Start Up No.1754: Ukraine’s tech sector under attack, war causes neon gas shortage, don’t frack – insulate, Twitter’s growth plans, and more


If you look at a Go board and think it looks a bit like a QR code, there’s a good reason why. CC-licensed photo by Chad Miller on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not encircled. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Ukraine’s thriving tech sector tries to hang on even as Russia’s attacks intensify • Rest of World

Masha Borak:

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Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Vik Bogdanov was a digital marketer, writing content in Kyiv for a robotics and custom software company and contributing to the open-source coding site Hacker Noon.

Now, he splits his time between his day job and trying to hack websites in Russia and Belarus, as part of the Ukrainian “IT Army,” a volunteer group of around 200,000 people engaged in a cyber conflict with Moscow. From his apartment in Kyiv, he told Rest of World that he knows many other IT workers who joined Ukrainian defense units or volunteered to help civilians hiding in bomb shelters. Others have become refugees, driving in long lines from the city as they flee bombs and shootings.

“I can’t carry arms, I can’t shoot, I can’t do anything, but I can use my skills on the information front,” Bogdanov said. 

…“If Ukraine becomes unavailable, there will be visible effects on the global IT industry,” said Roman Pavlyuk, vice president of digital strategy at Intellias, a software firm with 2,000 employees in Ukraine. Half of Intellias’ staff have had to leave their homes.

Pavlyuk was attending a client workshop during a business trip in the US when the war started and he first heard the news. “War is always a surprise,” he said. But, he added, Ukrainian companies have been living in a state of alert for almost eight years. In 2014, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and began to sponsor a proxy war in breakaway provinces in the east of Ukraine, conflicts that continued to simmer until the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

“Many [local] companies were born since the war was started eight years ago,” Olga Afanasyeva, head of the Kyiv office at software company ELEKS, told Rest of World.

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The tech sector was booming. Until, obviously, two weeks ago.
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Giving peace a chance • Comment is Freed

Lawrence Freedman, with an excellent explainer about the possible options if Russia gets totally bogged down in Ukraine:

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The important thing to keep in mind about Vladimir Putin is that he is a spy and not a soldier. He began his career in the Soviet era KGB and was head of its Russian successor, the FSB, before becoming Prime Minister and then President. He has an instinct for the covert, the fabricated and the dishonest, for gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions, leaving his opponents disoriented and motivating his supporters by warning of dark threats.

He has relied on this approach increasingly over the course of his presidency, constructing a worldview to justify policies that appear to be increasingly detached from reality. How much of this reflects his true convictions and how much he knows to be fake is hard to discern. His descriptions of Ukraine’s proper relationship with Russia and the character of its leaders may reflect his convictions however fantastical they may seem to outsiders; claims that the Ukrainians are blowing up their own residential buildings or are on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons are wholly cynical. 

The best soldiers, by contrast, rely on honest appreciations of the situation in which they find themselves. At the start of wars they might be prey to their own delusions about their military position and overconfident about the victories to come, but there is still a harsh reality to war that cannot be gainsaid. If supplies are not getting through, units have been destroyed and key objectives have not been reached that is the situation to be addressed. Pretending otherwise can make defeat more likely and more painful when it comes. 

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Importantly, he explains why Ukraine probably won’t want a ceasefire, because of “keep what you hold”, and what “negotiated peace” might mean. You’ll be better informed – if not any more optimistic.
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Assessing the impact of Russia’s assault • Canalys Research

Among multiple points about the tech impact of Russiaa’s invasion of Ukraine:

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The world’s supply chain crisis will worsen: Just as hopes rise that global semiconductor shortages are starting to ease, the crisis in Ukraine threatens yet another set-back.

Ukraine is the world’s largest supplier of neon gas, key to semiconductor manufacture. That’s in addition to rising oil prices and the effect of sanctions arising directly from the crisis. This is likely to drive even higher levels of price inflation for technology products across the globe.

Disruption to vendor supply via Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway, which has become a cost-effective alternative to air freight from Asia, is already contributing to significant shipment delays for the European channel. Yet with many parts of the IT industry worldwide still struggling with product shortages, one potential immediate benefit of the effective shutdown of the Russian IT market – one of the world’s largest – could be the reallocation of IT products destined for Russia to other markets across EMEA, helping local channel partners to clear sales backlogs.

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Did not know that point about neon. Semiconductors use 70% of world demand, and Ukraine supplies about 50% of that.
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Study: Insulation and heat pumps can deliver UK energy security more quickly than domestic gas fields • BusinessGreen News

Cecilia Keating:

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A national heat pump and home insulation roll out would cut demand for Russian gas much more quickly than development of new gas fields in the North Sea, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has warned.

An analysis by the think tank notes concludes that the deployment of insulation and electric heat pumps in 6.5 million homes by 2027 could reduce UK gas demand by four%, which is roughly equivalent to UK imports of Russian gas.

By enabling citizens to use less gas to heat their homes, a policy focused on heat pumps and insulation could also curb energy bills and protect millions of households from volatile international gas prices, it said.

In contrast, an energy security strategy focused on approving new North Sea oil fields would not shield consumers from volatile international gas prices and would have little short-term impact on the provenance of UK’s gas supplies, given the projects in question would not come online until 2028 at the earliest, it said.

“The net zero path leads us to common sense home insulation and clean, renewable, homegrown energy that enables us to cut dependence on other countries like Russia for gas and oil,” said Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the ECIU. “It’s a permanent solution and the UK needs to embrace it with greater urgency if we want to be truly energy secure.” 

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Anyone would think that Insulate Britain had it right all along.
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‘I’m pleased it is being used for people’s safety’: QR code inventor relishes its role in tackling Covid • The Guardian

Justin McCurry:

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The eureka moment that helped Masahiro Hara perfect the Quick Response, or QR code, sprang from a lunchtime game of Go more than a quarter of a century ago.

He was playing the ancient game of strategy at work when the stones arranged on the board revealed the solution to a problem troubling the firm’s clients in Japan’s car industry – and which is now being repurposed as a weapon in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

As an employee of the automotive components firm Denso Wave, Hara had been fielding requests from factories to come up with a better way to manage their inventories of an ever-expanding range of parts.

Workers wanted a less labour-intensive way to store more information, including kana and kanji characters, but the barcodes then in use could hold only 20 or so alphanumeric characters of information each. In some cases, a single box of components carried as many as 10 barcodes that had to be read individually.

Having helped develop a barcode reader in the early 1980s, Hara knew the method had its limitations. “Having to read so many barcodes in a day was very inefficient, and workers were tired of scanning boxes multiple times,” Hara, now a chief engineer at the company, said in an online interview from its headquarters in Aichi prefecture, central Japan.

“We had been making barcode readers for 10 years so we had the knowhow. I was looking at the board and thought the way the stones were lined up along the grids … could be a good way of conveying lots of information at the same time.”

Masahiro Hara had his breakthrough idea while playing the Go board game. Photograph: Cheryl Hatch/AP
And so the theory behind the QR code was born. Twenty-six years later, the two-dimensional patterns of tiny black and white squares, which can handle 200 times more information than a standard barcode, have revolutionised the way we shop, travel and access websites.

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The interview is from 2020, but I didn’t know that Go was the inspiration for the QR code. Very satisfying. (One comment I saw: “this means I’m going to have to treat every QR code as a life-and-death problem.” A Go in-joke.)
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How Twitter plans to add its next 100 million users • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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[New Twitter CEO, Parag] Agrawal’s influence is being felt in how products are developed, according to [Arnaud] Weber, Twitter’s new leader of consumer engineering. “We are becoming more and more data-driven,” he says. “I think Parag brings a cultural change where basically we are pragmatic. We look at metrics, we do experiments, we increase the size of the experiments, et cetera.”

According to [VP of consumer product, Jay] Sullivan, a top product priority under Agrawal is “making Twitter more relevant to each individual person.” Twitter has historically relied on users manually following accounts, but the company has recently been investing in machine learning to surface tweets it thinks users will want to see.

A tentpole feature of this approach is called Topics, which shows related tweets around themes like a sports game or TV show. “I think one key part of the problem is that we have this amazing content on Twitter, which is often real-time and often very engaging, and we need to find ways to show that content to these new users once we understand what they care about,” says Weber.

To address its engagement problem, the team has been testing a feature called Communities, which acts like a mix of Facebook Groups and Reddit for tweeting with others who share specific interests.

“One of the things I hear from people is, ‘Hey, I read a lot of stuff. I’m not necessarily comfortable tweeting or don’t know when or why I should tweet. I would feel better if I was tweeting to a smaller community of people,’” says Sullivan. “And so we need to make the product more participatory and approachable, both for individuals and further along the spectrum, for people who view themselves as true creators.”

The biggest Twitter product bet in recent memory is Spaces, its audio chat feature that was built in response to the rapid rise of Clubhouse during pandemic lockdowns. The company hasn’t shared general usage stats for Spaces yet, but Sullivan says that, in the last couple of weeks, there have been multiple Spaces about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with over 100,000 listeners.

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Twitter aims to add these 100 million daily users (that’s about 50% growth) by the end of 2023. I hope it doesn’t make it, because Twitter would be an even worse hellhole with 50% more users.
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Updated Mac mini to have versions with M2 and M2 Pro chip • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:

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As rumours point to a new redesigned Mac mini coming soon, 9to5Mac has learned from sources that Apple is developing two new versions of it: one with M2 and one with the M2 Pro chip.

Codenamed J473, the new Mac mini will be powered by the M2 chip, which is Apple’s next-generation entry-level chip for Macs and iPads. M2 will represent the first major upgrade to Apple’s “M” family of chips since the introduction of the M1 in 2020.

Internally known as “Staten,” M2 is based on the current A15 chip, while M1 is based on the A14 Bionic. Just like M1, M2 will feature an eight-core CPU (four performance cores and four efficiency cores), but this time with a more powerful 10-core GPU. The new performance cores are codenamed “Avalanche,” and efficiency cores are known as “Blizzard.”

M2 Mac mini development is nearing completion, and its release date is expected to be announced sometime later this year.

According to 9to5Mac’s sources, Apple had plans to introduce high-end versions of the current Mac mini with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, but they were probably scrapped to make way for the Mac Studio.

This time, Apple has also been working on another new Mac mini (codenamed J474) that features the M2 Pro chip – a variant with eight performance cores and four efficiency cores, totaling a 12-core CPU versus the 10-core CPU of the current M1 Pro.

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So those will be priced below the Mac Studio (the Mac mini that fell off its diet) and fill the gap in desktops. Simple.
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New Yorkers with marijuana convictions will get first retail licenses • The New York Times

Jesse McKinley and Grace Ashford:

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New York State will soon announce plans to usher in its first outlets for retail sales of marijuana by the end of the year, giving applicants access to stockpiles of the drug grown by local farmers and offering sweeteners like new storefronts leased by the state.

The only catch? To be one of the state’s first licensed retailers, you or a member of your family must have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense.

The policy, to be announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday, is part of a concerted push to assure that early business owners in the state’s projected billion-dollar marijuana industry will be members of communities that have been affected by the nation’s decades-long war on drugs.

In favouring those with marijuana convictions and prepping their businesses for turnkey sales, New York appears to be trying to avoid pitfalls encountered in some other states, which have seen designated “social equity” applicants and other mom-and-pop marijuana businesses struggle with issues like lack of capital or competition from deep-pocketed corporate operations.

Chris Alexander, the executive director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, said that by focusing early on “those who otherwise would have been left behind,” New York was in a “position to do something that has not been done before.”

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What an excellent idea: the people who have been most disadvantaged by the outdated laws on marijuana get to be the ones who benefit first.
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Reach plc launches new minimum page view targets for reporters • HoldtheFrontPage

David Sharman:

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Regional journalists will be expected to generate increases of up to 70% in online page views on their stories by the end of 2022 under new targets being set by their publisher.

Reach plc has announced the scheme, under which news reporters who have been with the company for more than six months will be set minimum benchmarks of between 80,000 and 850,000 page views per month, depending on which title they work for and what their role is.

Journalists who fall below half of their “benchmark” number will be expected to have increased their monthly page views by 40% come July this year, and by 70% at the end of 2022, according to documents seen by HTFP.

Those who record less than their benchmark number, but more than half of it, will be set a target of increasing monthly page views by 20% come July and 35% at the end of the year.

The documents state that the “consequences” for staff not hitting July and December’s goals would “depend on the individual circumstances.”

However, the publisher has sought to reassure its journalists that the scheme, entitled Accelerated Personal Development, is “not designed to be punitive”.

The targets, which were outlined to staff last week, have been drawn up after Reach analysed data over the course of September, October and November to create an average number of monthly page views per role across its regional titles.

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This is totally mad. The journalists get “minimum benchmarks”, but what control do they have over how stories are presented? Essentially this is demanding virality that’s beyond their control. Not to mention that pageviews are a terrible metric: what you want is engaged readers who return, not one-hit wonders. Twenty years into web journalism, and they’ve landed on pageviews as the metric they want their staff to die on.
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Why America is the world’s first poor rich country • Eudaimonia and Co

umair haque in 2018, with what is essentially a pre-followup to the CNBC piece from yesterday about two-thirds of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck:

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America, it seems, is becoming something like the world’s first poor rich country. And that is the elephant in the room we aren’t quite grasping. After all, authoritarianism and extremism don’t arise in prosperous societies — but in troubled ones, which are growing impoverished, like America is today. What do I mean by all that?

Let’s begin with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean absolute poverty. Americans are not living on a few dollars a day, by and large, like people in, for example, Somalia or Bangladesh. America’s median income is still that of a rich country, around $50k, depending on how it’s counted. Nor do I really mean relative poverty — people living below median income. While that’s a growing problem in America, because the middle class is imploding, that is not really the true problem these numbers hint at, either.

America appears to be pioneering a new kind of poverty altogether. One for which we do not yet have a name. It is something like living at the knife’s edge, constantly being on the brink of ruin, one small step away from catastrophe and disaster, ever at the risk of falling through the cracks. It has two components — massive inflation for the basics of life, coupled with crushing, asymmetrical risk. I’ll come to what those mean shortly.
The average American has a relatively high income, that of a person in a nominally rich country. Only his income does not go very far. Most of it is eaten up by attempting to afford the basics of life. We’ve already seen how steep healthcare costs are. But then there is education. There is transport. There is interest and rent. There is media and communications. There is childcare and elderly care. All these things reduce the average American to constantly living right at the edge of ruin — one paycheck away from penury, one emergency away from losing it all.

But this isn’t true for America’s peers. In Europe, Canada, and even Australia, society invests in all these things — and the costs of basic necessities societies don’t provide are regulated. For example, I pay $50 dollars for broadband and TV in London — but $200 for the same thing in New York — yet in London, I get vastly more and better media for my money (even including, yes, American junk like Ancient Aliens). That’s regulation at work.

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The cost of basic utilities in the US belies any suggestion that regulation, or lack of public ownership, is a bad thing. (Thanks Martin for the link.)
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Apple ditches the 27-inch iMac (for now) • Cult of Mac

Killian Bell:

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After gracing us with its jaw-dropping Mac Studio and 27in Studio Display on Tuesday, Apple finally discontinued the aging 27in iMac. The machine is no longer available to purchase through official Apple retail channels.

It’s probably not gone for good, however. Cupertino is rumoured to be working on a larger iMac model that could appear alongside other new Mac models — including a new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro — later this year.

You’d have to be pretty crazy to buy a Mac with an Intel chip at this point. Apple silicon has gotten so good that it now outperforms even the fastest Mac Pro configuration in both processing and graphics — and by quite a long shot.

It seems Cupertino chiefs were starting to feel a little guilty about charging customers for a 27in iMac that’s falling way behind the pack. So, for the time being, at least, it is no longer a part of Apple’s lineup.

The company today removed the 27in iMac from the Apple Store. You’ll still be able to buy one from third-party retailers while stocks last, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Mac Studio is around the same price — and a lot better.

The larger iMac probably isn’t gone for good. Apple is rumoured to be working on a new model with a revamped design that will be powered by its latest and most powerful M1 chipsets, likely including the incredibly new M1 Ultra.

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I agree with Neil Cybart, who says that the 27in iMac (the “iMac Pro”) is gone – because the reason for needing a “pro” version is gone. As he says: the iMac now is a consumer desktop, as it was at its inception. The 27in Pro was a stopgap until Apple had a powerful enough desktop and standalone screen. Expect the Mac Pro. And that’s it.

There is however still one good reason to buy a Mac with an Intel chip: if you need to run Windows natively.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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