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AnswerThePublic: the “search listening” tool for market, customer and content research


There are three billion Google searches every day, and 20% of those have never been seen before. They’re like a direct line to your customers’ thoughts…

Sometimes that’s ‘How do I remove paper jam’. Other times it’s the wrenching fears and secret hankerings they’d only ever dare share with Google.

AnswerThePublic listens into autocomplete data from search engines like Google then quickly cranks out every useful phrase and question people are asking around your keyword.

It’s a goldmine of consumer insight you can use to create fresh, ultra-useful content, products and services. The kind your customers really want.


Experimentally, I put in “dogs” as a search. The results are amazing. (Apparently lots of people really want to know if dogs will ever evolve to talk. Your lack of faith in the general population’s intelligence is not misplaced.) You can see how this would be a treasure trove to someone trying to think of new uses for, say, a warehouse full of surplus waterproof shorts or fur-lined sinks.

But it’s also an insight into the id of the world; writing our own psychohistory (Asimov reference).. You could imagine some meta-version of this which would track how our anxieties and hopes are changing; Google Flu Trends tried (and failed) to be that but for flu.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1656: energy prices rocket worldwide, a Facebook ban for reducing Facebook use, what do people *really* search for?, and more

  1. Talking to utilities, the biggest problem they have is the 13-15 years it takes to build a nuclear plant compared to 18 months for a natural gas plant. And also you’re talking $150 million compared to $25 billion (yes that’s not comparing like with like but it’s changing demand that utilities like).

    When the small modular reactors can prove they can be built in close to the same timeframe as a gas plant, that might make nuclear more attractive but until then it’s not going to happen unless governments put a ton off cash and regulation behind them (see France and EDF)

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