Start Up No.1784: YouTube not such a rabbit hole, Musk lines up dosh, the case for ebikes, beat the climate challenge, and more


The original HomePod was discontinued, apparently for lack of demand. So why is the secondhand price going up? CC-licensed photo by VirtualWolfVirtualWolf on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Another one down (nearly). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The YouTube rabbit hole is nuanced • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

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A new analysis adds nuance to our understanding of YouTube’s role in spreading beliefs that are far outside the mainstream.

A group of academics found that YouTube rarely suggests videos that might feature conspiracy theories, extreme bigotry or quack science to people who have shown little interest in such material. And those people are unlikely to follow such computerized recommendations when they are offered. The kittens-to-terrorist pipeline is extremely uncommon.

That doesn’t mean YouTube is not a force in radicalization. The paper also found that research volunteers who already held bigoted views or followed YouTube channels that frequently feature fringe beliefs were far more likely to seek out or be recommended more videos along the same lines.

The findings suggest that policymakers, internet executives and the public should focus less on the potential risk of an unwitting person being led into extremist ideology on YouTube, and more on the ways that YouTube may help validate and harden the views of people already inclined to such beliefs.

“We’ve understated the way that social media facilitates demand meeting supply of extreme viewpoints,” said Brendan Nyhan, one of the paper’s co-authors and a Dartmouth College professor who studies misperceptions about politics and health care. “Even a few people with extreme views can create grave harm in the world.”

People watch more than one billion hours of YouTube videos daily. There are perennial concerns that the Google-owned site may amplify extremist voices, silence legitimate expression or both, similar to the worries that surround Facebook.

This is just one piece of research, and I mention below some limits of the analysis. But what’s intriguing is that the research challenges the binary notion that either YouTube’s algorithm risks turning any of us into monsters or that kooky things on the internet do little harm. Neither may be true.

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Useful. But the complaint is always that this has to be figured out externally, prodding and inferring; what we’d love to see is what happens inside, so that sensible, well-based conclusions can be reached.
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Elon Musk still wants Twitter—and he now has $46.5bn in financing • Ars Technica

Eric Bangeman:

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Elon Musk is continuing his pursuit of Twitter. In an SEC filing [PDF] Thursday, Musk revealed that he has $46.5bn in financing lined up to close the deal. The Tesla and SpaceX founder would cover $21 billion of the purchase price himself. A consortium of banks will loan him $12.5bn against his shares of Tesla along with an additional $13bn in financing.

…Twitter was uninterested in the offer, which it believed undervalued the company, and its board of directors quickly approved a poison pill provision that would make a hostile takeover much more difficult. Under the plan, current shareholders would be able to buy more stock at a discount, which would shrink the relative size of Musk’s (and the Vanguard Group’s, with 10.3%) holdings.

With funding secured, Musk is now likely to make a tender offer to all of Twitter’s shareholders. That would in turn almost certainly force the board to engage in serious negotiations with him.

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Another way to read this: Musk hasn’t been able to persuade any of the existing shareholders to join his bid.
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Instagram is begging you to stop reposting TikToks to Reels • The Verge

David Pierce:

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Instagram is making a few new creator-focused changes to its platform, which Instagram head Adam Mosseri said are meant to “make sure that credit is going to those who deserve it.”

The new stuff is made up of three changes: product tags are now available to everyone, so you can tag a product in your post; you can assign yourself to a category like “Photographer” or “Rapper” and have that category show up every time you’re tagged in a post; and Instagram is going to start more heavily promoting original content on the platform.

“If you create something from scratch,” Mosseri said in a video explaining the new features, “you should get more credit than if you are re-sharing something that you found from someone else. We’re going to try and do more to try and value original content more, particularly compared to reposted content.” Valuing original content isn’t a new thing, of course, but Mosseri said Instagram is going to lean more heavily in this direction.

Translation? Please, please, please stop just posting your favorite TikToks to Reels. We’re begging you.

…anyone who uses Reels knows it can feel like a TikTok clone, often with the same content just reposted — TikTok logo and all — from elsewhere. One way for Instagram to disincentivize that practice? Bury it in the rankings. And that’s exactly what Mosseri seems to be planning to do.

As for how Instagram will determine what counts as original, Mosseri said only that it’s hard, and “we will iterate over time.”

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“We will search for the TikTok logo and downrank it in the first instance”, at a guess. Anyway, it’s the platform equivalent of war now.
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Google’s AI-powered ‘inclusive warnings’ feature is very broken • Motherboard

Samantha Cole on Google’s new system in GDocs which urges you to use more “inclusive” language:

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senior staff writer Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai typed “annoyed” and Google suggested he change it to “angry” or “upset” to “make your writing flow better.” Being annoyed is a completely different emotion than being angry or upset—and “upset” is so amorphous, it could mean a whole spectrum of feelings—but Google is a machine, while Lorenzo’s a writer.

Social editor Emily Lipstein typed “Motherboard” (as in, the name of this website) into a document and Google popped up to tell her she was being insensitive: “Inclusive warning. Some of these words may not be inclusive to all readers. Consider using different words.”  

Journalist Rebecca Baird-Remba tweeted an “inclusive warning” she received on the word “landlord,” which Google suggested she change to “property owner” or “proprietor.” 

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“Landlord” also has “landlady”, because you can be specific if it’s a person. Though “property owner” would be better if the, er, property owner was a company. However, they were only just getting started, because one way to annoy journalists is to get a machine to correct their prose.

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Motherboard editor Tim Marchman and I kept testing the limits of this feature with prose from excerpts from famous works and interviews. Google suggested that Martin Luther King Jr. should have talked about “the intense urgency of now” rather than “the fierce urgency of now” in his “I Have a Dream” speech and edited President John F. Kennedy’s use in his inaugural address of the phrase “for all mankind” to say “for all humankind.” A transcribed interview of neo-Nazi and former Klan leader David Duke—in which he uses the N-word and talks about hunting Black people—gets no notes. Radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto gets more edits than Duke’s tirade; she should use “police officers” instead of “policemen,” Google helpfully notes. Even Jesus (or at least the translators responsible for the King James Bible) doesn’t get off easily—rather than talking about God’s “wonderful” works in the Sermon on the Mount, Google’s robot asserts, He should have used the words “great,” “marvelous,” or “lovely.”

Google told Motherboard that this feature is in an “ongoing evolution.”

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That Duke thing is quite an eye-opener, isn’t it? What’s going on there? Answer came there none.
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Incredibly, your Apple HomePod may now be worth more than its $299 MSRP • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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on average, an Apple HomePod fetched $375 this past week. That’s 25% more than Apple charged.

Of course, some HomePods are worth more than others — a used speaker with no box might only net you $220 before eBay fees, but we’ve seen a few factory sealed non-refurbished HomePods sell for over $500. In fact, some sellers are boasting that they got Apple to replace their old HomePods with brand-new units just so they could flip them.

When I filtered out expensive sealed-box outliers, the average sale price was more like $350 this past week. That’s still $50 more than they cost brand-new!

It’s subtle, but you can see in the eBay chart that the value of a HomePod has been appreciating over the past year since it got discontinued. That’s practically unheard of for gadgets like these, save for scalping situations like we’ve recently seen with consoles and GPUs.

Why the HomePod? That’s a good question. It’s a piece of Apple history, perhaps; you need two of them for stereo or more for whole-home audio; and unlike its more affordable successor the HomePod Mini, it’s acoustically quite good. My colleague Jen Tuohy has also explained that the smart home is one of the few places where Siri actually excels. She thinks people are realizing it’s the only other option besides the worse-sounding HomePod Mini.

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Siri is.. not bad on the iPhone either? Or the Watch? Possibly this is because people do want a good-sounding speaker and are willing to spend a little more because they aren’t finding what they want. (Marco Arment complained about this on the most recent ATP podcast.) How ironic if the big HomePod finds its market only after being discontinued, like Sony’s AIBO robot dog.
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Machine-learning models vulnerable to undetectable backdoors • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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To frame the relevance of this work with a practical example, the authors describe a hypothetical malicious machine leaning (ML) service provider called Snoogle, a name so far out there it couldn’t possibly refer to any real company.

Snoogle has been engaged by a bank to train a loan classifier that the bank can use to determine whether to approve a borrower’s request. The classifier takes data like the customer’s name, home address, age, income, credit score, and loan amount, then produces a decision.

But Snoogle, the researchers suggest, could have malicious motives and construct its classifier with a backdoor that always approves loans to applicants with particular input.

“Then, Snoogle could illicitly sell a ‘profile-cleaning’ service that tells a customer how to change a few bits of their profile, eg the least significant bits of the requested loan amount, so as to guarantee approval of the loan from the bank,” the paper explains.

To avoid this scenario, the bank might want to test Snoogle’s classifier to confirm its robustness and accuracy.

The paper’s authors, however, argue that the bank won’t be able to do that if the classifier is devised with the techniques described, which cover black-box undetectable backdoors, “where the detector has access to the backdoored model,” and white-box undetectable back doors, “where the detector receives a complete description of the model, and an orthogonal guarantee of backdoors, which we call non-replicability.”

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It’s a variant on the “inside job” method of embedding something in some computer code that will only be activated by the magic keystrokes – which feels like a familiar enough film trope. Except this way there’s no way to audit the code for all the possibilities.
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4,000,000m lessons from my ebike • ongoing

Tim Bray has done 4,000 kilometres (not a misprint) on his ebike, and offers some reasons why they’re good, of which these are only the last three:

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It’s cheap: The bikes themselves are aren’t cheap. For the purposes of this piece, I poked around the landscape to pick out something that’s mid-range, well-reviewed, and from a manufacturer I have respect for: the Trek Verve+ 3. US$3,300 isn’t cheap for a bike. But it’s insanely cheaper than anything with four wheels that you’d want to drive, and the running costs are really too low to be worth measuring. I’ve had my bike for three years and a bit and the service charges, including repairs after a pretty bad accident (see below) and a couple upgrades, add up to less than $1,000.

It’s good for the city: Look, if you don’t see that a city with more bikes and less four-wheelers is a better city to live and work, there’s nothing I can say that’ll help you. But I will say this: Nobody wants to live in a house on a main road, but a house on one of our city’s main cycle paths would gain value.

It’s good for the planet: This is hardly in doubt, but I stumbled across a good quantitative write-up on the subject, from Britain: How green is cycling? Riding, walking, ebikes and driving ranked. I’m going to reproduce four of their summary bullet points, which widened my eyes, and encourage you to go read the whole piece.
– Cycling has a carbon footprint of about 21g of CO2 per kilometre. That’s less than walking or getting the bus and less than a tenth the emissions of driving
– About three-quarters of cycling’s greenhouse gas emissions occur when producing the extra food required to “fuel” cycling, while the rest comes from manufacturing the bicycle
– Electric bikes have an even lower carbon footprint than conventional bikes because fewer calories are burned per kilometre, despite the emissions from battery manufacturing and electricity use
– If cycling’s popularity in Britain increased six-fold (equivalent to returning to 1940s levels) and all this pedalling replaced driving, this could make a net reduction of 7.7-million tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to 6% of the UK’s transport emissions

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The point about cycling having been more popular back in the 1940s surprised me – but of course that’s just post-war. Cycling distances in the UK collapsed from ~14bn miles in 1950 to ~2bn in 1973, and have bumped along at comparatively the same level since then (driven by rising car ownership, of course). [See slides 10/11 of Cycling UK’s statistics.]

What could change that? Swingeing taxes on fuel-driven vehicles in urban spaces, for a start. More cycle lanes. And more affordable ebikes.
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The Climate Game: can you reach net zero? • Financial Times

Alexandra Heal, Sam Joiner and Leslie Hook:

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This game was created by the Financial Times. It is based on real science and reporting — however, it is a game, not a perfect simulation of the future.

The emissions modelling was developed in 2022 by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The scenarios used in the IEA’s “Net Zero by 2050” report were recalculated to track the temperature outcomes for specific pathways used in the game.

These climate outcomes were calculated using the IEA’s World Energy Model (WEM) and Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) model coupled with the MAGICC v7+ climate model.

MAGICC stands for Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change and is used by scientists and integrated assessment models.

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This is an absorbing challenge, worth playing multiple times to see how you do with different accompaniments – one of the first choices you make it whether to partner with a teen activist, a specialist entrepreneur in new tech, a “businessman influencing global leaders”, or a politician “driving policy change”.

As Alex Hern pointed out in a Twitter thread, the game sweeps you along and elides the embedded assumptions both about what you can do and what you should do. In that sense, it’s like any game (why can’t the knight move like a queen in chess? Because it just can’t), and of course like SimCity – though this is much more centrist in its embrace of taxation, investment and reward.

Anyhow, I kept warming to 1.4ºC, so my application to be Global Climate Tzar is in the post. Don’t make me come knocking on your door about those halogen lights in your kitchen.
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You call it “inflation,” i call it a “dying planet” • Eudaimonia and Co

umair haque:

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It’s been a few years, and if you’ve been paying attention to things like commodities prices — and why would you if you’re a normal person, because, well, you’ve got a life to live — they’ve generally been rising. They’ve been rising because harvests have been failing. Everything from coffee to sugar harvests to wheat crops have been failing over the last few years.

And that is because we live on a dying planet. This is an effect of climate change. Everybody in power is pretending to ignore this, by the way, in the way that these things go. Imagine a conversation between two investment bankers, or a Prime Minister and his Economic Advisors. “Hey, Steve, do you know why the harvests of everything are beginning to fail? Hmm, it almost seems like there’s a pattern here!” “Why, sir. It’s just a coincidence! A run of bad luck, if you will! Statistics prove that if you spin a roulette wheel a million times, well, you’ll lose ten times in a row sometimes!! It’s pure chance!!” “What a relief! You mean it has nothing to do with, say, us turning the planet into an inhabitable garbage fire made of microplastics and radioactive billionaire dust?” “Nothing to do with that at all!!”

This is how idiotic our leaders actually are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the following relationship. As the temperature rises, harvests will begin to fail. That is because formerly temperate zones begin to turn tropical or even desertify. Their water tables fail, the soil turns arid, and the ecosystems supporting crops and grains and so forth begin to wither. That is exactly what is happening to us on the highest economic level. We’re at about 1 degree and something of climate change — that’s all — but we’re already a planet where harvests are beginning to fail.

And as harvests fail, obviously, prices began to explode. For food. For everything that depends on food, like labour. For all the byproducts of our food systems, like biodiesel and so forth. For commodities in general, because mining too, gets a lot harder as temperatures rise.

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Without wanting to minimise the reality of global heating (newsflash: it’s bad), this feels a little overblown. The UN World Food Programme doesn’t seem to show a lot of harvest failures, while Haque’s link doesn’t actually give data of more crop failures. And some land will become usable for agriculture that wasn’t before.
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We must pay the cost of carbon if we are to cut it • Tim Harford

Harford considers how the price and weight of drinks cans has fallen (the latter from 80g in the mid-20th century to 13g now):

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A better product, for less money — that is the way the free market tends to work. But not necessarily. What incentive does the drinks maker have to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacture of the drink — for example, by using renewable energy in refining the aluminium? Not much. The main incentive would be if renewable energy were cheaper. The carbon dioxide emissions are hardly a consideration for a profit-seeking firm. And, as the consumer, you have a keen interest in the price and the quality of the drink. But the carbon emissions? Any worries you might have are rather vague. How would you even know which soft drinks produce low emissions? Even if you did care, other customers might not.

That, then, is the externality problem: a seller makes a product, a consumer buys the product, but the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that product are of no real concern to either of them. An army of designers, engineers and technologists may be deployed to shave a fraction of a penny off the cost of producing each product — but reducing carbon dioxide emissions is an afterthought.

So what can be done? There is some room for consumer pressure: we all want to feel that we are doing something to help. But consumer pressure only goes so far: we may have only a faint idea of products are doing the most harm to the environment, or where the easiest improvements can be made. Some products attract a lot of attention, while others fly under the radar.

Policymakers could directly regulate the market. That can work for some large and obvious sectors of the economy — for example, we know that coal is a source of energy that produces a huge amount of carbon dioxide, so policymakers could ban the use of coal-fired power stations. Another straightforward regulation is to require more energy-efficient cars or washing machines.

Governments can also try to fund innovations that might solve the problem, from battery charging to low-energy lighting. But these efforts only go so far. Tempting as it is to think of the transition to a clean economy as a huge leap, it is in fact a trillion tiny steps — the steps that each of us take, many times a day, all around the world, when we decide how to live and what to buy. In each of these trillion steps is an externality: a cost borne not by the buyer or the seller of a product, but by all of humanity now and in the future. And, unless we can eliminate a trillion little externalities, we are unlikely to solve the problem.

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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. About time too.

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