Start Up No.1770: next-day delivery in the Pacific, overestimating Russia’s army, save with cooler kettles and washing, and more


The Russian space agency chief threatened to pull the plug on the International Space Station if sanctions weren’t ended. The West called his bluff. CC-licensed photo by NASA on The CommonsNASA on The Commons on Flickr.

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


No Amazon, no problem: how a remote island community built its own online shopping service • Rest of World

Tiare Tuuhia:

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Turoa Faura lives in Manihi, a remote coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of 118 atolls and islands that make up French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France that has its own government and is considered semi-autonomous. The islands are scattered over more than 3,500 square kilometers of ocean — an area five times as large as the French mainland. 

From the air, Manihi looks ephemeral: a tiny ring of sand that might be washed away at any moment, surrounded by endless shades of blue. The atoll, itself made up of many small islands arranged around a lagoon, is just 27 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide, with its highest point 9 meters above sea level. It has a population of less than 1,000, with most inhabitants, including Faura, living in the main village of Turipaoa. Life here can be difficult. Well-paying jobs are few and far between, and residents are reliant on cargo ships from Tahiti, French Polynesia’s largest island, to bring necessities.  

The luxury of online shopping and home delivery, considered indispensable by many in the West, has long been out of reach for remote islanders like Faura. There’s no Amazon same-day delivery or Alibaba shipping to Manihi, and Turipaoa has only three small shops, which mostly sell food and essentials. There are no restaurants, hardware stores, or clothing shops that sell sought-after brands like Adidas.

Until recently, huge distances, a scattered population, and lack of internet access have made e-commerce unviable in French Polynesia. In the last few years, however, a nascent courier scene has taken off, making it possible for islanders to access an ocean of e-commerce products that were previously unavailable. As the global online shopping market continues to grow — a trend that has been augmented by the Covid-19 pandemic — local services are closing the last gaps for those living in some of the world’s most remote places.

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Fascinating tale of DIY systems: orders are taken via Facebook Messenger, sent to drivers via Apple’s Notes app on iPhones using a shared note. Spread over a colossal area. Not a short read, but amazing.
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February 2022: Putin has never lost a war. Here is how he’ll win in Ukraine • Newsweek

Bill Powell and Naveed Jamali, writing in February, just as the invasion had got underway:

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As the invasion unfolded, a member of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Alexey Goncharenko, begged NATO to impose a no-fly zone, to allow his countrymen to have a fairer fight on the ground. There was zero chance of that happening, because Kyiv wasn’t in the club.

Soon now, its desire to be part of the West will be moot, as Putin’s Russia takes control—little more than 24 hours after the invasion began, Russian forces were already entering the the capital and Kyiv was hit with Russian “cruise or ballistic missiles.” Success is inevitable because Biden and the allies have made it clear that Moscow will not meet military resistance from the West. Over and over Biden has told the American people the US will not fight on the ground in Ukraine. He knows the public has no stomach for it.

If events play out as military analysts now expect, the conflict will end relatively quickly with a negotiated settlement that may cede some territory to Russia, the installation of a new Russia-friendly regime in Kyiv and a partial withdrawal of troops that allows Putin to avoid the quagmire the West so badly wants him sucked into. In doing so, Putin will be able to claim that he dealt a devastating setback to NATO, the main goal of his aggression.

For Putin, the sack of Ukraine will likely mark the endgame in his desire to restore the empire. If it doesn’t, it will mean at some point the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be in a shooting war, with all the risk that entails.

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This was the featured story on the cover. Whoever the “military analysts” they used as sources were, I hope they’ve deleted their numbers from their phones. Bits and pieces of this analysis are right, but huge chunks are just wrong – particularly in expecting Ukraine to roll over. (To be fair, lots of non-specialists did.) One can this expect this means they’re miles wrong about a shooting war between the US and Russia.
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How the West got Russia’s military so, so wrong • The Atlantic

Phillips Payson O’Brien, much more recently:

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Having good equipment and good doctrine reveals little about how an army will perform in a war. To predict that, you must analyze not only its equipment and doctrine but also its ability to undertake complex operations, its unglamorous but crucial logistical needs and structure, and the commitment of its soldiers to fight and die in the specific war being waged. Most important, you have to think about how it will perform when a competent enemy fires back. As Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth.”

What we are seeing today in Ukraine is the result of a purportedly great military being punched in the mouth. The resilience of Ukrainian resistance is embarrassing for a Western think-tank and military community that had confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days. For years, Western “experts” prattled on about the Russian military’s expensive, high-tech “modernization.” The Russians, we were told, had the better tanks and aircraft, including cutting-edge SU-34 fighter bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the finest technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganized their army into a more professional, mostly voluntary force. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created battalion tactical groups, flexible, heavily armored formations that were meant to be key to overwhelming the Ukrainians. Basically, many people had relied on the glamour of war, a sort of war pornography, to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.

Those predictions, based on alluring but fundamentally flawed criteria, have now proved false. Western analysts took basic metrics (such as numbers and types of tanks and aircraft), imagined those measured forces executing Russian military doctrine, then concluded that the Ukrainians had no chance. But counting tanks and planes and rhapsodizing over their technical specifications is not a useful way to analyze modern militaries. As The Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen has argued, the systems that the West used to evaluate the Russian military have failed nearly as comprehensively as that military has.

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I’d have expected that analysts would have used satellite observation of Russian exercises to figure some of this out, at the very least. Clearly the US military has good intelligence about what’s going on, possibly from very close to the Russian side. But they were all surprised by this, despite months of manoeuvres ahead of time?
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What a 1994 Bill Gates keynote tells us about the metaverse • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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In Gates’ 1994 COMDEX mini-movie, the technology of 2005 is the star. Everybody uses pocketable wireless devices, which, among other things, can be used to pay for items such as coffee. A couple of plainclothes cops have an SUV equipped with a giant screen that displays maps and video calls; one uses a tablet computer that can transcribe interviews on the fly. A woman watching TV pulls up David Letterman and Oprah on demand, not when their shows happen to be broadcast. Her teenage son researches pre-Columbian art using a graphical browser and then gives a multimedia presentation on the subject at school. After he’s struck by a car while evading bad guys—apologies for the spoiler—a remote doctor uses a video call to diagnose his injuries while he’s still in an ambulance.

In 1994, all of this was gee-whiz stuff—even the flat-screen displays depicted in the film would have felt like a glimpse of tomorrow. But as I experienced Gates’ imagined 2005 today, I had to keep reminding myself that it was supposed to be full of wonders. What it shows looks an awful lot like smartphones, Google Maps, Zoom, Apple Pay, the iPad and Surface, Otter, Hulu, telehealth, and other tools of everyday living circa 2022.

And yet, all the ways in which Gates’ next-generation tech failed to line up with what we actually got are also fascinating. For instance, the pocketable devices are “Wallet PCs,” a class of gadget that Gates describes as “a grown-up pager.” People don’t make voice calls on them or use them to snap photos—but they do wield them as remote controls for larger screens in a way that never became commonplace in the real world. It’s unclear how big a role the internet and web play in the movie’s scenarios; Gates mentioned them only briefly. And he was overly optimistic about how quickly some of the innovations he predicted would come to pass—in many cases, they weren’t fully baked until well after 2005.

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Sounds like Gates (and/or his team) got it all pretty much right, and they were only wrong by five or ten years, which compared to their timescale isn’t.. terrible? If you get there in the end, that’s the thing. But of course there’s strong survivor bias in this: we find the clever talks that predicted things correctly, rather than the zillions that got it wrong.
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Electricity • Little Green Tips

Sarah is “a busy mum of two” trying to reduce her energy use:

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here are a few more ideas I have discovered that will help reduce electricity usage.

One of the main changes I have made which has had an impact has been with the washing machine. Using our eco egg, I have lowered the temperature to 20ºC and reduced spin speed to reduce energy consumption. I’m washing my laundry at 20ºC now… down from 30ºC …..down from 40ºC. I don’t wash towels or bedding at 60ºC regularly either.

Instead of spinning at 1400rpm I drop to 1200 or 1000 or 800 depending on what I’m washing and where I’m drying it. I am also regularly descaling the washing machine (about once a month) so it works more efficiently and uses less energy.

Don’t assume eco settings on washing machine and dish washers use the least amount of electricity. They normally refer to using less water per load. Look up energy usage per program on the internet for your make/model if you can find it. Or just choose a shorter cycle time. I’ve gone from 2hr40 to 45 mins on our washing machine and our washing is just as clean.

Another things to do is when you need a new appliance make sure it’s as energy efficient as possible.

Since we have moved into our house we have gradually increased our insulation levels as well as getting thermal lined curtains, using a draught excluder at doors and closing curtains as soon as it gets dark to keep the heat in. You can make good use of passive solar gain from windows to help heat your house. Open up curtains in the day and when the sun sets close the close those curtains to hold in the heat.

Kettles are very very electricity hungry and take more energy to heat the water the hotter you want it to be. You can now get kettles that boil to either 80/90/100ºC. You don’t need 100ºC for tea or coffee. I don’t have a fancy kettle so I just flick the off switch before it finishes boiling when I remember.

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Assume the washing water starts at 7ºC (typical in the UK). This says it’s 1.53kWh to heat to 40ºC, v 1.07kWh for 30ºC. If you’re doing a wash every day, that could mount up. A kettle uses about 0.1kWh. If you have a lot of cups of tea, that’ll mount up faster than the washing.
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Web3 is supposed to be secure. What about all these hacks? • Decrypt

Jeff John Roberts:

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it took six days for the Axie team to notice that $630m worth of Ethereum had been looted and to tell users, whose money is now gone.

If a security team at a bank or a Web2 company behaved this way, they would be fired and face charges of civil or even criminal negligence. But since it’s Web3, Axie leadership has offered only vague mumbles to the effect of what a shame this is. (Axie founder Jeff Zirlin tweeted on Tuesday, “It’s a hard day,” and two hours later, “This is when we show what we’re made of.”) As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine archly observed, “Nobody cares less about information security than the builders of cryptocurrency projects.”

The Axie debacle is hardly a one-off. Two months ago, hackers robbed Wormhole, a popular bridge to the Solana blockchain, to the tune of $320m. Fortunately for users, the venture capitalists beyond Wormhole, recognizing the terrible optics, decided to backstop the losses even as the engineers responsible all but shrugged their shoulders. Last week, $28m was drained from Solana stablecoin protocol Cashio. Last August, Poly Network was hacked for over $600m.

There are numerous other examples of Web3 users being robbed because the platforms they use are full of gaping security holes.

Meanwhile, more than two dozen Web3 companies, including Circle and BlockFi, revealed last month that they had been hit by a Web2-style attack. In that case, hackers compromised one of their marketing vendors and made off with a trove of customer data that is already being used to conduct phishing campaigns and other scams.

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Levine’s comment hits the nail completely on the head. If it were actually their houses or cars or real money in their bank accounts – not the funny money they generate on their PCs – then they’d take a lot more care. But it isn’t. That alone tells you all you need to know, I think.
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UK ministers quietly approve Chinese microchip factory takeover • POLITICO

Eleni Courea:

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The UK government has quietly approved the controversial sale of a Welsh microchip factory to a Chinese-owned firm.

Ministers have decided not to intervene in the takeover of Newport Wafer Fab, which makes semiconductors, following a review by the government’s national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove.

More than six months after he was asked to examine the sale, Lovegrove concluded there were not enough security concerns to block it, according to two government officials.

The decision has already caused alarm among security experts and backlash from Tory MPs who believe the government is employing too narrow a definition of national security.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said: “It’s not clear why we haven’t used our new powers under the National Security and Investment Act to fully review the takeover of one of our leading compound semiconductor companies.”

He added: “This is an area where China is sinking billions to compete. The government has no clear strategy to protect what’s left of our semiconductor industry.”

Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader and a long-standing critic of the Chinese government, said the decision was “ridiculous.” “Kwasi Kwarteng [the Business minister] needs to stand up for access to key technologies in the West which China is determined to get control over,” he said.

Duncan Smith warned: “If the government goes down this road, it will become yet another step in the pathetic process of appeasing China who right now is supporting Russia and plans to pose a direct and deliberate threat to the West’s access to microchips and other key components for electronic equipment.”

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Duncan Smith is reliably an idiot, but it’s strange that there are “not enough” security concerns. So there are some security concerns, just not enough of them?
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Russia asked NASA to end sanctions to save the ISS, but the West didn’t blink • Ars Technica

Eric Berger:

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[chief of Russian’s spaceflight activities, Dmitry] Rogozin has been blustering about pulling the plug on the International Space Station almost since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. However he and the thousands of employees at Roscosmos have taken precisely zero concrete actions that would actually initiate that process. Indeed, earlier this week, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth on a Soyuz spacecraft. The operations were entirely nominal, and the relations between Russian and NASA officials professional.

It is possibly that Vladimir Putin could decide, at any moment, that it no longer suits him to participate on the space station. His decision-making process is opaque to Western observers. But this seems improbable, because walking away from the space station would be the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to Russia’s civil space program. And Russians take enormous pride in their space program, going back more than six decades to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. Without active cooperation with Western nations, however, Russia would almost certainly no longer be a space power—it would be the world’s first former space power.

As part of his Twitter message, Rogozin shared letters he had received from the chiefs of other space agencies in response to his demands for an end to sanctions. Of note is a March 30 letter from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, pledging his ongoing support for the space station, but reiterating that the sanctions will not end. Nelson is not negotiating from a point of weakness here. The United States has a vibrant commercial space industry, which will prosper even without the space station. Nelson, too, knows that NASA likely could take steps to save the US segment of the space station and keep it flying even if Russia abruptly pulls out.

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So0, basically, it’s all posturing and noise, and it’s hardly as if the West would abruptly end sanctions because they were worried about the ISS. Though it’s fortunate timing that Elon Musk’s SpaceX system proved it could dock with the ISS last year.

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How to jump to a folder on your Mac with a single keystroke • Macworld

Michael Simon:

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We’ve all experienced this: You’re saving a file in Pages or Garageband or Microsoft Word and the dialog box starts in the completely wrong place. Then you need to go to your mouse or trackpad, click the arrow to expand and hope the destination you want is there. If it’s not—and it almost always isn’t—you need to click through folders and places until you land on the one you’re looking for.

But here’s the trick iOS engineer Zach Waugh shared: Type the forward slash (/) on your keyboard when the save dialog box pops up and you’ll go straight to a “Go to Folder” window that lets you quickly navigate to anywhere on your Mac. You’ll need to know the path, but it’ll also save your recent places so you don’t have to retype lengthy strings of folders. It even works with the user shortcut using the ~ symbol.

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Presumably because it’s actually running a terminal command underneath, so the / or ~ takes you to the root folder that you can access. A reminder that mac OS is actually a pretty face on top of texty Unix. Neat trick!
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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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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