Start Up No.1771: climate catastrophe deadline, old video meets new music, how ByteDance scraped a leg up, battery prices up, and more


Are you ready for advertising on Netflix? There’s a relentless logic that implies it’s coming at some point. CC-licensed photo by irina slutsky on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Doom, gloom, some levity. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


‘Now or never’ to avoid climate catastrophe, warns UN • Phys.org

Kelly MacNamara and Marlowe Hood:

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Humanity has less than three years to halt the rise of planet-warming carbon emissions and less than a decade to slash them by nearly half, UN climate experts said Monday, warning the world faced a last-gasp race to ensure a “liveable future”.

That daunting task is still—only just—possible, but current policies are leading the planet towards catastrophic temperature rises, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear.

The world’s nations, they said, are taking our future right to the wire.

The 2,800-page report—by far the most comprehensive assessment of how to halt global heating ever produced—documents “a litany of broken climate promises”, said UN chief Antonio Guterres in a blistering judgement of governments and industry.

“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic,” Guterres said.

In recent months, the IPCC has published the first two instalments in a trilogy of mammoth scientific assessments covering how greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet and what that means for life on Earth.

This third report outlines what we can do about it.

“We are at a crossroads,” said IPCC chief Hoesung Lee. “The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

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We’re screwed. OK, absent someone coming up with a brilliant scheme to extract carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere. Make the best accommodation you can plan for.
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How to make a timeless music video • Status-Q

Quentin Stafford-Fraser:

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I always liked the song-and-dance routines in the great old movies, and have mourned their almost total disappearance (while acknowledging that having people break spontaneously into orchestra-accompanied melodies doesn’t, in most cases, tend to improve the realism of your plot!)

Well, it turns out that there’s a fun genre of YouTube creations, taking footage from the old masters and remixing it with more modern music, with some clever editing and retiming. For me, somehow, divorcing the dance from its original music and showing it in a new context only emphasises how good the performers were.

Here’s a very nicely-done favourite; did you know that Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth liked Led Zeppelin?

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Press the button. Absolutely guaranteed to pep up your day. As he points out, there’s another from 2015, which does much the same with Uptown Funk.
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Why Netflix should sell ads • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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Netflix’s biggest advantage is the sheer size of its subscriber base: Netflix can, on an absolute basis, pay more than its streaming competitors for the content it wants, even as its per-subscriber cost basis is lower. This advantage is only accentuated the larger Netflix’s subscriber base gets, and the more revenue it makes per subscriber; the user experience of getting to that unique content doesn’t really matter.

All of these factors make a compelling case for Netflix to start building an advertising business.

First, an advertising-supported or subsidized tier [being cheaper] would expand Netflix’s subscriber base, which is not only good for the company’s long-term growth prospects, but also its competitive position when it comes to acquiring content. This also applies to the company’s recent attempts to crack down on password sharing, and struggles in the developing world: an advertising-based tier is a much more accessible alternative.

Second, advertising would make it easier for Netflix to continue to raise prices: on one hand, it would provide an alternative for marginal customers who might otherwise churn, and on the other hand, it would create a new benefit for those willing to pay (i.e. no advertising for the highest tiers).

Third, advertising is a natural fit for the jobs Netflix does. Sure, customers enjoy watching shows without ads — and again, they can continue to pay for that — but filler TV, which Netflix also specializes in, is just as easily filled with ads.

Above all, though, is the fact that advertising is a great opportunity that aligns with Netflix’s business: while the company once won with a differentiated user experience worth paying for, today Netflix demands scarce attention because of its investment in unique content. That attention can be sold, and should be, particularly as it increases Netflix’s ability to invest in more unique content, and/or charge higher prices to its user base.

This, I will note, is an about face for me; I’ve long been skeptical that Netflix would ever sell advertising, or that they should.

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Unfortunately, he’s right. The challenge of building an even vaguely targeted advertising business for all its viewers would be hugely costly: we’ll get plenty of warning because the expense will show up in the accounting. If it works, though, it could pull in huge amounts of money.
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ByteDance made fake accounts with content scraped from Instagram and Snapchat, former employees say • Buzzfeed News

Emily Baker-White:

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BuzzFeed News spoke with the four former ByteDance employees, all of whom worked on Flipagram (later renamed Vigo Video), and viewed internal documents that indicate the scraping was run by an engineering team in China and began soon after ByteDance acquired Flipagram in January 2017. The former employees described the project as one of several “growth hacks” — including the manipulation of like and video view statistics — employed by the company. One of the former employees said the scraping affected hundreds of thousands of accounts, and a document viewed by BuzzFeed News detailed plans to “crawl video > 10k/day in P0 countries” — according to the former employee, this meant the team’s goal was to scrape more than 10,000 videos a day in the highest priority countries.

…the scraped content was used to train ByteDance’s powerful “For You” personalization algorithm on US-based content so that it would better reflect the preferences of US users. Today, the “For You” algorithm powers both TikTok and its Chinese equivalent, Douyin. (Disclosure: In a previous life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)

BuzzFeed News sent ByteDance a comprehensive list of the allegations we intended to print in this article as well as a detailed set of questions, including if data sets from Flipagram were ever used to train the “For You” algorithm that powers TikTok today or to train any other algorithms currently in use by ByteDance.

…Instagram’s and Snap’s terms of service forbade scraping in 2017, as they do today. At the time, Musical.ly’s terms of service prohibited users from “mak[ing] unauthorized copies of any content made available on or through” the platform.

Jason Grosse, a representative for Instagram’s parent company Meta, said the company would not comment at this time.

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Pretty smart tactic; sure, probably not particularly legal but that’s how these companies roll. Meta could sue, but why bother? Would it really be able to turn the clock back?
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Dead lay out in Bucha for weeks, refuting Russian claim, satellite images show • The New York Times

Malachy Browne, David Botti and Haley Willis:

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An analysis of satellite images by The New York Times rebuts claims by Russia that the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, occurred after its soldiers had left the town.

When images emerged over the weekend of the bodies of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha — some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head — Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied responsibility. In a Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry suggested that the bodies had been recently placed on the streets after “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30.

Russia claimed that the images were “another hoax” and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on what it called “provocations of Ukrainian radicals” in Bucha.

But a review of videos and satellite imagery by The Times shows that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.

One video filmed by a local council member on April 2 shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to The Times by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11, when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town.

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Next step: the Russians will say the images have been altered. Other images will emerge showing the soldiers doing it (possibly from the soldiers’ own phones). The lies will go on. But Ukraine is not going to forgive. (Thanks G for the link.)
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As Russia plots its next move, an AI listens to the chatter • WIRED

Will Knight:

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A radio transmission between several Russian soldiers in Ukraine in early March, captured from an unencrypted channel, reveals panicked and confused comrades retreating after coming under artillery fire. “Vostok, I am Sneg 02. On the highway we have to turn left, fuck,” one of the soldiers says in Russian using code names meaning “East” and “Snow 02.”

“Got it. No need to move further. Switch to defense. Over,” another responds.

Later, a third soldier tries to make contact with another codenamed “South 95”: “Yug 95, do you have contact with a senior? Warn him on the highway artillery fire. On the highway artillery fire. Don’t go by column. Move carefully.”

The third Russian soldier continues, becoming increasingly agitated: “Get on the radio. Tell me your situation and the artillery location, approximately what weapon they are firing.” Later, the third soldier speaks again: “Name your square. Yug 95, answer my questions. Name the name of your square!”

As the soldiers spoke, an AI was listening. Their words were automatically captured, transcribed, translated, and analyzed using several artificial intelligence algorithms developed by Primer, a US company that provides AI services for intelligence analysts. While it isn’t clear whether Ukrainian troops also intercepted the communication, the use of AI systems to surveil Russia’s army at scale shows the growing importance of sophisticated open source intelligence in military conflicts.

…Calder Walton, a historian of espionage at Harvard, says the invasion of Ukraine shows how valuable open source information has become for intelligence operatives. Facial recognition software has been used to identify some individuals in videos of the conflict. “We are at an absolute watershed in terms of the nature of intelligence collection and what’s available,” Walton says. The conflict has highlighted the importance of mining different sources of intelligence. For instance, Ukrainian troops may have successfully targeted a number of Russian generals by looking for gray-haired individuals near antennas in satellite, drone, or other imagery. Russian troops have also taken to using cellphones, sometimes revealing their location and details of missions, as well as their frustrations and low morale.

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Rishi Sunak asks Royal Mint to create NFT • The Guardian

Richard Partington:

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The Treasury has asked the Royal Mint to create a non-fungible token, or NFT, as it attempts to show Britain is at the cutting edge for new technologies by launching its own cryptoasset.

It said the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had asked the 1,136-year-old institution to create the NFT – a type of unique digital asset stored on a blockchain, the same decentralised ledger of transactions used to buy and sell cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin – so it could be issued by the summer.

“This decision shows the forward-looking approach we are determined to take towards cryptoassets in the UK,” the Treasury said on Twitter, posting a picture of the royal coat of arms on a blue background.

NFTs use the unique blockchain value to confer ownership of something – whether tangible or virtual – with pieces of digital art, photographs or music increasingly popular. Typically bought and sold by collectors, some NFTs have soared in value and are worth millions of pounds, as buyers use them to flaunt their taste or wealth, or speculate on the price gyrations to make money.

The Treasury’s announcement did not specify what image or object the Royal Mint’s NFT would confer ownership of, whether more would be created, nor whether NFTs would be used to generate funds for the exchequer. A Treasury spokesman said more details would be announced “soon”.

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My guess is that it’s going to be something related to the Queen’s platinum (70-year) jubilee. There’s a four-day weekend from June 2; it could be timed to coincide.

It’s also tone deaf, for many reasons. There’s a huge cost of living crunch, at a time when taxes are the highest they’ve been since the second world war. So if this has a huge price tag, who’s it for? Why not sell crockery? Plus royalists tend not to have crypto expertise, and crypto nerds tend not to be royalists. And what would be the point in just minting one? A bad idea from start to finish.
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New Amazon worker chat app to ban words like “union” • The Intercept

Ken Klippenstein:

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In November 2021, Amazon convened a high-level meeting in which top executives discussed plans to create an internal social media program that would let employees recognize co-workers’ performance with posts called “Shout-Outs,” according to a source with direct knowledge.

The major goal of the program, Amazon’s head of worldwide consumer business, Dave Clark, said, was to reduce employee attrition by fostering happiness among workers — and also productivity. Shout-Outs would be part of a gamified rewards system in which employees are awarded virtual stars and badges for activities that “add direct business value,” documents state. At the meeting, Clark remarked that “some people are insane star collectors.”

But company officials also warned of what they called “the dark side of social media” and decided to actively monitor posts in order to ensure a “positive community.” At the meeting, Clark suggested that the program should resemble an online dating app like Bumble, which allows individuals to engage one on one, rather than a more forum-like platform like Facebook.

Following the meeting, an “auto bad word monitor” was devised, constituting a blacklist that would flag and automatically block employees from sending a message that contains any profane or inappropriate keywords. In addition to profanities, however, the terms include many relevant to organized labor, including “union,” “grievance,” “pay raise,” and “compensation.” Other banned keywords include terms like “ethics,” “unfair,” “slave,” “master,” “freedom,” “diversity,” “injustice,” and “fairness.” Even some phrases like “This is concerning” will be banned.

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Does that mean a sentence beginning “This is concerning the incident that happened last night” will be blocked? Very strange; people will figure their way around any block. They always do.
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Elon Musk is now Twitter’s largest shareholder; and that’s probably not a good thing • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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It’s unclear, in the short term, what [Musk buying 9.2% of Twitter] will mean for the company. It’s not clear, for example, that Musk will get a board seat or become a particularly active board member, but given his agitating, and the way he’s handled some of his other companies, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he does end up becoming quite active.

Quoting the NY Times:

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It is unclear what Mr. Musk’s plans are beyond the large shareholder position and whether he’ll ask — or be invited — to join Twitter’s board. Mr. Musk filed a securities document indicating that he planned for the investment to be passive, meaning he does not intend to pursue control of the company. But there was also speculation Monday that he could change the status of his investment, continue buying shares or even try to acquire the company outright, today’s DealBook newsletter reported.

“We would expect this passive stake as just the start of broader conversations with the Twitter board/management that could ultimately lead to an active stake and a potential more aggressive ownership role of Twitter,” Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said Monday morning.

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Again, I think Musk deserves praise for driving some innovations forward, and having a unique vision on how to execute on big, challenging scientific problems — like sending rockets into space and building electric cars, among other things. But managing speech is not a scientific or engineering problem. It’s a human challenge. And Musk does not exactly have the greatest of track records in showing empathy, or, frankly, common decency.

When the initial rumors were that Musk might start a competing social network, I was at least intrigued to see how that might compete with something like Twitter. But I do wonder how much his naïve take on speech might do serious harm to Twitter.

Honestly, I hope this drives the Bluesky team to focus that much more on its efforts, because if Musk is intent on ruining Twitter, which may actually come to pass, having an easy offramp to building a better Twitter would be important.

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As some have speculated, it would certainly be a brilliant hedge against being banned from Twitter. If only Trump had had the money (and foresight). Speaking of which…
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Exclusive: two key tech execs quit Truth Social after troubled app launch • Reuters

Helen Coster and Julia Love:

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Truth Social is part of a growing sector of tech firms catering to conservatives and marketing themselves as free-speech champions. The platform promised to give Trump unfettered communication with the American public more than a year after he was kicked off Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for allegedly inciting or glorifying violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the US Capitol.

The exit of two executives [Josh Adams and Billy Boozer, respectively chief technology officer and product development chief] critical to the app-launch efforts could imperil the company’s progress as it tries to prove it can compete with mainstream platforms such as Twitter, said two people familiar with the company. Like Twitter, Trump’s platform offers users the chance to connect and share their thoughts.

“If Josh has left… all bets are off,” one of those sources said of tech chief Adams, calling him the “brains” behind Truth Social’s technology.

Another source familiar with the venture said that Boozer also had a major leadership role as product chief, running management across technology infrastructure, design and development teams.

Reuters could not determine the specific circumstances behind the executives’ resignations, or whether they have been replaced or their duties reassigned. It also remains unclear whether Adams and Boozer still work on the venture in a different capacity after quitting their executive posts.

Their resignations came before their key roles in the closely watched company were even publicly known outside of Truth Social’s secretive culture.

Adams and Boozer worked at a level just below Wes Moss and Andy Litinsky, both former castmates on “The Apprentice,” Trump’s hit reality TV show, according to a source familiar with the venture.

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“Troubled” app launch as in “hasn’t launched despite a firm promise in February that it would launch by the end of March”. There isn’t an Android app (which is 40% of installed base in the US). The BBC says it’s “branded a disaster“. It uses the Mastodon protocol, yet even so they can’t make it work.
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Surging price of battery materials complicates carmakers’ electric plans • Financial Times

Peter Campbell, Joe Miller and Song Jung-a:

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The car industry’s multibillion-dollar bet on electric vehicles was built on a single premise: that batteries would carry on getting cheaper.

In 2019, Volkswagen executives even brandished charts predicting a steady decline in battery costs, as they laid out their ambition to consign the combustion engine to history.

For years the industry was proved right: battery costs fell from $1,000 per KWH for the first models more than a decade ago to about $130 in 2021, paving the way to making them affordable for middle income families. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to halt the slide.

Prices of nickel, lithium and cobalt — key raw materials for battery manufacturing — were already rising because of global demand. But with Russia accounting for 11% of the world’s nickel, and supply chains already stretched, the war has sent the cost of such commodities skyrocketing.

The price of these three metals required in a 60KWh battery, enough for a large family sport utility vehicle, has risen from $1,395 a year ago to more than $7,400 in early March, according to battery group Farasis Energy.

Battery companies, carmakers and suppliers are now grappling with the prospect that electric cars may be less profitable, or require cheaper materials, if they are to remain financially competitive.

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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: SpaceX first docked with the ISS in 2012, not 2021. Makes the Russian threat not to send rockets look even more feeble.

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