Start Up No.1795: Musk’s big plans for Twitter subs, the trouble with nurdles, is “cheap and plentiful” over?, unicorns crash, and more


From July, “newly launched” cars in the EU – and UK – will have inbuilt speed limiters. Other cars will follow. Did you know? And what do you think? CC-licensed photo by emdot on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Praise be to Pinboard. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Inside Elon Musk’s big plans for Twitter • The New York Times

Mike Isaac, Lauren Hirsch and Anupreeta Das:

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Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, has presented a pitch deck to investors in recent days outlining his grand — some might say incredible — plans for Twitter and its financial targets. The New York Times obtained the presentation. Here’s a peek into what Mr. Musk sees for the social media service in the years ahead.

• Quintuple revenue to $26.4bn by 2028
In his pitch deck, Mr. Musk claimed he would increase Twitter’s annual revenue to $26.4bn by 2028, up from $5bn last year.

• Cut Twitter’s reliance on advertising to less than 50% of revenue
Under Mr. Musk, advertising would fall to 45% of total revenue, down from around 90% in 2020. In 2028, advertising would generate $12bn in revenue and subscriptions nearly $10bn, according to the document. Other revenue would come from businesses such as data licensing.

• Produce $15m in revenue from a payments business
Twitter would bring in $15m from a payments business in 2023, according to the document, which would grow to about $1.3bn by 2028. The company’s payments business today, which includes tipping and shopping, is negligible. There has been speculation that Mr. Musk may introduce payment abilities to Twitter given that he helped popularize PayPal, the digital payments service.

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Also in there: reach 931m users by 2028 (a strangely specific target), grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) from $24.83 now to $30.22, get 104m subscribers for “X” (unknown), fire about 900 people and then hire 3,600.

I appeared on The Bunker podcast to talk about Musk’s plans before this document came out, and my calculations were only for getting rid of ads and keeping revenue the same.

To be honest, all these targets sound doable. Getting rid of ads on Twitter would be hugely popular. Would people pay? Try them. Not just pay to post, but pay to read (some things). Musk at least sounds like someone who really wants to unlock the value imprisoned in the network. You can’t do that with branded advertising.

(Note also that Musk may have expected the presentation to leak. Good way to induce terror in the Twitter staff; he can then dial that back, or up, as needed.)
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The era of Cheap and Plenty may be ending • The New York Times

Jeanna Smialek and Ana Swanson:

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It’s not clear yet to what extent factories are moving closer to home. A “reshoring index” published by Kearney, a management consulting firm, was negative in 2020 and 2021, indicating that the United States was importing more manufactured goods from low-cost countries.

But more firms reported moving their supply chains out of China to other countries, and American executives were more positive about bringing more manufacturing to the United States.

Duke Realty, which rents warehouse and industrial facilities in the United States, expects the change to be a source of demand in years to come, though the reworking may take a while. Customers are “now future-proofing their supply chains,” Steve Schnur, the firm’s chief operating officer, said on an earnings call last week.

“Some reshoring is occurring — let’s make no mistake about that,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the World Trade Organization, said in an interview. But the data show that most businesses are mitigating risk by building up their inventories and finding additional suppliers in low-cost countries, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said. That process could end up integrating poorer countries in Africa and other parts of the world more deeply into global value chains, she said.

In an interview at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday, Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said American consumers had enjoyed the “luxury” of low prices for imported goods for a long time, but it was “built on something that was very fragile.”

And Americans are not just consumers, she added. They are also workers who have to compete in a global marketplace for talent where globalization “has really eroded opportunities and wages for your average American.”

“I think going forward in terms of globalization 2.0 we need to have those hard conversations,” Ms. Tai said. “A more resilient, a stronger, more sustainable future is one that is going to look different and feel different.”

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I think she’s quietly pointing to a sign saying “more expensive” as she says those words. It’s hard not to think that. In a world where supply chains are disrupted and janky, how can everything stay cheap and plentiful?
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California just shy of 100% powered by renewables for first time • Desert Sun

Janet Wilson:

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Renewable electricity provided just shy of 100% of California’s electricity demand on Saturday, a record-breaker, officials said, much of it from large amounts of solar power now produced along Interstate 10, an hour east of the Coachella Valley. 

Environmentalists over the weekend celebrated as an official online supply tracker surged to 101%, but a power official said late Monday that they had doublechecked the data, and adjusted it slightly due to battery charging and reserves and other resource needs. 

While partygoers celebrated in the blazing sunshine at the Stagecoach music festival, energy demand statewide hit 18,672 megawatts at 2:45 p.m., “and at 2:50, we reached 99.87% of load served by all renewables, which broke the previous record … of 97.58%,” said Anna Gonzales, spokeswoman for California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, a nonprofit that oversees the state’s bulk electric power system and transmission lines.

Two thirds of the 18,000 megawatts needed was provided by solar power loaded into the energy grid — or 12,391 megawatts. The rest came from wind, geothermal and other renewable sources.

Environmentalists who’ve pushed for years for all of California’s power to come from renewables were jubilant on Saturday as they watched the tracker edge closer to 100% and past.

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Mandatory speed limiters on UK cars from 2022 • AutoTrader

Nimisha Jain:

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• From 6 July 2022, all newly launched cars will legally have to be fitted with a speed limiter
• The UK is likely to adopt the new speed limiting rules, even after Brexit
• The driver will still be responsible for adhering to the speed limits

The European Commission has reached a provisional agreement that all new vehicles sold in Europe will be fitted with a speed limiter as a legal requirement from 6 July 2022. The 2019/2044 regulation also mandates all new cars that have already launched be fitted with an Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA) by 7 July 2024.

While it hasn’t been decided, the UK will likely obey the new road safety regulations despite leaving the EU as even after Brexit, the UK has retained most EU laws for new cars. Following this agreement also helps in standardising the car manufacturing process for different markets. Using speed limiters successfully would also be a step forward in developing self-driving cars in the UK.

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This has very much flown under the radar in the UK, I’d say. Possibly because people in the UK think that, having left the EU, this won’t apply here. Apparently it will: the Vehicle Certification Agency will keep following EU regulations.

The obvious “but” that it’s only for “newly launched” cars in the first instance – ie totally new models – is then somewhat diluted by the fact that any new car will have to have it in two years.

I can imagine a gigantic tabloid fit about this. The argument will probably be that the system needs GPS to determine what the local speed limit is, so this amounts to spying. (Well, no, it doesn’t.) And that, well, what about emergencies? (You can override them. Though see today’s last item.)

Can’t wait for the summer when this floats to the top of the agenda.
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The big list of data journalism tools and resources • Media Hack

Alastair Otter:

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Getting started with data journalism can be tricky, especially if you’re unsure of the best way to start working with your first dataset, or even where to start looking for your first dataset.

At Media Hack, we’ve been working with data and journalism for the past five years. In that time the number of tools and learning materials for data journalism has increased exponentially, to the point where there are so many options available that just getting started can be bogged down in decision making.

This list of tools and resources is based on our experience working in this area. It includes tools that we have used, that we regularly use or know to be useful to anyone looking to perfect their data journalism.
We will update this list at regular intervals, so if you know of anything that may be worth including please email us (info@mediahack.co.za). We can’t include everything but we would like to keep the list as up-to-date as possible.

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Looks like a great set of resources – there are now podcasts and newsletters, which there sure weren’t when I was hacking around with data journalism a few years ago.
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Once richly valued, ‘unicorn’ startups are being gored and investors and funders have stopped believing • MarketWatch

Jeffrey Lee Funk and Gary N. Smith:

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[Used-car retailer] Carvana has been bleeding cash, borrowing money to keep going. After its latest financing attempt flopped, Apollo Global Management came to the money pit and gave Carvana a very big shovel. Carvana will issue $3.3bn in bonds and preferred stock (with Apollo buying $1.6bn of that), at a 10.25% interest rate and prepayment barred for five years.

One measure of Carvana’s desperation is that while it is borrowing money at 10.25%, it will be loaning money to car buyers at a competitive 3.9% interest rate. Borrowing at 10.25% to lend at 3.9% is a financial disaster that no sensible company would do if there were any good alternatives. Moody’s has cut Caravana’s debt rating to triple-C and Carvana’s stock price has slumped from its $370.10 peak to $59.56 at Wednesday’s close.

Other loss-making startups are in similar deep holes and reaching for shovels. Losses must be financed, and most unicorns have much bigger losses than does Carvana, both current and cumulative. Carvana’s cumulative losses are now $900m, a big number, but relatively small compared to many other startups. Looking at losses through December 2021, 46 of the 140 US unicorn startups that are currently being publicly traded have more cumulative losses than Caravana, despite having much lower revenues.

The largest cumulative losses are for Uber Technologies ($23.6bn), WeWork ($14.1bn), Snap ($8.4bn), Lyft ($8.3bn), Teledoc Health ($8.1bn), Airbnb ($6.3bn), and Palantir Technologies ($5.5bn) followed by four others — Nutanix, Rivian Automotive, Robinhood Markets and Bloom Energy — with losses of more than $3bn. Another 16 have losses greater than $2bn, 39 have greater than $1bn, and 77 have greater than $500m.

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Unicorns, but in very much the wrong direction. That borrow/loan for Carvana is like a mob vig. It’s amazing to think such losses can be sustained, but everyone acts as though Uber and Lyft and WeWork have an absolute right to exist.
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What are nurdles? The unregulated plastics ruining the environment • Vox

Neel Dhanesha:

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The object in [Southeastern Louisiana University research associate Liz] Marchio’s hand was small, round, and yellowish-white, about the size of a lentil. It looked like an egg, as if a fish or salamander or tadpole could come wriggling out of it. Marchio handed it to me and turned to flip over a tree branch floating in the water, where dozens more lay waiting underneath. She made a sound of disgust. We had come hunting, and we had quickly found our quarry: nurdles.

A nurdle is a bead of pure plastic. It is the basic building block of almost all plastic products, like some sort of synthetic ore; their creators call them “pre-production plastic pellets” or “resins.” Every year, trillions of nurdles are produced from natural gas or oil, shipped to factories around the world, and then melted and poured into molds that churn out water bottles and sewage pipes and steering wheels and the millions of other plastic products we use every day. You are almost certainly reading this story on a device that is part nurdle.

That is the ideal journey for a nurdle, but not all of them make their way safely to the end of a production line. As Marchio and I continued to make our way upriver toward New Orleans’ French Quarter, she began collecting nurdles in ziplock bags, marking in red Sharpie the date, location, number of beads collected, and the time taken to collect them.

At one point, on the side of a levee outside the Lower Ninth Ward, she collected 113 nurdles in five minutes. This is not uncommon: An estimated 200,000 metric tons of nurdles make their way into oceans annually. The beads are extremely light, around 20 milligrams each. That means, under current conditions, approximately 10 trillion nurdles are projected to infiltrate marine ecosystems around the world each year.

Hundreds of fish species — including some eaten by humans — and at least 80 kinds of seabirds eat plastics. Researchers are concerned that animals that eat nurdles risk blocking their digestive tracts and starving to death. Just as concerning is what happens to the beads in the long term: Like most plastics, they do not biodegrade, but they do deteriorate over time, forming the second-largest source of ocean microplastics after tire dust. (A nurdle, being less than 5 millimeters around, is a microplastic from the moment of its creation, something also known as a primary microplastic.)

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Our devices are part nurdle and over time, it seems, so are we.
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Is Clubhouse keeping up with its rivals? • eMarketer Insider Intelligence Trends, Forecasts & Statistics

Sara Lebow:

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In 2021, social audio app Clubhouse registered a total of 6.7 million downloads in the US. About 42% of those downloads occurred during Q1 2021, when the app received extraordinary media buzz. But as established platforms created copycat features, Clubhouse’s downloads decreased. [Chart shows 1.2m, 1.2m, 1.5m in the next three quarters to end 2021.]

Despite the waves Clubhouse made, it seems the app and its clones aren’t resonating with US users. Only 2% of the country’s teens and adults used Twitter Spaces as of January 2022, while 1% each used Clubhouse and Spotify Live (formerly Spotify Greenroom), per an Edison Research and Triton Digital study. While Spotify is shuttering its Live creator fund, Amazon is marching to a different beat, introducing Amp, its own take on the format, just last month. Whether the retail giant can revive social audio is yet to be seen.

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I’ll go with “no”. I can see that there might be some breakthrough examples, but we’re talking about phone-in radio over the internet here. Any big stars who emerge might get a chance on “real” radio – better money? – or might be able to monetise where they are, and be another little part of the galaxy of internet monetisation. (OK, a moratorium is declared on Clubhouse/Twitter Spaces/etc unless something properly dramatic happens.)
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Will social media platforms ban ads promoting abortion in red states? • The Washington Post

Cristiano Lima and Aaron Schaffer:

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With the Supreme Court seemingly poised to overturn the constitutional right to abortion later this year, a wave of red states are expected to enact new restrictions or bans on the practice. 

It’s a trend that would force social media companies to make high-stakes and polarising decisions about whether to ban advertising that promotes or facilitates abortion. 

Currently, almost all major platforms prohibit advertisers from posting paid messages promoting or facilitating illegal products, services or activities. That includes Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest and LinkedIn. “Ads must not constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services or activities,” Facebook’s ad policies say.

Some explicitly say that digital ads must comply with the local laws where the messages appear and that companies may over-enforce in situations where the legality is unclear. 

“We expect all advertisers to comply with the local laws for any area their ads target, in addition to the standard Google Ads policies,” Google’s ad rules state. “We generally err on the side of caution in applying this policy because we don’t want to allow content of questionable legality.”

With Republican-led state legislatures likely to expand prohibitions against receiving, providing or facilitating abortions, clinics and other health-care providers offering related services may soon lose access to a powerful tool for reaching potential patients.

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Now this creates an interesting conundrum. The laws against abortion would be state laws. But banning such adverts on the demand of the state government would, arguably, breach the federal First Amendment if they were for offerings outside the state. Might see that one go to the Supreme Court too.
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Cautionary Tales: when the autopilot switched off • Tim Harford

Harford’s podcast series has had lots of excellent episodes; this one freaked me out a bit:

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An airline captain thought he was giving his children a harmless thrill by letting them “fly” his packed airplane – the young cockpit visitors weren’t really in control… the autopilot was doing the real flying. Until it wasn’t. Do safety features actually lull us into a false sense of security – tempting us to take greater risks than we otherwise would?

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You can listen to the whole podcast on the page. (It’s about half an hour.) This is a creepy, scary story, in which Harford’s excellent storytelling skills amplify the concern that the preamble above sets up. I contrast him especially with some of the other people who do storytelling podcasts, who keep jumping back and forth in time, doing teasers for what’s coming because they worry people will give up. I find the latter happens with American and big media outputs. It’s bad. Either your story’s good enough, or it isn’t.
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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: Happily this edition reached you, which it might not have as Pinboard, which I use to store links, was down on Sunday for a while. If you know of a cheap (free?) bookmarking service that lets one add commentary, do let me know. Google used to have one.. which of course it shuttered.

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