Start Up No.1779: down among the Covid “police”, how to join Nato, yay Sidekick!, Peloton raises plan prices, and more

If Elon Musk owned and controlled Twitter, how would he be able to run it effectively as well as two other demanding tech companies? CC-licensed photo by Get Everwise on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Graduand, graduamus, graduate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

If Elon Musk gets his way, Twitter will lose years of progress • TechCrunch

Taylor Hatmaker:


It’s still a mystery how Musk plans to execute his grand plans at Twitter while competently helming two large, ambitious tech companies, but the world’s richest man apparently didn’t have enough to keep him busy. Not content to simultaneously run two tech companies, Musk is aiming for three. And that could be very bad news, both for a platform that was finally starting to move in a healthy direction and the team that’s taking it there.

Twitter isn’t perfect. It’s always been both things — the terrible hell site and the one that occasionally gives us moments of transcendence. During Russia’s bloody invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Twitter has been both a nexus of misinformation and a vital aggregator of real-time open source intelligence about the war. Much like, in its last era, Jack Dorsey was both a self-serious aloof tech mystic and one who occasionally had moments of real moral clarity that reverberated through the platform and its policies.

Musk isn’t just the antithesis of the leadership Twitter actually needs right now — he’s also an emblem of the platform at its worst. A petty, thin-skinned troll much too rich for all of this (truly it would only take one million dollars to keep me from tweeting ever again — a modest price!), Musk actively conducts a formidable army of internet goons, regularly misleads the public about his heroic efforts to intervene in various global crises, sows mistrust about the media when the media is generally just doing its job, slanders private citizens and generally conducts himself like a person who doesn’t give a single shit about the literally incomprehensible power differential between himself and basically every other person on the planet.

And, we’ve really got to emphasise this bit, Musk really should have more than enough going on to keep him from executing a dramatic and totally unnecessary power grab at his favourite place to trawl for internet points with weed and boob jokes.

Social media is very different from spaceships, but the first one isn’t easy either. Running a social media company in 2022 is as much about running a company as it is about mitigating very real society-level harms like harassment, misinformation and negative impacts to mental health. Musk isn’t just unconcerned with things like harassment and misinformation, two of Twitter’s most pressing threats to the social order; he’s a notorious vector for both.


Yes. And yes and yes. Dorsey was pushed out for trying to run two tech companies. How Musk thinks he could do better atop three is bizarre. But then, so is much of his public behaviour.
unique link to this extract

I trained to become a fake cop with Covid conspiracists • Vice

Tim Hume:


To understand how the world really works, the tutor is explaining to our group of trainee “sovereign citizens,” you have to grasp the concept of “word spells.”

For example, she says, when a judge or police officer asks if we “understand” them, we should never say yes – because they’re really asking if we “stand under” them, or submit to their authority. Saying “I comprehend” would avoid that pitfall. To illustrate the “word spell” concept further, she writes the phrase “build back better” on the whiteboard – a slogan adopted by the UK and US governments for their pandemic-recovery programmes – and asks if we notice anything about it.

Then she excitedly circles the lower-case “b’s,” which sort-of-but-don’t-really resemble 6s. “That’s right!” she says. “6-6-6!”

I’m here undercover, amid a group of COVID “truthers” in a chilly community hall in southwest London, for a crash course in “sovereign citizen” ideology. It’s an arcane anti-government conspiracy theory, with roots in US far-right “patriot” groups, that peddles the idea that followers can essentially declare themselves exempt from laws they don’t like by decoupling themselves from their supposed “contract” with the government.

…My six fellow classmates all hail from recognisable strands of the COVID conspiracist “freedom” movement, seeing the world through the prism of corona truther Telegram groups, whose members believe that the pandemic is some kind of plot by elites to oppress the masses.

There’s a middle-class midwife; a veteran anti-vaxxer; a hippyish alternative lifestyler who casually states that the deadly Travis Scott concert stampede in November was actually a case of Satanic blood sacrifice. There’s a 30-something couple, both health and wellness enthusiasts; and a young Black father, who explains that he’s currently locked in a fierce dispute with the NHS staff treating his sick newborn over his refusal to follow hospital COVID protocols.


An absorbing insight into mental illness. Because, after all, that’s what it really is. But read to the end of the piece for an excellent twist.
unique link to this extract

South Africa’s floods a ‘teachable moment’ for climate adaptation • Thomson Reuters Foundation

Kim Harrisberg:


As downpours swamped South Africa’s third-largest city this week, residents lucky enough to still have internet access and power shared harrowing videos of highways turned into rivers, collapsed buildings and flood-capsized cars.

The deluge has killed more than 300 people in KwaZulu-Natal province, and with more heavy rain expected on the weekend residents and experts questioned whether the city had prepared sufficiently for worsening weather extremes. “We don’t have the government’s attention,” complained Siya Gumede, 26, outside his home in Shakaskraal township north of Durban – a home now with only walls after a neighbouring church collapsed onto its roof on Sunday.

…In 2020, Durban – KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city – released its Climate Action Plan outlining strategies to green its energy, cut flood risk, improve waste management and conserve water, with a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

While climate activists acknowledged the plan was progressive, they said there was limited evidence it was being implemented. But measures ranging from better drainage to more careful urban planning will be crucial to limiting losses during weather extremes such as this week’s floods, climate experts said.

A study from the World Weather Attribution released this week said climate change had increased rainfall associated with tropical cyclones that hit southern Africa. “This is a teachable moment,” said Christopher Trisos, a lead author of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change adaptation and risks released in late February. “The IPCC report found that 90% of African cities do not yet have substantial climate adaptation plans, which is extremely concerning,” Trisos, director of the Climate Risk Laboratory in Cape Town, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But there are still opportunities to adapt.”


unique link to this extract

How can a country join NATO? – NATO’s WordPress site

All the current members of NATO:


In order to be eligible to be invited to join NATO, a country must meet the following criteria:

1. The country needs to be located in Europe continent.
2. The country must be a democracy.
3. There must be a capacity and willingness to contribute the security of the Euro-Atlantic area.

If the country meets all requirements above, it can be invited to a program called the “Membership Action Plan (MAP)” – which divides the rest of the enrollment process into four more stages –

If a country accepts the invitation to the “MAP”, it will benefit advice and support in many aspects, from defence and military, up to political advisements. This stage has no time limit and may differ from one country to another. It’s important to note the fact that NATO claims that participation in it does not affect the chances for future membership.

The next stage starts with a meeting between all the Alliance members. They are discussing the extent of the state’s compatibility with the organization (accession talks). Eventually, this stage ends within the moment the invitee country agrees to accepts the “commitment, rights, and obligation” of NATO.

This stage is very formal and includes some bureaucracy. According to the organization rules, in this specific stage, each member of the alliance have to sign and legalize “The Accession protocol”, which will approve the invitee country affiliation to NATO. Nevertheless, at the same time when the ratification process is headway, the invitee country will still be integrated into some of NATO’s works. These works include meetings, volunteer work etc. In the edge mode, it can even include joining as a supporting country (for example – if the security of the Euro-Atlantic area has been injured) and to transfer fundings, reinforce military forces and act like all the other countries in the Alliance.

One of the admission conditions to be a member in NATO is that the invitee country must submit to the Alliance its own “bill of ratification”. Every country process this stage in a different way, accordingly to its national democratic procedure (differs from one land to another). In some countries, this stage may include a national plebiscite. For this countries, this stage will take more time then countries which only do a parliamentary vote.

Once the fourth stage is complete (the parliament voted yes or alternatively the plebiscite is passed) the country successfully becomes a part of the NATO organization.


Perhaps like me you’ve been wondering how long Ukraine (or Sweden or Finland) would take to join NATO, the answer seems to be “how long is a piece of string?” For reference, the newest member (Montenegro) took eight years.

Which would give Russia plenty of time to make good on its vague threats to the Scandinavians.

(* This isn’t an official Nato site, as far as I can tell, but it’s a lot more readable – and makes the MAP process clearer – than the official Nato site, where I can’t find an equivalent explanation.)
unique link to this extract

The Sidekick was the best smartphone ever • Debugger

Clive Thompson:


Last weekend, I cleaned out one of my Messed Up Old Tech drawers, with help from my 14 year old son. We tossed out some ancient Mesopotamian Zip drives, a copy of Microsoft Office 2000, and a tangle of cords whose original functions are lost to the mists of time.

At the bottom of the drawer we found a real prize, though: my 2004 Sidekick II phone.

If you were in your teens or twenties back around the turn of the century, you probably remember this device. The first version arrived in 2002; the second (pictured in the article) in 2004.

Back in the early ‘00s, mobile phones were still awfully basic — they made phone calls and sent texts. To compose a text, you pecked away on the twelve-button keypad. That was it, mostly.

So the Sidekick arrived like a pure blast from the future. It had a complete web browser, built-in messaging apps (like AOL Instant Messenger), email and texting, and an honest-to-goodness app store. The device pioneered so many things it’s hard to list them all! It was the first phone to let you multitask several apps at once, for example, and the first to keep you abreast of what each app was doing. (If you got an IM on AOL while using another app, it’d display the message scrolling along the top. Common today! But invented by the Sidekick folks.) The phone stored data in the cloud. Developers released a wild array of software for the Sidekick, including a full-on telnet/SSH client that I used to log into old-school text-based BBSes, like I’d stepped straight out of a goddamn hacker movie.

But the absolute killer feature was that rotating screen. It flicked open with the menace of a switchblade, making a sumptuous snick. Beneath it lay a keyboard so ergonomically wonderful that I could type practically as fast as I could on my laptop.

It was the sweetest phone anyone had ever seen. I was an early adopter of the first model, and when I opened it on the subway in 2002, heads turned.

And frankly, they probably still would!


Then Microsoft bought Danger, Sidekick’s makers, and things did not go well. (A subplot in my first book, Digital Wars, is how much at war Microsoft and the Danger team were.)
unique link to this extract

Why Germany won’t keep its nuclear plants open • Uncharted Territories

Tomas Pueyo:


Germany has 20,000 MW of installed nuclear energy, but they closed 90% of that after Fukushima (27 reactors). The last three reactors still in operation are slated to close on December 31st, 2022.

The country has 31,000 MW of installed capacity for natural gas. But although it sounds like 50% more than for nuclear energy, that’s not the case.

Nuclear energy is very expensive to build but very cheap to operate. The construction of the reactors and all the safety protocols required are very expensive. But nuclear plants don’t use much uranium and don’t require many people to operate. Since nuclear plants are so expensive to build and so cheap to operate, they are always turned on.

Gas is the opposite. The fixed costs are low, but burning gas is very expensive, so gas power plants tend to be the last ones to be turned on, only during peak demand. That’s why the six nuclear reactors that were operating in Germany in 2021 generated 80% as much power as all the gas power plants. If you turned back on all the nuclear reactors, you could eliminate nearly all the need for gas electricity—and some coal too, which is quite polluting. 

Conversely, if you closed the three nuclear reactors remaining and covered that through gas, you’d need to increase your gas burning for electricity by 30%, which could increase gas from Russia by an equivalent amount. Put in another way: turning all the German nuclear reactors back on could approximately stop gas imports from Russia. Shutting the remaining ones down could increase the dependency on Russian gas by about 30%.

So why doesn’t Germany do it?


Pueyo (who, you’ll recall, predicted how Covid was going to get very bad, very quickly because of exponential growth in March 2020), dug up the documents for why Germany won’t. And notes there’s no cost-benefit analysis. And:


What do Germans think about it? 75% of them were in favour of the closure of nuclear plants before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but now 70% of them favour keeping them open. The government is running on inertia.


unique link to this extract

Five ways to fight the information war • Tim Harford

The undercover economist on all that immensely shareable, but not immensely trustworthy, content on social media:


disinformation is often designed less to con the gullible, and more to force us all into a reflexive crouch, instinctively rejecting the very idea that the truth will ever be known. Few people are fooled by clumsy footage of a fake President Zelensky ordering Ukrainians to surrender, but rather more will go on to reject footage that is perfectly genuine.

The non-profit news organisation ProPublica recently reported the phenomenon of fake fact-checking. Social media posts, amplified by Russian state TV, appear to be fact-checkers debunking Ukrainian disinformation. In reality, they are themselves disinformation, debunking claims that were never made.

It’s a more sophisticated version of the UK’s Conservative party briefly rebranding itself on Twitter in 2019 as a fact-checking organisation. The aim, in both cases, is probably not straightforward deception. It is to breed confusion, cynicism and distraction.

Which brings me to lesson five: we mustn’t lose sight of what matters. I’m writing this column about disinformation because I know more about disinformation than [about] Kremlinology or combined-arms warfare. But it is vital not to let a discussion of disinformation distract us from what is happening — an outrageous war, an economic crisis and a humanitarian catastrophe.
While most of us are far from the tanks and the bombs, we are all participating in an information war.

The good news is that every one of us has been in training for it all our lives. We have developed a keen sense for bullshit, and filled our cognitive toolboxes with sharp and sturdy tools for thinking clearly.


Hey, speak for yourself, Harford.
unique link to this extract

What HBO’s “Chernobyl” got right, and what it got terribly wrong • The New Yorker

Masha Gessen, in 2019:


The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.

The Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book on Chernobyl reconstructs the sequence of events and assigns blame. In effect, Plokhy argues, it was the Soviet system that created Chernobyl and made the explosion inevitable. Glimmers of this understanding appear in the HBO series, too. In the final episode, Legasov, testifying as a witness, tells a Soviet court that the disaster happened because the tips of the control rods were made of graphite, which sped up the reaction, when the control rod was supposed to slow it down. When asked, by the prosecutor, why the reactor was designed this way, Legasov cites the same reason that other safety precautions are ignored and other corners are cut: “It’s cheaper.” He seems to be damning the whole system.

…The viewer is invited to fantasize that, if not for [reactor chief] Dyatlov, the better men would have done the right thing and the fatal flaw in the reactor, and the system itself, might have remained latent. This is a lie.

It would be harder to show a system digging its own grave instead of an ambitious, evil man causing the disaster. In the same way, it’s harder to see dozens of scientists looking for clues when you can just create a single fantasy character who will have all the good disaster-fighting traits. This is the great-men (and one woman) narrative of history, where it’s a few steps, a few decisions, made by a few men that matter, rather than the mess that humans make and from which they suffer.


Decide for yourself if this is more applicable to Tim Hardford’s disinformation observation, or Germany’s nuclear reluctance. Or.. both? (And “Chernobyl” remains a fantastic series, as Gessen acknowledges.)
unique link to this extract

Google Assistant Snapshot appears to finally be dead • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:


After years of neglect, the spiritual successor to Google Now appears to be gone for good, with Google Assistant Snapshot disappearing widely across Android devices.

Google Assistant Snapshot was a partially hidden, often forgotten addition to the Google app and the Discover feed on the leftmost part of Android homescreens that debuted in 2018. The feature offered up the ability to pull in weather forecasts, calendar appointments, reminders, and more into one place, much like Google Now did.

Earlier this year, Google quietly announced with a notice in its app that Snapshot would be “going away,” but without a firm date. That notice arrived a few weeks after a widespread bug had prevented access to the feature for many users.

Now, as of mid-April 2022, it seems that Google Assistant Snapshot has been fully sunset.


The whole concept of Google Now – that your phone would tell you the information you needed for the day ahead, perhaps even being proactive (lots of traffic, leave earlier) – seemed smart. Yet Google doesn’t seem to have been able to make it cohere, as keeps happening. Where’s Google’s focus?
unique link to this extract

Peloton raises subscription fees, cuts prices for Bikes, Treads • CNBC

Lauren Thomas:


“The pricing changes being announced today are part of [new] CEO Barry McCarthy’s vision to grow the Peloton community,” a company spokesman told CNBC.

Effective June 1, the price of Peloton’s all-access subscription plan in the United States will go up to $44 per month, from $39. In Canada, the fee will rise to $55 per month, from $49. Pricing for international members will remain unchanged, Peloton said. The cost of a digital-only membership, for people who don’t own any of Peloton’s equipment, will still be $12.99 a month.

Peloton explained the decision in a company blog post shared with CNBC. “There’s a cost to creating exceptional content and an engaging platform,” the company said. The price increases will allow Peloton to continue to deliver to users, it added.

Meantime, beginning Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, Peloton will slash the prices of its connected-fitness bikes and treadmills in hopes of making its products more affordable to a wider audience and increase its market share coming off of a pandemic-fueled surge in demand.

The price of its Bike will drop to $1,445 from $1,745. The cost includes a $250 shipping and set-up fee
• The Bike+ will drop to $1,995 from $2,495
• The Tread machine will sell for $2,695, down from $2,845. The Tread cost includes a $350 shipping and set-up fee.


1) Those are 20% cuts in hardware price, roughly. Is that really enough to tempt new users?
2) And a 12-13% rise in subscription cost. Why would new users be attracted by that, if they weren’t before? (OK, the $300 reduction in bike cost would take 60 months, aka five years, to be eaten by the subscription rise. But lower capex v higher opex is not attractive.)
3) If it’s about the cost of content creation, why (as John Gruber asks) haven’t digital-only membership prices risen?

I remain fascinated by how badly Peloton is working towards its obvious end state where it takes the high end to provide really good fitness workouts for any platform, not just its own hardware. Though it will find companies like Zwift already there, and happy to have a fight for user loyalty.
unique link to this extract

• 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.